axisofevil North Korea Story pg. 3; Pyongyang, The Monuments of Kimland - Axis of Evil World Tour
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Pyongyang - The Monuments of Kimland

What is it with dictatorships and their odd obsession to have everything be the biggest, tallest, widest and longest? Does North Korea really need the world's biggest stadium? Or a 'victory arch' larger than the one in Paris? Or, and by far the most ridiculous, the world's largest and tallest hotel?

My favorite though had to be the Tower of the Juche Idea. 'Juche' is the Kim clan ideology that stresses national self-reliance and independence above all else. Rather than proving their independence by feeding their own people, they spend millions of dollars on an elaborate tower extolling the virtues of a bankrupt ideology. One guesses the irony is not lost on the international aid workers brought in to feed the starving masses of 'the nation of self-reliance'.

The first stop on any tour is designed to smack you on the head with the reality of life in Kimland. That morning, at the airport in Beijing, our group had been given a bouquet of flowers to present at the monument to North Korea's founder, the Great Leader, the Lodestar of the Revolution, the Supreme Comrade, the Glorious General and Vanquisher of the Japanese, the Founder of Juche . . . Kim Il-sung. This wasn't an option. A member of our group was expected to solemnly present the flowers while the rest of us silently bowed our heads in respect and admiration. Failure to do so, all of the guides and guidebooks said, would cause "trouble."

On the bus to the monument, again leading in with the 'when in Rome' speech, Mr. Baek explained what a special occasion this was for us. How Pyongyang newlyweds and others embarking on a new and important step in their lives would come to the statue to pay their respects. How people in the countryside would come from far and wide for a glimpse.

Kim Il-sung
Kim Il-sung, Mansu Hill
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

As we approached the monument the Americans in our group passed around the bouquet like it was poison. No one wanted to be the one stuck with sucking up to the Kims. Fortunately the problem was solved, in an interesting bit of geopolitics meeting reality, when one of the Chinese members of the group volunteered to present the flowers. Now what to do about the bowing . . .

The first thing you notice as you approach the monument is simply its sheer size. Located on the top of a hill, the giant bronze statue of Kim looms powerfully over the citizens of Pyongyang living below. In this statue Kim appears with his right arm outstretched, as if exhorting his people on to some great victory. It's hard for pictures to do justice to the sheer size and weightiness of the actual figure. When you approach, even the tallest person barely comes to the bottom of Kim's feet.

Once off the bus, as we did finally approach, the guides held us back a few meters so the designated flower girl could walk up and solemnly present our gift to the statue. With that we were expected to bow our heads and observe a small moment of silence. Fortunately the guides were too busy with their own bowing to pay us much attention.

Pyongyang Skyline
Looking Down on Pyongyang from the Kim Statue
Photo courtesy Dan Harmon

Once the moment of silence was over we were free to wander the monument for a few minutes, with the understanding we would be respectful and refrain from approaching too closely to the actual statue. Everyone's cameras burst forth at our first approved opportunity to take pictures in the DPRK.

We could tell by the wreaths next to our flowers that others had come and gone earlier that day, but for now the place was mostly ours. The massive square empty except for the 25 or so people in our group. This much open space in Seoul, especially on such a beautiful day, would have been jammed with picnickers, couples, vendors, kiosks and a decent bit of pandemonium. Here though all was quiet, peaceful and empty.

Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

Kim's statue was flanked on either side by these red banners and images of the newly freed proletariat. The carving on the images is highly detailed and meant to be evocative of the victories of Kim Il-sung and North Korean socialism.


Proletariat Internationalism
Photo courtesy Dan Harmon

"Long Live the Banner of Marxist-Leninist-Style Proletariat Internationalism" A somewhat less than catchy expression of international solidarity among the socialist and worker's parties of the world.

Hammer - Sickle - Brush
Statue at Juche Tower
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

The North Koreans are somewhat atypical in that they add the writing brush of the intellectual to the hammer and sickle of the worker and peasant. The hammer-sickle-brush emblem is quite common and can be seen on everything from statues, to pins, buildings, etc. In the center of Pyongyang (barely visible in the middle of the cityscape photo above) is a large park with giant versions of the same hammer, sickle and brush.


Long Live Kim Il-sung
Photo courtesy Dan Harmon

"Long Live General Kim Il-sung!" Also notice the person on the left who has broken his shackles.


After 5-10 minutes of looking at the statues the guides were pushing and prodding us to hurry and get back on the bus. We were urged to, "hurry, hurry, hurry" in a way that would be instantly familiar to anyone who's ever boarded a bus, subway or elevator in South Korea. The first bit of rushing at the airport had been cool - we'd all been ready to get the tour started. It was at this point, barely an hour in the country, that people first started to get irritated by the relentless pressure to move on to the next place.

