DPRK (and Beijing) Day nine, part one
08.09.2019 - 08.09.2019
Typhoon Ling-Ling / Storm Number Thirteen had blown itself out and we awoke to hazy blue skies. We had the luxury of a later start today so could take our time getting ready and over breakfast. Then we were off for a morning’s sightseeing in Pyongyang.
The Monument to Party Foundation
The Monument to Party Foundation
Our first stop was at the Monument to Party Foundation, which was erected to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Workers Party. I was in my element taking photos here, as you can imagine if you’ve read my previous blogs. There’s something about this social-realist style that I find incredibly photogenic!
The monument is made of granite and depicts three clenched fists, one holding a hammer, one a sickle and one a writing brush. These constitute the party symbol, representing, our guide told me, the three branches of the party – industrial workers, farmers and intellectuals.
The Monument to Party Foundation
As with so many North Korean monuments, the design is full of numeric symbolism. It stands 50 metres high, one metre for each year of the party, and a 50 metre belt surrounds the three fists, symbolising ‘the single hearted-unity of the leader, party and people’. The pedestal on which it stands is 70 metres across, symbolising the fact that the party’s history stretches back a further twenty years to 1925, when the anti-Japanese ‘Down with Imperialism Union’ was born. The belt has 216 blocks and its inside diameter is 42 metres – together these figures symbolise the purported date of birth of Kim Jong Il, 16 February 1942 (most sources outside the DPRK give 1941 as the year of his birth).
The Monument to Party Foundation
I have mentioned in a previous entry, ‘Getting to know Pyongyang’ how much I liked the careful city planning that created the wide vistas here, and at the Monument to Party Foundation we saw that at its best. The monument is neatly aligned with the Mansudae Grand Monument, where the statues of the Great Leaders stand. It is not a coincidence that Kim Jong Il was born on 16 February, or 2.16 as it is written here, and that these two monuments are 2.16 kilometres apart!
Mansudae Grand Monument from the Monument to Party Foundation
Our local guide led us to a spot inside the belt from where we could see the bronze reliefs.
The Monument to Party Foundation and view of the Mansudae Grand Monument
In case you didn't spot them!
She described how these tell the history of the Workers Party, from the revolutionary struggle against the Japanese to the foundation of the party, the development of the Juche idea and progress towards a self-reliant country. The section in my photos above shows a worker, farmer, intellectual, soldier and a student against the backdrop of the party flag.
A young soldier is handed the flame of the Juche idea
Revolutionary fighters in the Mount Paektu area, with so-called ‘slogan trees’ exhorting them
The struggle to realize global independence, the desire for reunification and the advance of socialist construction under the torch of Juche
~ the inscription reads: ‘Let us defend independence!’
On the far side of the monument we could take photos from a different perspective. See if you can spot the people in my photos below (and the one at the top of the page) to get a better sense of its scale!
The Monument to Party Foundation
Pyongyang Cultural Exhibition Hall
We made a short visit to the nearby Pyongyang Cultural Exhibition Hall which holds an exhibition of paintings, some photos of the three Leaders on trips abroad and advising their people at home, as well as with a succession of famous visitors including Fidel Castro, Vladimir Putin and Madeleine Albright. There was also the inevitable souvenir shop. No photos were allowed inside so I will have to leave it to you to imagine how much we enjoyed the painting of shoe designers at their computers or another of a completely empty sea – although some landscapes were rather more appealing.
The Tower of the Juche Idea
The Juche Tower
From here we drove to the Tower of the Juche Idea. Like the Arch of Triumph and the Grand People’s Study House, which we had visited on our first day in Pyongyang, this was built to mark Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday in 1982. His ‘birthday presents’ certainly make the more usual book/jumper/socks/gift tokens selection look pretty feeble!
Also like the Arch of Triumph, it is said to be built from 25,550 granite blocks, one for every day of Kim Il Sung’s life up to his 70th birthday – but again, omitting the additional day in each leap year. It is 150 metres high, making it the second tallest monumental column in the world (after the 172 metre San Jacinto Monument in Houston, Texas) and the tallest to be made of granite. On top of the granite column is a 20 metres high red torch flame, which is lit up at night. This torch is said to have its own power supply, so that even when the lights go out everywhere else the lights never go out on the Juche Tower and thus never on the Juche Idea.
