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Tue, 22nd Sep. 2015, 09:04
Travels in North Korea, Part 5

In this series of posts, I document my travels to North Korea (formally, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) as a tourist in August 2015.

The Kumsusan Memorial Palace was impressive, but it wasn't the only thing on the agenda that day. We had a long list of places to visit, each of them fascinating in their own way.

The first stop was the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery, a companion memorial to the Fatherland Liberation War Martyrs' Cemetery which we'd seen two days earlier. Whereas the previous one had been dedicated to the heroes of the 1950–1953 Korean War, this one honoured those who fought in the much longer struggle for independence from Japanese rule in the first half of the 20th century. The two memorials share some architectural commonalities: both feature a huge red flag carved from red stone, huge gilded inscriptions by Kim Il Sung, and of course enormous statues of grenade-wielding soldiers. One of the main differences is the location—the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery is perched on a hill overlooking Pyongyang. The bus drops you off about halfway up, at an ornate gate in the traditional Korean style; from there it's a long climb up several flights of wide stone steps.

Another difference is the decoration of graves. The tombstones of the Fatherland Liberation War Martyrs' Cemetery are tall and stylish, but adorned only with black-and-white portraits, whereas those of the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery are shorter and plainer but topped with life-sized bronze busts. Among the graves our guides were careful to point out were that of Kim Jong Suk, the first wife of Kim Il Sung; Kang Pan Sok, his mother; and Kim Chul Joo, his younger brother. The graves of the most honoured revolutionaries were situated in front of the red granite flag at the back of the cemetery. As usual we went through the charade of laying a bouquet of flowers and bowing respectfully; our minds and eyes (and later, our cameras) were actually on the group of local university students next to us.

[Gate] [Statue] [Kim Chul Joo] [Students]
Cemetery gate Statue Grave of Kim Chul Joo Students paying their respects

It was a bit hazy that day, so we didn't have an altogether good view of the city. Off to the west we could spot the Rungrado May Day Stadium, the largest stadium in the world and venue for the famous Mass Games. Behind it, near the horizon, we could just barely make out the mysterious Ryugyong Hotel. Much closer to the cemetery was the Pyongyang Central Zoo, then under renovation. From the top of the hill we could clearly hear music blaring from distant loudspeakers; we were told that this was motivational music for the zoo reconstruction workers. Looking south was a narrow valley with a soccer field where some locals were having a game, and beside it was a vast, deserted amusement park. Our guides assured us that the park was open and operational, but that nobody was in attendance because it was so hot out. We all muttered skeptically amongst ourselves.

It was getting close to lunch time, but we had a few minutes to stop at Pyongyang's very own Triumphal Arch (which for some reason everyone in our group referred to unfacetiously as the Arc de Triomphe). This was yet another monument to the "Fatherland Liberation War" of 1925–1945, and more specifically to Kim Il Sung's trimuphal return to Pyongyang following the defeat of the Japanese. We weren't allowed inside, though we did have a fairly good view of it from the nearby Triumphal Return Square. As usual, the local passersby proved infinitely more interesting than the monumental architecture. Several members of our tour, including myself, wandered off to accost a trio of middle-aged ladies lingering outside Kim Il Sung Stadium. Some of us managed to charm them into posing for a few photos with us before our guide ran over to break up the fun. Others took to photographing the packed city buses circling the Arch's wide roundabout.

[Arch of Triumph] [Triumphal Return Square] [Kim Il Sung Stadium] [Local bus near Arch of Triumph]
Arch of Triumph Mural at Triumphal Return Square Kim Il Sung Stadium Local bus near the Arch of Triumph

After lunch (Korean cuisine to be the topic of a separate post) we headed to Kim Il Sung Square, the city's main parade ground. It's scenes from here that tend to be shown on Western TV whenever the news needs stock footage for a story about North Korea. You know the ones—the Kim-of-the-day waves to a triumphant procession of tanks, missile-laden trucks, and goose-stepping soldiers, while in the background a vast assembly of uniformed civilians move and cheer in perfect unison. Well, it turns out that these civilians are usually secondary school students, and all that choreography requires weeks and weeks of practice.

Every day we were in Pyongyang—even on Sunday, the country's only nominal day of rest—the square and all the surrounding streets were full of thousands of children practising for the upcoming National Liberation Day parade. Most were dressed in white shirts, red caps, and black slacks or skirts, and all of them carried two wooden practice batons topped with red cardboard flames. When they weren't taking a break, they were dutifully lined up in rows stretching across the entire square. Periodically, a voice would bark an order through a megaphone, and then begin counting. The grid formation would dissolve and then coalesce into a new shape—a number, or a symbol, or some Latin or Korean characters. Every time a new shape was formed, the count would stop and the crowd would shout in unison.

We had some great views of this from atop the buildings at the opposite ends of the square. Below is a composite video showing the National Liberation Day practice sessions from three vantage points. First, there's a ground-level shot as our bus drives down Sungri Street and past the square. In the background is a traditionally styled building with a green roof; this is the Grand People's Study House, from which the second shot is taken. The third and final shot is from high atop the Tower of the Juche Idea, which overlooks Kim Il Sung Square from across the Taedong River.

So how do the children manage to arrange themselves so precisely? Our close-up inspections of the square revealed the trick: the paving stones are painted with numbered spots to help the demonstrators get into position.

[Building with KWP flag] [Pavement markings] [Korean Central History Museum] [Building with DPRK flag]
Building with KWP flag Pavement markings Korean Central History Museum Building with DPRK flag
[View from Grand People's Study House] [Street view] [Children resting] [Gawking at the tourists]
National Liberation Day practice,
view from Grand People's Study House
National Liberation Day practice,
view from Sungri Street
Taking a break from practice Gawking at the tourists

(Continued in Part 6.)