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Archive for the ‘Pyongyang’ Category

Grand People’s Study House is one of the most famous buildings in Pyongyang and part of pretty much every tour to the DPRK. North Korea’s central library is located at Kim Il-sung Square in the heart of Pyongyang and can hold up to 30 million books, including a couple of foreign ones. It was built over a period of 21 months and opened in April of 1982 to honor Kim Il-sung’s 70th birthday.

We entered the study house through the entrance of Seomun Street (the north/south one, not the east/west one) and I have a feeling that this is not the entrance most people use. The first room we entered was a huge hall with a gigantic statue of Kim Il-sung, about 2 storeys tall, to the left and the right an escalator each, half-hidden behind huge pillars. We used the right escalator to go to the upper floor where a couple of locals were using PCs, looking through the library’s catalogue according to a white sign with blue lettering. I was really surprised to see that most signs at the Grand People’s Study House were bilingual Korean / English; not only those guiding signs, but also the names of study rooms and auditoriums.
Speaking of signs: When I took pictures of the restroom signs I seriously confused Mr. Yu; so much that he talked to our Western guide Sarah about it. I overheard the conversation and explained to him that I thought the signs looked interesting, with a more traditional one on the door and a more modern one next to it. I also mentioned that people who have never been to the DPRK don’t know what toilet signs look like in the DPRK and that some are interested in those details. This situation perfectly showed how differently photography is treated in North Korea and the majority of the world. For us photography became a thing we just do, sometimes even carelessly – even without having a camera with us most of us are able to take pictures at any time with a phone or a tablet. We rather take too many photos than to miss something we might regret. Not so in North Korea. There are a lot less mobile phones (which I don’t consider a bad thing…) and you only bring your camera to special events. Remember the days of analog photography, when you took pictures without knowing if they were good and you had to pay for every single one of them to find out? That’s what it’s like in the DPRK. In the 1950s or 60s hardly anybody took trivial photos – nowadays the meaningful photos have a similar share as back then the pointless ones had…

The tour through the building was pretty much exactly the same as the one everybody gets – and of course they told us the story about how Kim Il-sung invented the adjustable table when he first visited the study house. (He saw his fellow Koreans’ backs bend over the tables and decided that the height and angle of the tables need to be adjusted to make it easier for them to study…)
At the media room our guides popped in a tape with Beatles classics – a video I am not allowed to post on Youtube due to possible copyright infringements. Isn’t it nice to live in the free world?

From the media room we went to the foreign language classes and had a peak at an English lesson and some people learning Chinese. When we were on our way to the balcony to enjoy the stunning view at Kim Il-sung Square all of a sudden Jeff decided that he wanted to talk to the English students – after a short deliberation we got permission to go back, much to the surprise of everybody. Jeff, Juliet and Barbara crashed the English class, introduced themselves and asked the students a couple of questions; including if they had some themselves. At first the whole room acted like a group of deer in headlights, but they gradually warmed up to their new teachers and even started to give answers. Those conversations weren’t deep, but nevertheless quite moving to everybody present – students, guides, foreign visitors. This was quite an unusual situation, probably an all-time first. And everybody seemed to enjoy it – a welcomed change of pace after the rather unspectacular visit of the *Taedonggang Combined Fruit Farm* and the quite boring Museum of Metro Construction (where we were not allowed to take photos… although nobody seemed to know why).
When we finally reached the balcony of the Grand People’s Study House we were running behind schedule (of course…), so I was only able to take a couple of quick photos and a short video. Guess what – at a school kids were waiting for us… to entertain with a musical performance!

Oh, one final little detail though – remember how I wrote that we entered the Grand People’s Study House and used the escalator to the right of the Kim Il-sung statue to get to the upper floor? Well, when we left we used the same moving staircase to get back down, which means that they changed the direction of the escalator, although there was a second one to the left of the statue. I guess it doesn’t mean a thing, but if you were critical of the system you could claim that everything is a show, that they don’t keep the escalators running all day and just turn them on for tourists to get in and out… heck, maybe the left escalator isn’t even in working condition anymore?