The next place was supposed to be a good one though, North Korea's version of the Arch of Triumph in Paris. Of course, as it was to be endlessly pointed out, theirs is taller than the one in France. The triumph in question was North Korea's defeat of the Japanese in 1945. Thus kicking them off the Korean peninsula and, as a side benefit, ending World War II. When asked about the US role in the war the guides mostly demurred. Preferring instead to discuss the awe inspiring military exploits of General Kim.


Pyongyang Arch of Triumph
Arch of Triumph
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

Pyongyang Arch of Triumph Close-up
Close-up, Arch of Triumph
Photo courtesy Dan Harmon

The giant arch was easily visible as we made our way further into the uncrowded city. The barren streets, nearly devoid of both people and cars, are a stark contrast to the teeming masses that jam Asia's other large cities. As we got out of the bus, warned to hurry up so we didn't fall behind schedule, we were again granted the privilege of taking pictures. This time to line up the photos we had to walk out into the middle of what seemed to be a major street - though there was hardly a car in sight. Seoul has more traffic at 3am in a freezing blizzard than this street did in the middle of a Saturday afternoon.

We got our pictures and then hurriedly went back to board the bus. Before we got back though we came upon a little bonus sitting at the foot of the arch - a small souvenir stand. A chance to see what the North had to offer, plus an opportunity to talk to someone other than our guides.


The stand was nothing like those in the South, where they are jammed with everything from food and drink to towels, wood carvings, dolls, and ceramics. All we had here were a few drinks and some pins. North Koreans are really big on pins - every adult in the country wears a pin of one of the Kims over their heart, everyday, everywhere they go. These aren't for sale. Instead they have to be earned (or bought from refugees along the North Korean-Chinese border) and are taken very seriously. We asked the young guide, Mr. Huk, about this. What would happen if you forgot to put your Kim pin on one morning? He was incredulous, "How could one forget their head, or their heart, when they left in the morning!?!" The idea of forgetting to wear one's pin was apparently quite preposterous.

Still, the ones they had on sale at the Arch were interesting. A few commemorated the Arirang Festival, plus one or two sported the North Korean flag. Wearing either pin could probably get us jail time, or at the very least deported, in the South. Still though, most of us went ahead and got a few. Naturally, since all together we were buying at least 20 pins, we asked for a discount. Pretty much standard practice when buying a lot of anything in the South, or for that matter, anywhere else in Asia. Here it just got us a weird look and a refusal. The price was set by the government per pin or per drink, so how could it change? We all paid list price.


Juche Tower
Tower of the Juche Idea
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

Once business was attended to curiosity got the better of the ladies and they started asking us where we were from, where we had learned our Korean, etc. Before I could think, I said I'd learned it in South Korea, again like on the plane, using the South Korean term. The same sour expression at what must be a very non-PC term twisted the woman's face. Before we could get much further though the guides came and hustled us off. No more holding up the rest of the group while we selfishly talked to people.

We had to hurry so we could go see one of the true treasures of the world - the Tower of the Juche Idea. A tower honoring Kim Il-sung and his philosophy, and of course the tallest or roundest or most whateverest in the world. It just couldn't be missed!

The Tower of the Juche Idea, with its flaming top, stands like a beacon along the eastern shore of the Taedong River in central Pyongyang. The tower serves as a chance for the North to begin educating visitors not just on the greatness of Kim Il-sung, but also on Kim Il-sungism, as Juche is sometimes called.

This "leading light of world philosophy" extolls the virtues of the independent North Korean way of socialism. By stressing strength through independence and self-reliance it's thought the people of the North can be inoculated against the evil material temptations of the outside world. "We may be poor but at least we have our dignity. Unlike those money grubbing sellouts in the South." That kinda thing. [For a similar take, please see The Economist's book review of B.R. Meyers' The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves - And Why It Matters]

The tower itself offers great views of the city and surrounding area. The sky was crystal clear the day we went and you could see forever. That is, once we paid the extra $10 to go to the top.

What I'll always remember from my visit to the tower though is not the view but rather my first chance to 'ditch' the guides and rest of the tour. When the bus pulled up to the base of the tower we were once again broken into our language groups, then this time we were paired with a new guide from among the staff at the tower.

Juche Tower - closeup
Juche Tower - riverside view
Photo courtesy Dan Harmon

Juche Tower - view south
View south from Juche Tower
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

The Yanggakdo International Hotel is the tall building in the foreground. It was to become our 'home' for the next few days.

Juche Tower - view east
View east from Juche Tower
Photo courtesy Dan Harmon



In what was to become a pattern over the next few days at all the larger monuments, a 'specialist guide' for that place would come out and give the tour while one of our normal guides provided the translation. They would also answer any of our questions through the guide or, once they got over the shock of foreigners speaking Korean, directly from us.

