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Getting to know Pyongyang

DPRK (and Beijing) Day five, part one


View DPRK 2019 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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View from our room at the Koryo Hotel

I slept well at first on our first night in Pyongyang but woke early and couldn’t get back to sleep - a combination of the very firm bed, a brain full of all we had already seen here yesterday, and anticipation of the very full day ahead. There was even a chance we might get to go to the Mass Games this evening!

The choice at breakfast was limited unless we fancied similar dishes to those we had eaten last night, which we didn’t, but as we were still full from that meal it didn’t matter too much. I had a passable fried egg, half a roll and some surprisingly decent coffee given what we had been told about its tendency to be weak here. Indeed I had already made a cup of the instant I had brought from home to have in our room while getting ready, just case.

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Another view from our room



We checked out the hotel shop, which is quite large and sells a weird mix of things – souvenirs both tacky and more expensive, traditional Korean dresses, standard shoes, holiday necessities such as toothbrushes, snacks (quite a few of which seemed to have been imported from Germany, somehow getting around the international sanctions on trade with the DPRK), a wide range of alcoholic drinks and regular food items such as you would buy in the supermarket – meat, breakfast cereal etc. We just bought some water, then joined the group in the lobby for our prompt 8.50 departure.

Kim Il Sung Square

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Kim Il Sung Square


Our first stop was in Kim Il Sung Square, familiar to us all from many TV broadcasts of those huge scale military parades for which North Korea is known. It was laid out in 1954, when Pyongyang was being rebuilt after the Korean War when much of the city was destroyed by US bombs. That devastation has contributed to the unique appearance of the city centre which has been carefully planned, almost like a stage set, to give prominence to the significant Revolutionary monuments and buildings, with sweeping vistas along broad avenues which in a strange way reminded me of Haussmann’s Paris.

Even at this early stage in our visit I could already appreciate how Pyongyang has been developed as a showpiece for the country, demonstrating to both outsiders and the North Korean people the strength and power of the regime, and making a strong statement about the country’s ambitions to be self-reliant in the face of often hostile challenges from elsewhere – those challenges being of course both political and at times physical. But like most showpieces, the reality behind the image is rather different and I was glad that we would be visiting other parts of the country to see what life, and architecture, is like for the majority of people.

For now however it was really quite something to stand in a place so familiar from TV and yet one that until quite recently I wouldn’t have expected to see with my own eyes!

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The Grand People's Study House from the far side of Kim Il Sung Square


The square is vast, 75,000 square metres, and surrounded by buildings on a similarly grand scale. The pseudo-traditional Grand People Study House forms the backdrop, while either side are museums (the Central History Museum and the National Art Museum) and some government buildings.

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The Juche Tower from
Kim Il Sung Square

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The Central History Museum

So much is familiar from TV, but one thing you don’t notice in those broadcasts are the myriad of white paint marks on the ground (visible in my first photo above). These are indicators of where people are to stand during those spectacular parades, and my assumption is (although I didn’t ask) that the prime spots are the prerogative of high up party members, with those towards the back reserved for less deserving members – although to be allowed here at all during the parades is a privilege reserved for relatively few locals, and no visitors at all.

The Foreign Language Bookshop

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On the way to the bookshop

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Entrance to the Foreign Language Bookshop


We walked from Kim Il Sung Square to the Foreign Language Bookshop just a short distance away. As with so many things, the North Korean approach to providing books in foreign languages is very different to that of other countries. Not for them the sale of foreign books written in their original tongue! Here you find instead Korean publications translated into the major languages spoken by their visitors – English, French, Russian, Mandarin etc. And as the vast majority of their publications are either written by the Leaders, transcripts of speeches given by those Leaders, or books about those Leaders, you might fear that the selection is somewhat limited. We however found it fascinating, as did everyone in our group. As an insight into the mentality and culture of this unique country, the small booklets of speeches are especially enlightening – although of course you must read them with an appreciation of the fact that they present an exclusively DPRK slant on history and on the country’s development.

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Display in the Foreign Language Bookshop

Although books are the main items on sale you can also find a good range of other souvenirs – postcards, stamps, pictures, lapel pins. The latter aren’t unfortunately, the ones the locals all wear, depicting one or both of the former Leaders (Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il – the current Leader, Kim Jong Un, doesn’t feature on these), as these aren’t available for sale to tourists. I imagine this is through fear that we would abuse them and thus disrespect the Leaders – perhaps by wearing them upside down or defacing them?

