Part of a trip concentrating on East Asia (China, Hong Kong, Japan, North and South Korea), continuing in South Asia (Bangladesh, India) and ending on the Arabian Peninsula (Oman, United Arab Emirates).

North Korea III – Liberation Day

– Third report of an eight-part series on my August 2015 visit to North Korea. –

A quickly confirmed rumour is spreading. At night someone from our group tried to leave the hotel. They had taken Rowan’s words quite literally and, after a few beers, tried how far they would get. The went out of the hotel and on to the bridge leading to the city centre. On the bridge some uniformed guy signalled them to go back. They turned around but instead of going back to the hotel they tried to take the bridge to the other side (“it felt like when we were on a school trip”). At some point Mr Ri, clearly in emotional distress (“I thought he would cry”), appeared in a car and collected them. Liberation Day starts with a new order: Do not leave the hotel on your own. And I have a new question, how did they know that the offenders belonged to Mr Ri’s group as he was sent to pick them up?

Today is the day why we are in North Korea. At the 15th of August 1945, Japan capitulated and Korea thereby regained its independence. Japan had annexed Korea in 1910 and attempted to “Japanise” Korea with an often-draconian rule. The thorn still sits deep and the wound is carefully kept fresh and raw. Next to America, Japan is the second big enemy. We are today celebrating the 70. anniversary of the liberation and today the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea will right some wrong. In 1908, the kingdom of Korea declared its time to be Greewich Mean Time +8:30. Half an hour behind Japan, half an hour before China. Under Japanese rule, the time was adjusted to Japanese time. Now, on this very day, North Korea will revert to the time of the kingdom of Korea.  But let’s hear what North Korean TV has to say about that matter:

“The time at 127 degrees 30 minutes east longitude shall be fixed as the standard time of the DPRK and called Pyongyang time. The wicked Japanese imperialists committed such unpardonable crimes as depriving Korea even of its standard time while mercilessly trampling down its land with 5,000 year-long history and culture and pursuing the unheard-of policy of obliterating the Korean nation.”

For the first time ever, that will lead to the two Koreas living in different time zones. North Korea is hiding a few details in this story. In 1954, a year after the end of the Korean war, both Koreas had already returned to their original time. But in 1961, again both Koreas, reverted to Japanese time. In truth, on the 70. anniversary of the liberation, North Korea did not correct the terrible Japanese Imperialism but their own mistake from 1961. But who remembers 1961? Life expectancy in North Korea was 51,44 years back then (World Bank figures) meaning the average North Korean born in 1961, already died in 2013. North Korea is remarkably close to George Orwell’s book “1984” where history is closely controlled by the government. The internet is not accessible, neither are foreign countries and the government is controlling all media. If someone remembers what happened, there will be no forum to tell anybody. Nobody will send out a tweet, that the time had been “corrected” before.

[Update December 2020: In May 2018, North Korea had enough of playing around with its own time zone and reverted to the previous time bringing it in line with South Korea (and Japan). It was hailed as “the first practical step” to Korean unification.]

There will be no military parade. Our western guide had always tried to keep us excited: „guys we see a lot of preparation, there is definitely something going on“. It is now clear that there will be no tanks and no rockets. Instead, we get a special circus performance and a mass dance in the evening. We have put on our best dress; our destination requires that. Proper shoes, no jeans and a proper shirt, otherwise there will be no access to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. North Koreans are generally well dressed, the style is more business out of the 1980s but it looks neat. There are no jeans and men usually wear shirts, also often for manual work. Driving around town, we see many people dressed up, many more women in the traditional chosonot. Very colourful but it makes them rather look like figurines from board games.

Kumsusan Palace of the Sun

Once Kim Il-sung’s official residence, Kumsusan Palace of the Sun was transformed into a mausoleum after his death. Here, the faithful could watch the body of their “eternal president”. In 2012, after the death of his son Kim Jong-il, the palace was adapted to house the two Kims. We arrive on an unremarkable parking lot. One of our group fails the clothing control and has to put on an extra jacket. We have to walk in a four-by-four formation, an unassuming entrance and we walk down a flight of stairs. We are not allowed to take anything, I repeat anything, not even the key card from the hotel, inside. Unnecessary stuff was left on the bus but we have our cameras as we will later be allowed to take pictures from the outside. We have to put everything on a table and an attendant will watch our stuff. Miss Kim tells us again that under no circumstances are we allowed to walk on the moving walkways. We pass a metal detector, to clean our shoes we walk over some rotating brushes, air blowers are supposed to tidy up the rest of us. We have to walk up a few stairs and the next half kilometre we are on moving walkways. Walking is not allowed and talking is disliked. The atmosphere is weird, it is only women working there, all are wearing a long black cloak and have long black hair that is pinned up in the same identical way. In regular intervals one of them is positioned to ensure decent behaviour. Smiling is of course out of question. The walls are graced with pictures of first Kim Il-sung, then Kim Jong-il and at the end both of them together. A stream of sad-looking North Koreans is coming the opposite direction. I have to fight the urge to laugh at this surreal-dignified atmosphere.

