Vacations Vacations

North Korea - Vacations In A Secret State

Published at 07/17/2011 23:40:32

 I should probably re-emphasize the importance of getting along with the guides and going along with what they say, even if it seems relatively far-fetched. A few people seemed to be asking questions with the sole purpose of making the tour guides feel uncomfortable, and even some going right up to people and taking photos of them without asking permission. This just meant the guide got into trouble (who is ultimately responsible for our actions), which in turn means we may have missed out on other opportunities during the remainder of the tour. A couple of us kept trying to build bridges that other tour members seemed intent on burning down, but it was pretty embarrassing.

OK - ranting over and onto business. An 8:45am start got us to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in central Pyongyang. This war is known in the West as the Korean War, and more interestingly in China as The War of Resisting the US & Aiding Korea. This war started on June 25th, 1950 and there was an armistice on July 27th, 1953. There was no actual peace treaty signed between the Koreas, and so they are still officially at war. This museum is huge, covering around 80,000 square metres. It shows how the "Koreans battled and defeated the US Imperialist army of aggressors". You heard that a lot: "US Imperialists" in DPRK. It was a very interesting museum, especially seeing some of the documents and letters (allegedly) sent by US military staff. The presentation was biased, but so would a similar museum be in the US. I now have the opportunity to see both biased sides of the story, and try to make my own mind up by finding a middle ground. Not sure believing any government will give you the full facts now, so it's just a case of using some intuition and common sense. The highlight of this museum was a huge panoramic painting, depicting the Battle of Taedong. This 360-degree painting was 132m in circumference and we sat on a platform which rotated us around the picture. It was a memorable view and beautifully created.

 Connected to the museum was the Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War. This is actually a set of 10 monuments depicting moments in the Korean War. The monuments are set in a white stone floored area and was very impressive. The centrepiece of the monuments is a huge statue of a Korean People's Army (KPA) soldier shouting to his comrades. As we viewed the monuments, a large group of primary school children passed us and we smiled and waved, and got some response from them. Again, not sure whether we saw them by chance or whether they were meant to come to this place while we were there. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt though. Near to the monument and museum was a band playing revolutionary music, apparently to keep the morale of the workers up. Hopefully this will succeed, as the people of DPRK need all the help and morale boosts they can get.

I should probably tell you a little about the triangular-shaped building which dominates the Pyongyang skyline. This is one of the biggest white elephants in Pyongyang, and was meant to be the Ryugyong Hotel. Construction was started on this 105-floor, 330m high building in 1987. It was scheduled to have 3,000 rooms and 8 (yes, eight!) revolving floors at the top!!! After 5 years of attempted construction, the hotel was left as an empty shell due to lack of funding, electricity blackouts and food shortages. There are photos of the hotel being lit up at night, but this is due to one of 2 possible reasons. One is that the DPRK computer people have been playing with Photoshop. The other possible reason put forward is that people were sent into the hotel one day to actually put lights in all the rooms before a photo was taken one night! I personally prefer the latter version of the story. It is also rumoured that after the 82nd floor (or thereabouts), the elevator shaft is no longer straight, so you have to take the stairs from thereon up!

 From the war monuments, we headed over to the captured US spy ship, the USS Pueblo. This ship was captured in 1968 in DPRK waters and had 83 crew members on board. Apparently the ship was in an awful state (no working guns, engine only partially working etc) and was taken by a DPRK force of only 7 troops. Just imagine for a second that mission briefing to the DPRK troops: "OK comrades, this is the big one. There's a US Imperialist ship with around 80 American devils trespassing in our territorial waters. Kim Il Sung has given our generals on-the-spot guidance and advised us to capture this vessel with the biggest force we can muster... which is why you 7 have been called in! Now get rowing and good luck!". The US crew were returned to their homeland, but only after the US government had issued a formal apology for their spying actions. They initially declared that it was a fishing boat and was in international waters, but then they were forced to reveal the truth. I'm reminded of this when I read the current news story about the British sailors and marines who have been detained in Iran. After being captured, the ship was tugged around the coastline of DPRK and is now taking pride of place in the main river flowing through the capital. We were shown around the ship and watched a video about the capture with some hilarious English pronunciation (I can't even start to describe it!), before being led to the main deck to take photos and ask any questions we had. This filled our morning, so we headed for lunch on "floating restaurant number 1?. Not too sure if there is a number 2 or 3, but lunch was certainly nice drifting up and down the Taedong river.