We were to see similar things in many other places on our tour, including all the hotel shops (even the most basic hotels seemed to have a decent souvenir/book shop), and it isn’t like us in any case to start buying souvenirs on our first day in a country, but Carl’s advice was ‘if you see something you like, buy it’, and so we surprised ourselves by making several purchases - a couple of pin badges (the DPRK flag for Chris, a Kimilsungia flower for me), some postcards, a little book of aphorisms by Kim Jong Il, an epic poem about Mount Paektu (this one a gift for a friend) and a painting of some horses. These were nicely wrapped and given to us in a pretty silk bag. As in (almost) every shop we visited, we all paid for our purchases in hard currency, in our case Euros. Tourists are not permitted (with one exception – see below) to change money into, and spend, Korean won, but instead must use US dollars, euros or Chinese renminbi – we had brought a mix of the last two of these.

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Our pins

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Some of our purchases

Oh, and for those of you who are thinking, ‘what on earth is a Kimilsungia flower, I don’t have one of those in my garden!’, a short explanation. Both of the previous Leaders have been honoured with a flower named for them. Kim Sung Il’s is a violet coloured orchid while Kim Jong Il’s is a hybrid begonia. Surprisingly, neither of them was developed in North Korea. The Kimilsungia comes from Indonesia, and according to DPRK accounts was a gift made to Kim Il Sung on a visit there, as a speech by Kim Jong Il entitled ‘Kimilsungia Is an Immortal Flower That has Bloomed in the Hearts of Mankind in the Era of Independence’ (catchy title!) explains:

‘When visiting the Bogor Botanical Garden, I felt more deeply how much President Sukarno respected and revered President Kim Il Sung. With a long history, this world-renowned botanical garden was well worth visiting. With flowers of the orchid family, cactuses and other rare tropical flowers in full bloom, I felt as if I were visiting a world flower fair. When we approached a display in a greenhouse of the botanical garden, Sukarno took a pot of flowers from the director of the botanical garden, and asked President Kim Il Sung how he liked the flowers. The director explained that it was a variety of the orchid family a famous florist of the garden had bred after long, painstaking research, and it was a peculiar flower in that it blossomed twice a year, being in bloom for two to three months. After looking at the flower for a while, President Kim Il Sung said that it was very beautiful and expressed thanks to his host for showing him such a fine flower. Then, Sukarno said sincerely that he wanted the flower to be named after President Kim Il Sung. The director of the botanical garden, too, expressed his wish to call it Kimilsungia. President Kim Il Sung gently declined their suggestion, saying that he had done nothing so special and that there was no need to name a flower after him. Sukarno replied, "No. You have rendered enormous services to mankind, so you deserve a high honour." He refused to withdraw his request. Back in Jakarta, he repeatedly brought the matter to us. On receiving a report about it, President Kim Il Sung said that if President Sukarno and the Indonesian people wished it so sincerely, he would accept the suggestion as a token of their esteem for our people. This is how a flower named after a great man for the first time in the thousands of years of human history came into the world.’

The Kimjongilia, even more surprisingly (given the historical enmity between the two nations), was cultivated by a Japanese botanist to mark that Leader’s 46th birthday in 1988. Both flowers are regarded to an amazingly high degree within the country – some might almost say worshipped. Murals are adorned with them and they even have their own flower shows at which only these two plants are displayed.

But I digress …

The Grand People’s Study House

From the Foreign Language Bookshop we drove to the Grand People’s Study House on the west side of Kim Il Sung Square (walking there would have meant crossing a road – wide but very quiet, by the standards of any other city, yet deemed ‘dangerous’ by our guides).

This is the DPRK’s national library. It was built in a ‘neo-traditional Korean style’ between 1979 and 1982, opening in April of that year to coincide with President Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday celebrations. We were to discover that nearly all the great buildings and monuments of Pyongyang were built to mark a significant event linked to the Great Leaders, usually a birthday, and Kim Il Sung was especially fortunate on his 70th to be ‘given’ not only this library but also a triumphal arch and the Juche Tower which stands opposite the Grand People’s Study House on the other side of the Taedong River. We will be visiting both of these in due course.

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Mural of Kim Il Sung in the entrance

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Mural, and entrance lobby

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In the lobby
~ the sign with pink and green lettering lists recent acquisitions

We were greeted in the impressive lobby by a ‘local guide’ – the term used for all the guides based at the individual sights here. She started by giving us all the statistics about the scale of the building: a total floor space of 100,000 square metres, ten stories high (eight above ground, if I remember correctly, and two below), 600 rooms (including 21 reading rooms and 17 lecture rooms), space for up to 30 million books.

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Mural of Kim Jong Suk, wife of Kim Il Sung


Its stated purpose is to be a centre of study for Juche ideology (the official state ideology of North Korea, developed by Kim Il Sung and based on a principle of self-reliance – I will say more about Juche in a later entry), as well as science, technology, and the arts. Attendance at classes and lectures is free, as is the use of the library, and around 10,000 Pyongyang citizens visit the library each day.

