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.
- Arts and Culture
- Museum Visits
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
The Pyongyang Embroidery Institute
Sometimes while on a tour you end up going to places and seeing things you would otherwise not choose to go to or see and so it was that I ended up at the Pyongyang Embroidery Institute. Sometimes these unwanted side trips can turn out to be a real treat as this one did.
Not regularly visited by tourists (and I suspect used as a space filler on some tours) the Pyongyang Embroidery Institute is nestled in the shadows of the, as yet uncompleted, Ryugyong Hotel. While it can trace its roots back to early in the 20th century and the Japanese occupation of Korea it has only been at its current location since 1978.
What made the Institute special or different was that I could not come up with any evidence of Kim Il-sung, or his successors, offering any on-the-spot guidance to the ladies in their embroidery endeavours. That said, the Great Leader did visit the Institute and pictures on the wall testify to this. Have I identified a gap in the knowledge of the omnipotent Great Leader ? Not necessarily so – on-the spot-guidance for the Institute was provided by his first wife, Kim Jong-suk. Madam Kim, the ‘Revolutionary Mother of the DPRK’ visited the Institute many times prior to her premature death, aged 29, in 1949 from ‘the hardships she had endured during the years as a guerrilla fighter’.
We were told that around 70 ladies currently work in the Institute and were able to see a number of ladies at work. Their work was exquisite so it was no surprise to learn that they have produced many internationally award winning pieces. Not surprisingly, many of the works have a revolutionary theme and/or depict beautiful Korean maidens (perhaps in the image or memory of Kim Jong-suk?). In addition to these works the gentler side of the artists is displayed in less politically motivated work.
As well as being able to visit the workshops we were also able to see a significant collection of finished works in an onsite shop.
A lot of very beautiful work on display here and I am certainly glad a stop here was included on our tour.
After lunch we finally got to visit a building that I have referred to a number of times on this page - the Grand People’s Study House - a library and so much more for the people.
- Arts and Culture
Korean Feature Film Studio (2) – The Film Sets
If you have not read the first part of this review Korean Feature Film Studio (2) I recommend that you do so before reading this part.
In the knowledge that the North Korean film industry only produces patriotic and revolutionary historical epics (no need for the masses to see Kim Jong-il’s private collection or anything else) the film sets at the studio are restricted to an ancient Korea village, a 1920s Japanese street, a 1950s South Korean street, a traditional rural village and a number of seemingly unrelated European buildings.
On the first set (the ancient Korean village) visitors can hire, for a Euro, traditional Korean costumes and wander around the set. A group of North Koreans, visiting at the same time as us, found westerners in traditional Korean costume rather amusing and the tables turned a bit to have them photographing us rather than the other way round.
All the sets, with the exception of the South Korean street, were fairly representative of the real thing. The 1950s South Korean street rather amusingly depicts a brothel, massage parlour, an STD clinic and suchlike – exactly how North Koreans depict the South and in particular Seoul which has lost its way and given in to the wickednesses and vices of the United States.
While most foreign imperialist parts in movies are played by over made up North Koreans a few US defectors living in Pyongyang have acted in a number of films to high acclamation from local film goers. Getting suitably skilled people for his films was not a problem for Kim Jong-il. There is a famous instance in the late 1970s of him kidnapping an actress from Hong Kong and when her ex-husband, a film director, went to Hong Kong in search of his ex-wife he was also abducted and brought to North Korea. They managed to escape, but not until 1986 and after staring in and directing numerous films including Pulgasari, a rip-off of Godzilla.
Unfortunately no filming was taking place when we visited and the visit did not include a visit to post production, editing or any other parts of the complex. One can, reasonably, conclude from this that such facilities are basic and our time was better spent visiting something that portrayed the Leaders and country in a better, more positive light.
Continuing with the art theme of this morning out next stop was an embroidery centre inspired by, no less than the Great Leader’s first wife, Kim Jong-suk.
- Theater Travel
- Arts and Culture
Korean Feature Film Studio (1)
Having spent a number of days in North Korea it was time to visit the Korean Feature Film Studio, or more specifically the film sets as we did not get into the studios themselves.
