Mansudae Art Studio - All Things Kim
The output of this art studio can be seen everywhere in North Korea.
Every statue of the leaders, every painting/image (as opposed to photograph) of the Leaders right down to the lapel pins worn by every citizen and all the great monuments such as the Monument to the Foundation of the Korean Workers Party were designed and, in the main, produced here. In addition to this, the studio has very active painting and pottery sections (among its thirteen sections). The studio’s most recognisable piece of work is the Mansudae Grand Monument in the city centre.
Only Mansudae Art Studio’s artists are sanctioned to portray the Kim dynasty. One can only imagine the spike in work here following the death of Kim Jong-il when his statue or mural had to be added to every existing one of his father, Kim Il-sung, and every house and building in the country needed a picture of him to accompany that of his father.
Following the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe there is now a worldwide shortage of socialist realist artists so up and coming Africa dictators and others have turned to North Korea for their statues and such like. This work has become quite a lucrative source of foreign exchange for North Korea. Overseas work includes the Three Dikgosi Monument in Botswana and Le Monument de la Renaissance Africaine in Dakar, Senegal (VT member brendareed has written a great review on this monument - Monument to the African Renaissance) with other work in at least Namibia, Benin, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. On a more modest scale the current incarnation of the Fairy Tale Fountain in Frankfurt am Main, Germany was (rather controversially, in Germany) produced by the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang.
VT Member, Nemorino (Don) has written a wonderful review on the Fairy Tale Fountain on his Frankfurt am Maim page. In that review Don, explains more on the North Korean link. It is well worth a look.
In fact, anyone can procure modest artwork in the form of paintings, pottery and revolutionary posters from the studio on the internet via a company in Italy.
On arriving at the studio (in reality numerous studios/buildings) opened in 1959 and employing some 4000 people including 1000 artists we were greeted by an amazing outdoor display of the most intricate murals we saw of the Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-suk (his first wife) and Kim Jong-il but, pride of place goes to the most fantastic bronze of Leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on horses. Certainly for me these outdoor exhibits were the highlight of the visit to the studio though a close second was the sight of a group of tradesmen working on one of the buildings to the sound of revolutionary music being pumped from a ghetto blaster.
Scattered around the gardens are a number of models of small animals (picture 5) similar to those you find in council/city parks (generally faded and in a state of disrepair) where the guardians can't think of anything else, though I have to say the ones here are maintained and in tip top condition – a bit incongruous, all the same, with the main exhibits.
While this is reputedly the largest art production centre in the world, our internal tour was limited to a small painting studio and a small pottery workshop. The quality of work in both (and especially the pottery workshop) was first class. It is always a treat to see real artists at work and not a bit of ‘modern art’ in sight unless I misinterpreted a few white coloured canvases I saw at the back of the painting studio!
We did not get to see the workshops where the large statues, monuments and public murals are produced. While sad, this is understandable as these items are kept under tight wrap until publicly unveiled.
This is one of the few places we visited that we did not get to visit the gift shop – perhaps the electricity was out!
From here we went to the Korean Feature Film Studio to learn about art of a different type, cinema.
- Arts and Culture
Pyongyang Metro (3) - Artwork
Anyone who has visited the Moscow Metro will understand where the inspiration for the Pyongyang Metro artwork/decoration came from. Indeed the whole Metro is modeled on the Moscow one. What I saw in the Pyongyang Metro is socialist realist art at its best – in the form of mosaic murals, metallic reliefs and statues.
While it is a great experience to actually take a ride on the Pyongyang Metro the real treat (and why they let you in) is to be able to admire the station platforms and the artwork thereon. Of the six stations we had access to, the artwork in three – Puhung (Revitalization), Yonggwang (Glory) and Kaesŏn (Triumph) was absolutely stunning irrespective of its obvious political intent. The other three we passed through, while having some artwork, were not as stunning though I do recall catching a glimpse of a nice statue in one of them, presumably Kim Il-sung.
My first two pictures, attached, were taken on the platform in Puhong Station where our short Metro journey began. Picture 1, a mosaic mural of a smiling, sun drenched Kim Il-sung and his happy followers fills the back wall of the platform while the second picture looks back towards the platform entrance and shows some of the beautiful chandeliers to be found in the Metro. You will also note, in that picture, that the tunnel walls, typically covered with advertising elsewhere, are lined with marble and colourful patriotic and revolutionary mosaic murals. Picture 4, taken at Kaeson Station, lets you see a typical example of this artwork in more detail. You will note stands on the centre of the platform in picture 2 – these display current editions of local newspapers and are found in all Metro stations and many other public places around the city. The masses need free and easy access to the ‘news’. Yes, all those people in picture 2 are tourists – the locals don’t dilly dally on the platform taking photographs and, unlike us, are permitted to exit the station without a guide - my, what freedom they have!
Our next stop and the second station on the Chollima line was the particularly beautiful Yonggwang Station. As you can see from my third picture this platform is lined, on both sides, with beautiful marble columns and also has murals all along both sides on the tunnel walls. The other highlights here are the chandeliers and the recently installed massive mosaic mural of Kim Jong-il just visible in this picture at the end of the platform.
