axisofevil North Korea Story pg. 10, Birthplace of Kim Il-sung - Axis of Evil World Tour
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Mangyongdae, Schoolchildren's Palace and Pyongyang Subway

After having driven basically halfway to the Chinese border to visit Mt. Myohyang, it was to be another long bus ride back to Pyongyang before we had our tour of Mangyongdae, the reputed birthplace of Kim Il-sung. After the big lunch everyone kind of settled in to relax a bit on the way home. Other than teaching the guides how to play Hearts, and sneaking a few illicit photos out the bus window, the trip back wasn't too memorable.

Except when Mr. Baek almost caught me spying through his files.

Throughout the entire trip I had seen all of our guides (including the Japanese and Chinese language speaking guides) carrying around and constantly referring to various papers they had stuffed inside their folders. I was curious as hell as to what they were looking at. Secret background info? A dossier on our group's activities? Approved ways to praise the Kims? What was in those files?

I saw my chance for a peek with the guides engaged in a fierce battle of Hearts. Our group had basically taken over the rear of the bus from day one, with Mr. Baek watching over us from the very back row of seats. With the card game though he had moved up a couple of rows, leaving the back open, and, to my surprise, his folder sitting alone on the seat next to the window. Feigning a sudden interest in the passing scenery, I hopped into the back seat, right over the folder. I glanced up at the card game, . . . everyone still busy there. So, using the seats to cover what I was doing, I opened the folder and started flipping through the loose-leaf pages.

Glancing them over I found they were mainly just brief synopses of each place on the itinerary, in English and Korean, to help the guides remember what to say. Plus a list of all the members of our tour and . . .

"Hey, what are you doing?"

Shit! Mr. Baek had looked up from the card game and noticed me in the back row looking at something.

"Oh, I was just trying to open this window. It's a little hot in here. But the thing seems stuck . . . ah, there we go. It's open now. Do you want me to open it a lot or is a little ok?"

"Uh, whatever you want. I'm fine."

And with that my heart returned to beating normally. No international spying incident. No five-year slave labor sentence. Just me being reminded, once again, of the usefulness of being a good liar. Perhaps I was learning more of the local culture than I had anticipated . . .

Mangyongdae - Birthplace of Kim Il-sung
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John
Mangyongdae Guide
Mangyongdae Guide
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

The rest of the ride back down to Pyongyang passed uneventfully and about three hours after leaving Mt. Myohyang we finally pulled into Mangyongdae on the outskirts of Pyongyang. The rain had become a light drizzle as we walked up the short path from the parking lot to the actual house.

The area around Mangyongdae is quite a pleasant little park, all grass, landscaping and trees. The house itself aims to reflect Kim's humble beginnings as a peasant man of the people. Everything from the thatched roof to the sparse interior and the pictures of his relatives are designed to stress his commoner background.

Mr. Huk and the on-site guide both took pains to point out these humble beginnings at every turn. Even showing us the kimchi pots and vegetable storage barrels Kim's mother was supposed to have used while he was growing up. The contrast of these humble beginnings with the lavishness of the Gifts to Kim Museum couldn't have been greater.

As the place is a national shrine it appears to be visited by a large number of tour groups, both foreign and domestic. The parking lot was quite large and we could see groups of North Koreans off in the distance, unfortunately too far away for any interaction or to observe their reactions to the shrine. The flowers in the photo above were presumably placed there to show the devotion of these visitors.

The overall feeling of Mangyongdae is more that of a memorial to a respected national leader than the 'Kim Il-sung is god, god is Kim Il-sung' religiosity of most other Great Leader sites. The key here seemed to be stressing simplicity and commonness, that of both Kim and his immediate family.

Kim Il-sung's Birthplace Marker
Marker identifying the site as the birthplace of Kim Il-sung on April 15, 1912
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

Kim Il-sung's Family Photos
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

Photos of Kim's parents and relatives, all of whom were (of course) renowned defenders of the common people
and heroic resistance fighters during the Japanese colonial period. The picture at the bottom right was explained
as Kim hugging his mother upon his return from years of guerilla fighting against the Japanese in Manchuria and northern Korea.