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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The Taedonggang Combined Fruit Farm (referred to as Taesongsan Combined Fruit Fam in most tour programs – I looked at GoogleMaps, it’s definitely the same place…) about half an hour outside of Pyongyang was one of the most unspectacular locations on my trip to North Korea. We were given the choice of either visiting the Pyongyang Folk Village (a park with miniature versions of landmarks in Pyongyang and the rest of the DPRK) for a rather steep entrance fee (something like 20 Euros) or heading out to the fruit farm for free, and the vote was unanimous – Taedonggang Fruit Farm!

Well, what can I say? The view from the observation point was nice, given that it was barely 50 meters high – but a fruit farm, predominantly apples and peaches, in spring isn’t exactly the most exciting place to be. So after we listened to the local guide how 800 people work on the farm, that the apple trees were imported from Italy and that the whole thing was built within just three years we headed down to the gift shop, which was actually the more interesting part of that stop. Fresh apples that looked like apples I remember from my childhood – different sizes, not perfectly formed, spots everywhere; much unlike the cloned stuff you get in supermarkets nowadays. I bought some dried apple rings and apple shampoo as souvenirs, but they also offered different kinds of juices and alcohol. Then we boarded the bus and headed back to the city, Pyongyang.

If I had only done some research in advance… What the guide didn’t tell us was that the Taedonggang Combined Fruit Farm is probably the best-defended farm in the world – the residence of the Kim family in Kangdong is only about 10 kilometers away and Kim Jong-un most likely passes by on the way to the city every day! There are several units of the Korean People’s Army stationed in the area, including some anti-aircraft units. So when you look at those peaceful pictures, please remember that all hell could break loose within seconds…

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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The Mangyongdae Children’s Palace was by far the weirdest destination on my trip to North Korea. Not the weirdest experience in my life, but it turned out to be a very, very close second…

Located right across the KITC restaurant on Kwangbok Street (down the road turning into the Youth Hero Highway leading to Nampo) the biggest of many children’s palaces in North Korea features 650 rooms on 6 floors, including a gymnasium, a swimming pool and a 2000 seat theater; its shape symbolizing a parent hugging their children. (Or Kim Il-sung / Kim Jong-il hugging children. Kim Jong-un still was a kid himself when the building was erected in the late 1980s and officially opened on May 2nd 1989.) Palaces were always popular in communist countries. Not to live in, but for education and leisure. Pretty much every city in the former Eastern bloc had at least one Palace of Culture (*here I visited the one in Pripyat near Chernobyl*) where people could watch movies, rehearse theater plays, practice on musical instruments, do sports, … Children’s Palaces are basically the DPRK version for juniors – I’ve never heard of them in the context of Soviet Russia or the German Democratic Republic, so they might be a North Korean invention. But while Palaces of Culture were open for everybody the Children’s Palaces are only for the most talented kids in the DPRK. Here they learn foreign languages, do sports, perfection their computer skills or practice instruments as extra-curricular activities – reportedly up to 5400 children at a time!

When writing about the *Workers Party Foundation Monument* I mentioned how much monument planners love symbolism – hardly anybody knows that it backfired in this case. In front of the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace is a huge sculpture called Chariot of Joy, depicting a chariot drawn by two winged horses, manned by eleven children – symbolizing the number of school years in the DPRK… raised to twelve in 2012. 🙂

As I mentioned in the *previous article*, my tour group was running late and so we were eagerly awaited by our local guide (most places actually had local guides that guided our Korean guides who guided our western guide who guided us; the DPRK clearly is a communist state…) – a young girl, early teenager, with astonishingly good English. So we rushed through the corridors, stopping here and there for some short presentations. Ballet / dancing, piano, drawing. Most of those presentations were hard to watch, for different reasons.
The main dancing girl, maybe 8 years old, was excellent, but she slammed her knees to the ground so hard and so often that it would really surprise me if she would be able to walk pain free when she’s a teenager… or now, for that matter.
The drawing / painting room I call fake. About 20 kids were sitting in front of busts, but everybody had a different drawing in front of them. Faces, geometrical structure, ears – it was not only not a consistent class, in the five minutes we spent in that room hardly any of the kids were touching their drawings, some of which looked amazing. I’m not saying those kids are not talented, but I am not really buying their “presentation”. Same for the two painting girls. It took me forever to take a photo where one of them put the brush to the paper…