From here we moved on to Kaeson Station, passing through Ponghwa (Torch/Beacon), Sŭngri (Victory) and T'ŏngil (Reunification) stations as we did. My 4th picture is of a revolutionary inspired mosaic mural in Kaeson Station, typical of those lining the tunnel walls in all the stations we stopped in.
My final picture is a large statue of the Greater Leader, Kim Il-Sung, holding his hand out to his beloved people in Kaeson Station.
Certainly not your average Metro/Subway stations!
On exiting the Metro at Kaeson Station our eyes appeared to deceive us. Had we really arrived in Paris at night? No, this is the the Pyongyang Arch Of Triumph and the night picture you will see first on my next review was taken on a later visit.
- Arts and Culture
Pyongyang Railway Station
Personally I think this is one of the most beautiful buildings in North Korea.
Pyongyang’s first railway station was built in 1920 but was destroyed in the Korean War. While the current three story (plus basement) building, built in 1958, is classified as socialist style architecture it is far from the boxy 1950s Soviet type buildings more commonly built in Pyongyang after the Korean War.
Especially noteworthy are the more classical type caps on the otherwise bland brick columns at the front of the buildings, the stunning clock tower and the two bronze statues, one on either side of the roof of the central part of the building. Alas, rather than being Roman goddesses or Greek nymphs the statues are of two Korean workers. I almost forgot to mention the omnipresent pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il which adorn the façade of the station as they do every other public building in the country.
In addition to domestic services the only international services operating from Pyongyang at present are services to Beijing and Moscow though in both cases rolling stock is generally not North Korean, this being decoupled from the train at Sinuiju on the Chinese border. Trains on the line to Seoul currently terminate at Kaesong about 2kms north of the border with South Korea. With the exception of three very short branch lines all train lines in North Korea are electrified.
Being a great fan of trains I jumped at the opportunity to take to Pyongyang – Beijing train though did do a stopover in Sinuiju on the way out of North Korea. This trip from Pyongyang is the subject of a separate review on my North Korea page – Getting out of the DPRK by Train.
I was hoping that when we got to the station for our trip out we would have had a good opportunity to have a look around. Sadly, that wasn’t to be as we were shepherded into what was obviously a VIP style lounge for international travellers on the right hand side of the building (looking at it face on). While jaded the lounge was well appointed with sofas (complete with crocheted back and arm covers) and a small shop. The walls were decorated with a small amount of revolutionary artwork and yet more pictures of the Leaders. It was unclear as to whether photography was permitted inside the station or not hence my single rather poor quality picture. Surprisingly, there was no problem whatsoever with taking pictures on the platform.
As our train pulled onto the extremely spacious Platform One we were invited to board. We had received our tickets (picture 5) when our passports were returned to us en route to the station. Interestingly the main ticket and terms and conditions (which you cant see on my attached picture) are in Korean, Russian and German with no Chinese even though that is where all international trains go, at least in the first instance.
For those who have joined me on my tour of Pyongyang from the main page this is my last review. I invite you to return to my Pyongyang page now and leave a comment as I greatly appreciate the feedback. Thank you for joining me. I trust you enjoyed reading my reviews as much as I enjoyed writing them.
The Bright Lights of Pyongyang
Readers familiar with North Korea and those who have read my general review - Enjoy the darkness and bring a Torch on my North Korea Page may be rather perplexed or confused by the apparent contradiction suggested by the title of this review.
Compared to the rest of the country Pyongyang is actually ablaze with lights (at least until around 10pm when most of them go out) but when compared with other cities of 3 million people elsewhere it is seriously lacking in the lighting department. The one exception to the 10pm switch-off is the Juche Tower (picture 2) which remains lit up all night. It is also immune to power outages having its own generator backup. The lights, of course, can never go out on the Great Leader's Juche Idea about which you can read more in my separate review -The Tower of the Juche Idea.
The purpose of this review is not to suggest that all is well on the lighting / electricity front in Pyongyang (it is not) but merely to let the reader see that there are a few things lit up at night and they are worth a look should the opportunity arise. Others of my reviews on this page also include night shorts of particular sites. In particular I think the Arch of Triumph looks especially beautiful at night.
The illuminated Ch’angjon Street Apartment Complex in my main picture is a very recent addition to the Pyongyang skyine having been constructed mid 2012 – thankfully the neon lights are static.
So ends our tour of Pyongyang - do meet me at the Railway Station in the morning.
Fun, Fun, Fun in the DPRK
Having read about the experience of other tourists going to a funfair in Pyongyang I was really looking forward to our visit to the funfair and not because I particularly needed to go to North Korea to have a ride on a roller coaster or in a dodgem car. The attraction was that the funfair tourists typically went to was a rusted and rundown 1950s affair, portrayed as the latest and greatest by guides.
I think the one tourists previously got to visit was the Mangyongdae Funfair on the outskirts of the city which (spoilsport) Kim Jong-un visited in 2012. While there it is reported that he severely rebuked management for their ‘below zero spirit’ and ordered a cleanup which he started when, on seeing some weeds, he "with an irritated look, plucked them up one by one". I suspect tourists have not been taken there since.