Many would argue, and with some justification, that the whole of North Korea is like a film set where everything is stage managed and has an air of artificiality about it. I have explored this thought in a separate review on my North Korea page - Be an Extra on the World's Largest Film Set? – so will limit this review (and another) to the Feature Film Studio.
The State run film studio, founded in 1947, is located on the north western side of Pyongyang but you don’t really need to know that as your trusty tour bus will take you there.
Arriving at the film studio, our first port of call was a large bronze statue of Kim Il-sung and some film-makers/actors. Formalities first, our first activity was to show our respects to the Great Leader by placing flowers on the statue and bowing. Immediately after we have paid our respects to the Great Leader a large group of men (pictur) immaculately dressed in dark blue suits, white shirts, a red tie and sporting berets did likewise. I am not suggesting anything untoward, but we didn’t see them again.
At this stage our guide (from the studio) outlined the history and work of the Studio drawing particular attention to the role played therein by Kim Il-sung and, particularly, Kim Jong-il. While the guide explained things we are able to admire a colourful mural depicting various movies scenes and movie related activity. The lady with the basket of flowers in the centre of the mural (picture 4) portrays one of two ‘immortal classics’ – Flower Girl (1972) – produced by Kim Jong-Il and based on a play supposedly written by Kim Il-sung.
Film production in North Korea (and thus the studio, as they are all made here) seems to have waned a bit since the death of Kim Jong-il. At its height around forty (highly debated) films per year were produced.
I mention Kim Jong-il as, while like his father and his son he dispensed guidance and direction on all things under the sun, he was particularly obsessed with movies and the industry flourished due to his direct and personal interest. His interest in films was not limited to the output of this studio. He had one of the largest private film collections in the world – reputedly 20,000 plus. It is said that his favourite film was ‘Gone with the Wind’ while his favourite actress was Elizabeth Taylor. Like Adolf Hitler, he had a particular liking for Disney movies and was a big fan of Daffy Duck. His otherwise general liking for James Bond movies was tarnished with the release of ‘Die Another Day’ in 2002 which depicted North Korea as a basket-case, evil state.
Back to the studio, while Kim Il-sung visited the studio around 20 times in his life, Kim Jong-il visited it around 600 times – he basically ran the show. In addition to being a bone fide cinephile he was also a film theorist, director, producer, costume maker, set designer, screenwriter, cameraman, sound engineer and more. In fact he awarded himself the title “ Genius of the Cinema”.
While he probably did have more personal knowledge and ability in these cinema than in most things he dispensed his guidance on, he must have been seen as a real, meddling pain in the butt by the real filmmakers at the studio, not that they would ever admit that, off course.
In his 1973 book “On the Art of the Cinema”, the bible for filmmakers in North Korea, he declared that “Creative work is not a mere job, but an honourable revolutionary task.” and when their immediate task is completed "Film artists go into reality. They help farmers in their work at the rice-transplanting season." No superstar status for actors here.
My main picture is courtesy of the BBC/ Lianain Films - I can't recall seeing if Kim Jong-il has joined his father atop the gate since this photo was taken. For some reason that fails me I neglected to take any photos of the entrance or of the main studio buildings. The other photos are mine.
Having been suitably briefed by our guide it was time to board the bus and head up the hill to the actual film sets used in North Korean movies. Do hop on for the ride up.
- Arts and Culture
- Theater Travel
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 ones 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 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
Street Advertising and Murals
Coming from outside North Korea (as all* of my readers will be) I am very aware of the impact of mass advertising on our lives and in particular advertising outside our homes which we cannot “turn off” or choose not to look at or hear, though of course few choose to do this and are bombarded with advertising, even within their homes.
The intrusiveness of all this advertising was very quickly brought home to me in North Korea because there is no, with one exception, commercial advertising in North Korea. Suddenly there was something missing in my life. The exception I refer to is a car company which has a bill board somewhere near the airport and perhaps one or two elsewhere. I missed the one at the airport and didn’t see any others. The only non-commercial advertising I saw were a few posters here and there for state run cultural events.