And then the weirdness meter exploded. I have to say in advance that I am not a big fan of singing and dancing… or overacting… or children performing – and what happened next combined all three (four…) and brought it to a level I hardly thought was possible.
My group, along with some other tourist, were lead to the already mentioned auditorium, filled about half with North Korean kids. When I asked Ms. Park before, if she went to the Schoolchildren’s Palace as a child, she told me no, only as a visitor; but that she loved it and admired the children performing. I guess it was a blast from the past for her. I felt more and more uncomfortable by the minute while taking one of the honorary seats all foreign visitor got in the center of the first three rows. Row number 2 in my case, which turned out to be a piece of luck a couple of minutes later.
The show started and I have to admit that it was as good as it gets when it comes to kids performing – if you like singing, dancing and overacting. Sadly I don’t, so it wasn’t my cup of tea. Nevertheless I recorded about 20 minutes of it for your viewing pleasure, though you probably might have seen similar performances in reports about the DPRK. I had – and to be honest with you, I don’t get why people always claim that those overacting kids are kind of proof for how North Korea brainwashes its children. Look for example at the child beauty pageant circus in the States – those kids act exactly the same as the kids performing in the video… In Germany we had a TV show called “Mini Playback Show” where kids dressed as stars were lip-synching – terribly, since hardly any of them spoke a word of English, them being German; one of the worst TV shows ever. Interestingly enough both the child beauty pageants as well as the TV show raised public concerns about the sexualization of pre-teen children. At least least none of the Western bashers ever brought up that when criticizing the North Korean child performances.
BTW: Whenever there is a “performance” in North Korea, be prepared that you might be included. The one at the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace was our first demonstration of North Korea singing and dancing, so everybody went in without suspecting anything – with the result that two rollerblading girls dragged two tourists on stage to first hula hoop themselves and then throw some of those oversized rings at an amazingly talented young boy (see the second video of this article, it’s kinda heartwarming…). Some of us got caught by surprise a second time at a school – but when a couple of women started singing and playing accordion after lunch on the third to last day you could see how people were trying to hide behind others or even getting more distance to the performers… 🙂

Anyway, the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace was a place people either hated or loved. At first sight those kids indeed looked like crazy brainwashed maniacs – but so do professional ballroom dancers, at least to me. I am pretty sure most of them enjoy what they are doing and they are actually absolutely fantastic at it, at least those allowed to perform on stage. And I am sure spending the afternoon at the Children’s Palace beats working in the fields – because from the looks of it that’s how most children outside of Pyongyang spend their afternoons…

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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Rides on the Pyongyang Metro usually were one of the prime examples for how everything on a tour to North Korea is staged – now it is a prime example for how the country opens up to its visitors.

It was the second visit to the DPRK for Jeff, one of the great people of my tour group. Back in 2007 he visited the country for the first time and of course back then a ride on the subway was part of the itinerary, too. For Jeff an underwhelming experience as back then the group was told which train and which wagon to enter – basically an (almost?) empty wagon. Most people describe their experience like that actually. No stops, no freedom, no contact with locals. Again, my experience was quite different.

Since Puhung Station was right across the street from the *Mansudae Art Studio* we accessed the deepest subway system in the world right from there – locals entering and leaving the station via one of the three escalators. (Although the middle one wasn’t running – it wasn’t necessary since the station wasn’t that busy on a Monday afternoon.) In (ex-)communist countries subway stations were / are showpieces – *I’ve been to several stations in Kiev*, so I knew what to expect and Pyongyang didn’t disappoint. While the entrance kind of looked like a bomb shelter (which it will be used for if North Korea ever gets attacked) the platform of the station was absolutely gorgeous. Slightly dim, but lit by beautiful chandeliers. At this point our group got quite excited, with people running back and forth to take photos – and I have to admit our guides looked a bit more nervous. Some people might claim they were worried about… us making contact with people, us taking photos we might not should take, us doing whatever. In my opinion they were actually worried that one of us could get lost, because the metro was quite busy. Not “Tokyo rush hour” busy, but “a good chance to get lost (on purpose / accidentally)” busy. When Mr. Yu tried to get us on a train he was widely ignored as most people were still taking photos – so the train left, and the next one, too; both times accompanied by a wave of locals flushing the station. We finally got close enough together to call us a group again when the next train arrived – and people just headed in, splitting over two wagons. Most likely not according to Mr. Yu’s plans, but rolling with the punches was going both ways… The first ride was a short one as we left the train at the next stop, Yonggwang. Judging by the look on his face Mr. Yu was glad that everybody listened to the plan and actually got off. On past rides Yonggwang Station was the end of the tour on the Pyongyang Metro – which lead to claims that there were no more than two stations and / or all the other ones were secret. While it is rather likely that there are indeed some secret stations for the military (which isn’t uncommon in other countries, too…) there are definitely 17 stations on two lines (locals can change at Jonu / Jonsung, it’s a walk of about 300 meters). So we got off at Yonggwang, took some photos and entered a rather crowded train to ride four more stops to Kaeson – the station right next to the *Arch of Triumph* and the Kaeson Fun Fair; one photo in the arch set actually shows the subway entrance, so I’ll include it here again. Since we skipped a couple of trains before, we were a little bit behind schedule – some quick photos at Kaeson Station and off we went to our bus as countless kids at the *Mangyongdae Children’s Palace* were already waiting for us to show their talents…

