There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Pyongyang (1), A Day for Bowing: Part 4 of Beijing, North Korea and Shanxi

After investigating the Yanggakdo’s attempt at ‘international hotel buffet breakfast’ - adequate, if hardly exciting - we were ready to leave by 8.30.

Sunday is Korean's day of rest, but there were more people about this morning, walking or cycling over the bridge from our island…
Morning Rush Hour, Pyongyang

…or gathering by the trolley-bus stops outside the railway station.

Pyongyang Railway Station

We were on our way to see Kim Il Sung (deceased) and Kim Jong Il (equally deceased) and everybody had dressed up for the occasion. This was the second time I had worn a tie (except a black tie at funerals) since retiring five years ago. The Kims, I thought, should be flattered by my rating this visit alongside my grandson’s christening.

That, of course, was not the North Korean view; they take their leaders, dead or alive, very seriously. When photographing a statue, we had been told the previous evening, it is disrespectful not to photograph the whole statue. Nor should we ever fold or carelessly discard a newspaper (an English-language paper was available in the hotel) as they may (may??) contain a picture of a Kim, and their images should never be creased or crumpled.

I come from a society where many citizens, myself included, frequently sit on the face of our monarch (her image adorns the banknotes in my wallet, and I keep that in my back pocket). I have done the same to Chairman Mao in China and no one seemed to mind. I have no idea who or what appears on North Korean banknotes as I never saw any. Foreigners are not permitted to hold North Korean Won, they must use hard currency which is accepted only at the few places foreigners are permitted to shop. The Euro is the currency of choice (they even accept coins*) but change sometimes comes in Chinese Yuan.

A huge crowd, foreigners and locals, was milling around the bus park at Kumsusan Palace. The palace was built in 1976 as the official residence of Kim Il Sung. After his death in 1994 it became his mausoleum and, since 2012, that of his son Kim Jong Il as well. After a wait we lined up in fours in a covered walkway until it was our turn to move forward into the cloakroom where we handed over cameras, handbags and other objects likely to upset metal detectors.
Kumsusan Palace, Pyongyang

A short escalator took us to security screening. Once scanned and patted down, an immensely long travelator conveyed us down a wide corridor, the walls hung with over 200 pictures of Kim Il Sung. There was Kim in the snow, Kim in the spring, Kim with children, Kim in fields of corn, Kim with his wife, Kim with generals, Kim with his son, Kim on his train, Kim on a bike (and more and more and….). Those who had completed their visit were being carried back down the far side of the corridor. They were all Koreans; some women in national costume, some men in suits but most in army uniform. Apparently all Korean soldiers below the rank of colonel must wear a uniform two sizes too big for them. They gave us a good hard stare as they rolled towards us, and we stared back.

Korean women in national dress
outside the Kumsusan Palace, Pyongyang

At the end we walked through a sort of airlock. Rollers in the floor cleaned our shoes and blasts of air blew away any extraneous dust and capitalist ideas while also controlling the temperature and humidity of the room beyond.

Kim Il Sung lies in the centre of a large rectangular room, the sombre lighting focussed entirely on him.

As previously instructed we formed into lines of 4 (a neat trick for 15 people). The first quartet advanced to the foot of the catafalque, paused, bowed, paused again and then filed round to Kim’s right to repeat the process as the next four advanced, then round to the head where, for some unexplained reason, bowing is considered inappropriate, then to the left for another bow and then out. I thought he was looking well, as corpses go.

In the next room glass cases held the huge array of medals and awards heaped on Kim Il Sung from all over the world. Koreans walked round in wonder and amazement, while we gazed quizzically at gaudy golden stars presented by obscure Peruvian municipalities. Naturally we searched for any British contribution to the glittering array. Eventually we found a plain gold (maybe) disc inscribed ‘The Medallion of the County of Derbyshire.’ [I googled it later. Finding no information about who awarded it, who else has been a recipient or indeed any evidence of its existence beyond this one example I contacted Derbyshire County Council with a 'Freedom of Information' request. They found no information, though they invited me to look through several decades of council minutes in case they had missed it. I could not be arsed.]