This lack of advertising makes for what most visitors would term a dull streetscape, especially noticeable in Pyongyang, a city of some three million people. Imagine your local town or city with no advertising and that includes shop names and window displays.
What they do have in North Korea, and especially so in Pyonyyang, is murals, statues, pictures, etc of the leaders and revolutionary and patriotic successes (some imagined). If you have read others of my reviews on this and my other North Korean pages you will have seen many of these, specific to particular sites or events.
I came to North Korea with the expectation (and, admittedly, hope) that there would be political propaganda in the form posters, murals, etc on every street corner. In reality this is simply not the case. In fact, there are very few murals or other propaganda displays on street corners and along the highways. What is there stands out because of the total lack of any other advertising. If the neon signs, bright lights, bill boards and other advertising found in an equivalently sized area of Seoul, Sydney or London were transplanted into Pyongyang the existing murals, etc would not even be noticed by visitors.
The pictures attached are of street side murals, etc which I was able to capture in Pyongyang. They are basically all I came across, and I was looking for them. I had honestly expected to find more and find much more provocative ones than I did. What there is of the provocative art (missiles hitting Uncle Sam and the like) is pretty much restricted to post-cards and tea-towels in the souvenir shops.
*unless the leadership or elite of North Korea with external internet access are looking in.
Many, if not all, of these murals would have been produced by the Mansudae Art Studio which also produced all of the statues and monuments in the Country.
- Arts and Culture
A City to be Proud off
One thing l noticed about Pyongyang was how clean and tidy the city (or certainly the parts there-of we got to see) was. There are two reasons for this – one proffered by our guide and an additional one added by me.
The guide will tell you that the cleanliness is due to the pride that citizens have in their beloved city. Rather than have paid council workers clean the streets, etc (though I imagine there would be some) a major part of the cleaning and beautification is carried out by local residents. Residents, including their children, (organised into work groups, working on a rota basis) on their day off normal work, ‘enthusiastically and lovingly’ engage in trimming or planting hedges and grass (blade by blade), watering grass and plants, picking up rubbish and painting the trunks of trees (pest control) and other beautification activity along the roads and in public areas of the city. This activity was particularly evident during our stay, as residents readied their streets and the city generally for Kim Il-sung's 102nd birthday celebrations.
What was explained to us as people planting grass (a new everlasting strain just developed by Kim Jong-un!) was greeted with some skeptism by a number of our group. This skeptism was based on well publicised stories of starving North Korean’s harvesting grass for human consumption. Personally, I believe that those we saw bent over containers of grass on roadside verges in Pyongyang were, in fact, planning it as opposed to harvesting it. I would need a lot more convincing that those bent over containers of grass along the country highways we travelled were planting as opposed to harvesting the grass.
I indicated that I felt there was an additional reason for the cleanliness of the city and that is that people have little to drop in the street in the first place. Counter to this argument is that 90% of North Korean males smoke (it is rare for females to smoke) and I do not recall seeing a cigarette butt anywhere in the city. Perhaps the penalties for littering are such that people do not litter!
It was a little unclear as to whether taking photos of this beautification activity was permitted or not. Did it fall under one of the prohibited categories such as taking photos of people going about their day to day business or taking photos of things that might portray the country in a bad light (certainly our taking photos of a broken down trolleybus was deemed to fall into the latter category and was thus prohibited)?
I have included photos here on the basis that they help portray the image of Pyongyang as a clean and tidy city in which the citizens take pride.
Another thing you will not see on the streets in Pyongyang is advertising billboards and the like unless you count pictures of the ex Leaders and the like advertising or perhaps street art - Let's have a look at some of the City's famous murals.
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 was 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 became the Eternal President of the DPRK and who 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 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 presume it commemorates the death of Kim Il-sung.
For us, the sight of the cranes was surely a sign that it was time for a drink. Low and behold a pub appeared into which we made our way.