At each train station to Pyongyang, we were greeted by a painting of a smiling Kim Jong-il, on propaganda posters he is often shown smiling. On actual pictures he never smiles. On most of them he is wearing sunglasses, no matter if out- or inside. He is usually wearing a thick parka and very often he is dressed more warmly than anybody around him. He looks closed, and very often like “foreign” to his surroundings. That was the way the South Korea public expected him at the first meeting of the Korean heads of state in the year 2000 but he presented himself totally different. He seemed open, informed, talkative, made jokes und collected plenty of sympathies.

Many of the pictures shown are of so-called on-the-spot guidances, a North Korean speciality. The idea is that the leader travels around the country and tells the people on-the-spot how to do things. If you have the right leader, he knows everything best. At first Kim Il-sung went on these trips alone, then comes the phase when he appears together with his son and designated successor. After the death of the old man, Kim Jong-il is dispensing guidance on his own. We have to walk up another flight of stairs, our four-by-four formation is by now totally in disarray, no wonder the walkways are not broad enough to accommodate four people in a row. It seems to get serious now, we have to regroup. We enter a short corridor that seems to consist entirely of air blowers. At its end we have reached the heart of the complex, a big hall with a glass sarcophagus containing the embalmed body of Kim Il-sung. In the corner, a soldier stands watch. We step in a row of four towards the sarcophagus and bow to it, we step on the left side of the sarcophagus and bow, we walk around the head and bow a third time to the right of the sarcophagus. In official speak to bow means to “pay respect”. You don’t have to bow, but if you don’t want to bow you are not supposed to enter the palace.

We leave the room through another corridor of air blowers. The next room contains awards that the “Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung” has received in is life. Honorary doctorates of various little-known universities, plenty of honorary citizenships (relations to Portugal seem to have been close for a while) and awards from developing countries, from governments that mostly you do not want to be your own. Hundreds of petty awards. Some stuff is outright weird like the medal “750 Jahre Halberstadt”, well that was produced in great quantities at the anniversary and given to everybody who wanted one. There are plenty of people and there is some pressure to move on. Another corridor of air blowers. The sarcophagus of Kim Jong-il sits in the same setting, a spacious room with little light and in the middle the vitreous sarcophagus. Two steps, waiting, a few more steps, bowing, turning to the left, bowing, walking around the head, bowing and with appropriate steps through the air blowers into the next room. All goes fairly quickly and there is hardly any time to have a close look at the body. We are now in the room of Kim Jong-il’s awards. An allegedly Soviet one where I am fairly certain it didn’t exist anymore in the year that is written next to it. Some African states praised Kim Jong-il as a fighter against nuclear armament, clearly a premature judgement. I have the advantage of speaking several languages but for most North Koreans all that is written on the medals and awards will be totally unintelligible. Another moving walkway before we enter a hall that contains the train carriage of Kim Il-sung. A world map on the wall shows (in red) where he travelled by train and (in blue) by plane. He travelled far and wide. In the next room his official Mercedes. His son also had his own train carriage and has a world map on the wall. Two flights are marked on it, and looking at the years it becomes obvious that these were trips taken with his father, the adult Kim Jong-il was scared of flying and moved exclusively by train, Moscow was the farthest he got. The carriage contains a bed, a meeting room and a big desk. On it nothing except a shining MacBook. Another door and we meet his Mercedes and a golf-cart. The yacht of the leader is swimming on a painted ocean nowadays. Some more moving walkways and we are back at the beginning. We get our belongings back and enter the garden of the palace. Miss Kim is dressed in traditional attire today and everybody wants to take a picture with her.

Kumsusan Palace of the Sun is the largest of all the mausoleums erected for communist leaders. It is also a symbol of what goes wrong in North Korea. A poor country affords a giant palace to celebrate two people who are foremost responsible for the poverty of the country. And why? Because these two managed to distort history enough and to switch off independent thinking in their country to a degree that they are seen as god-like beings with special powers although in truth their achievements are rather ordinary. Especially Kim Jong-il’s rule was disastrous. In the late 1980s, life in North Korea is not so far away from other Communist countries. Illustrated books from this time show a surprising number of cars on the roads, more than 20 years later and maybe even more than today. The breakdown of communism came at a bad moment. Kim Il-sung was around eighty years old and would die a few years later (1994), his son had to find new ways but instead of trying reform he led North Korea ever deeper down onto its own path of isolation, self-reliance and hostility.    