The rain here again interfered with 'The Schedule', causing us to have to cancel a short hike through the grounds. Apparently the hill on which the house and park are located commands a great view of the city below and we missed out on some beautiful pictures. The good point about the change was that it would allow us more time at the next stop. One that proved to offer great views in its own right; though more cultural than pictorial.

Schoolchildren's Palace

Near Kim Il-sung's birthplace on the outskirts of Pyongyang stands the giant Schoolchildren's Palace. The North Korean leader strongly believed children are the future of his party and nation and therefore spent a good deal of state resources developing educational and after-school facilities for children and young teenagers (older teenagers are generally put to 'volunteer' work). The facilities in Pyongyang built for the children of the elite have become a national showcase where foreign visitors are taken to showcase the North's devotion to its youngest citizens.

Schoolchildren's Palace
Schoolchildren's Palace and our 'Young Pioneer' guide
Photo courtesy Brian Stuart

A devotion that in many ways is truly impressive and different from what one sees in the South. I'll never forget addressing children in the North using the standard low form of Korean (as an adult would in the South) and being told by our guides that that's considered rather rude in the North.

According to Kim, children are the innocent leaders of tomorrow's revolution and therefore the 'low form' should only be for children you know personally; all others should be addressed using the standard, mid-level polite form (Korean has several different levels of formality/familiarity based on age, social position, family and school ties, etc.).

This is a huge cultural shift compared with the South and one that never fails to really surprise my Southern friends when they ask me about differences with the North.


Guide - Schoolchildren's Palace
Schoolchildren's Palace Guide
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

Calling this building a palace is a rare triumph of truth over hyperbole for the North. Several stories high, it boasts three wings, a huge gymnasium, a fully equipped computer room (though without Net access) and dozens of classrooms teaching everything from ballet to calligraphy, accordion to taekwondo.

We were given a grand tour by the young lady pictured here to the left. Though a young teen her poise and professionalism were remarkable. She obviously took great pride in her work of being able to show off to foreigners all that the Great Leader had given his children.

Her voice and method of speaking were one of the most interesting parts of this tour. She already had the North Korean method of public speaking, the kind you see on TV, down pat. A method wherein you are apparently supposed to enthuse like a preacher caught up in the fervor of an old-time revival. Incredible.

The first place our dynamo little guide led us was the computer room. And yes, they even use Windows in North Korea. Though one doubts Microsoft ever sees their cut!

Oddly enough the students were using the English version of Windows 98 (our trip pre-dated XP) rather than the Korean one. When I asked Mr. Huk why he looked at me like I was an idiot and said because there wasn't a Korean version. A 'fact' that must come as a huge surprise to Microsoft Korea!


There was no Internet access in the computer room however. Privileged future leaders of the DPRK or not, modernity still comes with limits.

The Internet was basically a giant mystery to the North Koreans I met. Some of them had at least heard the word but they didn't really seem to have a handle on exactly what it was. Even Mr. Baek, who'd once traveled outside the country to China, didn't quite have a grasp of what exactly e-mail and the Internet really were.

When asked if he felt like they were missing out on all the great information available on the Net Mr. Huk just brushed us off with, "we already know the truth from our government. Why would we want to learn what others say?" Which, in a nutshell, seemed a pretty good explanation of North Korean thought as a whole.

NK Computer Study
Computer study under the two Kims
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John


NK - Taekwondo Practice
Taekwondo Practice
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

After the computer room the next place we were taken was a giant gymnasium. At one end you had a large group of, mainly boys, practicing taekwondo. At the other end you had a group of, again, mainly boys, practicing basketball.

Given that we had a couple of professional-caliber taekwondo athletes in our group we stopped to watch that for awhile (and weren't even hurried!). The guides even asked if any of us wanted to join in. We all declined as we began to focus more on the basketball end of the gym.

After walking down for a closer look we asked the guides if we could join in for a short game. They loved the idea and soon we were paired up into two teams of four. It took awhile to get them to realize we didn't want to gang up on the kids; instead wanting to join them and play against each other. Once settled we got into a heated little 4-on-4 pick-up game.