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A visit from Kim Il Sung

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Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on a visit

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Typical room in the library

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Educational wall poster

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Educational wall poster

The walls were hung with educational posters on all sorts of topics - farming, various industries, space travel and satellites, computing.

We dropped in on an English language class, sitting at the back while students repeated phrases spoken by the teacher, parrot fashion. I had to wonder how much of the meaning of what they were saying sunk in this way, but as we only observed for about ten minutes it’s possible that other parts of the lesson focused more on understanding, I guess.

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English lesson

Certainly I spotted on the computer screens a quite detailed set of examples of the use of the ‘present simple’ tense, never easy for foreign speakers to grasp:

‘I want a cup of tea = now
The sun rises in the east = all time
I play tennis on Sunday mornings = regular time / habit
The bus leaves at 9 tomorrow morning = future’

In another classroom people were watching films on computer monitors or listening to music.

Going around the library we were shown several well-known English language novels, both in the original and some translations into Korean e.g. Huckleberry Finn, Sherlock Holmes, Anne Frank’s Diary. We were not shown, but spotted anyway, the shelf of books about weapons, nuclear missiles etc!

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Books in the library


We were then taken up to the eighth floor balcony from which we had excellent views, despite the gloomy weather, of Kim Il Sung Square, the surrounding buildings and the Taedong River and Juche Tower beyond.

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View east from the Grand People's Study House

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The Central History Museum

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The National Art Museum

The Viennese Coffee Shop

From the study house we went for coffee at Pyongyang's Viennese Coffee Shop, which looked very little like one of its namesakes. There was a menu of coffees on each table. Chris and I both chose a melange (we pronounced it the French way, as do the Viennese, ‘meh-lonj’, but were corrected to ‘meh-lan-jay’ by our waitress) as we wanted to see how it compared to the ‘real’ thing. It bore some resemblance, but not a lot, although was pleasant enough. Someone else at our table, however, had ordered Vienna Coffee, again out of curiosity, and was served coffee topped with ice cream – what the Viennese would call an Eiskafe and one of my favourite treats - I wished that I had done the same!

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Coffee shop sign above the entrance

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A North Korean melange

Leaving the café we were afforded the relatively rare treat of a walk on the streets of Pyongyang. As I have already mentioned, visitors to North Korea are not allowed to explore independently but must go everywhere with their guides. Most of the time this means travelling between the sights by bus, but there are places where it is permitted to walk as long as your guides go with you, and this stretch of Sungri Street is one such place. We were allowed to take photos as we walked.

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Bus stop on Sungri Street

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Seen on Sungri Street

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Building on Sungri Street

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Poster for the Mass Games in a shop window

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On Sungri Street
~ the ground floor buildings are shops

On the way we again passed the eastern end of Kim Il Sung Square as well as some local shops. These were well-disguised, as window displays if any are minimal, and there seems usually to be a double wall running the length of the front of the buildings.

The Pyongyang Grand Theatre

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The Pyongyang Grand Theatre

Facing us as we approached the end of the street was the Pyongyang Grand Theatre, although ‘opera house’ might be a better name as it is used exclusively to stage the famous Korean revolutionary operas, whose plots for the most part revolve around the guerrilla revolution against Japanese occupation. The mosaics either side of the theatre entrance, and on a wall to the right of the building, show scenes from the most famous of these.

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The Sea of Blood and Flower Girl mosaics at the Pyongyang Grand Theatre

Most famous of all is the Sea of Blood, and our guide told me that the mosaic on the left of the entrance shows that opera’s heroine opening a gate during the course of a battle. The right-hand mosaic is of The Flower Girl, almost as well-known and well-loved as Sea of Blood.

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Other mosaics of revolutionary opera scenes

While we were taking our photos our bus had arrived to pick us up in front of the theatre and take us to lunch, which we had in the Ansan Restaurant in a pleasant setting beside the Potang River.

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Restaurant by the Potang

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By the Potang River

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Lunch at the Ansan Restaurant

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Decorations on the stairs

Lunch consisted of a selection of dishes fairly similar to those we had enjoyed last night, with a few variations. Again there was beer or water to drink. Most of our meals during the trip would prove to be very much on these lines. The food was always plentiful, and even if a few dishes didn’t appeal there were lots of others from which to choose.

I have said already that this was a full day – a very full day! So I’ll continue my account of it in my next entry for fear of making my readers almost as tired as I was!!

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.

Posted by ToonSarah 04:36 Archived in North Korea Tagged people streets architecture restaurant history square shopping city north_korea coffee libraries pyongyang street_photography kim_il_sung grand_people's_study_house Comments (23)

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