Thursday, October 02, 2014

Exploring Pyongyang, North Korea

To those who are surprised that I got to visit North Korea, the DPRK is not as isolated as one may think. There are regular tours that leave from Beijing, China allowing you various options to get there. I took a 24-hour train ride (that was delayed for about two hours) from Beijing to Pyongyang. We arrived at the Pyongyang Train Station early in the evening and went straight to our hotel. So the real exploring started the next day.

After breakfast at the hotel, our first order of business was a visit to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where the embalmed remains of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il lie in state. There are six world leaders whose embalmed bodies are in perpetual display — Lenin in Moscow, Mao Zedong in Beijing, Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, Ferdinand Marcos in Ilocos Norte (Philippines), and the two Kims. The mausoleum accepts visitors only on Sundays and Thursdays.

Before we left for the DPRK tour, we had constantly been reminded to bring dress pants for the visit to Kumsusan. They are very strict with the dress code – no jeans, no shorts, shirts should have a collar, preferably button-down, dress shirts and ties recommended; for ladies, modest dress is expected.

All guests are subjected to tight security checks before entering the mausoleum. We were not allowed to bring anything, including pens or small items. Pockets literally had to be empty, only wallets. The group was told we could bring cameras down the bus to take photos in front of the palace after the visit. But these were to be left at deposit counters before we entered the palace itself.

We went through a machine that cleaned dirt from under our shoes, followed by a metal detector. Then they frisked us and checked again to make sure we had nothing with us. From there, a really long moving walkway that took us to the main building.

The group entered the first hall, which had two larger-than-life statues of the two leaders, which I believe was made of white marble. Every group is expected to bow in front of the statues to pay their respects to the great leaders. One of the things stressed to us before the tour was if we were not comfortable bowing, we had to stay at the hotel to avoid creating a scene. From there, we were ushered into large elevators which took us to the grand hall that housed the remains of Kim Il-sung. Before entering the hall, we had to go through large blowers that removed dust from our clothes.

The body of DPRK President Kim Il-sung at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang in a July 1994 photo (Korean Central News Agency)
The hall was grand. Lights were dimmed. And all focus was on the embalmed remains of President Kim under a glass sarcophagus. In groups of four, we made our way around the sarcophagus, bowing before his feet, then moving on the the left side and bowing again, then walking over to the right side and bowing again before finally exiting the hall. In the next room was a display of all the decorations, medals, citations and honorary degrees of Kim Il-sung from around the world.

The body of DPRK President Kim Jong-il lying in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang on December 20, 2011 (Korean Central News Agency)
We then walked down to the lower floor where the hall with the remains of Kim Jong-il was located. It was the same ritual bowing around the embalmed body before proceeding to the hallway with his own awards and decorations.

It was difficult to explain our thoughts when we entered the halls that followed. The vehicles of the two leaders were on display inside the palace as well. Cars were no surprise. We first saw the Mercedes Benz of Kim Il-sung. But in the next room was his train car, yes the actual train car he used to travel around DPRK, Asia and Europe! This was followed by a room with the vehicle of Kim Jong-il, and then his train car as well. I was floored when we entered the next room. Kim Jong-il's yacht was also on display inside the palace! We obviously didn't see that coming!

After the visit, we had our photos taken outside Kumsusan before boarding our bus.

Our next stop was the Revolutionary Martrys' Cemetery, which honors anti-Japanese revolutionary fighters of the DPRK. Near the entrance is a set of sculptural tableaus commemorating the anti-Japanese struggle. Like in Kumsusan, we also had to do our bows.

Each hero's grave features a bronze bust of the hero laid to rest within. One of those in the first row, we were told, is the younger brother of Kim Il-sung.

At the top of the cemetery is a large red marble flag where more prominent martyrs are honored. The central position is for Kim Jong-suk (1917-1949), guerrilla leader and first wife of Kim Il-sung, the mother of Kim Jong-il.

In between our visits to the monuments, we got to walk around with our guides, especially during the lunch and dinner stops. A typical sidewalk in Pyongyang is wide, tree-lined and extremely clean. While many citizens use a bike or simply walk around, Pyongyang has a public transportation system which includes two subway lines, trams, electric buses, and taxis!

We had a traditional shabu-shabu lunch before proceeding to Kim Il-Sung Square, the central square of Pyongyang.

Kim Il-sung Square is where the large parades and celebrations we see in the news happen. Walking through the vast square was surreal, the square having always been shrouded in mystery among us outsiders. If you look down, you will notice place markers that are used to create the large human formations during these celebrations.

Across the river was Juche Tower, completed in 1982 for the 70th birthday of Kim Il-Sung. Built to celebrate his Juche ideology, the tower is 170m high. That was our next stop.

The tower has an elevator that bring visitors up 150 meters to the base of the torch. We had to shell out an extra five euros for it. But is was worth it since we got to see Pyongyang's residential and institutional buildings from a different vantage point.

Another interesting view from the top was that of Kim Il-Sung Square and the Grand People's Study House, the central library of the DPRK.

In front of the tower are large statues of a worker, farmer and an intellectual, symbolizing the spirit of the Korean people.

To end our day, we went to the Monument to the Party Foundation, built in 1995 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Workers' Party of Korea. The large monument features the party's symbols – the Communist hammer and sickle, with a traditional Korean calligraphy brush to symbolize the working intellectual.

Under the large monument are relief panels that tell the story of the party.

We still had some time, so the tour group was brought to a bowling alley to see locals, and play a game as well. After the game, instead of taking the bus to our dinner venue, we decided to walk to see more of Pyongyang. That was an interesting first day. The next day's itinerary was even more exciting since we were visiting the North Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone or the DMZ!

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