Check out part 1 of this story first if you haven’t already:
North Korea: My Visit to the World’s Most Secretive State (Part 1)
Day 3 – Mount Myohyang, Monument to Party Founding and The Korean War Museum
We awoke early again and made the 3 hour drive to Mount Myohyang, a beautifully scenic area which is home to the International Friendship Exhibition. This is a large museum complex displaying a massive collection of gifts that were presented to Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il during their lifetime. Some of these gifts were incredibly lavish, such as a plane and millions of dollars worth of furniture, silverware and pottery. There were also items such as a taxidermied polar bear and lion and a lot of decorated elephant tusks, which irritated me. Much like the hotel we were staying in, the sheer beauty and decoration of the museum was astounding. It seems the Kims spend more money displaying their gifts in a highly exorbitant museum than they do feeding their people.
After this, we visited a nearby temple called Pohyon Temple. This buddhist temple is one of the very few places of worship open to foreign tourists in North Korea. It was founded by a monk named Kwanghwak in 1042, but half of the temple complex was destroyed by US bombings during the Korean War. It has since been reconstructed, and was a very beautiful site. I was actually under the impression that religion was not allowed to be practised in the country, but clearly this is not the case.
After lunch in the surrounds of Mount Myohyang, we drove back to Pyongyang where we visited the Monument to Party Founding before heading to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. Our guide first showed us around the grounds of the museum, where she mostly just pointed at destroyed aircraft and stated things like “this is an aircraft we shot down in 1952. This killed 6 US military,” before taking us into the main museum building. Much like most of the buildings we’d visited, the war museum was immaculately kept and covered in gems and gold, and also contained a huge wax figure of Kim Il-Sung.
This was where it was the most difficult to keep our mouths shut. We watched a couple of short videos about the Korean War, which were pure propaganda, conveying the “ignorance and stupidity of the US imperialists” and how Kim Il-Sung was “innovative and a great leader who defended the country with grace”. We also visited the USS Pueblo, a US Navy intelligence ship which was captured off the coast of the Korean peninsula in 1968, and displayed as a trophy inside the museum grounds.
Day 4 – Kumsusan Palace of the Sun and Sight-Seeing around Pyongyang
Today we put on our formal attire for we were off to visit Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are laid to rest. The whole morning made me feel pretty tense, as we had to walk around the palace in lines of four, and were not to speak. We had to bow three times to each leader, once at their feet, once at their left side, and once at their right. It was surreal to see real bodies laid on display in this way, and the number of guards watching our every move was extremely intimidating. I felt particularly nervous as I had forgotten the memo where we were told to bring formal clothes for this occasion- they somehow let me into the palace wearing Nike trainers and temple pants.
Following this, we went to visit Kim Il-Sung Square, which is the part of North Korea I see most frequently in the media as this is where marches etc are held. The square was pretty deserted when we got there and carried a very eerie atmosphere.
Next, we had lunch before heading to Mangyongdae Native House- the place where Kim Il-Sung was supposedly born and raised before becoming president. Many North Koreans visit this native house to pay homage to Kim Il-Sung, and this was evident from an array of flowers that had been placed in his honour. However, the home is a reconstruction, and portrays the family as humble and poor, from the the small size of the cottage to the collection of very broken cooking objects that the family supposedly used. The Mangyongdae Native House is very likely to be another propaganda feature in my opinion: historical records show that Kim Il-Sung was born to a middle-class family and that his father even served as a Protestant missionary (Baik Bpong, Kim Il Sung, Volume I: From Birth to the Triumphant Return to the Homeland).
We then made our way to The National Library. I expected this to be quite boring if I’m honest, but it was actually extremely interesting. It gave us a huge insight into what Western literature and non-fiction North Koreans are exposed to, which turns out isn’t a lot- but they did have Harry Potter, Shakespeare’s works and Sherlock Holmes! One of our tour guides who had been really quite stilted and unwilling to talk about her personal interests throughout most of the trip started to open up when I asked her if she’d read Harry Potter. Her face lit up and she said “it’s my favourite! In Chamber of Secrets where Harry sings Happy Birthday to himself- that makes me sad. And Hermione is so brave!” From then on, she was a lot more willing to answer my questions about life in North Korea- it seems that a good book brings people together everywhere in the world.
Next up, we made our way to a local school where the kids put on a performance with dance, singing and musical instruments for us. All of the kids in North Korea are super talented- they are taught singing and dancing during primary school.
Finally that night, we went to the local circus. This was a display of extreme aerobatics, and my god, I’ve never seen anything so incredible. The stunts and tricks they performed were absolutely mind blowing, where one in particular involved a man back-flipping metres into the air from a see-saw before landing perfectly stood on another man’s shoulders. However, while these incredible acts were going on, on a screen directly behind the stage, footage of war, anti-US propaganda and patriotic images were being displayed. Given that there were school kids here watching the circus, this was quite unsettling.
Day 5 – Departure
My short time in North Korea had come to an end and we boarded our train back to China. I felt as though I had learned so much about this fascinating country, however, I also worry that I’ve been slightly brainwashed. If I knew nothing of North Korea before arriving there, I would have said “wow, this is a wonderful, beautiful country. The citizens are given free education, healthcare and housing, and the country is so clean and unspoiled.” But, knowing what I know, I’m aware that a lot of what I witnessed and experienced was likely staged or just for show, and is not at all representative of most of the country. The issue is, its extremely difficult for me to untangle whats real and what isn’t. I suppose that was probably their motive.