Saturday, May 12, 2007

DPRK, Day 7

Day 7. Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, Grand People's Study House, Party Foundation Museum, Schoolchildren's Palace, Mass Games.
Special guest writer: M

We set off early for Pyongyang passing endless paddy fields and the occasional orchard of small ginko trees. The southern area is certainly the poorest and the farming life is tough. At one point we saw a group of five or six men pulling a plough by hand using only ropes. On the verges and banks of streams people seemed to be cutting vegetation presumably to eat.

On the outskirts of Pyongyang we stopped at a monument for the reunification, throughout the tour we were told it is the greatest desire to reunify the country and were reminded that it was the US imperialists that stand in the way! It has to be said the North Koreans certainly do big monuments!

The rest of the day was to be a pretty heavy tour of museums one of which we had missed earlier in the trip. First was The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum to the north of the city; we were warned that it would be cold inside and indeed it was. One of the joys of the tour was the lady tour guides who ranged from waifs with shrill wavering voices who seemed to become overawed with emotion at the mention of the name of the great leader to the slightly more cool ones who seemed to be in it for gifts of cosmetics that they received from tour groups. This one was different, younger and quite cheery but none the less scary and, as we were to find out soon, quite mad. Her introduction began with a detailed technical description of the size of the museum and the number of rooms (86 I recall) and then she went on to describe how the museum was a testament to the victory of the Korean people over the imperialist US aggressors. One of our group was starting to feel the cold and the guide remarked that we wouldn't need to be there if the US imperialist aggressors hadn't invaded the country! This left the person dumb struck and then she asked "didn't he agree?" as if it was obvious.
The museum apparently has 50 panoramic video screens and we got to see one depicting the struggle of the heroic truck drivers who resupplied the front lines. It was very seventies with little figures and trucks moving up the valley whilst being bombed; it had clearly taken thousands of hours to build. At the end of the tour we were shown a giant revolving panorama showing the retreat of the Americans in the first big push by the north early in the war. This period came up quite a lot in the tours and the books, but what is never explained is how the battle lines ended up getting pushed back north to the 38th parallel where the armistice was finally struck two years later in 1953.

From the museum we walked through the parade ground with statues depicting the war and the the victory of the Korean people.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped off to take pictures of the incomplete Ryugyong Hotel. This has to be one of the most troubling wastes of resources you will ever see. It is a massive 330 meters high and has 105 stories but is only a shell. It was designed to have over 3,000 rooms which given the current level of tourists (around 100,000 a year mostly from China) would still make it not viable even if every single on stayed there for a week. Construction started in 1987 at an estimated cost of $750 million, or 2% of the country’s GDP. It was halted in 1992 apparently due to financial problems which makes sense as it coincides with the decline of financial support following the break up of the USSR in 1991. It can be seen from all over Pyongyang but it no longer on any of the maps.
The next stop was brief visit to a tourist supermarket where the Argentinian owner sells out-of -date imported merchandise. The oldest stuff we could find was insect repellent that expired five years earlier. After lunch it was on to the Grand People's Study House, behind the Kim Il Sung Square where the military marches are held. Again it was opened in 1992 and was one of the last great follies the government could afford. It has 10 stories and we were told houses 30 million volumes and 14 study rooms. In the entrance hallway is the obligatory huge statute of the great leader.
The building has ten stories and comprises ten buildings housing, we were told, 30 million volumes. For those of you who are interested there are some rarely available publications on plumbing installation and design and one on cementing (which perhaps the constructors of the Ryugyong Hotel should have read).

There are 14 lecture theatres and over 240 professors who are there to give lectures and answer questions.
In the audio section we were allowed to listen to some of their collection of old rock including Queen. They also have a collection of vinyl that is probably worth a fortune now.
To find a book, you must first queue up to find the number at the lobby, then use the card system to check the location, it must take hours!
We were growing a little tired now and so we were not in the best of spirits when we herded off to the Party Founding Museum. It is located on Haebang Hill and was actually built by the Japanese during their rule. After the revolution in 1945 it was used as headquarters of the Central Committee of the Party for a few years. We were treated to a very lengthy description of the early years of the liberation and were shown the small dark room where the comrade lead the liberation and presided over the formation of the workers party. Apparently Kim Il Sung rejected his aides attempts to relocating him to a larger, lighter room favouring the relative hardship of his existing office.

The guide, a mature lady who was definitely on the lookout for cosmetics, explained how the leader established a university to "grow" (her word not mine) the administrative arm of the government. By this we had been on our feet for four hours and two of the group were chided by one of guides (christened Prada Bitch for her preference for high heals and handbags) for yawning and leaning against the wall. She asked why we weren't paying attention and without irony whether we were bored listening to the story of the formation of the workers party. Unfortunately I wasn't close enough to give her a truthful answer.
Next stop was the Schoolchildren's Palace. This is where they provide extra-curricular activities such as music, performing arts and sports. The kids performed some pieces for us which was very sweet. They seem to be taught by wrote repeating things until they get it.

At the end of the tour we watched a show which they put on for visitors twice a week. It was very well rehearsed. There was a violinist who must have been only 6 or 7 who was very talented, although you cant help thinking she must have been drilled from a very early age.

There was an embarrassing moment at the end when a group of over excited Chinese tourists stormed the stage and started handing out sweets. One of them picked up one of the performers so she could have her picture taken. Perhaps western tourists are just too reserved.

Outside a group was having a taekwondo lesson.
Editor's note: to me the schoolchildren's palace seemed more like a boot camp. Kids are not there to have extracurricular activities but to get themselves ready for the Mass Games perhaps. Though the performances were impressive, I couldn't help but to compare them to the weird kids in beauty pageants. Gives me the chill.

The last visit of the day was a second chance for those who wanted to see the mass games. The show is the same every time and apparently doesn't change much between years. The guides were a bit more nervy this time apparently there had been complaints about earlier visitors taking pictures outside the games which you are not supposed to do.

We arrived earlier this time and so got to see the school children's warm up before the show starts. The children form the backdrop of the show and each has a book; they turn the pages in perfect synchronisation, it is very impressive. During the show they also use the backdrop like a movie screen and project films which is very clever.

I think this scene is about the countries technological advances but I didn't really get it.
There a is cute scene where the kids dress up as animals. Some of them are chickens and there were some eggs too. One of them fell over which was funny but a bit of a shame.

They do the head twirling thing too.

Editor's note: for some reason the special guest writer ended the writing abruptly. I wanted to add that on top of the patriotic and the cute acts, there were also some crazy-ass stunts. I've got a clip and although the quality is not ideal you can still see people being tossed around and spun at 50, 60 meters.

1 comment:

holysmoke said...

Interesting report!

North Korea is pretty much like China in the 50's and early 60's. I am afraid that what you had seen in North Korea were sheer political propaganda and show-case for tourists.