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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The Mansudae Art Studio is the biggest and most important manufacturer of art in the DPRK. Founded on November 17th 1959 on an area of 120.000 square meters the studio is located west of the city center and right across the street of the Puhung Station of the Pyongyang Metro (more about that station soon…). About 1000 artists, most of them graduates of Pyongyang University, work in 13 groups to create woodcuts, drawings, paintings, bronze statues, embroidery, jewel paintings, ceramics and many more – including all depictions of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un. The construction company Mansudae Overseas Projects is part of the art studio and not only built the *Juche Tower* and the Rungnado May Day Stadium (the largest stadium in the world…), but also several projects in Africa – the only project in Western Europe was the reconstruction of the Märchenbrunnen (fairy tale fountain) in Frankfurt, Germany.

The Mansudae Art Studio even has an official website where you can look at and buy pieces of art (sadly you have to ask for prices and availability as neither is public information), although it seems like the site hasn’t been updated in six or seven years. Furthermore it is run and maintained by an Italian company, so you won’t have direct contact with the studio or any North Korean person at any point. Click here if you want to check out the site click here: http://www.mansudaeartstudio.com
Visiting the Mansudae Art Studio was short, but interesting. From the center square of the studio, where we saw the rather newly revealed bronze statue depicting Kim Jong-il riding a horse (next to daddy…), we went to the illustrators, the painters and a potter – them explaining us their work, usually while at it. On the way back (to the studio shop, which had some really nice art for sale!) we witnessed quite a bit of construction and saw more sculptures outside – and in less than an hour we were gone. Another visit that went by in no time and without video opportunity… so I added the drive from the North Korean Film Studio to the Mansudae Art Studio through the outskirts of Pyongyang.

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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The DPRK’s Feature Film Studios in the outskirts of Pyongyang were the second destination on my third day in North Korea, after visiting National Gifts Exhibition House, where we were not allowed to bring cameras – the place will be part of the “Other Locations” article towards the end of this series as it contained one of the most hideous pieces of art you will ever hear about.

Cholliwood (a not well-known portmanteau of Chollima and Hollywood; not to be confused with Chollywood, the nickname of the Chinese film industry) was founded in 1947 and became Kim Jong-il’s playground after he graduated university in 1964. You would think that a guy like him should be busy with other things, but people tend to forget that Kim Jong-il didn’t become the “Supreme Leader of North Korea” until he was 53 years old; that’s 30 years later and therefore plenty of time to visit the studio on more than 600 occasions. It’s said that Kim was a huge fan of action movies like Rambo and Godzilla, collecting more than 20000 video tapes and DVDs – but he started out as a scholar, and so his 1973 book “On the Art of the Cinema” became the bible for all filmmakers in the DPRK, claiming that “Creative work is not a mere job, but an honorable revolutionary task.”
Kim Jong-il’s love for movies got completely out of hand in the late 1970s when he had South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee abducted in Hong Kong and taken to North Korea in 1978 – as her recently divorced husband and famous director Shin Sang-ok came to Hong Kong to investigate he was kidnapped as well. They were kept separate at first and when Shin tried to escape he was put in jail for several years. It wasn’t until 1983 that Shin found out why he really was brought to North Korea and that his ex-wife was there, too. Kim then “suggested” that they should get remarried and start to make movies again; and since most people can’t dismiss advice like that from a person like that it was exactly what happened. Shin directed seven movies in three years under executive producer Kim, most famously the Godzilla rip-off Pulgasari. Him and his wife were able to escape from North Korea during the Vienna Film Festival in 1986.
Shin wasn’t the only foreigner working in Cholliwood. A couple of American defectors gained some local fame for playing the evil guys in North Korean propaganda and war movies – James Joseph “Joe” Dresnok probably the most of them. When Charles Robert Jenkins appeared in the movie series Unsung Heroes (shot from 1978-1981, a.k.a. as Nameless Heroes) it was the first sign that he was alive after defecting in 1965. The Unsung Heroes series also featured Larry Allen Abshier and Jerry Wayne Parrish and was rather successful by North Korean standards, being televised in China in 1982 and indirectly causing a little scandal when a South Korean politician sang its theme song at an official dinner while visiting the DPRK in 2005.

