You should probably re-emphasize the importance of getting along with the guides and following what they say, even if it seems relatively far-fetched. Some people seemed to be asking questions for the sole purpose of making the tour guides uncomfortable, and some even walked up to people and took photos without asking their permission. This just meant that the guide got himself into trouble (who is ultimately responsible for our actions), which in turn means that we may have missed other opportunities for the rest of the tour. A couple of us kept trying to build bridges that other tour members seemed intent on burning, but it was pretty embarrassing.
OK – ranting over and over again about the business. An 8:45am start took us to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in downtown Pyongyang. This war is known in the West as the Korean War and, more interestingly, in China as The War to Resist the US and Aid Korea. This war started on June 25, 1950, and there was an armistice on July 27, 1953. No real peace treaty was signed between the Koreas, so they are still officially at war. This museum is huge, covering around 80,000 square meters. It shows how the “Koreans fought and defeated the US imperialist army of aggressors.” You heard it a lot: “American imperialists” in the DPRK. It was a very interesting museum, especially seeing some of the documents and letters (supposedly) sent by US military personnel. The presentation was skewed, but so would a similar museum in the US. Now I have a chance to see both skewed sides of the story and try to make up my mind by finding a middle ground. I’m not sure I believe any government will give you the full facts now, so it’s just a case of using a little intuition and common sense. The highlight of this museum was a huge panorama painting depicting the Battle of Taedong. This 360 degree painting was 132m in circumference and we sat on a platform that rotated us around the image. It was a memorable and beautifully created sight.
Connected to the museum was the Victorious Homeland Liberation War Monument. This is actually a set of 10 monuments depicting moments from the Korean War. The monuments are located in an area with a white stone floor and it was very impressive. The centerpiece of the monuments is a huge statue of a Korean People’s Army (KPA) soldier shouting at his comrades. As we were looking at the monuments, a large group of elementary school kids walked past us and we smiled and waved and got some response from them. Again, I’m not sure if we saw them by chance or if they were meant to come to this place while we were there. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt though. Near the monument and the museum there was a band that played revolutionary music, apparently to keep the morale of the workers high. Let’s hope this succeeds as the people of the DPRK need all the help and morale boosting they can get.
I should probably tell you a little about the triangular-shaped building that dominates the Pyongyang skyline. This is one of the largest white elephants in Pyongyang, and it was meant to be the Ryugyong Hotel. Construction of this 105-story, 330m-tall building began in 1987. It was planned to have 3,000 rooms and 8 (yes, eight!) revolving floors on top. After 5 years of attempted construction, the hotel was left an empty shell due to lack of funds, power outages and food shortages. There are photos of the hotel lit up at night, but this is for one of 2 possible reasons. One is that the DPRK computer scientists have been playing with Photoshop. The other possible reason put forward is that they sent people to the hotel one day to put lights in all the rooms before a photo was taken one night. I personally prefer the latest version of the story. It is also rumored that after the 82nd floor (give or take), the elevator shaft is no longer straight, so you have to take the stairs from there!
From the war memorials, we headed to the captured American spy ship, the USS Pueblo. This ship was captured in 1968 in DPRK waters and had 83 crew members on board. The ship was apparently in a horrible state (guns not working, engine only partially working, etc.) and was taken over by a DPRK force of only 7 soldiers. Imagine for a second that briefing mission for the DPRK troops: “Okay, comrades, this is the biggest one. There is a US imperialist ship with around 80 American devils invading our territorial waters. Kim Il Sung told them has given our generals in the- and advised us to capture this ship with the greatest force we can muster… that’s why you 7 have been called in! Now to row and good luck!” The American crew was returned to their homeland, but only after the US government issued a formal apology for their spying actions. They initially stated that it was a fishing vessel and that it was in international waters, but were later forced to reveal the truth. I am reminded of this when reading the current news about the British sailors and marines who have been detained in Iran. After being captured, the ship was towed along the DPRK coast and now occupies a prime spot on the main river that runs through the capital. We were shown around the boat and watched a video of the catch with a funny English pronunciation (I can’t even begin to describe it!), before being ushered up to the main deck to take photos and ask any questions we had. This filled our morning so we headed for lunch at the “number 1 floating restaurant”.