As such when we did get to the funfair it was to one in close proximity to the Arch of Triumph. It was modern and while a little lacking in the lighting department it equated to a funfair of its size anywhere else in the world. While it was pleasant to visit it was not what I had anticipated seeing so in that regard a disappointment.
What did differ from back home was the lack of noise made by visitors – no smiling, laughing or screaming here (which on reflection is a fair reflection of Pyongyang - the City). People queued in an orderly manner, waited their turn in virtual silence, took their ride and went on to the next ride – all rather mechanical but fun, fun, fun DPRK style.
What also differed was how the funfair operated (at least for us). As we could not pay for rides (local currency required) we moved from one ride to another in a group and those that wanted to go on a particular ride did so while everyone else watched. The number who went on each ride was recorded by our special funfair guide. Though it was late, after 9pm when we got there, and the locals were dispersing we, as special guests, got to jump the queue at each ride
While I thought this was a little unfair it does happen everywhere – you pay more and you get a VIP pass, express entry, etc, etc. The rides cost between one and three euros each. While not expensive by western standards, I imagine this was many multiples of the cost for locals and thus part of the reason we didn’t have to queue.
When we had finished, or more precisely, when the park was closing at 10pm, we paid our guide, in euros, for the rides we had taken and the guide organised payment to the park in local currency.
Not a highlight for me but pleasant nonetheless.
On exiting the park we were treated to a beautiful lit up view of the Arch of Triumph - this in itself made the visit worthwhile.
While we went straight back to the hotel after the funfair I think this is an appropriate point to include what is my penultimate review (if you have followed the journey from my main page) on Pyongyang - The Bright Lights of Pyongyang.
- Theme Park Trips
I am not a big beer drinker but do like the odd one every now and then. I didn’t really expect much in this department in North Korea though I did know that the beer and water would be included with lunch and dinner.
The beer we were served wasn’t bad. Clearly the brewers had taken heed of Kim Jong-il’s 2002 on-the-spot guidance when he exhorted that what was essential was to 'keep beer tasty' and that 'to produce the best quality beer it is necessary to conduct tireless research'. In reviews, North Korean beers typically out rate their Southern counterparts – Kim Jong-un must be pleased. My final photo attached (courtesy Korean Central News Agency) is of the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il inspecting some beer somewhere – I suspect he’s thinking he will stick with the Hennessy brandy he was famed for drinking.
Some of the local mass produced variety (the State owned Taedonggang brand of which is produced in a English brewery moved lock, stock and barrel to Pyongyang in 2000) came in a number of varieties which I could differentiate by a number. As I recall, I sampled numbers 10, 11 and 12 and one (I think it was 11) greatly outshone the other two. For those not wishing to partake of North Korean beer the only foreign option readily available was Heineken. This is the only foreign beer I saw but then again I wasn’t seeking it out. Many varieties of foreign spirits were available In our hotels and the restaurants we ate in – I don’t know if this translates to them being available to the masses.
You may have noticed that I specifically referred to ‘mass produced’ beer above. What came as a complete surprise to me was that there are at least three micro breweries in Pyongyang. One of these, and the only one I didn’t visit, was in our hotel – the Yanggakdo. Apparently lots of places in North Korea make their own beer – they just don’t badge/market it as something special like these three outlets do.
After enjoying a children’s variety performance at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace we visited the larger and more traditional pub looking micro-brewery, the Taedonggang Craft Brewery, which offered a range of around 12 boutique beers ranging from dark ales to light coloured beer. While all beers listed were not available when we visited sufficient numbers were to allow our group to sample quite a few. From my non expert perspective the beers I tasted were top class.
A few days later after our walk along the Taedong River we visited the Rakwon Paradise Microbrewery. This outlet is much smaller than the other one and due to another tour group arriving just before us we had difficulty getting a seat. Notwithstanding that, again a good range of beers was available and it tasted as good as what we had at the Taedonggang Craft Brewery.
The clientele at both establishments was clearly tour groups and local expatriates with a small sprinkling of better off North Koreans - so hardly what the guides described as local bars. Certainly a nice treat though.
I have to admit that the title of this review is not my creation but copied from Wired.co.uk – I do like it. I have included this review under things to do rather than nightlife, etc as in North Korea you don't, as a tourist, just pop out for a beer - it's an organised event.
After an hour or so in the Rakwon Paradise Microbrewery we had dinner in a nearby restaurant. When that was over at about 9pm it still wasn't time to return to the hotel on this our last night in Pyongyang - we were now off to the funfair !
- Arts and Culture
- Beer Tasting
Cranes bound for heaven?
On the last day of our time in Pyongyang we got to go for a (guided) walk along the bank of the Taedong River. As I have indicated in my review of that walk it could have been a walk along a river anywhere but when we reached the sculpture in the attached picture, at the end of the walk, I was somewhat taken aback.