Facts about the Pyongyang Film Studios are hard to find, not even about its size – numbers range from 600000 square meters to 1 million square meters. Some sources claim that the studio produces 20 movies a year, others say that it churns out up to 60, while critics claim that only one or two movies are produced a year and higher numbers include documentaries and shorts; produced at other studios like the Korean Documentary Film Studio (I took a photo of that one from the top of the *Juche Tower*), the April 25 Film Studio of the Korean People’s Army and the Korean Science and Educational Film Studio. It’s not even really clear what sections there are. We saw the huge pre- and post-production buildings right at the entrance (though we didn’t enter those…) and then we drove to the outdoor sets on the hilly backlot. There we saw dozens of buildings used as sets for classic Korea, 1930s Japan / Korea and 1970s countryside Europe – and probably America. On GoogleMaps you can see another street and a train station (which is not connected to the outside world), so those might be different sets we weren’t shown.

After a rainy day in Pyongyang the storm god was in our favor and we were able to stroll through the sets with perfect weather. Sadly we didn’t see much activity on the premises – until we reached the European section, where about a dozen people enjoyed a break at the entrance of one of the houses. Personally I liked the Japanese section best, although I am sure the movies shot there weren’t exactly in favor of the former occupiers. My Japanese is basic, nevertheless it was nice to identify some fake advertising (for Morinaga Chocolate and tea) and building names / functions (station hotel, sport shop), some written old-style from right to left.

Although I was able to take plenty of photos I wish we would have had more time at the Pyongyang Film Studios – but well, what can you do? Group tours with tight schedules have some downsides… Luckily the next location was equally interesting!

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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The Golden Lane Bowling Alley in the heart of Pyongyang was the tenth and last stop of my second day in the DPRK – and the first opportunity to get close to regular North Korean people. After being taken from tourist spot to tourist spot on a first cloudy and then rainy Sunday I didn’t see a lot of people after the first stop at the *Kumsusan Palace* (other than my fellow travelers, of course), so the Golden Lane Bowling Alley almost came like a shock. It was loud, it was crowded, and I hadn’t bowled in about 25 years, so I totally felt like a fish out of water.
I guess by western standards the Golden Lane Bowling Alley is just a normal and rather dated bowling alley with an arcade on the second floor – and the only reason to write about it is the fact that you don’t expect to have a bowling alley in North Korea. Well, maybe you do, but I didn’t. I was actually so surprised that I didn’t even take any notes (30 lanes? 40? 45? I have no clue…). Neither did I go upstairs to see what arcade machines they have. I was just too busy keeping up with my group.

Two things I thought were interesting though:
1.) The bowling alley had the first English signs I saw outside of the hotel, for example “Shoe Rental”.
2.) At the time of our arrival we were the first foreigners that night, when we left about half of the bowling alley was occupied by tourists. Although the place is hardly ever mentioned in travel reports it’s a standard place to go to – as always us foreign tourists were automatically cutting the line and had no waiting time at all. Which happened everywhere over the next couple of days, it actually happened before at the Kumsusan Palace. Museums, fun fairs, bowling alley, … no waiting time!
Maybe that’s the reason pretty much every previous report about the bowling alley states that everything was staged. But again I didn’t have that feeling. Sure, English signs and locals giving up their lanes for foreigners – to me it seemed more like an express pass at an amusement park. People didn’t leave because their acting stint was over, they had to wait because somebody (= us) bought their way in. The whole place was buzzing with couples and groups of friends having a good time and it really seems ridiculous to think that they were planted there to give us another show – what a waste of time, money and effort that would have been, given the fact that we had a bowling alley at the *Yanggakdo Hotel*. Also: If the whole thing was staged, wouldn’t they have more bowling shoes in Western sizes? Half of our group had to squeeze their feet or bowl on socks… But well, maybe it was staged in the past? The situation at the metro changed, maybe it did here, too?

