Sunday, April 15, 2007 Korea (North) North Korea


Happy birthday, Mr. President

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Us in front of the Kim Il-sung Mausoleum [Enlarge]

As befits the birthday of the Great Leader, the sun was shining brightly on Pyongyang this morning. Our group assembled in the hotel reception and headed for the bus. We were dressed very smartly. Well, compared to the North Koreans we were still a bunch of scruffy buggers, but we had at least made an effort. Glenn's tie, bought in Beijing before we left for this very occasion, was pink and shiny. We were required to dress up because we were off to pay our respects to President Kim Il-sung at his resting place in the Kamsusan Memorial Palace. It was all the more exciting as it marked the half-way point in our quest to visit all four pickled communist leaders on display in the world. How would he compare to Ho Chi Minh?

Well, Kim's mausoleum—which used to be his presidential palace—is much bigger than Uncle Ho's. The queue of people waiting to see him was a similar length, but in Hanoi the tourists had outnumbered the locals. The opposite was true here. We relinquished all bags and coats, and anything in our pockets apart from a wallet. Then we made our way along a kilometre of escalators and travelators, twisting and turning as we got deeper and deeper into Kim's palace. Finally we had to walk through a disinfecting airlock, to the chamber where Kim lies in a glass case as pink and lifelike as if he were just asleep. The queue shuffled forward and we could see what protocol was expected of us. People walked in groups of five, respectfully, around the body, pausing at each side to bow, then continuing clockwise. Where we were queuing, the faithful had to walk past us to get out. All the women were in tears, grief-stricken. This guy died thirteen years ago, but he is so beloved that his people still mourn him.

As we bowed solemnly at his feet, his right side, his head, and his left side, it all felt pretty weird. We were in the company of wailing women and sober gentlemen, and watched over by motionless soldiers from the KPA. We had to take a reality check. Here we were in the strangest country in the world, bowing to a bloke who's been dead for over a decade but is still president of his country; adored by his people but reviled in the west as an evil Stalinist who set back North Korea and its people by decades. But we're getting used to accepting weird stuff this week. It is starting to feel almost normal.

After paying our respects to President Kim we were given personal minidisc players so that we could listen to a recorded commentary. The English-accented actor narrating it spoke with a suitably shaking (and in our opinion, badly acted) voice. His words breaking up with grief, he explained how terrible it had been for the DPRK, and the world, when Kim Il-sung died. Having walked around the great hall looking at photos of the Great Man's many Great Achievements, the commentary finished and we handed back the players. We moved into another large room filled with awards given to the President by various states and nations around the world. It was an impressive collection, but mostly they were from places like Venezuela, Cuba and Syria, and small African republics. As well as high national awards, there were some honourary citizenships, doctorates and degrees. There were also a few awards from 'normal' countries, but when you looked closely you saw that, mostly, they were not from the governments, but from those countries' Communist parties, or Korean Friendship Associations, or Juche Study Groups. We looked hard, but we didn't see anything at all from the UK or the US.

Next we moved on to some rooms containing the lavish presidential train carriage and a heavily armoured Mercedes. Finally, it was suggested that a representative or two from our group might like to leave a message in the visitor's book. So two volunteers sat down at one of the many desks set aside for the purpose, and wrote something thoughtful and profound. After which we headed back on the long travelators and down the escalators to collect our coats and bags.

On the long, respectfully slow journey back to the cloakroom, the group got quite spread out. About half way back, there was a Korean lady ushering people out of a side exit. She didn't realise that we all needed to go back for our coats. The guides explained to her and she let us past, but unfortunately one member of our group was a bit too far back to see this, and so he allowed himself to be shooed out of the door. As easily as that, he had fallen out of the Protective Bubble. He had escaped! He later reported finding himself in a vast open square with no idea which way to go. He started walking in the direction he thought he needed to go, and was very soon surrounded by minders who strongly urged him to get back with his group straight away. When he said he was lost, they marched him straight back to where he needed to be—it seemed they knew exactly which group he was with. It was an interesting insight to just how closely we are being watched this week. We don't notice the watchers, but they are most definitely there.

