North Korea: yup, you read that right…
Our final and hands down most interesting stop was Pyongyang, The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea! Yup, you read that right. The “Democratic” People’s Republic of Korea, a.k.a North Korea. Nope, not the country that created Samsung or Hyundai Motors… the one right above it whose population isn’t allowed to use phones or drive cars. So before arriving, my family and I were quite scared, and rightfully so, from all the warnings we got from our friends and family. Every time I would tell someone where I was going this summer, their faces would be lit up with amusement all the way through Iceland, France, Bhutan, China, etc. until I got to North Korea. Instantly smiles faded into looks of concern and “you are honestly crazy” with a side of “WHY?!?!” The first question I would always get would be: “Wait, can you even go there???” And actually, the answer to that question is yes! Until recently, Americans were not allowed to visit North Korea, but nowadays, tourists are permitted and actually encouraged to come from all over the world (at their own risk, I may add) as long as they are with a state approved tour agency and guide at all times. And to my surprise, there were actually a lot of tourists!! So first things first, as you can tell since I am writing this, I survived (this was an honest concern)!! There had been one two many cases of Americans getting detained in North Korea and sent to labor camps for long periods of time for small acts that most people would not consider offenses. Our fears of the airport, hotel, and city were so great that we repacked all our bags into one small luggage (huge downsize from the original 5) making sure not to include anything spiritual, religious, or provocative we either brought from home or picked up on the way (ex. tons of Buddhist accessories from Bhutan!). But with that being said, to our surprise, the airport process was actually one of the most simple thus far, with the exception of having to fill out an excessive number of forms on the way in and to our knowledge no one went through our bags at any point in time! However, I do feel like it was a good call to play it safe. Keep reading if you want to hear what it really is like behind these concrete walls of The Democratic Republic of Korea…
The first stop on our two day tour was the North Korean version of the Arc de Triomphe called the Arch of Triumph. Standing 60 meters tall — 10 meters taller then the one in Paris, of course — this monument, like most, celebrates the Eternal President Kim il-sung and his “successful” military resistance in fighting for Korean independence. The two dates on the monument: 1925 and 1945 mark the year when Sung began his fight for independence and the year of liberation, respectively.
Stop two: Next, we visited the absolutely massive statues of Kim il-sung (left) and Kim Jung-il (right) standing in front of the National Revaluation Museum. You can see the sheer size of these statues well based on how small the people standing beneath it look. In order to visit, it was required to bring flowers to present to the leaders and bow in front of them. Here continues the long list of monuments dedicated to these leaders and furthermore, the examples of the cult personalities formed intentionally around them.
This is a continuation of the monument illustrating the collective, communist, and nationalist struggle against American imperialism while a similar construction was on opposite side illustrating the struggle against Japanese imperialism.
On our first full day in Pyongyang, we visited Kumsunsan Palace of the Sun, the place where both the Eternal President Kim il-sung and his son and also former Supreme Leader, Kim jung-il are preserved. We were not able to take pictures inside the palace, but let us just say it was massive, just like everything else in this city. I went on the longest moving walkway of my life numerous times (to show respect, you couldn’t keep walking, we had to just stand still the whole time, so that really highlighted the slow speed). After going through hallway after hallway, room after room, escalator after escalator, we finally got to the place where the two leaders were resting. Like any other sight of a preserved dead person, it was quite strange. The many Korean people also visiting let out cries of admiration and misery as they bowed past. In addition, lining the hallways were tons and tons of images of the two leaders throughout their lives, again depicting was another example of the cult personality formed around these two leaders.
This is an image of students walking in a very orderly fashion on the square in front of the Palace. This is an example of the level of uniformity and obedience the citizens of this country must abide by.
These women are wearing the traditional Korean dressy outfit to visit the resting place of their leader’s since they must pay the highest possible level of respect. (cough cough more cult personality)
We also visited the National Library that supposedly had 30 million books…not quite sure how accurate that statistic is but nonetheless, the building was massive (as per usual). This is an image of the English classroom where a teacher is doing oral exercises with her students. I observed that North Korea seems to be stuck in the 1950s or something, the lack of technology and style of teaching seems to be something out of an old movie.
This is the view from the top of the National Library. Side note: Something that I have noticed is that there are a lot of panoramic views of the city (especially rotating rooftop restaurants — which I heard from my mom was a very popular 80s thing…). Front and center in the picture is the Tower of Juche Idea. Although we didn’t visit this tower I was able to learn a little bit about this ideology. Juche is an idea created by the Eternal President Kim il-sung as a Korean version of communism or Marxism in order to fit the circumstances, history, and environment of North Korea. Juche, which also goes by Kimilsungism-Kimjungilism (yup.) has been edited over the years to not only distance itself from the ideals of Marx and Angles, but to also completely remove all mentions of the term “communism.” The fundamentals of the Juche Idea are: 1. Political independence, 2. Economic self-sustenance, and 3. Self-reliance in defense. While at first this idea seems okay, in reality it has ultimately blocked North Korea from the world. Thanks to the mixture of additional sanctions from exterior countries and this strict Juche idea, people inside North Korea are not permitted out and deal with harsh trading regulations that lead to famines and poverty. What I find most disturbing about Juche is the cult around it. Firstly, not only is it named after both leaders (after they died they just added the next person to the name…will this continue with Kim jung-un?!), but they also have renamed their entire calendar in association with the leader and this idea. For example, year 2014 would be Juche 103 because Kim il-sung was born in 1911, Juche 1, and so the years are based on that. Secondly, these ideals, when studied, seem to have a Japanese imperialist twist, as if they got a lot of their core ideals from the very people they hate and who controlled their country. The ideas of a closed off and independent economy were one of the Japanese as they were closed off for around 400 years. Lastly, what I find the worst part is that this idea is the only accepted political, economic, social idea and plan “forever.” Not one person can even stop to think about capitalism or even communism because that is not what their great leader said so they mustn’t argue. To me these conformist ideals brought by the cult personality of these leaders leave me, sadly, with little hope for a fast recovery of North Korea…