The kids turned out to be pretty damn good, with smooth jumpshots and plenty of confidence handling the ball. The coach even joined in, he's the one under the basket in the white shirt pictured below.

Playing Basketball in Pyongyang
Hoopin' it up in North Korea
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

As you can see from Dan's rather unique method of catching the ball here, some of us weren't quite up to the level of these young teens.

Our relative lack of ability didn't really matter though, the spectacle of a bunch of foreigners playing basketball generated A LOT of interest from everyone else in the gym.

We pretty much brought taekwondo practice and all other activities to a halt. Even the janitors stopped to check us out. Unfortunately we were unable to give them what they really wanted - a giant dunk. Even though a couple of us are well over six feet (1.8 meters) we are unfortunately far too white to have enough hops for slamin'.


Given that they were training at probably the top youth gym in the country I'm very curious about the future of some of these young athletes. You would expect at least a few of them to be on a North Korean national team in another 10 years or so. Who knows, maybe some of those kids will be representing their country in the Olympics one day.

After the gym it was on to a tour of several classrooms full of apparently earnest young dance, calligraphy and music students. Classrooms where, after our basketball game, the main impression we probably made on everyone was that foreigners are really sweaty.

NK - Young Dancers
Group of young girls studying dance - notice the bright smiles
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

Our young guide led us on the prearranged tour of the various classrooms shown here. The key in all of the pictures is to notice the beaming smiles on everyone's faces. While very cute and photogenic it was so obviously coached as to be funny.

All you had to do was quickly stick you head back into a classroom after everyone had filed out. Then you'd see the kind of expressions you'd expect to find on a group of kids cooped up in a stuffy classroom after school.

NK - Traditional Instruments
Korean Traditional Instrument Practice
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John
NK Accordion Practice
Accordion Practice
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

Even more interesting was when they saw someone had stuck their head back in. A kind of mini-wave of smiles would gradually sweep across the room as the kids and teacher realized you were still butting into their class.

In a couple of rooms I tried to ask some questions to see if I could get a conversation started but, other than some giggles at my weird accent, I was never able to generate much of a reaction. Just like at the circus the day before - we were to be smiled at only - no interaction.


The teachers were basically the same as the one I'd encountered at the circus. Friendly enough when they had to be but in no way willing to talk to us. They simply thanked everyone whenever we praised them and their class and then went back to teaching.

I can't really blame them - keeping a bunch of preteens focused on class when you have large groups of people (foreigners nonetheless!) barging in and out can't be easy. You have to commend their professionalism, especially given how amazing their students were with their singing, dancing and writing. Incredible what kids can do when you take away their video games . . .

Studying Calligraphy
"For the sake of North Korea . . ."
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John
Kim Il-sung Image
Giant image of Kim Il-sung shown during a song in his honor
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

The highlight of the palace tour was a musical performance by the students. To say it was incredible would be a huge understatement. How kids that young can be so talented and perform so well is beyond me. Their timing and professionalism would do honor to anyone.

Here of course the honor was all to the Kims and the North Korean regime. The message was one of how lucky the children were to grow up in such a special place and with such a devoted leader willing to look after their needs and dreams.

At the end of the show we all got out of our seats to give the students a rousing and well-deserved standing ovation. It really was an amazing thing to see so many children working together to create such a professional performance. CDs were on sale in the lobby and they did a brisk business among the foreign visitors. To view a short clip please head to the Videos page.

Young Performers
Close-up of some of the young performers
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John
End of School Kids Performance
"We are one" - written above and sang as the chorus of a song of reunification
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

This same school was visited by President Kim Dae-jung's wife, the first lady of South Korea, during the summit between the leaders of the North and South in 2000. Part of the children's performance was broadcast live on South Korean TV and was a sensational PR coup for the North. The hopeful reunification theme went over very well with the South Korean public and resulted in the students being invited for a headline-making trip and well-received performance down in Seoul. Commentators in the South even worried publicly about South Korea's own 'lazy' youth, thought to be frittering away their childhoods yapping on cell phones, surfing the Internet and playing computer games. Concern that mainly brought a collective yawn from South Korean kids.

