life travel

North Korea, July 2013: Day 6

As we meet up in the morning, there is much complaining about the showers – or lack thereof. Quote of the day: “How is your hair so nice when you only had a bucket?” “There was a comb, on the ground.”

My “showering” the previous night was a good idea – people are complaining about the water temperature. But after a hot day lukewarm water didn’t seem so bad!

The hotel staff are so sweet though, and line up outside to wave us off. We are in the capital of the southern province (I’m not sure which) where the main industries are cement, electricity, and “chemical industries”. 380k people live here, and it is a 40 minute drive from Pyongyang.

Of course we don’t get to see anything of it, as we leave early (of course later than planned) back to Pyongyang. Today we are to see the Palace of the Sun (where the Kims lie in state) and the State Gift House where all the gifts given to the Kim leaders from Korean people are collected (note – this is not the International Friendship Exhibition, which houses gifts from foreign dignitaries). We will picnic on a mountain in Pyongyang city and have a special farewell dinner, of pizza.

They are very strict at the Palace of the Sun, where the Kims lie in state, for Koreans as well as foreign visitors. No-one is allowed to take pictures, and we are to check cameras and other belongings at the cloakroom.

There is a 1000m “travellator” (like a horizontal escalator, of the kind often found in airports) – much pride is taken in this. We start at the Bronze statues, and in rows of three we take of our shoes and pay homage to the statues. Then we will see the Kims lying in state – we will take 3 bows to each of them, one at the foot, one at each side, but not at the head. Then we enter the hall where medals and honours from foreign states and international officials are displayed. Then to the other Kim, his honours, and his train car.

Whilst in the Mausoleum, looking at the first Kim’s honours, the western guide comes up and touches my arm – I jump violently but thankfully don’t make a sound – that would not go down well here!

The Mausoleum is cold, and full of pictures. Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il. I’m fascinated by the honorary degrees and awards – I wish we had more time there (and, of course, that I could take pictures and notes). Kim Il-sung has an honorary engineering degree from Kensington University in the US (since shut down). Kim Il-sung has awards from France, and Kim Jong-il awards from Russia, and many from his father. We see both their train carriages, and the black mercedes – heavily modded for protection. On the wall in each room with a train carriage, a map shows the places they went by train, and by plane (less so Kim Jong-il, who was afraid to fly). One of the most impressive things is how they brought Kim Jong-il’s boat inside! It’s in some kind of fake ocean – maybe wax. His train carriage is just as he left it when he died in it – coat hanging up, gloves on the side, a new-looking macbook pro open on the desk. What did that advert say? For the misfits…!

Being in Pyongyang is like being in an elaborate piece of performance art. It’s sometimes hard to know what is real, and what is fake, or staged, and people are reserved – there is no telling what they really think. But, making our way through the Mausoleum, the next people are a group of women, in beautiful traditional dress. As we bow to the left of Kim Jong-il, they bow to his feet, and we can hear the crying – real, almost primal, sobbing – this is genuine grief.

Our mausoleum guide has this incredible, deep, melodious voice. I don’t understand any of what she is saying, but it seems very fitting for our environment – what our Korean guide has described as “our holy place”. She tells us about the Mourning Room, and the idea to “turn sadness into power”.

After we have made our way through the Mausoleum, we come out into a man-made park. Built after Kim Il-sung died, under the “wise guidance” of Kim Jong-il. This is where Kim Il-sung worked up until he died, it is called “sun” to say that he will always be with them. Inside the Mausoleum, two songs play on repeat – they are “Kim Il-Sung will always be with us” and “Kim Jong-il will always be with us”. Creative.

As of 1997, Kim Il-sung is the “eternal president”. His death was the greatest blow to Korea and so sad (apparently, I don’t think people in the South felt the same way for the most part). His birthday is a holiday. Kim Jong-il died on December 17th, 2011, and is described as a “bolt from the blue” – interesting, as the West had been discussing his poor health for a while. Everyone was very sad. The constitution was revised to make him the eternal General Secretary of the Worker’s party of Korea , and the eternal Chairman of the National Defence Commission, of which Kim Jong-un is now the Marshall.

Our explanation of Juche is as follows. Juche is the guiding ideology created by Kim Il-sung in the struggle against the Japanese, it means “master of self”. Mankind is the master of everything, and decides everything. Juche defines the relationship between human and everything, places mankind at the centre, in control of his own destiny. Working people rely on themselves.