I ask Miss Kim how often people come to see their eternal leaders. Today many people are visiting but today is a special day. “Regularly”, she says “either with the family or their work, or just like that. She would always be happy to go.” I express my surprise about the MacBook. She can’t really follow me on that and finds absolutely nothing special about a symbol of the great enemy, the suppressor of the Koreans of the southern area, standing on the desk of the “beloved leader”. With some distance you start asking yourself why you didn’t probe deeper, why you didn’t ask why nobody else around here has a MacBook. But what would be the point of it, she would try to evade my questions and all I could gain was to embarrass her. Does that help? Does that enhance my knowledge about North Korea? Does it improve the life of people here? No, it doesn’t. That some here are more equal than others, that some are allowed to have a MacBook and some are not, that is something I knew before. I am just surprised that it is shown so openly.       


Foreign Language Bookshop

Things that you would hardly notice in other countries are sights in North Korea: The Foreign Language Bookshop for example. A small shop right in the centre of Pyongyang. There are propaganda posters and plenty of books. What do you want? The second tome of Kim Il Sung: The Great Man of the Century? Something in Mandarin? A book about Kim Jong-un in Spanish? A biography in Russian? An encyclopaedia about the Kimjongilia? Or the Kimilsungia? Both are flowers by the way. Or something in German? The collected works? Or the fourth tome of Kim il-Sung’s memories “With the Century”? Do I rather take the treatise “On the contemporary Epoch and the task of the Youth” or shall I buy “The great mass sport or art show “Arirang” – a masterpiece of world renown, that represents the new century”? “On the development of health care” is probably not a good choice given the state of health care in North Korea. A small treatise for 4€, books go for something more. I start to understand why our tour agency recommended 50€ per day for extra expenses. I think about my bank account and as my head fills with negative numbers, I decide not to buy anything.

One girl in our group speaks Korean. She actually writes a Ph.D. in Korean literature and is not interested in the foreign language books but in the small section of Korean books. Seems to be heaven to her. To get North Korean books outside of North Korea is difficult. The easiest way is in the National library in Seoul but even there, books from the North are usually not easily available. And here they are just there, ready to be bought. She takes one, two, three, four, five, the pile of books keeps growing. At some point our guides are weighing a very North Korean kind of question: Is she allowed to do that? Can she buy so many books? They finally decide she can.

Normal police do not seem to exist in North Korea. But there are traffic police. Usually young women in neat white uniforms. They stand alongside the road and complement or replace traffic lights. Sometimes they march in goose-steps to their next mission. They do not belong to the military and so we are allowed to take pictures. One of them made the mistake to position herself in front of the Foreign Language Bookshop and by now all the people who have finished their shopping are hanging out on the pavement in front of the shop and try to steal a picture of her. No one dares to ask. In every other country the bus would be somewhere and we would be told to come back at a certain time. But not in North Korea where we have to do everything together, we wait in front of the shop and walk together, crossing Kim Il-sung square, to the nearby bus. Along the way two guys try to enter a small shop but the guide notices.


The circus is 20€ extra. Generally, our tour is all-inclusive but certain “extras” are extra. The previously unannounced visit to the special circus show for the 70. anniversary of the liberation is such an extra. And you don’t really have a choice. You either pay or you have to sit in the bus. The show is very good, to my non-expert eyes of a very high quality. Dancers, acrobats, synchronized swimmers and patriotic videos of the anniversary. Best is maybe the acrobat who builds a tower of rolls while balancing on them. His very pretty assistant watches with fear and excitement. It is not allowed to take pictures but in the dark, who cares.

Back on the bus one of these North Korea moments is awaiting us. It is Saturday, it is a holiday, it is close to five P.M. in the afternoon and we drive past an amusement park. Yes, something like that exists here. We have a good view on the park and it is nearly empty. A giant swing sits deserted, a train speeds over the rollercoaster with only a handful of people inside. The view has passed, the amusement park is not our destination and maybe there is an easy explanation for the near empty park. But it brings me back to a question I will not get a satisfactory answer to: Who is allowed to use the many shiny new things that have been built under Kim Jong-un? Who is allowed to visit the amusement park? Who is allowed to go skiing? And who is not? Our guides say that everybody is, do I believe that?