(Sorry again for the few photos and the extremely simple video! The next articles will have way better stuff…)

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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The Workers Party Foundation Monument is basically just down the street of the *Juche Tower* and maybe 600 meters away from the *Golden Lane Bowling Alley* – nevertheless it started to rain by the time that we arrived at the monument. So hard that Mr. Yu asked us if we wanted to leave the bus or if a quick stop would be enough. Of course we wanted to leave the bus and have a closer look!

Erected in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the foundation of Korea’s Workers Party, the whole thing is a cluster-fuck of confusing and even contradicting dates; up to Orwellian falsification of history in one case! Back in the 40s there were dozens of f(r)actioned political organizations and some of them were what you would call communist / socialist today. The current Workers Party of Korea (WPK), the only legal party in the DPRK, was created on June 30 1949 when the Workers Party of North Korea merged with the Workers Party of South Korea (after both of them were created through mergers in 1946). Since “earlier is better” when it comes to history (see the case of Shinichi Fujimura and other hoax archeologists…) the WPK considers October 10 1945 their date of foundation, referring to the fact that a “North Korea Bureau of the Communist Party of Korea” was founded under Soviet guidance that day. Well, fact… Not only is the year kind of in dispute (how far can you go back to claim where / when something is rooted?), non-Korean historians even fight the exact date, claiming that the meeting actually was on October 13th.
Anyway, the Workers Party Foundation Monument is in the DPRK and therefore the North Korean version is valid. 1995, 50th anniversary. And since totalitarian systems like symbolism at least as much as the next guy, the whole thing is 50 meters high and consists of three gigantic hands in a circle, holding a hammer (worker), a sickle (peasant) and a brush (intellectual) to symbolize the three pillars of the state. From the outside they are connected by a circular band with the slogan “Long live the Workers Party of Korea, which organizes and guides all victories for the Korean people!” and standing in the center of the monument you can see three gigantic sculptures with the usual heroic postures.

The whole thing is kind of cheesy, but nevertheless very impressive – and quite difficult to photograph, especially when it’s raining and people are eager to go bowling. So, yes, it was totally worth leaving the bus to have a closer look, because you gotta give those communists and fascists one thing: they are pretty good at building monuments!

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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The Tower of the Juche Idea is the second tallest monumental column in the world and one of the landmark buildings in Pyongyang. It was built (or at least completed…) in 1982 to commemorate the Juche Idea, Kim Il-sung’s ideology stating that every nation has to develop its own way to handle social revolution. In case of Korea it is based on three fundamental principles:
1.) Political Independence
2.) Economic self-sustenance
3.) Self-reliance in defense
Kim Il-sung started talking about Juche (sometimes spelled Chuch’e) in 1955 and first applied it in the Five-Year Plan of 1956-1961 – sadly it didn’t really work out and North Korea never became autarkic in any shape or form, at least not for a longer period of time.

Despite that the Juche Tower is a great monument to visit. Located on the eastern bank of the Taedong River it is in one line with the Kim Il-sung Square and the People’s Great Study House on the other side of the river. The tip of *Yanggak Island* also offers a great view at the Juche Tower – and vice versa! Since our schedule was rather tight we had to go to the viewing platform at 150 meters on a grey and rainy afternoon (by elevator for a fee of 5 Euros…), nevertheless the view was absolutely gorgeous. I could have spent hours up there looking around, taking photos. You know about the “general knowledge” that the “guards” only show you the “beautiful parts” of Pyongyang… Impossible from up there! You could see pretty much everything. The rather modern parts, the run-down parts, the parks, the monuments – everything! I quickly took 8 ultra wide-angle shots to cover a 360° view and a short video before taking a couple of zoom shots. Too bad we barely had 15 minutes, because my fellow travelers instantly started to freeze in the pleasantly cool breeze, so I went down with the last group possible, actually another tourist group (and Ben and Mr. Yu…). We didn’t even have time to see the rest of the monument, a bronze sculpture and three granite sculptures depicting the Korean population, the Korean People’s Army and industrial workers. It was a packed day, with five locations crossed off our list before, three more followed! A couple of days later though I was able to snatch a photo of the bronze statue from the balcony of the Grand People’s Study House; not a great photo, but better than nothing…

