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North Korea – Chapter 4 ‘Crossing the Line’

Guest Post: Ryan Layton

We began our last day in Pyongyang with something American. The USS Pueblo was captured by North Korea on January 23, 1968 and its surviving crew held and tortured for eleven months before their release was successfully negotiated. Officially it remains a commissioned vessel of the US Navy, but it is currently moored in the Taedong River serving as a trophy and tourist attraction. While she isn’t much to look at by today’s standards, I couldn’t help but hope she might be returned to U.S. hands one day.

We then headed over to Juche Tower, a monolithic monument to the eponymous set of beliefs and principles developed by Kim Il Sung. The tower is similarly shaped as the Washington Monument and just so happens to edge it out in height by less than one metre. We rode the elevator to the top for a 360-degree view of the city. Unfortunately visibility was poor that day, so the pictures weren’t all that great. Back down in the lobby I purchased a couple of books written by Kim Jong Il about the imperialist United State of America. I have yet to get around to reading them, but I imagine there is some interesting rhetoric to be found. We saw a few other monuments including the Monument to Party Foundation. This was an impressive work encompassing the three chief party symbols: the hammer for the worker, the sickle for the farmer, and the calligraphy brush for the intellectual.

From the monument and across the mall you can see the Ryugyong Hotel, an imposing three-pointed pyramid 105 stories tall with a multi-level rotating cone on the top intended to house five different restaurants on five different floors. Construction started in 1987, and had it ever been completed on schedule it would have been the world’s tallest hotel. The fall of the Soviet Union crippled North Korea’s economy, though, and construction was halted in 1992. The unfinished building became a black eye for the nation, but construction was resumed in 2008 by Egyptian firm Orascom – presumably in exchange for the $400 million telecom deal the company received – and the exterior was completed in 2012. Construction has once again halted, but at least it’s no longer the eyesore it was for so many years.

We then drove towards the outskirts of the city to visit the Pyongyang Film Studio (What Vice Didn’t See). I was surprised along the way to see a Christian church as I had assumed religion was forbidden. From what I gathered from our guide the people are allowed to practice but not allowed to preach, but I doubt it’s as free as she let’s on. Arriving at the film studio the first thing I notice is four white men all in their 30’s or 40’s standing outside as we pulled up. Having watched the documentary ‘Crossing the Line‘ (Click Through to Watch) I knew who they were before the guide had to tell me. It is no surprise to most people that there have been hundreds of thousands of North Koreans that have defected over the years. What some people don’t realise is there have also been a handful of American defectors to North Korea. Only one, James Dresnok, remains today but some of them including Dresnok had children. Today, those children serve a very important role to the North Korean government, the role of the evil Westerners in propaganda films. They happened to be at the studio to begin filming a movie about the USS Pueblo.

Back in the heart of Pyongyang we walked to the Metro station to take a ride on the subway, which was free to ride. Actually, I think they wanted a penny or two but we didn’t see anybody else paying and hey, this is communism anyway, right comrade? The escalator ride down was the longest single escalator I’ve ever been on as the platform is buried deep underground to prevent interruption of service should the city be bombed. They took us for a ride to the five stations they permit foreigners to see, and as expected they were ornate and immaculate.

We then hopped in the van and drove two hours north to Mount Myohyang. The landscape here is drastically different, with a beautiful panoramic of snow-capped mountains as the sun went down on a another day in North Korea.

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