My goodness, had I come across a non-politically inspired sculpture, art for arts sake? If I had it would be the first (and last) encountered on our trip. On approaching the sculpture I saw the guide telling a few of our group about it but by the time I arrived ( I had drifted back a bit along the walk, but, dear reader, do not worry there was a minder taking up the rear) the guides explanation had finished.
I have since been unable to find any information on the sculpture but I suspect that it is not art for the sake of art. From other reviews I have written, you will be aware that pretty much everything done in North Korea is for the glorification of the Kim dynasty and, presuming the sculpture was produced in the Mansudae Art Studio it would certainly be politically inspired.
On the basis of other reading I have done I suspect the sculpture is of five Manchurian cranes.
On the death of both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il various strange super natural phenomena occurred all over North Korea and many of these involved cranes.
In the case of Kim Il-sung, 1000 angelic cranes descended from the sky to bring the Great Leader up to heaven. Having seen the sombre and grieving state of the people and their evident need for the Great Leader here on earth the cranes returned without the Leader who shortly afterwards became the Eternal President of the DPRK and still rules the country from his Mausoleum in the Palace of the Sun on the outskirts of Pyongyang.
When the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, died it is reported that in addition to the mountains glowing crimson and bears weeping by the roadside, a crane flew around a statue of his father, Kim Il Sung, before sitting on a tree with its head drooped in grief while another crane mysteriously stiffened and died on a tree branch that stood close to where Kim Jong Il had posed for a photo some years earlier.
As the cranes in this sculpture are heaven bound I assume it commemorates the death of Kim Il-sung.
For us, the sight of the cranes was surely a sign from heaven that it was time for a drink. Low and behold a pub appeared into which we made our way.
- Historical Travel
- Arts and Culture
A Walk in Pyongyang
Something I love doing, and always do, when I visit somewhere is to go out and just walk. This, in my view, is by far the best way to get to know a place.
In Pyongyang (and elsewhere in North Korea) we could go nowhere without our guide and walking around the streets by ourselves was absolutely forbidden. Our hotel, the %l[http://members.virtualtourist.com/m/p/m/23bccf/ ]Yanggakdo International is nicknamed the Pyongyang Alcatraz for good reason.
If groups ‘behave themselves’ and can be thus trusted to walk down the street (in the company of guides, off course) then towards the end of their stay they will indeed get to go for a walk. Our group must have been especially good because not only did we get to walk, on our last evening in Pyongyang, down a pretty deserted Sungri Street from the Pyongyang Grand Theatre to Kim Il-sung Square we got to go return a similar distance to our next destination, the Rakwon Paradise Microbrewery, along a path by the Teadong River. All up, a walk of maybe three kilometres. The other (naughty) group, which we encountered at regular intervals, didn’t get to have a walk but instead went straight to the Microbrewery (pub) when we commenced our walk. The only downside of us walking was that when we got to the Microbrewery all the seats were taken - a reasonable price to pay for getting to go for a walk, though.
Given the restriction on the number of pictures I can add here I haven’t included any from the walk to Kim Il-sung square. Pictures of the Pyongyang Grand Theatre and Kim Il-sung Square can be seen on reviews related to these locations and it was along this street that I took the photo’s included in my Shopping in Pyongyang review. Also, an empty street is an empty street. The buzz was to be able to walk down a street in Pyongyang which, granted, doesn’t sound like much but, trust me, you think it is when you are there. Unfortunately this buzz cannot be reflected in a photograph!
‘The buzz’ continued as, after viewing Kim Il-sung Square and the Tower of Juche Idea across the river for one last time, we started our return walk along the river. This part of the walk was just like a walk along a nice river on a beautiful afternoon anywhere – most enjoyable. People were out enjoying a stroll, reading a book (with a Kim Jong-un haircut of the type many western media sources mischievously claimed was mandatory around the time of my visit– picture 2), boating on the lake, fishing and generally enjoying a nice afternoon by the river though not in the numbers one would expect in a city with a population of three million.
As was the case almost everywhere else, there was no interaction with the local people – it was as if we were invisible. Interaction with foreigners is not permitted and tourists engaging with locals run a real risk of getting them into serious trouble. That’s sad.
Our lovely walk ended all to soon as the group reassembled at a sculpture of some cranes which seemed totally out of place in Pyongyang - but as you know there is a reason for everything in Pyongyang - nothing is out of place. Let me tell you about this crane sculpture.
Some Revolutionary Opera?
Having read my review of the Korean Feature Film Studio, read of Kim Jong-il’s contribution to the cinema industry and the arts in general and seen various references to revolutionary army choirs, revolutionary operas and much, much, more in various of my reviews you will, by now, be very excited to know where you can partake of these things should you visit Pyongyang though, perhaps because three hours plus of revolutionary opera or lengthy non-subtitled movies might get a bit boring, they do not often appear on the itinerary of most visitors - as they didn't on mine.