At the base of the Juche Tower
So what is the Juche Idea? It is the official state ideology of the DPRK, developed by Kim Il Sung and described by the government as his ‘original, brilliant and revolutionary contribution to national and international thought’. It argues that man is the master of his own destiny, with no intervention by a higher being, and that by becoming self-reliant and strong, a nation can achieve true socialism. As Kim Il Sung put it:
‘The people are the masters of the revolution in each country. It is like putting a cart before the horse that foreigners carry out the revolution for them. The revolution can neither be exported nor imported. The basis of the Juche Idea is that man is the master of all things and the decisive factor in everything.’
Juche has become the firm foundation on which the Kim dynasty has achieved its supremacy, and it guides all significant policy decisions as well as many aspects of daily life. An understanding of the North Korean determination for self-reliance can provide a perspective on the regime and its actions.
This much I knew, having read a bit about it ahead of our visit. But what I hadn’t appreciated is that the Juche Idea has been ‘exported’. When we met our guide by the entrance to the tower, which lies at its rear, she pointed out the numerous plaques which line the walls of the entrance area, each the gift of a grateful Juche study group or organisation elsewhere in the world – I spotted Gambia, Belgium, France, Portugal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malta, Benin, Italy, Guyana, Tunisia, Cyprus, India … and yes, England!
~ and also Michael Palin's!
Plaques inside the entrance
We had the option of paying 5€ to go up in the lift to the viewing platform immediately below the torch, which almost all of us did, and it was definitely worth doing. We got some excellent views of Pyongyang – under rather grey cloud when we first arrived but with sun breaking through before we had to descend (resulting in me hurrying around to get additional photos in the improved conditions!)
~ towards Yanggakdo Island
~ towards Kim Il Sung Square and the Ryugyong Hotel
~ towards the May Day Stadium
This was a great opportunity to get a better understanding of the layout of the city, as that was a bit harder to do while driving around in the bus. I had fun picking out some already familiar landmarks, and looking down on all the activity of the city.
Kim Il Sung Square, the Grand People's Study House
~ and ice rink beyond
Our hotel, the Koryo
Boats on the Taedong River
Locals practicing their dancing
~ getting ready for tomorrow's big holiday, the DPRK's National Day
And looking up at the flame
But we were very fortunate to get these photos of the Pyongyang cityscape, it seems. A month after our visit, the DPRK banned all photography from the top of the tower. The rationale, it has been suggested, is to block images of major construction in the so-called Forbidden City area, where various government buildings are located and where the members of the Central Committee and their families live. This area is always bypassed by tourist buses, but it's harder to stop visitors peering in from above, especially now that even compact cameras have long zooms. See https://www.nknews.org/2019/10/photography-banned-from-top-of-pyongyangs-juche-tower/.
Our guide at the tower spoke excellent English, by the way, unlike most of the local guides we met who relied on our tour guide to translate their explanations. I realised after our return home that it was she who had guided Michael Palin on his visit to the Juche Tower for his TV series on North Korea – had I recognised her at the time I would have been interested to see if that was something she was willing to talk about. Instead, we chatted a bit about yesterday’s storm and she told us that the damage in Kaesong had been extensive and the area was now closed to tourists. We had been doubly lucky – to have already visited before the storm struck, and to have left before it did so. Later we heard more about the impact of the storm on the BBC World News (which was available in our room at the Koryo Hotel, a privilege afforded only to foreign guests, naturally) and were shocked to discover that five people had been killed in the south of the country. I had to quickly revise my opinion that the authorities had overreacted in hurrying us back to Pyongyang.
Once back at the base of the tower there was time to buy a refreshing cold drink from the small shop – very welcome, as the day was becoming quite warm. I also got a few hurried photos of the sculptural groups around the foot of the tower.
Sculptural group details
A city walk
Leaving the Juche Tower we had what to me was an unexpected opportunity to go for a fairly lengthy walk through the city. Tourists here are so closely supervised that I had thought only short strolls, such as the one we had done on our first morning from Kim Il Sung Square to the Grand Theatre, would be permitted. But now we were told that we would be walking for about an hour, unless anyone preferred to take the bus and wait at the far end - no one did!
Fisherman by the Taedong River
Grand People's Study House and fisherman
We walked along the bank of the Taedong River, where locals were enjoying their Sunday morning in various ways – riding bikes, men playing cards or fishing, children running around, a few people at an outdoor shooting gallery. We had to be careful with our photography and stick roughly together, but we were cut a fair bit of slack by our guide who, Carl had already told one of our group, is one of the more lenient in the DPRK.