Kim Il-sung’s Birthplace

We reach the next holy site of national importance. I get my things together and I am in shock. Where is my zoom lens? The not-so-legal lens I have with me. Did I take it into the circus? Did I place a black lens in a black bag next to my dark seat and leave it there? Yes, I did. Mr Ri is the guide that is closest. I say sorry but… He takes out his mobile phone and says he will take care of it. To enhance my chances to get the lens back I also inform Miss Kim and our western guide. We have reached the house where Kim Il-sung was born. We are overjoyed! Three small huts, where he is supposed to have first seen the light of day in great poverty back in 1912. The ensemble is all by itself in a park. It doesn’t look that bad and abject poverty was probably something else at this time. The local guide speaks in a very low voice and everybody crowds around the openings to have a look inside. Honestly, I don’t care in which pot his first mash was prepared and I don’t expect true information.

We enter Pyongyang’s sport zone. Every building is dedicated to another sport. We head to the shooting gallery but for me there is a special programme. Alone in the bus with Mr Ri, we head back to the circus. One door is still open, the cleaning ladies are in the loop. We enter a small office. A middle-aged man sits behind a desk and in front of him stands my lens bag. To the left of him sits some guy in military uniform. I confirm that it is my lens and thank them for their help. Mr Ri asks me to go back to the bus, he would still have to sort out a few things. I do as told. I’d love to know what happened when I left the room. Did they have a friendly chat? Did he have to apologize? Was he told off? Was there some paperwork?               

Back at the shooting gallery we are greeted by a power cut. The first in three days. Nothing works and it is dark. Electricity comes back and suddenly there are some free shots for me. I suppress my antipathy to weapons. There are three versions of what happened then, a North Korean one, a South Korean one and my own:

North Korean version: The beloved tourist took the gun, aimed and already with his second shot he scored a perfect 10.6. Thereby he dealt a heavy blow to the imperial ambitions of the US aggressors and a clear signal for the strength of the ideology of Juche and proving the strength of the revolution. Does that seem exaggerated? No, not at all. Let’s remember Kim Jong-il’s first contact with the sport of golf. When he played his first round in 1994, he managed 11 hole-in-ones in 18 holes. Easy!

South Korean version: The tourist took the gun and after a first missed shot he improved and soon scored a perfect 10.6. There were more very, very good shots. International experts came to the conclusion that the tourist improved his results remarkably fast compared to other tourists. The international reputation of the tourist was greatly raised by his courageous performance.

My version: Basically, I do not want to touch any guns. On the other hand, you should make experiences in life and sometimes break with your patterns. As some free shots were lying around… A young lady was responsible to show me how the gun works but I was not able to find the proper position for my finger. The first shot was rather fired by accident (you shouldn’t play with guns) and was way off the target. At the second shot I knew at least how it worked and slowly improved. By sheer luck I really scored a 10.6. After the ten shots were over, I reverted to being a pacifist.

Mass Dance

The nights are dark in Pyongyang but not totally dark. Once in my life I experienced a completely dark city: Telavi in Georgia in 2003, there was no electricity and no one was prepared for that event so there were no generators (or maybe people did not have money for petrol). The shape of the single high-rise in town, visible in the light of the moon is etched in my memory. Compared to that Pyongyang is well-lit. Propaganda posters are illuminated and pictures and statues of the leaders are receiving plenty of light. Apartment complexes that have been erected in the last years have LED lights on the exterior. The streets in contrast are only graced by the occasional streetlamp and the regular appartement blocks are lacking brightness. Light is visible in many windows but it is rather a dim light as coming from light bulbs totally unable to cope with the task. Maybe the voltage is low? We are on our way to Kim Il-sung square, the central public open space in the heart of Pyongyang. At one end of the square is the National Library, along the sides are government buildings and at the other end the view goes to the Juche tower on the other side of the Taedong river.

We walk the last bit, Kim Il-sung square is brightly illuminated, and filled with squares made out of human beings. Every square consists of 13 rows with 8 couples each. The women wear colourful traditional dresses and the men are all wearing black trousers, a white shirt and a tie. About 50 human squares fill the space in front of us, all accurately arranged in regular intervals. Earlier in the day, we had already noticed that the square is covered with small markings. There are not many spectators. We are standing on a grand flight of stairs towards the National Library together with maybe three or four hundred other foreigners, at the sides of the square are small stands, one is filled but on the other are only a few people. Not many North Koreans have been invited but the dance is shown on TV. The music starts and the human squares dissolve into a dancing mass that fills all of Kim Il-sung square. The dancing goes on for about twenty minutes and then the dancefloor is being opened, everybody moves down and some tourists even join in. Another twenty minutes later the fireworks start. At the end of it, the dancers go back to their original square formation and then dissolve. Liberation day is over.