While I enjoyed the children’s show at the Mansudae Children’s Palace it only lasted an hour – any more and well hmmmm…. That said, I think it would be quite an experience see the army choir, the orchestra, etc but possibly not for three hours. If all that sounds too much perhaps Hamlet by London’s Globe Theatre in 2015 may be more to you liking. This planned visit by the Globe Theatre will not be the first major overseas performance in North Korea by an overseas arts group. Readers may recall the 2008 visit of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
One of the nice things about socialist (and here Juche) inclined governments is their strong support for the arts and making them readily and cheaply accessible to the people. As such, Pyongyang has a plethora of theatres and cinemas and a couple of residents circus’ ( and no, the Supreme People’s Assembly is not one of the latter!)
My attached pictures feature a few of the theatres and a cinema though the theatres also double up as cinemas. I have also prepared a separate review on the beautiful neo-classical Moranbong Theatre due to its historical significance.
Of the remaining theatres, the Pyongyang Grand Theatre (picture 1), due to its incorporation of traditional Korean architecture, is the must stunning looking. It was opened in 1960 and renovated in 2009. Also, of particular interest here are the murals which depict North Korea’s most critically acclaimed movies, operas and a play.
The two murals on either side of the theatre’s facade depict two movies personally directed by Kim Jong-il. On the left in my picture is a depiction of Sea of Blood and on the right, Flower Girl. The original Sea of Blood, an opera, was, we were told, written by Kim Il-sung - opera writing being just one of his multifarious talents.
The murals on a large display to the right of the theatre (picture 2) rather beautifully depict from left to right:
• Speak, Forest! (Revolutionary Opera)
• The Faithful Daughter of the Party (Revolutionary Opera)
• Song of Mount Kumgang (Revolutionary Opera)
• Seonghwangdang (name of a temple) (Revolutionary Opera)
• With Anger Bloody Ten-Thousand Countries (Revolutionary Drama)
And I missed out on seeing even one of them!
You got to admire the artwork, all of which would, I am sure, have been done at the Mansudae Arts Studio.
Not having seen any of these works I cannot personally recommend them but the Pyongyang Grand Theatre is certainly worth a look in itself. Not even our VT Opera buff, Nemorimo (Don) in Frankfurt, has had the pleasure of seeing a North Korean Revolutionary opera yet.
The next review I invite you to look at is Shopping in Pyongyang which actually covers 'the sights' along the first part of our city walk which I don't really cover in my actual review of the walk itself,
- Theater Travel
- Arts and Culture
Three Revolutions Exhibition
Set in a sprawling concrete park, on the outskirts of the city, are six buildings detailing the ‘three revolutions’ brought about by Kim Il-sung in postwar Korea – the Great Leader’s ideological, technical and cultural revolutions.
These revolutions are covered in six buildings which detail North Korea’s advances in electronics, heavy industry, light industry, agriculture, technology and class education (I am still not so sure what that is). The whole place was deserted and indeed I am tempted to conclude that many of the buildings were likewise empty. We got to see inside the electronics cum planetarium building and examine an assortment of vehicles produced in North Korea, displayed in the open air about half way down the park.
Prior to entering the electronics building our special Exhibition guide explained what was in each of the other buildings – all of course the brainchild of Kim Il-sung. Requests by various members of the group to visit other buildings were turned down due to lack of time.
The most interesting (not necessarily because of its contents but rather its shape) building in the park is the planetarium, a spherical building in the likeness of Saturn, with a ring. This was to be the primary attraction of our visit. To get there we had to go through the electronics hall, through which were shuffled at high speed. On our exit I ventured into the centre of the cavernous, cold and dimly lit main hall (unescorted – yes, how naughty of me!). What I found was an array of glass cases displaying the most boring assortment of 1960s-80s ‘junk’ that I have seen anywhere. I now realised the reason for our guide’s earlier haste.
Back to the planetarium, which I have to say was one of the most peculiar experiences of my life.
Our education began with a guided tour of a reasonable display of North Korea’s space program which included models of the rockets which, we were told, delivered into space the four North Korean satellites currently orbiting the earth.
Other non North Korean sources suggest that three rockets fell into the sea just after takeoff while a fourth (in late 2012) managed to get a satellite into orbit which ‘seemed to be tumbling and was probably out of control’ and as such there are no North Korean satellites orbiting anything. Western sources claim that all the launches were veiled ballistic missile tests.
It would appear that somebody is telling porkies!
Having been put right on the rockets and satellites, we were asked to sit down for an astronomy presentation. Having done so, the planetarium was plunged into darkness while stars and planets were projected onto the inside of the dome. The stars and planets moved before our eyes while we listened to a high pitched commentary more suited to an audience of three year olds. The present audience tried hard to conceal its laughter but couldn’t, especially when the guide tried following stars around the sky with a red laser pointer. To have followed the guides pointer (as we were requested to do) at the speed he was moving it we would have fallen of our chairs and been sick within a minute. For this point on we did find it hard to remain on our chairs as the whole group became convulsed in laughter.
The pièce de résistance would have been to see one thousand angelic cranes descend from the heavens as they did on the death of the Great Leader in 1994 but that little pleasure was denied us. You can read more about the cranes in my separate review - Cranes bound for heaven?