Once our show was over it was back out to the bus for one of the final stops on the tour - a hoped for visit to the Pyongyang subway. This part of the tour was, according to both our guides and various guidebooks on travel to North Korea, an option given only at the guides' discretion. Apparently our behavior, sliding around the Gifts to Kim Il-sung Museum and arguing at the DMZ notwithstanding, had been good enough to merit this 'special' tour.

Pyongyang Subway

The Pyongyang subway system is equal parts public transportation, art gallery and air raid shelter. The tracks are set far beneath the surface, similar to those in Moscow, to keep them safe and to provide shelter for the populace in case of an American bombing. To get down to them requires a lengthy escalator ride that makes one feel like you're descending into the very depths of the earth. Those with vertigo or a fear of heights need not apply.

The system itself, as shown by the map to the left, is not very extensive. Though our guides were quite proud of the interactive map system shown here. By pressing one of the bottom buttons (which denote the various stations), lights would flash on the main board to clearly show you the stops and route between your current station and destination. All for a two-line subway!

Pyongyang Subway Map
Pyongyang Subway Map
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

Our guides asked if the Seoul subway system had a similar system for their passengers. They seemed pleased to find out that it was lacking such an advanced, customer-oriented system.

Unfortunately the picture to the left doesn't quite show one of the more interesting features of the subway - the station names. In Pyongyang, rather than denoting particular places, all the stations are given names like Liberation, Unification, and Victory.

Once inside and down near the tracks you find the walls, pillars and ceilings full of intricate design work and ornate paintings. Some of the best art in North Korea is actually located a few hundred feet below ground!

In the picture to the right you can see the obvious efforts that went into making the subway a showcase for the regime. From the pillar carvings, huge painting at the end and intricate glasswork on the ceilings, everything is designed to impress. While we were visiting there was even plenty of power to light the stations. Indicating a supply of electricity that some say isn't always so generous.


Pyongyang Subway Mural
Subway mural of happy industrious workers
Photo courtesy Brian Stuart

Pyongyang Subway
View of station between arrivals
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John
Pyongyang Subway Photos of Kims
Subway car with pictures of you know who
Photo courtesy Brian Stuart

A less than generous subway aspect we got to encounter firsthand was restroom usage. A couple of people in our group needed to use one during the visit to the subway, something you'd expect to be quick and painless.

Well, here it turned into a major hassle. First, the people had to get permission from the guides to even go look for a restroom. Then the guides decided they had to use facilities deemed satisfactory for foreigners - something the first place the group found apparently wasn't. Even though the bathroom entrance was right square in front of them the guides blocked the entrance, literally standing in front of the door to prevent anyone from entering. They insisted the group of unscheduled bathroom users wait until the next stop where they were promised they would find nicer facilities. Despite some pretty hearty bitching, in two languages, the guides remained firm, forcing everyone to wait until after we boarded the subway and went to the next stop.

The whole incident got pretty heated and even drew some attention from passersby, until cooler heads finally prevailed and the naughty group was convinced to 'hold it' a few minutes until we got to where we were going.

The subway cars themselves, though aged, were immaculate and, during the late afternoon when we were there, remarkably uncrowded. Our group was herded into the last car of the train, one devoid of passengers except for a single hapless young lady. She looked up at a big group of foreigners boarding her car like a deer caught in the headlights. After a few seconds and an audible gasp she gathered her things and literally sprinted out the door. She wanted no part of any of us!

Now if that would only happen when I board the crowded Seoul subway . . .

As the lady ran out, the doors swished shut and we were locked inside our own private car. Of course, each car is proudly adorned with pictures of the two Kims, so we wouldn't be totally alone during the journey. Once someone noticed this our group proceeded to spend most the few minutes on the train rotating, one-by-one, to pose for a shot under the Kims.