Out next stop is the friendship museum. We have to wear covers over our shoes, and are not allowed to take pictures (or notes). There’s a basketball from Dennis Rodman, and carved out of red jade is Kim (not sure which) riding a tiger. There are tea sets sent by the president of Hiyundi, and an old (coloured) mac in a case. There is also a case full of tape recorders – 10 or so? – sent by the president of Samsung. Not sure that was their intended use! There is a golden globe from Korean Chinese, which symbolises wanting Kim Il-sung to lead the whole world. There are so many beautiful things here, I wish I could take pictures. And many quite weird things – unopened beauty products, a lamp of rotating plastic flowers, and a collection of little things relating to Mama Mia because Kim (likely Jong-il) loves music. There is a beautiful vintage telephone and a pictures of a flag with a Kim on it – done in the style of aboriginal art. Weird! It would be fascinating to wonder through properly, I would love to be able to read the history of each thing, but as ever that is not an option – we are closely escorted and not allowed to take pictures, and I have nothing to even take notes with, so that feels even more oppressive. The museum contains 22,000 gifts, 8300 of which are on display, over 20 rooms.

I’m feeling sick again, and I have not eaten anything because I think if I do I will be. One of my friends is also feeling really unwell. I’m relying on another friend to keep me upright.

We go to a BBQ for lunch, it’s hot so more likely to be safe (although the way raw meat gets mixed with partially cooked meat… I’m less sure). I eat a little bit, and some bread that I take care to toast. There is also soda, and the faux-coke bottle reads “5% diabetes”. The girl cooking for us tells us she likes Westlife and Celine Dion.

Our Korean guide is concerned that I’m not eating, she asks me: “do you have the run?” which momentarily baffles me until I figure out what she means.

We drive to a dam, about 50k from Pyongang. The west sea barrage. The towers are dedicated to the builders, and there is a monument to the exploits of Kim (of course) and the constructors. We watch a video about the construction of the – it’s (un-intentionally) quite hilarious. I’ve tried to take down the original words, where I can.

Kim Jong-il took the initiative to build the dam as part of the grand nature remaking program. On May 22nd, 1991, having studies the water depth and tidal flow he decided on the present area (well, I’m sure that honorary engineering degree helps). Designers worked out the volumous plans in short time, working for the everlasting prosperity of the fatherland. Tens of thousands of builders worked very hard, need to fight the strong total current. It was the fight of man against the sea, they built both dams together. The army soldiers found themselves in a difficult workplace (you don’t say) committed both to national defence, and to socialist constructions. The indomitable spirit of self-sacrifice can be traced from every part of the barrage. Water was drained from lock area by men on pumps, and soon the land underneath, long buried by the sea, makes it’s appearance. The sea gives way to man!

The whole nation supported the construction, backed up by self-reliant industry, and civilian builders also worked on it. Kim Jong-il closely followed the progress so it could be completed as fast as possible. He came to visit in 1984, and appreciated that a lot of work was done in the first year. He discussed all the problems with the builders and how to tackle them (that honorary engineering degree again). September 19th, 1985, construction was nearly finished and Kim Jong-il came with Kim Il-sung. They pinpointed the main targets in construction and helped builders in technical and construction. Innovative and fast causing lead to early completion of the locks. Project was a summing up of engineering, hydraulic engineering, and all other science and technology. Korean scientists are successful in defeating the sea!

Dangerous work in deep water, revolving bridge is incredibly heavy. Assembled in 2 days and 2 nights. 60m gap increases up to 20m per second. With the nation’s attention, the river at least stops it’s flow. Many trials and bottlenecks, builders and scientists came through in “high yet self-sacrificing sprit” to make this triumph happen.

Started in May 1981, completed in June 1986. 280k tons of steel, 4 billion dollars, 5 years 8k long dam across wild estuary with 36 chambers and 8 sluices. Sluices can drain water in rainy season, normally just 5 are open to maintain normal water level.

3 locks for different size vessels. Barge has several fish ways. Small hydro station using water flow through sluices to supply power to the barrage. There is a monument which is inscribed with the signature of President Kim Il-sung, which reads “glory to barrage constructors”.

Inaugurated by President Kim Il-sung, who highly praised the soldier builders and technicians for building in a self-reliant spirit.

Thanks to the barrage, the river is now free from tidal influence. Allows better movement of trade, making part of a loop.

Now there is a big, man-made lake, containing 2.9 billion tons of water. The water supply for industry and daily need in the west (of Korea) is also solved. The barrage prevents damage from flood, solves problems of trade and transportation, and contributes to a prosperous nation. The river is virtually a fisher farm, with resort places for the good people.