Having been enlightened and re-educated in the planetarium we visited a display of vehicles produced in North Korea. Needless to say, given my love for trains, I was most attracted to the two trains on display but also on display was a tractor, bulldozer, mechanical digger, army truck and a bus. While certainly not as amusing or enlightening as the planetarium this display was nonetheless interesting and for the only time on our trip I was the last person back on the bus.
But back on the bus I went as the ultimate reward was now to bestowed upon us back in the City. We were going to go for a walk down a main street and along the Taedong River. Our bus took us to where our walk would commence - the beautiful Pyongyang Grand Theatre - home of opera in Pyongyang.
- Museum Visits
Pyongyang Traffic Ladies
In the otherwise dull and drab streets of Pyongyang are to be found these beacons of colour – the beautiful Pyongyang traffic ladies (police).
The need for traffic police, in terms of managing traffic flow at least, is highly questionable given the paucity of vehicular traffic in Pyongyang and the wide boulevards and roads that the little there is has to travel on.
Given Kim Jong-il's known fondness for beautiful young ladies it would have come as no surprise to me if I had heard that the female traffic ladies were his brain child, but no, they were founded by his father, the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung. It is said that in the early days he actually personally interviewed and selected them himself. Apparently the Great Leader was of the view that beautiful young ladies directing the traffic was good for road safety as male drivers (females were not permitted to drive here until fairly recently though it is still very rare to see one driving) would pay more attention on the roads than they otherwise might.
While the traffic police includes men and women and indeed men predominate, 99% of those performing point duty (directing traffic) in Pyongyang are female who, based on the guidance of the Great Leader, must be unmarried, beautiful, healthy, between 16 and 26, at least 1.65 metres tall and have graduated from high school. They have an array of uniforms suited to the weather – the ones in my photos are in late spring/ early summer attire – distinguished via black boots (winter/spring) v black shoes and white socks (spring/summer). I do like the look of the furs they wear in the winter. Their wardrobe can be viewed on the site I refer to later in this review.
It is amazing to watch these ladies go about their duty in robotic maneuvers that would seem less out of place in a ballet. Each move is calculated, precise and decisive. The sight of a black car (99% government vehicles) solicits a salute as does the wave of a cameraless tourist, from the more open and perhaps more mischievous ladies – do give it a go.
Being classified military personnel, taking photos of the traffic ladies is technically forbidden but this is not enforced. That said, these camera shy young ladies have the eyes of a hawk and the merest move of a camera will result in them turning their back on you. You have to be quick or have a decent zoom lens.
Lest anyone think these ladies are mere tourist attractions I can assure you they are not. While I was waiting outside the foreign language bookshop for others to complete their shopping a trolleybus broke down on the major intersection in front of me. Given the every limited amount of other traffic the breakdown certainly wasn’t causing any problem to traffic flow. Nevertheless, the traffic lady marched over and, while I couldn’t hear and wouldn’t have understood it anyway, very firm instructions were given to the driver to remove his vehicle. There was no discussion, the driver returned to the vehicle and moved it, probably causing significant damage to it and the overhead power lines in the process.
My final picture shows one of the few male traffic police in Pyongyang, but common outside the city. This officer was responsible for the free flow of buses outside the Kim Il-Sung Stadium on the day of the Pyongyang Marathon. Again his instructions were obeyed without question or comment.
At one stage, a few years ago, when traffic lights were introduced there was talk that the traffic ladies would be phased out. When it dawned on the authorities that traffic lights needed a steady supply of electricity to function properly, something which Pyongyang doesn’t have, it was decided that the traffic ladies would be retained. As such, many of them are now relegated to standing by the roadside monitoring the traffic lights and intervening as necessary when they break down.
The traffic ladies of Pyongyang have attained something of a cult status both within and outside North Korea. There is even a website (based outside North Korea) - http://www.pyongyangtrafficgirls.com/ “dedicated to the world-renowned trafficwomem of the DPRK”.
I suspect the traffic ladies of Pyongyang are there to stay and as tourist numbers increase I predict their numbers will also increase. In an otherwise non-commercially orientated country, Pyongyang traffic barbies (dolls) can be picked up in most souvenir shops.
We were now rapidly approaching the end of our time in Pyongyang but there was still one more 'museum' to be visited - Three Revolutions Exhibition before something a bit more relaxing. So, back on the bus please!
- Arts and Culture
Like the Pyongyang Metro and taxis I include a review of Pyongyang’s trolley-buses under ‘things to do’ as opposed to ‘transportation’ as they are not the latter for a tourist.
Until very recently, about a month after my visit in April 2014, tourists did not get to ride on a trolley-bus. Looking at my pictures attached you might think that is no big deal or, in fact, a good thing.
A short trip on a trolley-bus is now featuring on some tours. It is another one of these things, like a walk in the street, that are a must do only because you are in North Korea.
The trolley-buses, given the severe shortage of private vehicles and the exorbitant cost of, only recently introduced, taxis, are the number one form of transport for locals, if you exclude walking. They are very cheap and generally very crowded even though, in more recent times four tram lines were introduced using old east European trams plus some flashier Swiss ones (one of which I sighted dropping of dignitaries at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun (The Kim’s Mausoleum). A former, early 1900s, tram system ceased operations during the Korean War. I do wonder why there are not more cycles in this very flat city. Interestingly, it is only very recently since ladies have been permitted to engage in the very unladylike activity of cycling in the City.