Me wearing a tie outside the Kumsusan Palace

More marble halls with more photographs took us to rooms containing Kim Il Sung’s car, a black Mercedes, and his private train. The walls were covered with maps, one showing all his train journeys and another with lights showing the destination of every foreign visit he made (he covered much of Asia and Eastern Europe but never made it west of Prague).

More corridors took us to the huge carpeted room where Kim Il Sung and later his son Kim Jong Il had lain in state, the walls covered with reliefs depicting the  Korean people, weeping and distraught at the loss of their leaders. Like every other room in the palace no expense had been spared on the quality of the materials, and the care lavished on maintenance and cleaning has been unstinted.

I was not allowed to take my camera in, so I have borrowed this picture
of the inside of Kumsusan Palace from PressTV
The chandelier reflected in the wooden surround gives an idea of how everything is polished to within an inch of its life
Kim Il Sung (left) and Kim Jong Il
Passing through another airlock allowed us to repeat the whole process with Kim Jong Il. Bowing at the body, viewing the medals (no British contributions here) and finally seeing his car, his train, the golf buggy he used on factory visits and finally his private launch. Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack on his train and his desk is left much as it was when he collapsed over it, worn out by his unceasing toil at the service of the Korean people. His death came as a shock to Koreans, though his ill health had been reported in the west for months.

Local guides are good at giving the approved information, but less good at answering questions. We did, however, get an answer to ‘how did they get this stuff in here?’ The trains and boats, we were told, are in rooms with external walls. They were installed and the wall built around them.

We rode back down the long travelator mulling over our surreal experience. We have seen embalmed leaders before, but the mausoleums of Lenin, Mao and Ho Chi Minh are modest by comparison. No society can have bestowed so much care and attention (and money) on their dead leaders since the days of Rameses II.

We spent some time wandering round the outside and taking the photographs above.

Back on the bus we made the short journey to Mansudae Hill, pausing only at a flower stall.
Flower Seller, Mansudae Hill, Pyongyang

‘The square will be very crowded’, we were told before turning the corner to find it almost empty.
Kim Il Sing (left) & Kim Jong Il
Mansudae Hill, Pyongyang
Huge statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il look out over southern Pyongyang. We lined up before them and bowed reverently (well, perhaps not very reverently) and those who had bought flowers walked forward to add them to the pile.
Two members of our party place floral tributes at the feet of Kim Jong Il
Did they do it out of respect and affection for him?
Did they do it out of politeness to our hosts?
Did they do it to fully immerse themselves in the DPRK experience?

Reliefs standing either side of the statues go under the snappy title ‘Statues of the Newly Freed Proletariat due to Kim Il Sung.’ They represent, we were told ‘the military and civilians of North Korea striving together to overcome their enemies to create a perfect state.’
Statue of the Newly Freed Proletariat Thanks to Kim Il Sung

As we admired the reliefs a large group of locals turned up to bow and make their presentations. Most had flowers, many had bought a sort of ‘floral FA Cup’ which seemed popular wherever we went.
The locals arrive to pay their respects, Mansudae Hill, Pyongyang

After this, lunch brought an air of normality. We had the restaurant to ourselves and ate chips, gelatinous noodles, stuffed pasta, tofu, cucumber, beef stew, shredded potato and sausage. The dishes turned up at irregular intervals and in no particular order. Just when we thought we had finished rice and soup arrived.

The Fatherland Liberation War Museum has recently reopened after refurbishment. It was on our itinerary as an ‘optional extra if open’ at €20 a head. That seems expensive for a museum, and, when it came to it hardly ‘optional’ but it would take a strange person to come all this way and then opt out.
Fatherland Liberation War Museum, Pyongyang

The museum is another palace behind a huge statue-dotted courtyard. There was little similarity between the heroic figures and the soldiers we had seen this morning, proud but small men in badly cut and ill-fitting uniforms.

