A journey into the Hermit kingdom of North Korea
Quite simply, the leaders, three generations from the same family, are revered by North Koreans with a god-like status, particularly Kim Il-sung, the father of the DPRK, who 17 years after his death still remains president of the nation and will be so for eternity. Their images are seen everywhere: on propaganda billboards, plastered on building facades or on the red lapel-badge worn by all citizens (while not compulsory, we did not see one person without one). All trips to Pyongyang include a visit to the giant 25m bronze monuments where the two leaders Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il stand side by side (Kim Jong-il’s was unveiled in April this year after his death in December 2011). Protocol dictates that tourists lay flowers at their feet and bow to the figures, while eerie ceremonial music booms over the PA.
Another “only-in-North Korea” moment is a visit to the Kim Il-sung Mausoleum, where you pay respect to the leader’s embalmed body encased within a glass sarcophagus, similar to the embalmed bodies of Lenin in Moscow and Mao in Beijing. Unfortunately it was closed at the time of our visit due to the preparation of Jong- il’s body, which will also be displayed here.
Our tour began at the Arch of Triumph, the DPRK’s piece de resistance, similar in style to Paris’ Arc de Triomphe but larger in size. It is a magnificent sight when illuminated at night, as is the Tower of the Juche Idea, a 170m-high granite tower that looks over the Taedong River and is one of the world’s tallest monuments. This tower is dedicated to the philosophy of Juche (which mixes self reliance with nationalism) and consists of 25,550 granite blocks -- representing one for every day of Kim Il-sung's life until his 70th birthday, which was when the monument was unveiled in 1982.
Nearby stands the Monument to the Foundation of the Korean Workers’ Party, another world-class sight with soaring granite symbols of the Workers Party of Korea (the hammer represents proletariats, the sickle the peasants and the paintbrush for intellectuals).
The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum provides an interesting interpretation of the Korean War. And yes, as the name suggests, North Korea claims victory in the conflict. The huge basement is dedicated to wrecks of US planes destroyed in battle among other captured weapons, proudly on display as victory trophies. The Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War immortalises scenes of the Korean War with remarkable detail in a series of dramatic giant bronze-cast statues. Another prized keepsake is the USS Pueblo, an American spy ship captured in North Korean waters in 1968 and now permanently docked as a symbol of national pride.
Offering a welcome change of pace from grim memorials was a visit to the surreal Mangyongdae Children's Palace. Serving as a school for extracurricular activities, it is more akin to a centre of excellence for genius children. Behind each door lay a different surprise as we visited classes that ranged from kids practicing their taekwondo fly kicks to playing accordions with fervour, to creating incredibly detailed tapestry masterpieces. But the best was saved for last, as the tour concluded with a performance in the concert hall where choirs belted out haunting military songs, ballet troupes demonstrated astonishing acrobatic skills and small children demonstrated almost superhuman acts, like a girl spinning around with a vase balanced on her head. It was all played out to a stirring backdrop of ever-changing propaganda images, including pictures of the supreme leaders (always met with applause) and sinister-looking marching soldiers. If this was the kids’ performance, one could only imagine how phenomenal the Mass Games would be, which is held each year in a 150,000 capacity stadium.