While there are a few east European trolley-buses in operation most of them were actually hand produced in the Pyongyang trolley-bus factory which apparently does not have suitable hydraulic presses. This accounts for all (ok, maybe not all) of the dents in the panels, attributable to the hand hammering of the sheet metal. The trolleybus network is supported by regular buses – perhaps in the hope that if they have no fuel for the diesel buses they will have electricity for the trolley-buses and vice-versa.
What makes the trolley-buses of particular interest to me is, sadly, their rather decrepit appearance and their constant breaking down. When we visited the Foreign Language Bookshop one broke down on the intersection while we were waiting to move on. While the Pyongyang Traffic Police lady on duty had it moved on (picture 3) in very quick time we had the opportunity to get a few photos though photography was also banned with a couple of minutes on the arrival of a soldier. If you have read some of my other tips you will be aware that taking the photo of anything likely to be construed as painting North Korea in a bad light it illegal.
Do note the coloured tin foil used in place of brake lights, indicators etc on the back of the trolley-bus in picture 2. This was actually a regular sight, though not really a problem given the lack of traffic in the city.
The trolley buses, ramshackle though they are, represent an era in Pyongyang and long may they rumble though its streets.
In this review I mentioned a Pyongyang Traffic Police lady - let me now tell you a little more about this Pyongyang institution.
- Historical Travel
Kim Il-sung Square
Many readers will have seen video and pictures from North Korea showing parades of thousands of goose stepping soldiers (and they do it very well) and armoured vehicles carrying the most up to date military hardware including rockets and missiles (though many are just mock-ups) passing a review stand of the military top brass, barely able to stand upright due to the weight of medals on their tunics.
These parades are held here in Kim Il-sung Square, North Korea's main square, right in the heart of Pyongyang. The square was set up in 1954 and, while much smaller than its counterparts in Beijing and Moscow, it can accommodate over 100,000 people. As I understand it, tourists do not get to enter the square when military displays or parades are being held. In addition to our normal sightseeing here during the day, we were fortunate enough to be let join thousands of people celebrating the Eternal Leaders 102nd birthday fireworks display. I have written a separate review on the fireworks.
I have always wondered how the goose stepping soldiers seem to march in such perfect straight lines and how the positioning of soldiers, etc within the Sqaure is always spot on. Well, now the secret is out! Of course they practice and practice but also thousands of guiding white dots are painted on the ground (picture 5).
The Square is surrounded on three sides by major buildings – the most impressive of which is the Grand People’s Study House which, as you can see (picture 2), has large pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il displayed in front of it and just behind a large grandstand where all the important people (read military) sit for displays, parades and other events in the square. Pictures of Marx and Lenin adorned other buildings until the square was refurbished in 2012 for the 100th birthday celebrations of Kim Il-sung. Marx and Lenin were removed on the order of Kim Jong-un at which time the former dour picture of Kim I-sung was also replaced with a smiling Kim Il-sung and he was joined by Kim Jong-il. By 2012 (actually somewhat earlier) the Soviet Union/Russia had ceased to be a benevolent benefactor of North Korea and the new Leader no longer wished to be associated with a brand of communism which had failed, unlike his grandfather’s Juche brand which was alive and well.
The other main buildings, of classic communist architecture on the square are the Korean National Art Gallery (picture 5), the Korean Central History Museum (picture 3) and the Worker’s Party of Korea Headquarters (picture 4). We did not get to enter any of these building but the displays on top of many of these buildings are amazing examples of soviet inspired propaganda.
The other side of the square is the west bank of the Taedong River, across which and directly opposite the square is the Tower to the Juche Idea (more commonly referred to as the Juche Tower). When the square was laid in 1954 the centre of it was made slightly lower than the riverbank giving the illusion that the Juche Tower is situated on the east side of the square as opposed to the other side of the river.
The Square is best viewed from the balcony of the Grand People’s Study House. The view from the top of the Juche Tower is also good but was spoiled a little by the fact that the sun was in the wrong place when we went up the Tower. We had ample opportunity to walk around in the square itself which I found a much pleasanter experience than strolling around a more open and impersonal Tienanmen Square in Beijing though people were strangely absent for this central city square.
Within about 50 metres walk from the Square is the Foreign Language Bookshop. Time to stock up on some quality reading material.
- Historical Travel
Grand People’s Study House (Part 2)
In part one of my review I provided a broad overview of the Study House/ library. In this review I will cover the library’s resources available to the people.
The Grand People’s Study House is said to contain 30 million volumes and other articles including the 10,800 works of Kim Il-sung and, perhaps more famously among tourists, it does contain an encyclopedia on chickens which forms part of the library’s English Language collection. While Kim Il-sung's works include a substantial amount of guidance notes based on this visits to factories, farms, schools, etc they also include an opera, a number of songs, poetry, text books, histories and of course his teachings, most importantly his writings on his Juche Idea (his philosophy of self reliance based on independence and his own peculiar brand of socialism).
