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North Korea – Chapter 2 ‘The Faceless People and The Eternal Leaders’

Guest Post: Ryan Layton

We had breakfast in Restaurant No. 1 that consisted of coleslaw, yogurt, toast, and eggs. We would have essentially the same breakfast every morning thereafter. We met our guides in the lobby and piled into the van for a day-long scripted tour of what they wanted us to see in Pyongyang. One of our first stops was the Mansuadae Grand Monuments of Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il. The 20 metre bronze statue of Kim Il Sung was erected in 1972 to commemorate his 60th birthday, and the statue of Kim Jong Il was placed next to it earlier this year after he died. This is one of the more difficult stops, as visitors are expected to buy a bouquet of flowers for five euro to present at the feet of the statues and bow in respect to the two leaders. If you can’t bring yourself to do this, and I wouldn’t blame you, you should definitely not go to DPRK (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea).

Our next stop was the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery on a hilltop just outside the city, where hundreds of soldiers from the Korean War are buried with bronze busts of their visages marking each grave. Like all of the other places we would visit, the site was immaculate and well-maintained. At this point I was becoming well aware of how homogenous the country is, and was sort of enjoying the curious and suspicious looks we received from almost every North Korean we encountered. I think I finally knew what it felt like to be a black guy in a really wealthy white neighbourhood.

We continued with the rigid itinerary, hitting Kim Il Sung Square, the supposed birthplace of the Eternal President, and the Mansudae Art Studio where we met North Korea’s top artist. One of the things you quickly realise when travelling around DPRK in the winter is that, with the exception of your hotel and perhaps a couple of the restaurants you visit, none of the buildings are heated. You also notice they don’t bother turning on the lights during the day, relying instead on whatever amounts of natural light can find their way inside a building. You’ll also notice no graffiti, no litter, no bums, and disconcertingly no handicapped people. I also noticed very few people wearing glasses. Either the North Korean people are genetically superior and have few eyesight problems, or they simply don’t have access to an optometrist. Most likely the latter.

We spent a fair amount of time in the Grand People’s Study House, which also seems to be a very popular destination for the North Koreans themselves. While Americans stopped going to libraries in the twentieth century, in Pyongyang it is still a gathering place for North Koreans to share information, read books, learn skills, play around on a very restricted Intranet, and listen to music. They popped in a Madonna CD for us so we could listen to her butcher a cover of ‘American Pie’ as if that would please us. A terrace on the sixth floor offered us amazing views of Pyongyang that included the modern-looking ‘new city’ that was recently built to commemorate the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung.

Our last stop was the School Children’s Palace, a place where kids can go after school to pursue extracurricular activities ranging from music, to art, to Tae Kwon Do. They marshalled us from room to room to watch the children sing, play the piano, embroider, sketch, and spar. Everything was rather impressive except the sketching. The room was filled with about thirty students in navy uniforms with red neckerchiefs, all putting the final touches on a perfect masterpiece. Upon closer inspection I noticed that one of the students in the first row had exactly the same drawing in front of him as a kid in the back, and their feigned pencil strokes also belied their ruse. I call bullshit. The best moment of the tour happened for me as we walked above the gymnasium where about sixty students were training in the martial arts. I watched a young girl of about eleven wearing a blue hoodie that read ‘YOUTH’ across the front finish a set of roundhouses on her sparring partner. As she finished she looked up and noticed me watching her and I smiled at her. Then the strangest thing happened… she smiled back at me! This girl was the only student at the school to return my smile that day. I would have adopted her right on the spot if that was an option. The visit ended with a variety show in the auditorium where the students showcased their musical talents to the audience of roughly seventy tourists, sixty-eight of whom were Chinese.

We had dinner that night at the Duck BBQ restaurant. Like every other restaurant, store, or other business in Pyongyang, you would not know what it was from the outside of the building. There are no signs on buildings and no advertisements anywhere; there is only the occasional piece of propaganda. I honestly have no idea how the people know where anything is. We walked in the nondescript building and walked up the stairs to a smoke-filled room to eat. The meal was fantastic, and unlike all of the other restaurants we visited on the trip this one actually had other people eating at it. It was packed, in fact. And not with other tourists but with actual Koreans, the privileged party members, anyway.

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