It was at the Juche Tower that I first began to realize being able to speak Korean was going to add an interesting dimension to the trip (and as an added bonus prove somewhat unsettling to Mr. Huk, our rookie guide).

The tower guide started with a walk around the base of the tower, extolling both its virtues as well as those of Juche's founder. We learned how the different levels and various designs that make up the tower all correspond to some aspect of Kim Il-sung's life.



Juche Tower - view west, Ryugyong Hotel
View west from Juche Tower
Photo courtesy Dan Harmon

The hulking, unfinished frame of the 100-story, 3000 room Ryugyong Hotel dominates the skyline in this direction. Originally designed to be the world's largest hotel (!?!) construction was halted in the early 90s when the government either ran out of money or finally realized this was a pretty dumbass idea. The empty shell has been sitting for years with no sign of change.

It was kind of interesting but the beautiful location of the tower, right along the river, ended up stealing the show. As the guide wound up her presentation someone asked if we could go down and get some pictures from along the river. This request was granted and everyone, including our normal guides, headed down to the riverbank.

Except me. I hung back and tried to strike up a conversation with the tower guide. At first she was reluctant, saying her English wasn't very good. I persisted and she finally relented, once the idea of a white person speaking Korean worked its way past her preconceptions.

We started by talking about her job and whether a lot of people were coming for the Arirang Festival. As we talked she was walking me around the corner of the building, out of earshot of the others.


Once we were away from the others the questions came pouring out. "What's life like in the South? Why do you live there? What's it like living there? What about your students (I'd told her I teach at a university) - what are they like? What do people in the South say about the North?" The woman was full of curiosity about life across the border, barely two hours south of where we were standing.

I tried my best to answer as we both kept looking over our shoulders to see if the others were coming. I felt really sorry for this lady. All she was doing was asking some basic questions about life in another country but she was worried about getting into trouble. I'm going to wonder for a long time if I should even be writing about her . . .

Our conversation lasted about 10 minutes. Mostly with her asking questions about the outside world, especially the South. I found it odd that she was asking an American so many questions about South Korea but she just seemed curious about what life was 'really' like on the other half of the Korean peninsula. As a guide she'd had much more interaction with outsiders than the average DPRK citizen. I guess this inkling of forbidden knowledge is what drove her to take a chance and try to find out a bit more about the outside world.(1)

Later, as I met and tried to talk with other people in a similar way, I realized how unique this woman was. First, she allowed herself to wander away from the group with me, knowing full well others would see, if not hear. Second, she was brimming with questions and curiosity. Something I never got from anyone else the whole trip. Finally, once we were out of earshot, she totally dropped the endless Kim is great droning in favor of just having a 'normal' conversation. Every other time I was able to pull someone aside it just ended up in a fit of ideological proselytizing. Perhaps the independence of the Juche Tower had worn off on her . . .

Juche Tower - view from river
View from river side - Juche Tower
Photo courtesy Dan Harmon

When we saw the others coming back she returned to telling me how great Kim was, but still got a weird look from Mr. Huk, our young guide, for standing and talking to me alone for so long.

Once everyone got back we paid our $10 and headed to the top of the tower. A couple of ear pops in the elevator later and we were at the top. The view was fantastic, as you can (hopefully) see from some of the pictures above. While looking over the city Mr. Baek and Mr. Huk pointed out our next stop - the Yanggakdo International Hotel.

As for my former conversation partner, I think she felt nervous about what she had just done. She kept telling our guides how nice it had been to be able to talk to a foreigner in Korean and enlighten him directly on the virtues of the Great Leader. I played along, thanking her profusely for all her information and tried to throw out a couple of positive comments on Kim and Juche to make her look good. After a while it seemed like Mr. Baek and Mr. Huk bought the cover story and were satisfied nothing untoward had happened.

I'm going to wonder about that lady for a long time . . .

 2. Arrival in Pyongyang

1. North Korea has one of the most tightly controlled medias in the world. Unlike most other countries, in North Korea radios and TVs don't have tuners - they only have switches. You can choose one state-run channel, or the other state-run channel. No 'tuning in' to outside broadcasts. Of course no Internet either. On page one I showed you the kind of 'news' found in the newspaper.

A defector once told me of a visit to the hospital he had made while growing up in the North. Alone in his hospital room he was looking at the radio and noticed that a previous patient had somehow broken it open and rigged up a crude tuner. Risking imprisonment he searched for and found a South Korean station and got his first taste of the outside world. Nearly 25 years later he could still recall that first broadcast and what he had heard - a news story that, to his amazement, contained an interview with the South Korean president. An interview with a president?!?! How could such a thing happen?!?

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