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Kimilsungia Flower Exhibition [Enlarge]

If you're famous, it is not uncommon to get a flower variety named after you. In fact Sir Winston Churchill, Britain's wartime Prime Minister, has a rose, a fuchsia, a narcissus, a Michaelmas daisy, an orchid and a very nice red sweet pea named after him. In the DPRK, two flowers are cultivated more than any other: the Dendrobium 'Kim Il-sung' (an orchid) and the Begonia x Tuberhybrida 'Kim Jong-il'. Otherwise known as the Kimilsungia and the Kimjongilia. At least once a year there is a big show dedicated to these two flowers, and we just happened to be in Pyongyang at the right time to visit. In the style of a village flower show, prizes are given for the finest specimens. The competitors are the various work units from around Pyongyang. Mrs Lee proudly showed us her office's stand, at which we noticed a specimen supplied by none other than Koryo Tours. While we were looking around, three young men approached us and asked in quite good English where we are from. This is a regular question from locals when you're travelling around the world, but we didn't really expect to be asked it in North Korea. It turned out that they were electrical engineering students from one of Pyongyang's many universities. Glenn did his degree in electrical engineering, so we chatted to them for quite a while. They asked Glenn whether it is true that power stations in our country don't need people to run them! Where did that come from?! We told them that a lot of things in our country are automated, but that they still need people. Maybe the DPRK propaganda machine tells them that we automate everything so everybody is unemployed.

Outside the exhibition hall a crowd had gathered. A man with a microphone had their rapt attention. Was it a protest? Get real, this is North Korea. He was singing karaoke! Mrs Lee translated the chorus of one of his songs for us. It went Cold noodles! Cold noodles! Pyongyang cold noodles! Catchy! Little did we realise what was for lunch later…

Next up was the Pyongyang English Language Bookshop. It sold souvenir books, postcards and stamps. We had a look, but couldn't really be tempted by much. The big draw for us was to be found outside the bookshop at a road intersection. Where most cities use traffic lights and roundabouts at their main junction, the DPRK's cities have traffic police officers. (They have traffic lights, but they are permanently switched off.) In central Pyongyang these officers are all young and female. They wear an immaculate blue uniform, a knee length skirt, white ankle socks and shiny black shoes. They direct the traffic with precise, robotic movements, and having watched them many times we still have no idea what their signs mean and how they actually control the traffic. See the video we took below, which actually contains a lot of traffic (for Pyongyang).

It was time for lunch, and our chance to sample the 'famous' Pyongyang cold noodles. What can we say? They are noodles, they are cold—refridgeratedly cold—and you eat them with mustard and vinegar added to taste. They are spicy and slimy, and hard to control with metal chopsticks. It's been several hours since our noodle feast, and we are not nostalgic for them yet, in fact we don't plan to visit another cold noodle restaurant in the forseeable future. But they were okay. We are told that cold noodles are what the North Koreans yearn for when they are away from home. We are yearning for a steak pie in an English country pub on a summer's afternoon, washed down with a nice pint of real ale; so we can at least sympathise with the spirit of this, if not the choice of food.

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Pyongyang trolley bus [Enlarge]

Right, where were we? The guides took us back to the hotel for a brief rest. When we reconvened in the lobby Mrs Lee and the female guide from group B, Miss Che, were dressed in traditional Korean costume. We drove to the Triumphal Arch, a close replica of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris—except three meters taller, of course. The dates on it commemorate the year that Kim Il-sung left home at the age of fourteen to go off and fight for liberation from the Japanese and the year that the Japanese withdrew from the peninsula. Before too long we were back on the bus and ready to go. Just after we set off we had to stop for something. A trolley bus came up behind us and overtook, but he was limited in his space because he was attached to the overhead power lines. He clipped us and knocked our wing mirror off, and detached himself from the lines. Nobody seemed too bothered.

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Pyongyang Circus [Enlarge]

We had a choice of where to go next: a trip to the park or a visit to the circus. We wanted to do both, but the thought of being part of a group of eager photographers snapping 'real' North Koreans having a picnic in the park swung it. We opted for the circus. We're getting pretty fed up with a couple of the people in our group (and Group B has a few also). Their SLRs are permanently whizzing indiscreetly and their long lenses are always poking out of the bus windows, causing embarrassment to the reticent North Koreans, who mostly do not like their photos being taken, and who are obliged by law to report to the authorities all photography that they notice, as pointed out by Simon in the pre-tour briefing!