- Historical Travel
- Arts and Culture
Children’s Palace (3) – School kids on Steroids
If you have not already read it, I recommend you start with Part (1) of this review.
Having spent countless hours practicing song, dance, aerobics, gymnastics, etc the reward for those reaching the requisite level is to get to show it off with military like precision, forced smiles and an over abundance of makeup in the 2,000 seat auditorium, to groups of tourists, other schoolchildren and local visitors.
The show lasted about an hour with no breaks and one act seamlessly flowing into the next. The talent displayed was simply amazing (if a bit overacted in part). Indeed I would describe it as seemingly impossible for people of the age performing, yet it was real. These kids are so talented and born performers. While watching these children I recollected my own single (never to be repeated) public performance as the Innkeeper in a Nativity play whilst at primary school and of how utterly abysmal and pathetic it was in comparison to what I saw here in the Children's Palace.
As you would expect, most of the songs and music were North Korean with the majority being of the patriotic and revolutionary genre in praise and adulation of the Leaders whose faces were projected on the back of the stage at regular intervals throughout the show.
A full orchestra, composed solely of young children, backed those performing on the stage.
My attached pictures hopefully give you a flavor of what we saw.
Not all children make it onto the stage of the Children’s Palace. Pyongyang is probably the cleanest and tidiest city I have visited and truly a city to be proud of. This doesn't happen by chance.
- Arts and Culture
- Theater Travel
The Children’s Palace (2) – An Xbox Alterternative
I recommend you start with Part (1) of this review.
As I indicated in my review of the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace building the purpose of the Palace is to let children partake in one or more of many extracurricular activities on offer.
A very wide range of activities are on offer and include music, singing, dancing, foreign language tuition, computing, calligraphy, painting, board games, swimming, gymnastics, martial arts, and various other forms of sport, to name but a few. Actually, the sorts of things children used to do in other countries when they did not have access to televisions, PlayStations, Xboxes and the Internet!
Prior to going into the auditorium to take our seats for a show put on by the children we got to visit, perhaps, ten classrooms to witness children going about their extracurricular activities. The children we saw ranged from kindergarten age to middle high school.
My pictures show some of the activities we got to see.
One thing all the children had in common is that they were all absolutely fantastic proponents of their chosen activity. These children are extremely talented and perform at a level that most children elsewhere could only hope to aspire too, at a much higher age.
While the children would have to have some form of natural talent for what they do, there is no doubt the standards achieved here could only be achieved with countless hours of practice and perhaps some level of enticement/coercion, depending on your point of view. Many people leave here with the view that the children are forced to perform and are being indoctrinated against their wills and that this is evidenced by the clearly fake smiles on the children’s faces. I ask, is this any different than children’s pageant shows and the like in many countries outside North Korea?
It is difficult to say how much of the classroom activity we saw was staged for us and how much was typical of what goes on when visitors are not around. All I can say is that, based on the performances we were about to see in the auditorium, practice such as what we witnessed in the classrooms would certainly have been necessary, and long hours of it.
Now, let the show begin - Children’s Palace (3) - School kids on Steroids
- Arts and Culture
The Mangyongdae Children’s Palace (1)
The thing that first struck me about the Children’s Palace is the sheer size of the place. It is massive and given that up to 10,000 children pass through here each day it would have to be. The purpose of the Palace, and others though smaller, around the country, is to provide extracurricular activities for children so that their mothers can engage in "work, political and cultural activities". While all children are apparently eligible to attend classes and other activities this Palace is very clearly a place for the most gifted and/or the privileged elite.
The Palace, opened 2 May 1989, is in a crescent shape, symbolic of the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung embracing the children he so loved. Like pretty much every other public building in the country, large pictures of Kim Il-song and Kim Jong-il adorn the front of the building. On either side of the building there is a massive mural of a youthful Kim Il-sung, in military attire, joining other children in a celebration of learning and youth.