As the train pulled in to the next station the shock on the face of the oncoming passengers was one of the more stunning sites of the whole trip. I honestly think if aliens had lined up to come out of our subway car instead, the people waiting would have been less shocked. Everyone was especially careful to hang back and make sure we were really leaving before they dared board our 'foreign' car. I was half-tempted to hold up, linger and then jump back into the subway just as the doors began to shut. That certainly would have gotten everyone's hearts pumping! But, deciding I wasn't in the mood to be arrested the day before I left, plus still curious as to how the whole restroom saga was going to turn out, I decided to let discretion rule the day, and slowly walked off after the others.

Once off the subway Mr. Baek and Mr. Huk were finally able to locate suitable restroom facilities for everyone. Of course, once they found the right place they then had to going running off to track down the key. By this point the sheer ordeal of finding a john that would accept foreign tour groups had turned the restroom into a mini-tourist attraction all its own. Practically everyone in the whole tour group proceeded to file in and take a look.

After our impromptu potty tour we were quickly rounded up and marched out of the station to the waiting bus. Something that must have seemed especially strange to our bus driver - take the foreigners to one subway stop, let them off, then drive to the next stop to pick them up. I can't imagine myself doing that in too many other countries, though seeing such a beautiful, relatively empty subway system, in Asia of all places, was well worth the little sidetrip. My only regret from the subway experience mirrors my main regret from the whole trip - the lack of an opportunity to interact with people other than our guides.

Once back on the bus we headed off to the last stop on our tour - a visit to a well-known (according to the guides anyway) restaurant for one of North Korea's most famous foods.

Out of Place on the Subway
Hmm, somebody seems to be out of place here . . .
also notice the especially wide berth given the foreigner

Photo courtesy Thomas St. John
Pyongyang Naeng-myon
No visit to Pyongyang would possibly be complete without trying the city's signature dish - naeng-myon. Basically it's a bowl of cold vermicelli noodles with an egg, a couple of hunks of meat, and some hot sauce thrown in for spiciness. The cold noodles ('naeng' means 'cold' or 'chilled' in Korean) are supposed to be the perfect meal for cooling down on a hot summer day.
Pyongyang Naeng-myon
Pyongyang Naeng-myon Specialty Restaurant
Photo courtesy Ben Jorgenson

I've tried naeng-myon a few times at restaurants in the South (where the best stuff is always referred to as Pyongyang naeng-myon) and normally can't stand the stuff. But here, for whatever reason, it actually tasted pretty good. Perhaps I was finally coming under the spell of Mr. Baek's, "when in Rome" mantra.

For those who found the idea of cold noodles unappealing (see picture at left), the restaurant also served up a large variety of other foods for what turned out to be probably our best meal of the whole trip. Those with foreign currency to spend, and those who live off of them, are certainly not part of the North's starving masses.


As this was the last thing on our tour and we no longer had to worry about 'The Schedule', this actually turned out to be a leisurely meal with time to do more than just wolf things down and run back to the bus. We finally got a chance to enjoy a couple of beers and even blow off some steam with the guy on the tour who was most obviously the Worker's Party hack. Easily identified by his Kim Jong-il style bouffant hairdo and habit of wearing one-piece jumpsuits. The guy even had the same ample paunch and capped teeth!

Anyway, he'd taken a liking to a couple of us and after dinner proceeded to regale our group of Korean speakers with a flurry of off-color jokes and comments. It was hard to believe but the staid Party guy was actually pretty damn funny. We traded back his jokes with a few we'd learned in the South, which got him laughing pretty hard too - once he figured out what the hell we were saying through our thick accents. He seemed especially fascinated by the fact that several of us taught at Korea's most famous women's school. Something he'd obviously been curious about the whole time and finally got around to asking and joking about.

Naeng-myon Close-up
Photo courtesy Dan Harmon

An interesting side benefit of this conversation turned out to be the reaction of the other guides. They had always given this guy plenty of deference and this time was no different. Laughing and talking with him eliminated any possibility of being rushed along on our last night. I only regretted it had taken us this long to figure that out.

Eventually though the schedule and bored stares of the non-Korean speakers prevailed and it was time to board the bus for one last trip back to the hotel. Night had fallen and it was time to head home and get packed for tomorrow's departure.

 9. Myohyang Mountain
11. Departure  
Copyright 2006-2007 Scott Fisher and All Rights Reserved.