May 21 2010

Back in the DPRK: North Korea Revisited

Once upon a couple years ago I somehow found myself in one of the supposed Axes of Evil – North Korea. This was way before my forays into photography, but it’s an interesting revisit nonetheless.

The DPRK – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – or North Korea, as it is better known in the west, is not on most folks’ list of vacation hotspots. This country of 20 million hosts just under 2000 western tourists per year, and despite Lonely Planet having a guidebook about it this is not a country you can visit on your own. This is not even a country where you can simply stroll down the street and get a coffee on your own. Those who do have a desire to visit the so-called Hermit Kingdom must go with one of the few tour companies that have a relationship with the country. More than this, the tour group must be accompanied by North Korean guides at all times.

For more info on North Korea and the tour company I went with visit the Koryo Tours website.

North Korea as seen the moment I stepped off the plane at the Sunan Airport. We arrived in Pyongyang, the country’s capital, on one of the two Air Koryo flights that make the trip from Beijing each week. As I later learned from post-trip Googling, Air Koryo is considered the world’s only one star airline and the plane we were on was from a fleet of 1960’s Soviet aircrafts.

The Reunification Monument (or Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification) on the outskirts of Pyongyang towers over the empty Reunification Highway which leads straight to Panmunjom (the symbolic border between North & South Korea) and eventually Seoul.  This monument was erected in 2001 and depicts two women in traditional garments reaching out to one another  holding a map of a unified Korea.

The Workers’ Party Monument, which commemorates the founding of DPRK’s ruling political party – The Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). Although, it might be correct to say DPRK’s only political party. The hands hold in their fists symbols of the three classes of North Korean society – hammer for workers, sickle for peasants, and paintbrush for intellectuals.

Did I mention the Workers’ Part Monument was erected in 1995? I’m still surprised this suggestive view wasn’t deleted off my camera at the border on the way out of the country.

The Mansudae Grand Monument in Pyongyang … or, one giant freakin’ bronze statue of Kim Il-sung.

Although the much parodied tubby tyrant Kim Jong-il (known as The Dear Leader) is the current leader of the DPRK, his father Kim Il-sung (known as The Great Leader) is considered to be the country’s founder and Eternal President (despite his death in 1994). The Koreans deeply love and revere the Kims, especially Kim Il-sung. There are portraits of the two hanging everywhere and all Koreans are required to wear a lapel pin with Kim Il-sung’s face on it. When visiting the country, a visit to the Grand Monument is obligatory. This is one of the holiest sites in Pyongyang, with thousands of North Koreans paying their respects to the Great Leader each day. All visitors are expected to purchase bouquets of flowers, lay them at the feet of the bronzed Kim Il-sung, and then bow in accordance with local customs. All photos taken must be up to snuff too - you’re not allowed to do anything “cute” like mimicking his pose, and it’s forbidden to crop the Great Leader (i.e. not show the entire statue in the photo).

If you think this guy looks good in bronze, wait until you see him in his Mausoleum! Unfortunately no photos were allowed of the Mausoleum or the elaborate contraption series of astroturf rollers, wet sponges, blotting mats, and cleansing wind tunnel that you must go through before you are fit to enter the Great and very dead Leader’s chamber.

A stark view of Pyongyang from atop the Tower of Juche Idea. The Juche Tower was built to commemorate Kim il-Sung’s 70th Bornday. The tower is named after the principle of Juche, the official state ideology of North Korea developed by Kim il-Sung.

Dubbed by some the “Ugliest Building in the World” and the “Hotel of Doom”, the Ryugyong Hotel is visible from almost every point in Pyongyang and is the country’s monolithic embarrassment. And what a monolith! The hotel is 1,083 feet tall, and was planned to have 103 floors, 3,000 rooms, and 7 revolving restaurants. Construction on this concrete carcass was abandoned in 1992 … although rumours began circulating in 2008 about construction resuming.  It’s very difficult to get any information out of your guides about the failed hotel project, but if you’re interested in this crazy story just pay a little visit to Wikipedia.

A billboard and street scene in Kaesong, a city near the DMZ and South Korean border.

One of the million soldiers that stands guard at the demilitarized zone (DMZ)  between North and South Korea.  The Korean War, or the Glorious Fatherland Liberation War as it is known in the North, was fought from 1950-1953 and left the North and South divided by the DMZ. The DMZ is still heavily guarded on both sides and a peace treaty was never signed after the ceasefire in 1953, so technically the two countries are still at war.

The Schoolchildren’s Palace in Pyongyang. Pretty much every city has their own Children’s Palace and this is where all the kidlings who are deemed gifted hang out. After classes in the morning, the gifted kids spend the afternoon at the Palace practicing their chosen art or skill. They practice that one skill everyday until they are masters of  ballet, rhythmic dance, gymnastics, computer programming, singing, musical instruments, chess, volleyball, basketball, embroidery, calligraphy, or whatever else they may have chosen.

The Schoolchildren’s Palace in Pyongyang.

A view of Pyongyang from atop the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery – the place where the Koreans who died fighting the Japanese during their occupation hang out. Notice the Ryugyong Hotel lurking in the background?

About to descend down into the bowels of the the Pyongyang Metro. The Pyongyang Metro has a whopping total of two lines, with a total of 17 stations that have names such as “Comrade”, “Three Rejuvenations”, and “Sacrifice in Battle”.  The stations are over 100 meters underground (some of the deepest in the world) and can be used as bomb shelters for the city’s residents when Pyongyang is under attack from the Imperialist Aggressors. Tourists are only permitted a short ride between the ”Revitalization” and ”Glory” stations.

A mass of Koreans outside the Mass Games.

Mass Games

North Korea’s Mass Games are undoubtedly one of the most amazing things I have ever witnessed.  The Mass Games can basically be described as a “synchronized socialist-realist spectacular, featuring over 100,000 participants in a display of gymnastics, dance, acrobatics, and dramatic performance, accompanied by music and other effects, all wrapped in a highly politicized package”. The performance features the “largest picture in the world” … a giant mosaic of individual students each holding a book whose pages links with their neighbours’ to make up one gigantic scene. Essentially, each student is one pixel in a moving picture that spans an entire side of a stadium. I think it would be fair to say that no other place on Earth has anything comparable. For more info and videos click here.

Not the Mass Games, but a Mass Dance in front of the Tower of Juche Idea to commemorate something which I cannot recall at this moment.

The tower is named after the principle of Juche, developed by Kim Il Sung as a blend of autarky, self-reliance, isolationism, Korean traditionalism, and Marxism-Leninism.