Approaching the Palace I noticed two telescope domes on top of the building, one on each wing. Presumably astronomy is one of the activities offered here – whether to the children or others, I don't know. While astronomy in large cities is generally hampered by city lights this is not a problem in Pyongyang which has a serve shortage of lights, not to mention electricity to power them. I have not been able ascertain what the UFO shaped object on the roof at the centre of the building is. You can see the edge of it in my main picture, just above the picture of Kim Jong-il. I would guess it is a helipad but I can’t imagine many, other than the Leader himself, arriving by helicopter.
When we arrived at the front of the building we were met by a welcoming party of happy smiling school girls immaculately dressed in their blue uniforms with white shirts and a red Young Pioneer neck scarf. One of these young girls (early teens), who spoke excellent English, was our guide for the duration of our visit.
Having been reminded (lest we had forgotten since our previous stop) of the greatness, love and generosity of the Great Leader and his successors, the first thing we were told about was the large monument on the forecourt – the Chariot of Joy - picture 2. The chariot, drawn by two winged horses, carries eleven children symbolizing the number years children were required to go to school in the DPRK. While mandatory school years were increased to twelve in 2012 I don’t think an extra child has been added to the chariot (yet).
On entering the Children's Palace I was immediately struck by opulence on a grand scale. The main and massive lobby area is finished in granite and marble with splendid light arrangements including numerous chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Some of the chandeliers have a 20 metres, or more, drop. In terms of facilities, the Palace has hundreds of rooms, a swimming pool, a gymnasium and a 2,000 seat theatre.
Wonderful as the building was we didn’t come here just to admire it. Our primary purpose of visiting was to watch a variety show put on by the children. But before this we had sufficient time to visit quite a few classrooms to see children engaging in a sample of the extracurricular activities on offer. Come and join me for a look - Children’s Palace (2) – An Xbox Alternative.
- Arts and Culture
People’s Army Martyrs’ Cemetery
As we headed out of Pyongyang bound for Mt Myohyang we passed one of the most recent additions to the Pyongyang landscape. A cemetery with around 600 headstones.
Yes, I know what you are thinking. Exactly as I was, doesn’t the size of a cemetery grow overtime and, bar some disaster, one wouldn’t expect them to pop up overnight.
Well there is a plausible, if a little odd, explanation. Of course, what might be deemed odd anywhere else can be seen as quite normal in North Korea and vice versa.
Between 1950 and 1953 North Korea lost hundreds of thousands of it citizens in the Korean War or what it refers to as the Fatherland Liberation War. Many other heroes of that war have died since and a small number are still alive. Burials took place all over the country but no national shire or memorial existed. As part of the 60th anniversary victory (North Korea claims victory) celebrations it was decided ( by Kim Jong-un) that a memorial and cemetery be created here on the outskirts of Pyongyang.
Naturally a cemetery needs gravestones and bodies. So it was that from graves and cemeteries around the country approximately 600 "heroes of the republic" were exhumed and reburied here in the People’s Army Martyrs’ Cemetery. A further 60 places have been reserved for identified ‘heroes of the republic’ still alive.
The cemetery was officially opened by Marshall Kim Jong-un in July 2013 in the presence of thousands of veterans and their families (including many from China, which supported North Korea in the War) who had gathered in Pyongyang to mark the 60th anniversary of the War's end and, of course, North Korea’s victory.
All the headstones are neatly laid out in rows and identical in terms of size and shape. Each one features an engraved picture of the deceased, their name and a little about them.
Being North Korea, a suitably massive memorial to those lost was required. A giant upturned stone rifle barrel with fixed bayonet was chosen. This stands at the entrance to the cemetery with some smaller bronze and stone figures together with some text written by former leader Kim Il-sung and engraved onto a stone monument, proclaiming that “these martyrs and heroes will be remembered in times to come by future generations”.
The following afternoon after our visit to Mt Myohyang we returned to Pyongyang and on our way into the city stopped at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace.