Heroic DPRK soldiers, Fatherland War Liberation Museum

To the right of the square was an extensive exhibition of captured American hardware, guns, tanks, downed aircraft and even a helicopter. We emerged from the end of this display at the riverside quay where the USS Pueblo is moored. 
Captured US tank
Fatherland Liberation War Museum, Pyongyang

In January 1968 the American spy ship Pueblo was apprehended in North Korean territorial waters (or outside them in the American version). Outnumbered and outgunned the American captain prevaricated while his crew shredded confidential documents. Eventually the North Koreans opened fire killing one crewman and surrender inevitably followed.
USS Pueblo
Fatherland Liberation War Museum, Pyongyang
After 11 months of negotiation the Americans signed a humiliating document admitting spying and undertaking not to do it again and the crew was released. The document is displayed on board. Our North Korean guide thoroughly enjoyed the word ‘spies’ loading it with us much contempt as a single syllable can bear, but she did not tell us that as soon as they had their sailors back the Americans had repudiated the document as being signed under duress. She also failed to mention that the section saying it had been signed ‘as a receipt for 81 servicemen and one dead body’ had been blanked out. That figure, which is not disputed, struck me as staggering. I have no idea how 82 people could fit onto a vessel which is more boat than ship.

On the USS Pueblo
Fatherland Liberation War Museum, Pyongyang

I thought I remembered these events well, but I was surprised to discover the Pueblo was captured the week before the Tet offensive in Vietnam (see this Hue post). Could these events really have been happening at the same time? Apparently, yes.
It really was a spy ship
USS Pueblo, Fatherland Liberation War Museum, Pyongyang

The main museum was as sumptuous as the Kumsusan Palace. We paused before the large statue of Kim Il Sung in the entrance hall and perhaps we were expected to bow, but the choreography broke down and it never happened.

The museum was beautifully laid out, but long on narrative and short on artefacts. In 1945 the Japanese had been kicked out of Korea and the peninsula was divided along the 38th parallel with the Americans occupying the south and the Soviet Union the north. In 1948 Kim Il Sung established the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in North Korea. This much is agreed, thereafter the narrative differs considerably from the story usually told in the west.

The North Korean version is in red and there is an alternative version in green, while my comments are in black. You may decide which to believe. I apologise for the inevitable simplifications.

In their quest for world domination, the Americans looked at the Korean peninsula and saw a knife they could thrust into the heart of Asia. America’s quest for world domination has now been sub-contracted to Macdonalds, Hollywood and Google. The more I look at a map of Asia, the less comprehensible the use of Korea as a ‘knife’ becomes.
Captured US guns
Fatherland Liberation War museum, Pyongyang

On the 25th of June 1950 the Americans launched a vicious and unprovoked attack across the 38th parallel. The division of Korea was a consequence of the 1945 Yalta agreement which stipulated that all foreign troops should be withdrawn by 1948. Both sides adhered to the agreement so there were no significant American force in Korea in 1950. It was North Korea that invaded the South. It was not entirely unprovoked and followed a series of skirmishes some of which were provoked by the south. It was a pre-emptive strike as the North half-expected to be invaded. The doctrine of the pre-emptive strike was adopted by the US in 2003 to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Although DPRK troops were only deployed for defence, they counter-attacked, liberated Seoul and continued their advance until by August they had liberated the whole peninsula, except for a small section in the south east. I am unsure how a force ‘deployed only for defence’ could have done this. Some units of the US 8th army were hastily redeployed from Japan and participated fully in this debacle.

The Americans called in their friends in the UN, including the British and the Turks. They landed on the west coast and reinforced their southern enclave. The Soviet Union was boycotting the Security Council so failed to veto resolutions calling for armed intervention. They did not make that mistake again. UN forces, having taken control of the south eastern enclave, broke out at the same time as the landing. 88% of the UN force was supplied by the US (330 000 men) and 4% (14 000) were British. 600 000 South Korean soldiers were also involved. The DPRK narrative did not mention them.
Captured US helicopter
Fatherland Liberation War museum, Pyongyang

The breakout and landing were successful and after a rapid advance most of North Korea was in UN hands by November. The Americans then invaded the north but after a struggle heroically led by Kim Il Sung, the Fatherland was liberated. At this point the Chinese became involved (The DPRK narrative fails to mention them, too) and by January 1951 the counter-invasion had been repulsed and the war became bogged down in trench warfare on and around the 38th parallel until the armistice in July 1953.

A crushing defeat was inflicted on the Americans. The DPRK was the first country ever to defeat the US in war. The war halted with a few minor gains and losses either side of the 38th parallel. To me that looks like a draw, albeit a draw which left half a million soldiers and 2.5 million civilians dead. And, of course, the war ‘halted’, it did not end. There was an armistice but, as yet, no peace treaty. In the North Korean mind, fighting ended last week and could resume any day.

