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…..

Monday, 9 September 2013

Pyongyang (2), A Day for Waving: Part 5 of Beijing, North Korea and Shanxi

Dawn broke on the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Democratic Republic of North Korea with a blanket of mist hanging over Pyongyang. Our guides had apparently been unsure how the day would be celebrated, but from our hotel room we could see hundreds of army trucks parked along the riverside. Apparently there was to be a military parade – well, who would have guessed it?

Army trucks beside the Taedong River, Pyongyang

After an adequate if unexciting breakfast we set off for the birthplace of Kim Il Sung - Eternal President of the DPRK - at Mangyongdae, a village just outside the city. The mist burned off during our short bus ride; the day, like every day we spent in Korea, would be warm and intermittently sunny.

Near Mangyongdae we passed a series of stadiums built, I thought we were told, for the Asian games, though they have never been held in North Korea; indeed I can find no record of any major international multi-sport event in Pyongyang. The North Koreans are good at building large ugly concrete structures, though not always so successful at finding something to do with them. These were being refurbished for a forthcoming event, though I am unsure what.

The Kim family home, Mangyongdae

The birthplace of Kim Il Sung is set in green parkland amid wooded hills. This was always a favoured spot and Kim’s father moved here to tend the graves of the rich, who liked to be buried in pleasant surroundings. Kim Il Sung said that his family was not poor, but poverty was always only a step away and the modest house reflects that claim. Now standing alone and surrounded by mown lawns and clipped hedges, it has been so cleaned and polished into unreality that Mr Disney would deem it suitable accommodation for a precocious young lady and seven older, shorter men. There are a few photographs of the family and some artefacts and tools they may have used.

The Kim family kitchen, Mangyongdae

Kim Il Sung was born on the 15th of April 1912, the day the Titanic finally slipped below the icy waters of the Atlantic. Much of his youth is shrouded in mystery, but his official biography - more hagiography than factual record - says he left Mangyongdae in 1926 to fight the Japanese occupiers and returned in triumph to announce the founding of the DPRK in 1948. His departure is depicted near the exit to the park.

A young Kim Il Sung leaves home to begin his heroic struggle against the Japanese

We drove back into town, fighting our way through the tumultuous traffic. The 2008 census claims the city has over 3 million inhabitants. Where were they all?

The tumultuous traffic of Pyongyang

They were not, as you might think, attending the military parade. We had asked if we could see it and received the sort of ‘no’ normally reserved for those requesting a ride in the presidential limousine. We had not realised how few people get to see the action. There is a saluting platform for the uber-elite, while spectator accommodation consists of grandstands even a Stafford Rangers supporter would consider modest. 

Korean Workers' Party Monument, Pyongyang

Venturing south of the river for the first time we stopped at the monument to the Korean Workers' Party, another of Pyongyang’s huge selection of monumental monstrosities. In addition to the usual hammer and sickle, the Koreans have a writing brush to indicate the solidarity of the intellectuals, and they have built them all 50m high.

If I had a hammer....
Korean Workers' Party Monument, Pyongyang

Inside the monument is a frieze of students, workers and military types attempt to outstare the future….

Nobly attempting to outstare the future
Korean Worker's Party Monument, Pyongyang

…while outside an empty park stretches down to the river. On the far side is Mansudae Hill where yesterday we bowed to the giant statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Click on this picture to enlarge it and you can just make out the two of them in front of the white building in the far distance.

Empty park by the Korean Workers' Party Monument, Pyongyang

We were led into a set of official looking buildings behind the monument – though the lack of signs means most buildings in Pyongyang look like municipal offices. In a hall on the first floor there was a television and some chairs. We could not see the parade which was happening hardly a mile away, but we could watch it on TV, and later, if we behaved ourselves, we could watch the secondary parade (i.e. the soldiers going home afterwards).

Goose-stepping across city squares to celebrate national days has gone out of fashion in Europe (I wonder why?), but remains big in the DPRK. Perfectly drilled soldiers marched past Kim Jong Un (known as The Marshall) and sometimes he saluted, sometimes waved and sometimes referred to the general behind to find out which to do.

Giant effigies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il mounted on floats
DPRK 65th anniversary celebrations, Pyongyang
Korean newsreader Ri Chun Hee achieved some notoriety after her sobbing announcement of the death of Kim Jong Il (see it on YouTube here) and her gleeful revelation of North Korea’s nuclear test. She retired in January 2012, promising to pass on her skills to the next generation. She has been remarkably successful; the rich throb of a semi-hysterical contralto accompanied every movement as the soldiers marched and countermarched while floats bearing giant effigies of Kim Jung Un’s dad and granddad moved, as if by magic, among them.