Mangyongdae – Birthplace of Kim Il-sung
Our guide assured us that Kim Il-sung was born here, into a patriotic and revolutionary family of several generations standing, on 15 April 1912 and that it was from here, at the tender age of 13, that he set out on the road of revolutionary struggle for Korea’s liberation from Japan. Once he left Mangyongdae in 1925 he didn’t return to Pyongyang until “he” had liberated Korea in Oct 1945.
Outside North Korea, while it is accepted that Kim Il-sung was born in the Pyongyang area it is questioned as to whether or not he was born at this location or in this house.
While one has to make some allowance for the preservation work, paths, etc to make a peasants humble abode accessible to large numbers of pilgrims and tourists and at the same time protect it, I really can’t help wondering if this house is the real birthplace of Kim Il-sung or not. Looking at the abode, and do forgive me if you feel my comment a little sacrilegious, I can’t help thinking that if three wise men and some shepherds were added this would make a perfect double for a Bethlehem stable of 2000 years ago. Given the cult of personality surrounding Kim Il-sung his devoted followers would have no problem with a direct comparison to Christ if they were they to believe the Christian story.
The house, with its low thatched roof, mud walls, simple farm implements, loom, straw mats and storage jars is presented as typical of that of the impoverished under Japanese occupation. One interesting exhibit is a water jar (picture 3) that was purchased by Kim Il-sung’s mother. It is said to show her frugality and lack of money because although it was misshapen, it could still hold water.
Being the very ‘cradle of the revolution’ and birthplace of the Eternal President, the house is a place of pilgrimage for North Korean’s and it was especially busy, and its entrance adorned with more and larger bouquets of flowers than it would normally be, as we visited on the occasion of the Great Leader’s 102nd birthday celebrations.
The house is located in a beautiful manicured parkland setting but such is the problem of organised tours that, we didn’t have time to explore the park and see the Leaders ‘wrestling site’, ‘swinging site’ or ‘warship rock’. I did however get to see a well (picture 4) and partake of the water that gave sustenance to the young Kim Il-sung 100 years ago. Visitors who drink the water would, our guide assured us, become “a great person, like President Kim Il-Sung”.
On our short walk back to the bus we passed what I think is one of the nicest mosaics we came across, depicting the young Kim Il-sung heading of to save his country from the Japanese occupiers in 1925 (picture 5).
After morning visits to the two most sacred sites in Pyongyang it was time to return to the hotel, eat and slip into something more casual as we were headed for the mountains (Myohyang-sanmaek) - a part of our trip which I will cover on a separate page though, here I will cover the People’s Army Martyrs’ Cemetery which we passed on our way out of town.
- Historical Travel
- Museum Visits
Kumsusan Palace of the Sun - Meet the Leaders
Where does one begin?
Today was the day when shirts and ties were required for men and appropriately modest attire for the ladies. We were headed for the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, final resting place for both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Both leaders have been embalmed and lie in state for loyal subjects and tourists to visit. Clearly this is a site of very great importance to the North Korean people and one, quite reasonably, requiring a level of reverence and discretion from all those who visit.
Even when we arrived in the Palace grounds we were still not sure if we would get to see the embalmed bodies of one or both of the Leaders. As we were visiting during Kim Il-sung’s birthday celebrations there were rumors that Kim Jong-il’s body may not be on display. As it happened we got to see both. On my return to Beijing I finally relented and stood for an hour and a half in line to see Mao. Having done so, I can now say I have seen all five embalmed leaders currently on display worldwide (or I have seen what the International Business Times referred to as the “exclusive club of pickled dictators on display for all eternity”).
The size and grandeur of the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun – albeit that it now houses two bodies - leaves for dead (pardon the pun) the mausoleums of Mao, Lenin and Ho Chi Minh. This one is much bigger and decadent than the three others put together and, irrespective of ones political thoughts, is a magnificent monument to the immortality of the two Kims.
The building started out life in 1976 as the Kumsusan Assembly Hall and served as Kim Il-sung’s office and residence during his lifetime. On Kim Il-sung’s death (8 July 1994), Kim Jong-il had the building converted to his father’s mausoleum and renamed as the Kumsusan Memorial Palace. Post Kim Jong-il’s own death on 17 December 2011 he was also embalmed and now also lies in state here – in a separate room - in what is now called the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun.