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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The Revolutionary Martyrs‘ Cemetery (just down the road of the *Kumsusan Palace*) was one of those locations I thought I took dozens of photos and several videos of – and when I looked at the stuff I shot it was barely a dozen photos and no video… Nevertheless the location is way too important to be cut from this travel report, so here we go!
If the United States and North Korea have one thing in common then it’s their love for the military and their appreciation for the people who gave their lives for the greater good. (Sadly their definitions of “greater good” couldn’t be more different…) So it isn’t a surprise that Pyongyang has not only one, but two cemeteries for… not just soldiers… but martyrs.

The Patriotic Martyrs’ Cemetery in the north of Pyongyang is dedicated to the people who fought in the Fatherland Liberation War (usually known as the Korean War) or contributed to the Korean society after the armistice in 1953. We didn’t visit that one, probably because the people buried there are not as well known and the location itself isn’t that spectacular.
The Revolutionary Martyrs‘ Cemetery on the other hand is beautifully located on a gentle slope of Mount Taesong, overlooking Pyongyang so the people buried there can witness the rise of the country to beauty and wealth through the busts on top of their graves. (Impolite individuals would have pointed out that they still wait to witness that… None in our group did, at least not while the guides were present.) This cemetery is dedicated to those who contributed to the liberation of the country and the socialist construction – in other words: People who fought against the Japanese during the occupation and helped organizing the country after World War 2. The most famous people buried there are General Kim Ch’aek, Kim Il-sung’s mother Kang Pan-sok and his first wife Kim Jong-suk.
(BTW: As of 2013-05-29 Wikipedia gets that wrong – the amateur writer collective claims it’s the other way round, which doesn’t make sense at all since Kang Pan-sok and Kim Jong-suk both died before the Korean War even started. Always question your sources, especially the simple and convenient ones! And those with bad reputations… 😉 Interestingly enough the source they refer to gets it right.)

Being equal parts cemetery and memorial the Revolutionary Martyrs‘ Cemetery is quite a tranquil place. Most locals start through a Korean style gate at the bottom of Mount Taesong, but being lazy tourists with a limited amount of time we drove halfway up and saved a couple of dozen steps. (Which is only fair since we didn’t arrive by subway, like most local visitors… Rakwon Station, to be specific, also used to get to the Pyongyang Zoo and the Taesongsan Park & Fun Fair.) But we walked the rest up the hill, past two gigantic sculptures depicting the struggle of the armed forces and through the sea of bronze busts of the fallen heroes. Well, not all of them fell during the occupation. Some of them actually lived till the 1980s. Details, I guess… Another interesting detail though is the fact that the busts were staggered, so they don’t block each other’s view at Pyongyang. It’s amazing how much thought goes into some things, while blatantly obvious things are completely ignored.
At the highest point of the cemetery, past most of the graves and busts, is a final monument, featuring a huge revolutionary flag made of red granite and five more graves / busts. At the center is Kim Jong-suk’s bust, not only Kim Jong-il’s mother, but generally referred to as the “Mother of Korea”; at least by our guides. And what do you do with mothers? You show respect! In this case: bowing and laying down flowers. (As for the laying down flowers thing in general: When this was expected to follow local customs our western guide Sarah did it in place of the whole group, although additional individual signs of respect were appreciated. I’m not sure if it was on purpose or coincidence, but one group member actually bough flowers and since he only had a 5er he got enough so half of the group could lay down some individually, much to the joy of our guides. Also: I don’t think I ever saw somebody laying down real flowers. The “flowers” you lay down in North Korea are artificial ones and look more like draped strings of cloth – makes it easier to sell them again to the next visitor group…)

So much text, so few pictures – so look forward to the Tower of the Juche Idea, there I took some great photos of Pyongyang’s city center!

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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