The Marshall, Kim Jong Un waves to his adoring people
DPRK 65th anniversary celebrations, Pyongyang
There is, no doubt, a homoerotic component to military displays, and watching massed ranks of women soldiers in knee length khaki skirts goose-stepping in unison will have its devotees, but I am not one of them. I disliked the whole thing; I hate seeing human beings reduced to the status of cogs in a machine.
The marching cogs make pictures with cards
DPRK 65th anniversary celebrations, Pyongyang
By 11.30 the parade was beginning to wind down and it was deemed an appropriate time for lunch.

We ate at a hotpot restaurant. Korean hotpot differs from the Chinese version - for photos see Shanghai or Chengdu - in that each diner has an individual pot (of water rather than stock) and a spirit stove. When the water boils you tip in your pork then, after an appropriate pause, some noodles, cabbage, potatoes, chilli and tofu. Finally, a beaten egg binds everything into a tasty mass. Salt, pepper, MSG and chilli powder are available on the table. It was very enjoyable, though next (?!) time I would salt the water at the start.
Boiling up a hotpot
We had time for a brief shopping stop before the parade. The small shop sold cigarettes, sake, ginseng products, and luridly coloured crafts. We bought some pottery (compulsory for citizens of North Staffordshire), and L acquired her usual fridge magnet (because we really need another one). A bar downstairs attracted the less dedicated shoppers who suggested popping down for a beer. This was a scary moment for the guides. ‘No,’ was the immediate answer followed, after a moment’s thought, by ‘It’s too crowded,’ and ‘We haven’t got time.’  Cynics suggested the real reason was that we could not possibly be allowed to mingle unsupervised with unvetted locals (and anyway the bar would only accepted Korean Won – which, as foreigners, we did not have). Could our guides have been economical with the truth? There were two views, which North Koreans find unsettling - they are used to being told the correct view in all situations - but not being North Koreans, we happily weighed up both sides and reached our own conclusions.

A short bus ride - made longer by the large number of closed roads - brought us to a convenient point to see the parade. The roadside was lined with people as far as the eye could see, but only one or two deep so we had no difficulty finding a vantage point.

The crowd begins to gather
DPRK 65th anniversary celebrations, Pyongyang
We did not have to wait long before the arrival of a couple of stretch limos. One had a North Korean flag on top, the other a portrait of Kim Jong Un. Was The Marshall really inside? Probably not, but the tinted windows kept us guessing.

Kim Il Sung on top of this one, somebody important inside (presumably)
DPRK 65th anniversary celebrations, Pyongyang
A loud speaker van passed next. The booming, heartfelt commentary could have been Ri Chun Hee herself. We peered through the windows to see if we could recognise the woman inside

Commentator's minibus
DPRK 65th anniversary celebrations, Pyongyang
Then came the soldiers, truckloads of them. The people waved their flowers and the soldiers waved back. There were special waves for us, some of the soldiers shouting ‘Hello’, ‘Welcome to Korea’ or ‘Spasibo’, as though we were a friendly delegation from the Soviet Union. We smiled and waved vigorously.

Bandsmen wave their instruments
DPRK 65th anniversary celebrations, Pyongyang
The bandsmen carried their instruments, percussionists often standing and banging cymbals. Faces were cheerful and smiles were broad, except for one of the tuba players – and if I had been lumbered with that outsized brass chamber pot, I would look miserable, too. There were more commentators mixed in with the soldiery - North Koreans never have to survive long without being told what to think.

L rests from her waving
DPRK 65th anniversary celebrations, Pyongyang
Other soldiers sat with fixed bayonets – there would have been carnage had the driver braked sharply - or with rocket-propelled grenades on the ends of their rifles. Despite the fearsome armaments the atmosphere was non-threatening, the smiles and waves warm and genuine. It was like something from an old newsreel – and, as L observed, good practice if we are ever invaded.

Fixed bayonets and cheery smiles
 DPRK 65th anniversary celebrations, Pyongyang
40 minutes after the stretch limos had appeared, the last truck passed and the crowd began to disperse.

The crowd begins to disperse
DPRK 65th anniversary celebrations, Pyongyang

We moved on to Moranbong Park (not to be confused with the Moranbong Music Band) to ‘mingle’ with the picnicking crowd.

Moranbong Park, Pyongyang

The park occupies a wooded hill between the Taedong River and Triumphant Return Square and a concrete path threads its way up through the trees. Family picnics had been laid out to right and left and everybody was enjoying the holiday.

Picnic in the park
Moranbong Park, Pyongyang

Near the top of the hill there was music and people dancing on the path. The guides encouraged us to join in, though some needed no encouragement. There was indeed much happy mingling and goodwill shown on both sides, though smiling was the only communication that was possible. Our most extrovert personality soon found the rest of the crowd had stopped dancing and gathering round to watch him. Eventually we moved on with much waving and cheery ‘goodbyes’.

Dancing in the park
Moranbong Park, Pyongyang

Descending the other side of the hill we saw smaller groups of dancers each with their own music. Many of the women wore national costume but everybody, regardless of how they dressed, sported a pin with either a national flag or the faces of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il.