In addition to being a mausoleum for the two leaders the building has two large rooms, one for each leader, displaying the awards and accolades bestowed upon them during and indeed after their life on earth. Accordingly, we were guided by display case after display case of medals, trophies and degree certificates including an honorary degree from Kensington University of Glendale, California (since closed). Also preserved here, in separate rooms, are cars, boats and train carriages given to, or used by, the leaders. It was here that I learned that Kim Jong-il used an Apple Mac! I also learned that his trademark dark glasses were worn such that his people would not be upset or saddened if they saw his tired and bloated eyes, brought about by his endless work, love and concern for the people.
I have got ahead of myself. The main reason for visiting here was to view the embalmed bodies of the leaders.
Having arrived at the Palace or rather at a building some distance from the Palace we had to wait a short time for an allotted viewing time. From this point on, until we came out of the Palace, all photography was strictly prohibited – and they meant it this time!
On leaving our holding area we began our long walk (some say 2 kms) to see the Leader’s lying in state. Our first stop was a cloakroom where basically everything other than our clothes and wallets had to be deposited. Our attire was checked at this point – those wearing jackets had to have them properly buttoned, zip up tops had to be zipped up, etc, etc. Having got through here the next stop was a typical airport style security.
From here it took maybe 20 minutes (no queues) of walking and standing on moving walkways to get to the star attractions. Walking on the slow moving walkways was not permitted – perhaps to make up for this we got to listen to background lamenting revolutionary orchestral music and got to fully admire pictures of the Leaders (serving the people) which lined either side of the walk. I would be exaggerating if I said there were thousands of these but there certainly were lots spaced around five metres apart. I wonder if one of the walkways we walked on was the longest in the world – I guess not though, as the opportunity to highlight this would not have been missed by our guide.
Having passed massive white marble statues (picture 5 courtesy of the Korean Central News Agency) of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il bathed in delicate pink and blue lighting - no bowing required - our first stop was the mausoleum of Kim Il-sung but before that there were some cleansing issues to be taken care of. The first of these was a shoe cleansing device built into a moving walkway which essentially buffeted our shoes. This done we had to individually walk through a wind tunnel designed to blow away any cobwebs and other nasties we might be carrying. The wind in here was gale-force and certainly gave rise to a need for the ladies, and the men of us who still had hair, to readjust it on exit. A similar wind blast cleansing was required prior to entering Kim Jong-il’s resting place. As I recall, our shoes just required one cleansing.
The process for visiting each of the Leaders embalmed bodies was identical. We entered each chamber in groups of four, positioned ourselves at the leaders feet and bowed from the waist. We them moved round to our left to one side of the body and bowed again. We then passed the head – no stopping or bowing here - before a final bow at the bodies other side prior to departing the room.
Both leaders display chambers were identical – large, square, high ceilinged rooms with low lighting containing the embalmed body in a clear glass sarcophagus on a slightly elevated platform in the centre of the room with four ceremonial (though armed) guards in attendance and standing to attention.
The whole building, and it is massive, is decked out in marble and chandeliers – I can only speculate as to how much this ostentatious display might have cost. Certainly no expense was spared and it made me think that surely Mao, Lenin and Ho Chi Minh must have died as paupers and unloved.
Having visited the two Kim’s, their medals, awards and other decorations and seen their cars, train carriages and boats and enough pictures of both to last me a while it was time to retrace our steps along corridors and walkways and leave the Palace building for a short, though ample, stroll in the front gardens. The gardens have been opened up to the people who can come here to meditate and pay their respects without necessarily visiting the leaders on each visit. Given the importance of this location a group photograph was called for - a tiered stand was available for this purpose. This duly taken we had a short time for individual meditation and photo-taking before it was time to move on with memories of what is truly one of the most amazing places in the world.
Still looking respectable, our next stop was Mangyongdae – Birthplace of Kim Il-sung
- Museum Visits
- Historical Travel
- Castles and Palaces