The first stop of the afternoon was the Foreign Languages Bookstore. Here you can buy a variety of literature in all sorts of languages (English, Japanese, Chinese, German, French, Russian are just a few that come to mind). We all buy books and some badges. A couple of people bought some posters, but I was looking for ones that were more socialist realistic (aka propaganda) in nature. I quietly mentioned it to my guide and she told me that she could find me something better and not to buy. I took him at his word and he refrained from making a purchase for now.
On the way to the Great People’s Study House, we passed Kim Il Sung Square, which was full of students practicing for the upcoming Mass Games. It was quite impressive to see all these gymnasts working out, and we took photos from a distance. Unfortunately, a couple of the other tourists proceeded to approach people while taking photos, and the person in charge of the practice yelled at our guard. To the Great People’s Study House, though, and it really is a great library, storing over 30 million books, though I only remember 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, and each professor has a small number of fields of expertise. 250 teachers work here, out of a total staff of 1,000. This place wasn’t the most fascinating I’ve ever been to, but it was still good to see nonetheless.
We moved to Primary School No 4 below. When I booked the trip, I asked if it would be possible to visit a school in the DPRK. I have taught in the Maldives and now Japan, and was interested in looking inside a school and trying to get an overview of the atmosphere there. Surprisingly, this was arranged and we went to one of the best primary schools in the country, and one attended by Kim Jong Il himself. Although they told us that all the schools were very similar to this one, it was obvious that they were showing us an excellent school. The day was Children’s Union Day, which meant that it was a school holiday, and there were no children at first. They showed us some empty classrooms and it was interesting to see their layout. Each classroom has a picture of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung at the front of the class, just like Japanese classrooms had pictures of the emperor in the classrooms before World War II. We went to the gymnasium and found around 14-16 students playing table tennis. Even though they were only 8/9 years old they were still very good and could probably beat the Brits for the #1 spot! I wonder why Asian countries produce so many good table tennis players… but I digress. These students, we were told, practiced 2 hours a day after school, and it certainly showed.
We were then taken to a small upstairs room with a stage. We were all greeted by playfully sweet students who led us to our seats. They were all smiling, which was cute but quite disconcerting. It was obvious that they had been told to smile so that foreigners would show a happy face. But their smiles seemed too much and too fake. Once we were all seated, about 16 students gave a song and dance performance, including a 3 piece band, singers, and some excellent dancers. These students were in the “song and dance club” and also practiced for 2-3 hours after school every day. I was hoping that some of them would move on to the Mass Games club when they moved on to high school. That’s where they really have to work, putting in about 5-6 hours of training every day after school. His performance was impeccable and afterwards the students took us on stage to dance. I gave the teachers some pens, pencils, and a little poster that a couple of my 1st year students had made for them. They smiled and quickly led them away. Sometimes I wonder what happened to the poster: if they kept it, threw it away, or maybe showed it to the students as a sign that the foreign imperialists were trying to feign friendship.
We said goodbye to the students (who continued with their Joker smiles) and boarded the bus for our last stop of the day: the Pyongyang metro system. The subway system has 17 stations and we travel between Puhung (meaning Renaissance) and Yonggwang (meaning Glory). There are rumors that these are the only 2 stations in operation, and even these could be used just to show the system to visitors. The only station in the subway system that is closed is Kwangmyong (meaning Shine). This is supposedly because it connects to the Kumusan Memorial Palace, where a number of military installations are believed to be located. The guide gave us the tickets and we got on the escalator to go down… and down… and down… and down! The metro stations are about 100m underground and are also designed to be used as bomb shelters (which would make this the deepest metro system in the world. Wow, another record for the DPRK!). The stations have triple armored doors and very little will get through those unwanted things. The platforms of the stations where we left and arrived were like museum pieces. Marble floors, huge chandeliers and mosaics that cover the entire wall. As we boarded the train, we were joined by some Pyongyang residents who had been waiting on the platform. Once again, their authenticity was questioned, with numerous claims that they are actually actors just there to give the impression that the subway system is being used.
On a website it is stated that the metro system in Pyongyang has a huge underground plaza, which will be used in case of war in the DPRK. The size is rumored to be similar to that of Kim Il Sung Square, meaning it could hold up to 100,000 people. The command post in this square has new communication facilities and a series of 10-ton trucks that could be used for transporting troops. Whether or not this is true is up for debate, but it is certainly plausible.
That’s all for another article. Thanks for taking the time to read.