National costume in Moranbong Park

Undoubtedly, everybody was genuinely enjoying the simple pleasures of a picnic in the park, in a relaxed and cheerful holiday atmosphere. What we could not know was who these people were. They were not, I am sure, members of the elite, but were they ordinary workers, or a favoured selection of the middle classes or the party faithful? We may never know.

Picnic in the Park, Moranbong Park

We left the park beside Kim Il Sung stadium where soldiers were gathering to watch an exhibition football match. At the front of the stadium is Triumphant Return Square with the Arch of Triumph in its centre.

Arriving in Triumphant Return Square, Pyongyang
The square is named for the Triumphant Return of Kim Il Sung after almost single-handedly driving the Japanese from North Korea. Japan had been the colonial power since 1800 and their absence post 1945 was much appreciated, but DPRK history avoids mentioning the global conflict and ignores contribution made by other combatants, including the Chinese, British and even the hated Americans (now hated slightly more than even the Japanese).

'Walk around and take photos,’ we were told as we reached the square. We had not gone far before an angry looking man strode towards us, shouting and waving his arms. We must not stroll idly around, we must go immediately to the local guide. I am a pacifist, but I could happily have given him a broken nose.

Through the Arch of Triumph, Pyongyang
The local guide was, of course, dressed in traditional costume. She told us that although the arch is (very obviously) based on the French original, it is 10m higher. Now why did that not surprise us? It was erected to commemorate the 70th birthday of Kim Il-Sung in 1982 and consists of just over 25500 blocks of dressed sandstone – one for each day of his 70 years. Koreans love this sort of numerical symbolism.

Information received (though not all necessarily retained), we were allowed to wander. I walked down the middle of the road to get some distance for this photograph; safe enough in Pyongyang, but not recommended in the Champs-Elysées.  

Arch of Triumph, Pyongyang
Back at the hotel we turned on the television to watch the news scroll across the BBC World Service. Seeing the face of Kim Jung Un we turned up the blurry sound and managed to decipher the words. Dennis Rodman – a retired American basketball player of some repute on court and some notoriety off it – had paid a return visit to The Marshall after striking up a rapport during an earlier stay. The Marshall was, he reported, a ‘regular guy’ and said that he had played with his baby daughter. There had been rumours last year that Mrs Kim had been pregnant, and this was the first confirmation. We now knew something the North Koreans did not.

The group dined in the revolving restaurant atop the Yanggakdo Hotel. The view was good, there was much discussion of our direction of revolution (with a counter-intuitive answer) but the food was best forgotten. We talked of the Dennis Rodman story and deciding on balance to say nothing to the guides. We later heard that one group had told a guide. The result was not surprise or excitement, just a cool ‘They will tell us when the time is right.’ Exactly like the birth of young George Windsor, then. Not.

Outside the Rungnado May Day Stadium, Pyongyang

In the evening we made our way to the Rungnado May Day Stadium. The Arirang Mass Games are not ‘games’ in any sense I understand the word. The show takes place in an indoor stadium seating 60 thousand. 20 thousand middle school children occupied one side with coloured cards which they use to produce a huge variety of shapes and pictures. The two ends of the stadium were empty and ‘our’ side was half full so with several thousand performers on the field the participants easily outnumbered the spectators. The kids with the cards were faultless throughout. They train half days for three months, then full time for another three months. Might they, I wondered, be better off at school?
The kids with the cards deliver a message
Arirang Mass Games, Pyongyang
The music, martial in tone and always fortissimo, seemed, like much North Korean music, to be a pastiche of its western counterpart. Often it drifted towards well known tunes, The Carnival is Over, Calon Lan, Make me a Channel of your Peace, but never quite made it.
The theme was the usual bombastic retelling of the defeat of the Japanese, the glory of Kim Il-Sung, the defeat of the Americans, sorrow at the death of Kim Il Sung - or was that Kim Jong Il? - as always with dance, narrative came a distant second to dancing. The section where happy boys and girls skipped about joyfully while film of the North Korean nuclear test was projected onto white cards was, I thought, sick.

The sun - and yellow generally - is always symbolic of Kim Il Sung
Arirang Mass games, Pyongyang
The costumes, the huge numbers involved and the intricate patterns they made entertained many people, but with me they hit something of a blind spot. I disliked the music and have no interest in dancing so I found it a long sit. There was an acrobatics interlude with people blown out of cannons and trapeze artists swinging on wires – all very clever, but to what point? From 20 minutes in I was looking at my watch wondering when it would end. And when the end came it left the same nasty taste as the morning’s military parade. Lynne enjoyed it, though, and other members of our group came out saying it was the best 100 Euros they had ever spent so perhaps I am out of step; in L’s words, I am ‘a grumpy git’. Sorry.

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