Thoroughly informed of the North Korean narrative, no other voices are allowed to intrude, we escaped the museum and headed on to Kim Il Sung Square. The next day was the 65th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK on the 9th of September 1948 – also (and probably coincidently) the day my parents were married. There would be celebrations and they would doubtless be centred on the square but the guides were very cagy about what they would be. ‘Nobody knows until it happens,’ we were told.

This was unconvincing. We all knew there would be a military parade, because there always is. The square was marked out with blobs of paint. Two of our number goose-stepped across the square to check that the paint marks coincided with a reasonable stride length.
Kim Il Sung Square and some blobs of paint, Pyongyang

Across the river from the square is the Juche Tower, of which more later.

Juche Tower, Pyongyang
Our guides may have feigned ignorance about the next day, but they did know about an impromptu concert at the opera college. We arrived to find about 50 people, plus some rather bored schoolchildren, listening to singers on the college steps. We caught the last few songs, some by soloists, some ensemble. We could not, of course, understand the words, but like most Korean songs, they were hymns to Kims.
Welcoming mural, College of Opera, Pyongyang

Our next stop was a brewpub. After so much DPRK nationalism this was a blessed relief.

It is difficult to know the functions of the buildings lining Pyongyang’s streets. Many must be shops, but there are no window displays - indeed many windows are tinted - stalls never spill out into the street, there are no advertisements and no signs except a few words in Korean, which might be informative, but may equally well be political slogans.

Impromptu concert at the Opera College, Pyongyang
Some are more interested than others

Getting off the bus we could see through an open door into what appeared to be a bar, but we were led away from it to another building at the end of the block. We climbed some stairs to a private room where we all sat round a long table. There was certainly no intention of allowing unfettered access to unvetted local citizens over a glass of beer. Our guides took our orders and brought the beer on trays - we never even glimpsed the bar or a beer tap.

Four brews were on offer, differentiated not by variety of barley or hop but by adjunct. One was 100% barley, another 70% barley/30% rice and a third 100% rice. There was also a dark beer.

As 100% barley is the norm at home, we tried the 70% barley (rich and hoppy), the 100% rice (pale, fizzy and tasteless), and the dark beer (sweetish and reminiscent of Mackeson). As we had already found, North Korea has some serious brewers and they proved (yet again) that there is no substitute for malted barley.

Our itinerary had already deviated significantly from the published version and as we sat and supped we were presented with a revised edition. We were originally scheduled to leave Pyongyang next day but would now stay for the mysterious celebrations and in the evening we could (or was that ‘would’) attend the Arairang Mass Games. We had already paid extra for the museum and the games were another €100 each (slightly cheaper tickets were available). This is a lot of money and I had an uneasy feeling that the government, desperate for hard currency, was ripping us off. On the other hand as it was the only opportunity we would ever have to see such a thing we smiled and paid up.

Beer glasses drained, it was time to return to the hotel where we ate in the ‘Chinese Restaurant’. After a very moderate buffet the previous evening and a passable breakfast we sat down with some hope. It was, in fact, Chinese only in name. We ate a very ordinary salad with mayonnaise, glutinous noodles, a small, cold bony fish with a tough batter (which had turned up at both previous meals in the hotel), cold chips (another local favourite), and an under-seasoned stew of chewy beef. As at lunchtime, rice and soup arrived at the end. Rice seemed to be assigned the role once played by Yorkshire pudding, a filler so the shortage of the ‘good things’ goes unnoticed - except in our case there was no shortage of ‘good things’ and most of the rice went uneaten.
Night fall on Pyongyang, but the red 'flame' on the Juche Tower is always visible
All our meals were paid for in advance – we could only use approved (and otherwise empty) restaurants - and the whole group ate the same set menu. Generally, lunches out were good, the only problem being not knowing how many small courses were coming, making pacing difficult. Meals in hotels ranged from dull to dire, but at least a glass of the excellent local beer was included.

 * They accept all coins, however small. By contrast Monarch Airlines who fly into and out of the Eurozone many times daily accept only notes and €1 coins – and at a far inferior exchange rate.

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