President Kim Il-sung took former US President Jimmy Carter to the barrage in 1994, and posed for a souvenir picture. Visitors from abroad say it is a great creation of self-reliant spirit, led by great leaders. The Korean people are proud as it attracts eyes from all over the world.

The dam is pretty beautiful, and the propaganda video amazing… well worth the drive! I’m curious to know whether the dam was actually a good idea, or helpful.

Our last stop is the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, which was renovated last year and was newly opened on July 27th – victory day. It also has the captured ship USS Pueblo.

We stand aside to watch the military stream in – I wish I could have taken pictures (I have a couple towards the end). First male soldiers, then female soldiers, then other male soldiers, but different – they have different uniforms.

The Museum opened on the 40th anniversary and was renovated last year, reopening on July 27th – 3 days before our visit, and that day was the first day that foreigners were allowed in. At the front, there is a guide, on the right they display the captured weapons, on the left merited weapons (I think this means the weapons used by the DPRK), and there are 10 auxiliary statues on each side. The main statue shows a representative of the soldiers, who devoted their all to war. There is a main building, and a round building, which shoes the liberation battle.

The seized weapons are quite disturbing, many of them just the battered remains. There are also some pictures of dead soldiers – one shot in the back of the head in his helicopter – which is confronting. I’ve never seen anything so glorifying killing, and find it distasteful and disturbing. I can’t say the US is any better though.

The USS Pueblo is a US ship that was captures by the DPRK, they claimed it was in their waters, although according to international law it was in international waters. The DPRK claims a maritime border of 12 nautical miles. Inside the ship there is a war propaganda video. What follows are notes I took from the commentary.

After the capture of the ship, the US demanded it’s return, saying it wouldn’t rule out all out war if it was not returned. The DPRK said they would counter aggression with aggression, and all out war with all out war. Many countries supported the DPRK and said to counter war with war. The enemy attempted to get them to surrender with negotiations, said they should apologise and would return prisoners, but not the trophy (the ship). They had a press conference, and said the US had to apologise otherwise the men on board the ship would be tried by the laws of the country and imprisoned or killed. The crew asked for mercy and said they wanted to go home alive. A journalist said they were ashamed to be American, and that the President should apologise and assure it would never happen again. The American people blamed the US President and administration, and the US administration was thrown into utter confusion.

On December 23rd, 11 months after the capture of the ship, the US finally made an official apology. The US representative was so confused, he forgot to write the date on the apology, and had to write it hurriedly. President Johnson complained that it was the only one of it’s kind in history. The DPRK announced that it would expel 80 spies out of the republic. The aggressors who lord over the world were driven out of the country. The imperialists knelt down before the Korean people, now running downhill. People of the world unanimously said that the US was shattered by the Korean people. Victory by the leadership of Kim Il-Sung. The boat is a trophy, and symbolises the aggression of the US imperialists against the Korean people.

Wondering around the boat is really interesting – the bullet holes from the takeover are circled in red. Many of the “secret” documents on board the ship when it was captured are out on display, which I like. The soldier’s IDs and pieces of their uniforms are also displayed in glass cases.

I leave feeling sad in general about how brutal humans are. Some stuff doesn’t seem unreasonable – keeping the ship as a trophy, for example (at that point I didn’t know about the difference between the DPRK’s claimed nautical border and international maritime law), but other things seem less so, such as claiming that everyone condemned the US. No doubt some people did, some people watch Fox news – unlikely to be the same set of people, though. I’m unsure about what is true and what is not, and want to find out more. Main point: their story doesn’t seem wholly unreasonable. Maybe Afghanistan and Iraq will have museums someday.

Now we are headed for pizza, I’m hoping for clean bathrooms.

We leave for the airport at 6am the following morning, which is where I discover that they are worried about me (and one of my friends) blogging – we had taken an earlier bus home the previous evening. In the end though, no-one says anything to us directly. We drive past a new cemetery for the 60th anniversary of the Korean War – the cemetery is for the soldiers who gave their everything in the Korean War, and also in the Vietnam war.

Approaching the airport, our guide gives us the following goodbye:

“Goodbye, thanks for cooperating, we don’t ask you to believe – you see what you see. Tell people about the DPRK. Best wishes. See you again.”

We are recommended to tip 35 euro each, and so she leaves us in the region of $1k (USD) better off.

North Korea has a GDP per capita of less than $2k.

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