For a building that is supposed to contains 30 million books we saw very few (picture 1) though we were assured by our guides that the books are primarily in stacks not directly accessible to the public. To get a book you must locate it in the catalogues (partly card/partly computerised) and ask the librarians to bring it to you. It will arrive via a rather cute little conveyor belt system.
From the library’s ‘substantial, foreign language collection we sighted four items including that famous encyclopedia on chickens (picture 5). Access to foreign language books and, some say, Korean books older than 15 years is carefully controlled and not available to all “the people”.
Given the size of the building (or being cynical, because there was nothing in them) we did not have time to enter but a few of the rooms in the Study House. Should you have more time on your visit you might want to see if your guide can get access for you to room 1004 where you will find the “Works of Kim Il-Sung and books on his greatness” or room 2012 an “Area of Education through Revolutionary Materials”. Before you leave the Study House, while in the bookshop/café, don’t forget to pick up your copy of Kim Jong-un’s 2012 work “Let us accomplish the revolutionary cause of Juche, holding Kim Jong-il in high esteem as the Eternal General Secretary of our Party”. By all accounts a riveting read!
While we were unable to visit rooms 1004 and 2012 we did get to see reading rooms (picture 2) lecture rooms; internet rooms (North Korean internet only available); revolutionary artwork adorning the corridors; language laboratories (picture 3) where we were able to give ‘on the spot guidance’, just like the Leaders, to students practicing their English; music appreciation rooms where western music, including Madonna’s True Blue album, was available though we got to hear the Beetles (picture 4 – you got to dig the boom boxes!); and television viewing rooms where western material was not available for viewing.
As an observant person you will have noticed the pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il hanging at the front of every room pictured and how desks are aligned such that visitors merely need to look up for the ‘heavenly guidance’ of Leaders past, though eternal. Speaking of things heavenly, I was rather surprised to hear that US evangelist Billy Graham once visited the Study House. I doubt if he would have found much literature here to his liking.
For a building that has, according to our guide, around 12,000 visitors per day it was remarkably empty during our visit. Perhaps they were all in rooms 1004 and 2012.
On completing this part of the tour we were guided into the bookshop/café on one of the upper floors. To be honest there was not a lot of interest here and we quickly made out way out onto the balcony which overlooks Kim Il-sung Square and which generally affords wonderful views across the city. My last picture in Part One of this review is the view down into Kim Il-sung Square with the Juche Tower in the background just across the river.
Now that you have seen it from the balcony of the Grand People’s Study House, let's go down to Kim Il-sung Square for a closer look.
- Museum Visits
- Arts and Culture
Grand People’s Study House (Part 1)
In the first part of this two part review I will comment on the building itself and the first floor (or more precisely the floor that we entered on as it may or may not be deemed the first floor of this ten story building). In part two of the review I will guide the reader through the resources available within the Study House.
One of the most striking buildings in downtown Pyongyang is the Grand People’s Study House built in traditional Korean style – a welcome relief to me from the more common Soviet style architecture found in the city. It is one of numerous structures built in 1982 in celebration of Kim Il-sung's 70th birthday and was, reportedly, ‘started under the wise initiative of Dear Comrade Kim Jong-il and under his attentive guidance it was completed in a year and nine months”.
Situated at the rear (away from the river) of Kim Il-sung Square, it serves as a backdrop for speeches, military parades and other events held in the square. With its large pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il (picture 1) it is reminiscent of Tian'anmen Gate and Mao’s image on the northern side of Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
The Grand People’s Study House is a 600 room library and centre of Juche studies for ‘the people’ enshrining and promoting Kim Il-sung's educational philosophy of 'study while working', not to mention promoting a greater respect and love for the Kim family. Our guide informed us that by way the most popular topic of study and research here is Kim Il-sung's Juche Idea (or self reliance philosophy). It is no coincidence that the Juche Tower is in direct line of sight across the river from the Study House (picture 5).
On entering the Study House our first duty was to pay our respects to Kim Il-sung by bowing in front of his imposing white granite statue positioned in front of a mosaic picture of Mt. Paekdu just inside the entrance of the building. I draw the readers special attention to this statue (picture 3) as it is the largest of many such indoor statues in North Korea which the visitor is allowed to photograph. As such, hopefully it gives the reader an inkling of many more (larger and much grander ones) which we were not permitted to photograph. The white colour of this and most of the other larges statue located in otherwise empty rooms invariably brought a slightly ghostly and eerie feeling to me.
Having completed our duty here we moved into a grand lobby area with retro-Soviet chandeliers and marble Romanesque columns. On display here was a large collection of pictures depicting the activities of the current leader Kim Jong-un. The majority of the display recounted his tours of the country though pictures of him giving guidance in factories, in workplaces, to the army and to farmers. I found this (temporary) display very interesting and would like to have had more time here. It was particularly interesting to see how everyone seems to hang onto every word the Leader utters as he travels around. Of course, not to do so would have consequences.
The time allotted to this area having expired we moved on into the main part of the Study House which is the subject of part two of this review. Do join me there.
- Arts and Culture