Our first full day in the DPRK was packed full of activities. As the bus pulled up to our first stop, I could hardly contain my excitement. After all, I was about to come face to face with a regular North Korean, which to me previously seemed as elusive as an unicorn. Our guide, Mrs. Pak, led us on a walking tour along the Taedong River. Folks were out fishing by the river, kids were playing at the playground and while Pyongyang isn’t quite like LA, the people seemed surprisingly normal.
We walked to Kim Il Sung Square, the DPRK equivalent of Tiananmen Square. Here is where the military parades I’ve seen videos of are held. Propaganda slogans and pictures are plastered on both sides of the square. In the DPRK, there is no advertising (except for a couple of billboards for a state-owned car company) and in places where we’d normally expect to see advertisement are propaganda paintings and catch phrases.
Our next stop were the statues of President Kim Il Sung and Leader Kim Jong Il at Mansudae Grand Monument. We were offered the opportunity to buy flowers to present at the statues for 4 Euros. If you’re wondering why the price is in Euros, it’s because while official currency of North Korea is called the won (same name as South Korea but are separate currencies), foreigners are not allowed to do transactions in the won. Instead, we have to use hard currency and the preferred option is Euros (although Chinese RMB is just as widely accepted and US Dollars are also ok to a lesser extent).
Anyway, after we picked up the flowers, we were told to stand in two parallel lines and walk up to the statues and bow to show respect. Our group of “Westerners” had a difficult time forming lines and it became apparent very early on that the Koreans are experts at this task as they have been conditioned to do it from a very early age. As we were about to leave, two newlywed couples and their entourages arrived to visit the statues. Our guide explained that every newlywed couple in Pyongyang stops at the Mansundae Grand Monument on their wedding day to see President Kim Il Sung and Leader Kim Jong Il.
Next on the tour was the Grand People’s Study House, the national library.
At the entrance, we were led to a huge marble statue of President Kim Il Sung; I had only been in DPRK for less than 24 hours and I had already caught on to the ubiquitiousness of President Kim Il Sung and Great Leader Kim Jong Il. Their potraits are hung on buildings, in classrooms, and in homes. Their statues are all over the city. Their faces are even worn on the pins that every North Korean wears. At the English study room, a couple of my fellow travelers were asked to give an impromptu English lesson followed by a Q&A. Of course, one of the questions was “Do you like Dennis Rodman?” It’s amazing how an unlikely individual is playing such a significant role in US-DPRK relations and pop culture. We were then whisked away to a computer room (the computers ran Windows), where Koreans can search the national intranet (the internet is completely blocked off and there are no plans to allow its access).
The architecture of the Grand People’s Study House is in a traditional Korean style and stands out against the backdrop of monotonous buildings. Because Pyongyang was leveled during the Korean War, practically everything was built after the war and in true socialist form, all of the buildings look equally bland and boring. 20+ story highrises cover the west Pyongyang skyline (East/West sides are connected by a river and the West side is newer) and up until recently, all of the buildings had the same rectangular look. Last year, some new highrises with some character were constructed; these buildings even have beautiful lights at night.
After enjoying the view at the top of the Grand People’s Study House, we continued our marathon tour and our next stop was the Juche Tower. Juche is DPRK’s self-reliance national concept (attribted to President Kim Il Sung; pretty much everything is attributed to him) and the the fundamental idea behind the actions and attitudes of the North Korean government and people. This tall tower, visible from many places in Pyongyang, is a symbol of the Korean spirit and a reminder of the goals and ideology of the Korean people. The irony behind the Juche idea is that while it is presented to the Korean public as a uniquely Korean concept in order to enhance the effectiveness of the messages of political independene, economic self-sustenance, and military self reliance, it is actually based on Mao’s policy of Ziligengsheng.
Another interesting “sight” that was visible throughout our time in Pyongyang is the Ryugyong Hotel, a 105-story pyramid shaped building whose construction started in 1987 and would have been the world’s tallest hotel. But due to materials problems, lack of funds, and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, construction was finally halted in 1992 after the building had reached its full height. It stood in the Pyongyang skyline, without windows for over a decade and a half. Then, in 2008, work on the exterior was started again by Egyptian company Orascom Group, as a part of a deal to construct a 3G cell phone network in North Korea. Now, the facade is complete but the inside is essentially still in shell condition and is questionable whether the building will ever be fully completed on the inside as there is concern about the quality of the existing work. In 2012, high end hotel operator Kempinski announced that it would be operating the hotel but who knows if that will ever happen.
In the afternoon, after an uneventful and disappointing pork hotpot meal, we headed over to Pyongyang Film Studios, the socialist version of Universal Studios. The first thing we did was stand in two parallel lines to bow at a statue of Kim Il Sung. DPRK produces its own films for propaganda purposes.
Our second afternoon stop was the newly opened Fatherland Liberation War Museum. It’s brand new and opened on July 27, 2013, the 60th anniversary of Victory Day, the day the DPRK “won” the Fatherland Liberation War aka the Korean war. Because of how new it is, this is the only place on the trip where I saw a statue of Marshall Kim Jong Un, the young, 3rd generation leader of this nation. Unfortunately, photographs inside the museum are not allowed. Despite the fact that every single one of us disagreed with the historical accuracy of the events, we all thought that the museum is incredibly well done. Like many things in Pyongyang, the museum itself is oversized, and has many rooms dedicated to special interests, such as a room for the role of the ~3 million Chinese People’s Volunteers who backed the DPRK during the war. The museum is very interactive and engaging and definitely better than (again, not in content) any museum in California.
Outside the museum is one of DPRK’s prized possessions, the “spy ship” USS Pueblo, the only US ship still held captive today. DPRK attacked and captured it in 1968, when the ship supposedly strayed into North Korean waters (the US strongly disputes this claim). The US signed an official apology in order for DPRK to release the captured sailors back home. One of the other members of my tour group tried to lay some flowers on the ship for fallen American soldiers, of course that was not received well, and instead he was encouraged to present the flowers to a monument outside the museum honoring fallen Korean soldiers. We all had to stand in four lines and bow at the monument. My back was starting to hurt from all the bowing.
We ended the afternoon with a meal at the “Famous Lamb BBQ Restaurant”of Pyongyang; I personally think Feng Mao in LA has better lamb kebabs.