The first stop of the afternoon was the Foreign Language Bookstore. Here you could buy an array of literature in allsorts of languages (English, Japanese, Chinese, German, French, Russian are just a few that spring to mind). We all bought books and some pin badges. A couple of people bought some posters but I was looking for ones of a more socialist realism (aka propaganda) nature. I quietly mentioned it to my guide and she told me that she might be able to find me something better, and to hold off buying. Took her word for it and refrained from making a purchase for now.

On the way to the Grand People's Study House, we walked past Kim Il Sung Square which was full of students practising for the forthcoming Mass Games. It was pretty impressive to see all these gymnasts working out, and we took photos from a distance. Unfortunately, a couple of the other tourists proceeded to get far to close to the people while snapping phot8os, and our guarded was shouted at by the person in charge of the practice. Onto the Grand People's Study House though, and it really is a vast library, storing over 30 million books, although I can only recall seeing about 10 during my entire visit to the building! Many professors work in the library, and can offer advice to people studying from their books, with each professor having a small number of speciality fields. 250 professors are employed here, out of a total staff of 1,000. This place wasn't the most riveting that I'd been to, but it was still good to see all the same.

We moved onto Primary School No 4 next. When I booked the trip I asked if it would be possible to visit a school in DPRK. I'd taught in Maldives and now in Japan, and was interested to just look inside a school and try and get a general overview of the atmosphere there. Surprisingly, this was arranged and we went to one of the best primary schools in the country, and the one which Kim Jong Il himself attended. Although they told us that every school was very similar to this one, it was obvious we were being shown an excellent school. The day was Childrens' Union Day, which meant that it was a school holiday, and there were no kids about initially. We were shown around some empty classrooms and it was interesting to see their layout. Each classroom has got a picture of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung at the front of the class, much like Japanese classrooms had pictures of the emperor in classrooms pre-WWII. We got around to the gym and found around 14-16 students playing table tennis. Although they were only 8/9 years old, they were still damn good and could probably beat the British ranked No 1! I wonder why Asian countries produce so many good table tennis players... but I digress. These students, we were told, practised 2 hours a day after school, and it certainly showed.

We were then taken to a small room upstairs with a stage. We were all greeted with ludicrously sweet looking students who took us to our seats. They were all smiling, which was cute but rather disconcerting. It was obvious they had been told that they should smile for the foreigners to show a happy face. But their smiles looked too much and very fake. Once we were all sat down, around 16 students gave a song and dance performance, including 3-piece band, singers and some excellent dancers. These students were in "song & dance club" and also practised 2-3 hours after school each day. I expected that some of these would move onto Mass Games club when they move up to junior high school. That is where they really have to work, putting in around 5-6 hours of training each day after school. Their performance was flawless and afterwards we were pulled up on stage by the students for some dancing. I gave the teachers some pens, pencils, and a small poster a couple of my 1st year students had made for them. They smiled and quickly took them away. I sometimes wonder what happened to the poster: whether it was kept, thrown away, or maybe displayed to the students as a sign of the foreign Imperialists trying to feign friendship!

We said our goodbyes to the students (who continued their Joker-like grins) and got on the bus for our final stop of the day - the Pyongyang subway system. The metro system has 17 stations and we travelled between Puhung (meaning Renaissance) and Yonggwang (meaning Glory). There are rumours that these are the only 2 stations in operation, and even these might only be used to showcase the system to visitors. The only station on the Metro system which is closed is Kwangmyong (meaning Brightness). This is allegedly because it connects to the Kumusan Memorial Palace, where it is believed there are a number of military facilities. The guide gave us our tickets and we got on the escalator to go down... and down... and down... and down! The subway stations are around 100m underground and are also designed to be used as air raid shelters (which would make this the deepest subway system in the world. Yay - another record for the DPRK!). The stations have triple heavy blast doors and very little is going to get through those things unwanted. The platforms of the stations we departed and arrived at were like museum pieces. Marble floors, huge chandeliers and mosaics covering the entire wall. When we got on the train we were joined by a few Pyongyang residents who had been waiting on the platform. Once again, their authenticity came in to question, with numerous claims that are actually actors just there to give the impression that the subway system is being used.

Tips and comments:

 It is claimed on one website that the subway system in Pyongyang has a huge underground square, to be used in the event of war in the DPRK. The size is rumoured to be around the same as Kim Il Sung Square, meaning that it could hold up to 100,000 people. The command post in this square has new communication facilities and a number of 10-ton trucks that could be used to transport troops. Whether this is true or not is up for debate, but it is certainly plausible.