The circus was of the old variety, with performing animals. We don't like that (although the poor animals were very talented), so we don't have much to say about it. But while we were there, accompanied by Mrs Lee, something strange happened. A shadowy man came in to the dark auditorium and attracted Mrs Lee's attention. She suddenly jumped up and ran up the stairs and out of the building, virtually climbing over us in her haste. She was gone for around fifteen minutes, and when she came back she was white and shaking. She spent the next few minutes repeatedly turning round towards us, doing a head count. It seemed that in the process of splitting two groups between two destinations, they had lost someone. That is very, very serious.

After the show we tried to get Mrs Lee to tell us what had happened, but all she would say is that there had been a calculation error. We never did find out exactly what the problem was, but we think everybody was in place all along, but they had somehow miscounted the group in the dark circus.

We stopped next at the Pyongyang stamp exhibition, the best place to see the world-famous collection of DPRK stamps, if you're into that sort of thing. There was a shopping frenzy—it seemed that several people had been waiting for this for a long time, and had shopping lists of particularly rare or interesting North Korean stamps to buy. We settled for a couple of postcards and everyday stamps.

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Soirée in Kim Il-sung Square [Enlarge]

We were knackered. Three long and full days had worn us out. We could have done with an evening off, but we had another activity scheduled tonight: a soirée. After dinner we drove back to Kim Il-sung Square. If you've only seen one place in North Korea on the TV, this square is it—it's where they have their famous mass military parade doubling as a don't mess with us show of strength to the west. We parked and walked through a building and up onto the steps in front of the Grand People's Study House. Facing out onto the empty square we stood and shivered and waited for something to happen. In front of us film and television cameras were setting up, and a band and choir were getting into position. As we had been driving around all day we had seen huge groups of young men and women standing in the streets, waiting for the start of the soirée. This was no intimate soirée, it was a North Korean mass soirée. What else? The dancers came into the square, arranged as vast battalions. Looking back down the street we couldn't see the end of the lines, and the crowd stretched as far as we could see into the distance—all the way to the Taedong River, and even at the base of the Juche Tower on the other side! That was over a kilometre away! When the square was full the band started playing and the massed crowd launched into their dances. The steps were simple, but the dancers were so perfect and their timing was immaculate. The overall effect was breathtaking, and typically North Korean. The people must wish it was the president's birthday every day. We learned that Kim Yong-nam (the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, one of the top three in the country along with Kim Jong-il and Kim Yong-il) was on the balcony above us watching the proceedings.

What happened next, after about half an hour, was a complete surprise. We were invited to join in! Mr Lee tried to drag us all off the stands and into the square. Isla was off in a flash! But if you know Glenn, you know that one thing he does not do is dance, ever.

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With Mr. Lee at the soirée [Enlarge]

Except now!

[Glenn says: "I had a What the hell? moment and thought to myself How many times in my life am I going to get the chance to take part in a soirée in the Kim Il-sung Square, along with umpteen thousand other dancers, watched over by Kim Yong-nam, and televised by North Korean TV? The answer to this question was 'One' and so I joined in.]

Mr Lee came with us, split up a North Korean couple and paired them up with us. They were primed to receive some westerners and they looked after us admirably. As more guests joined in, the perfect formations in our corner of the square broke down into complete chaos. Isla's partner was a friendly translator called Mr Che, and Glenn's partner was so nice that he didn't want to give her back. We thought that this week couldn't get any better, or stranger, but this evening it did. We surely can never beat this.

All our photos from today are here. You can see everywhere we go in Google Earth by going to our progress map, then clicking the Google Earth tab.

1 Comment:

C J said...

I have watched this video for two days. I am still amazed, no memsmorized by the cop in a circle directing traffic with a stick....I just don't get it. I swear they need the clapper or something. They look more like school girls then cops. Hey maybe a turntable might be an idea, it would stop them from spinning around somewhat, then again they may get sick from spinning too much and puke on the cars. That would surely stop me if I was in car. Can you imagine stop blaaaaa splat. Ok I stop now.