DPRK 2007

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Monday, April 23

Monday was a full day back in Pyongyang and was as monument-filled as you could hope any vacation day to be. Thankfully, as we were going to be spending more time outside today than normal, it was the most beautiful and warm day we had in North Korea.

Juche Tower

Our first stop was to Juche Tower, a huge concrete tower on the banks of the Taedong River in the middle of Pyongyang. Juche is a philosophy of North Korean nationalism and self-reliance devised by Kim Il Sung, and Juche was one of the most common things we heard about the trip. They even Juche-fied the way they count years, counting from the birth of Kim Il Sung (instead of 2007, for example, it’s now “Juche 96”).

The biggest attraction of the Juche Tower is the elevator ride up to the top and the amazing views of Pyongyang from there. As with so many other sites, this was definitely a tourist attraction, but there was no evidence that North Koreans would actually go up it, as the people in our group were the only ones there. Since it was so nice and clear out, we got to see a lot of the city. Since the anniversary of the founding of the North Korean Army was the next day, just about everywhere we looked we could see preparations for the big day. In the large square across the river, there were thousands of kids who were initially in straight lines and then formed into the shape of a giant rocket. Just below us, large groups were practicing marching in shapes that I assume were Korean characters.

Some video of the preprations in the shadow of Juche Tower:

Party Founding Monument Next, we were off to the monument to commemorate the founding of the Korean Workers Party (picture to the right), the ruling party in North Korea (not a lot of competition).

After that, we were taken to another particularly special site: the birthplace of Kim Il Sung. This was one of the view tourist sites that actually had a lot of North Koreans visiting. There was a long line of people waiting to walk past some exhibits about Kim Il Sung’s home and family, with everyone in line obviously dressed up for the occasion. Many of the women were in beautifully colored traditional Korean dresses, and we even saw a bunch of uniformed soldiers making their way through. Many of the children Birthplace of Kim Il Sung there were wearing their uniforms with the red scarves around their necks signifying that they were part of the “Young Pioneers”, the first level of the Korean Workers Party.

Next stop was the famous Pyongyang subway system. We got to the station and descended the ridiculously long escalator to the bottom; the Pyongyang subway system is possibly the deepest in the world. The station was absolutely beautiful and couldn’t have been more different than the dank, low-ceilinged subway stations I’m used to in New York. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling and the walls were covered in murals, some showing the ever-smiling Kim Il Sung and other “inspirational” scenes of North Korean Subway life. It could not have been cleaner, and when we stepped onto the train, the floor was still wet from a very recent mopping.

Tourists are only allowed to see two stations, so the ride was a quick one to the next stop. Because almost no one from outside of North Korea has seen the others, I’ve read a lot of speculation about how much the system is actually used. Because of chronic electrical shortages, it’s easy to believe that it’s not functioning a lot of the time. Like everything in Pyongyang, although it was a beautiful site that seemed normal enough, it was always difficult to tell what the reality was.

Rather than simple stations names like “14th St.” and “Times Square”, the stations in the Pyongyang system had names like “Triumph”, “Victory”, and “Paradise”.

After emerging from the second station and getting onto the waiting bus, we headed back to the river where went to see the Pueblo USS Pueblo, a U.S. Navy ship that was captured by North Korea in 1968. We first got on board and sat in a small room where we watched a video about its capture and the subsequent holding of its sailors for 11 months. The film was unabashed propaganda and would have probably been more irritating if it wasn’t so unintentionally funny. It was made a while ago, and basically just trashed the “U.S. imperialists” and made a point of showing extremely unflattering pictures of Lyndon Johnson.

We were taken around the ship and saw just about every bullet hole on the ship while being given a thorough explanation of the North Korean version of events surrounding the capture. A U.S. ship on North Korean custody was obviously something they were very proud of, and they went to great lengths to use it as a visible reminder of the tensions between the two countries.

After lunch aboard a docked ship on the river, we were next scheduled to go to the art museum down the street. Everywhere we had been on the trip, we had always taken the bus from stop to stop, so we were always pretty cut off from the public. This time, however, we were told that we were going to be allowed to actually walk to the museum. We were going to be closely watched, and as we initially walked along side the river, we were actually told we could take pictures only in one direction (across the river, not toward the public we’d be walking through).

The museum was right off the main square where we had earlier seen the kids moving into the giant rocket-ship formation. Now we were right there looking at them, and it was basically a sea of kids all dressed identically in dark blue uniforms with gold caps on. There were thousands of them, and they were all standing and sitting in perfectly formed rows up and down the square. Because the Square rate of immigration into North Korea must be closer to zero than any other country, its population is extremely homogenous. A group of 20 Americans walking around stood out immediately, and anyone who saw us knew we were foreigners. We had to walk across the square right next to the kids to get to the museum and as we approached we could look out into the crowd and see hundreds of eyes staring back at us. Eventually, some of the kids started waving and yelling which got us even more attention. As we walked across the square, it turned into a bizarre interaction with hundreds of kids waving and yelling at us. With us waving back as we walked along the square, it felt like we were rock stars working our way through a (very well-behaved) crowd even though they had no idea who we were. They seemed genuinely excited to see visitors despite the wariness I had come to expect, and it definitely made for one of the more memorable moments of the trip.

Wedding Party

The museum was a nice collection of Korean art, especially the older pieces. We didn’t have much time, so we were given an abbreviated look at some of the exhibits and history of Korean art. Toward the end of the tour we got to the section displaying newer art which without exception was used to glorify North Korea and its leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Despite the museum looking like a place anyone could walk off the street and visit, we were the only people there, and as our group left each room of the museum, a worker quietly stayed behind to shut off the lights in the previous room.

In North Korea, the Korean War is called the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War, and our next stop was the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. The museum was interesting in that it was a physical representation of all of the anti-American feelings we War Museum had heard since being there. It was definitely worth seeing, but completely filled my quota of Korean-War-from-a-North-Korean-perspective talks I’d need for a while.

Again, instead of getting back on the bus, we were allowed to take a walk. However, this time instead of just going through the large public square, we actually got the opportunity to walk down the street. Simply walking a quarter mile or so down the street of any other city would be a complete non-event, but this was by far the most we were mixed in with the public. It was pretty exciting to feel a little less cut off from what was going on, and walk past the public which alternated between strange looks and complete indifference. Unfortunately, pictures were basically forbidden, but for a few minutes, it kind of felt normal to be there.

After a trip back to the hotel, it was back to May Day Stadium to see Mass Games again. The performance was exactly the same as before, but that was no problem with me. In fact, it was even more enjoyable the second time, because I was a little less awestruck. I was able to spend more time enjoying it rather than trying to take pictures of everything.

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