Sculptures on the river bank
~ a popular pastime
Boats on the Taedong River
The east bank of the Taedong River
Our route took us across the Okryu Bridge over the river.
The Juche Tower from Okryu Bridge
A small flotilla of rowing boats was out on the water, the occupants fishing out weed which had been stirred up by the storm – another example of local people rallying (by choice or by obligation?) to improve the appearance of their city. Our young guide told me that the weed would probably be fed to animals.
Collecting weed from the Taedong
On the far side of the bridge we stopped at the Ryongwang Pavilion, one of the few historic-looking structures in Pyongyang. I say ‘historic-looking’ advisedly, because this is a 1950s reconstruction of a building badly damaged, like the rest of the city, in US bombing during the Korean War. Our guide told us that it was a favourite spot for artists and writers to observe the beauty of the Taedong River. A story tells how one of them, a Koryo-dynasty poet called Kim Hwang Won, broke his brush and wept after being unable find words to express the beauty of the view. I guess it’s changed a bit since then! Pyongyang is a surprisingly (to outsiders) attractive city but I wouldn’t say that it is indescribably beautiful!
The Ryongwang Pavilion
Another story about the pavilion dates from even earlier times, the 16th century. Pyongyang had fallen to the Japanese invaders. Under the orders of the Korean General Kim Ung So, a courtesan named Gye Wolhyang seduced and drugged the Japanese commander, Konishi Hidanokami, in the pavilion. She then led General Kim to the sleeping commander, where he beheaded him. Although Kim escaped, Kye was later executed for her role in the plot. Later, when Kim Ung So returned to liberate Pyongyang in 1593, he built a shrine to her next to the pavilion.
The Ryongwang Pavilion - details
Nearby we passed through the Taedong Gate or Taedongmun. This was the eastern gate of the inner castle of Pyongyang Castle and dates back to the 6th century, although the current structure is from 1635 as the original was burnt to the ground during the Imjin wars (Japanese invasions) of the late 16th century. Like the Ryongwang Pavilion it is one of the DPRK’s National Treasures – these are artefacts, sites, or buildings deemed by the Government of North Korea to have significant historical or artistic value to the country.
We headed away from the river at this point and walked past the giant mural of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il which I had already spotted, and photographed, several times from the bus. It was good to get a proper look at it and take more photos without the challenges of a moving vehicle! As always, the grass in front of them was beautifully manicured.
Murals of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il
The women of Pyongyang always dress smartly
From here we went up to the Mansudae Fountain Park at the southern foot of Mansu Hill. The centrepiece here is a group of rather elegant dancing ladies, 28 in total, known as the ‘Snow Falls’ sculpture. This is a popular place for locals to relax (when they have the time for such luxuries!) and for children to splash in the cool water on a hot day.
The building to the west is the Mansudae Art Theatre which was built in the mid 1970s on the site of an old factory. The building was apparently planned to incorporate both socialist and traditional Korean design elements, but from the outside (which is all we got to see) I was really only aware of the former style. I liked the bronze sculptures of musicians but found the building as a whole not especially attractive – the side view of the Grand People’s Study House off to our left made a better backdrop for the fountains (see photo above).
Mansudae Art Theatre
This was the end point of our walk, and we had all got pretty hot by now, so we waited in the shade under some trees until the bus arrived to pick us up. The bus took us to our lunch in one of the nicer restaurants we had visited (I have no idea where!) where we had a relaxing meal.
Egg and rice dish
After lunch it was back in the bus and off to Nampo for the afternoon, which I will describe in my next entry …
I travelled to North Korea with Regent Holidays on their Pioneering Group tour, which takes visitors to the parts that most other tours don’t reach!
Note: when you visit North Korea you do so at the invitation of the DPRK government, and the itinerary you follow is approved by them, as are the sights you see and the information you are given. That information often differs from that disseminated outside the country - there are, as always, two (or more) sides to every story.
This blog should not be seen as a fully balanced picture of the country as it will focus primarily on what I personally saw and heard while there. I will do my best to reflect the experiences I had as presented to me by our Korean guides, although I may touch from time to time on other perspectives. In writing it I hope always to remain respectful of my hosts, and to tempt my readers not to take my word for anything, but to visit and make up their minds for themselves.
Having said that, all views expressed above and in the following entries are my own, and I alone am responsible for the content.