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 V – Pyongyang II

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

National Library

We have been conditioned perfectly. Five days were enough. We enter the National Library, spot the marble statue of Kim Il-sung sitting in an armchair in front of a panorama of Mount Paektu, search for some orientation, find a reference in the pattern of the floor and line up to bow. No one needs to say anything. And no one will say anything, turns out no bowing is expected for sitting eternal leaders.

Time for a few words on Paektu San, the mythical mountain of Korea. A beautiful, active volcano, situated at the border with China and known there as the “Heaven Lake” for the heavenly blue expanse of water that has formed in its crater. Both Koreas agree (Yes!) that Koreans are a distinct ethnic group that has existed “forever”. The father of all Korea and all Koreans is Dangun who originated from the liaison of the god of heaven and a she-bear. Dangun came down from Paektu San and founded the first Korean kingdom. In the North Korean propaganda, the mountain has another dimension added. Kim Il-sung organized the fight against Japan from the “secret base camp” on the slopes of Mount Paektu. Kim Jong-il allegedly was born there. A fully made-up story, it is totally contradicted by Soviet sources (Kim Jong-il was instead born in Russia) but that is rather proof of the perfect secrecy of the “secret base camp”. If you chose another tour, you can even visit the “secret base camp”. To the traveller, the outline of Mount Paektu and its crater lake is soon familiar as it is a frequent propaganda symbol.

Our library guide has arrived, something seems to have gone wrong. A few angry words are exchanged between her and Miss Kim. A few people stand at computers and search for books, a photo exhibition is in the foyer. A reading room, as every other room graced with pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. At a counter we are shown a copy of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. The book has a library barcode but also an old-fashioned loan card. We observe an English class, they are watching Kung Fu Panda in the English original. We see a room full of computers and a multimedia room with TVs and plenty of boom boxes. We reach the library shop: books, propaganda posters, T-shirts, CDs and DVDs are waiting for us. I can do without a North Korean love story but I nearly buy the educational animation film “Potatoes Come to Hyanggigol”. The film was an attempt to prevent further famines. North Korea is mountainous and many areas are not well suited to grow the main staple rice. Many of these areas would be well suited though to grow potatoes but Koreans are not used to/just don’t like potatoes. Therefore, the government has tried to make the potato more popular, a sensible policy decision. As we leave the library after around 45 minutes, the photo exhibition in the foyer is nearly gone. Good logistics.       

Mansudae Art Studio

A giant Kim Jong-il is standing in front of a balustrade made from granite. Behind him the river, on the shore a palace and on the other side of the river the Juche tower. Fireworks are throwing a reddish glow on the scene. His arms are folded in an unnatural position and in front of him is a magnolia flower. A golden baroque frame encloses the picture. We have reached the centre of propaganda art, the Mansudae Art Studio. The only place officially sanctioned to portray the Kim family dynasty. We are allowed to look over the shoulder of some of the artists including an apparently very famous one. The basketball square is used for a hospital truck today, a queue has formed. A construction fence is full of propaganda posters, I understand absolutely nothing but take a picture of every single one of them. One shows the whole brigade, all in uniform but all with a red construction hat. Someone makes the mistake of asking if we can take a picture of that. Mr Ri hesitates and says “no”, I already have everything on my memory card.

The sun is bright and the hall with the open gate is dark. Tempting to have a closer look, I move towards the hall as Mr Ri comes around a corner. I proceed on my previous path. We enter the gallery, as everywhere the tour ends with the option to buy something. I notice the yellow label: DHL service available. Above the door, there are three red plaques with golden letters. They tell us about the three most important days in the life of this building. On the 11th of February 1991 Kim Il-sung stepped through that door. On the 27th of April 1997 Kim Jong-il visited the gallery and on the 3rd of February 2012 Kim Jong-un paid a visit. In case Kim Jong-un comes again, another plaque will be added. The plaques are standardized and they can be seen regularly. The gallery sells pictures, statues, vases, propaganda posters (printed or painted) of high quality but also with matching prices.

A short bus ride to the Stamps Museum, the glory of the North Korean postal service. My eyes touch a stamp that is called “Attacking Spirit of Mt. Paektu and Merciless Annihilation”. Is “Merciless Annihilation” something that should be aspired to?  

Gender Equality

On the way to the restaurant, I spot a construction site. I often find them interesting and, without thinking, take my camera. Mr Ri reminds me not to take a picture. I move my finger from the trigger. I say sorry and tell him (truthfully) that I am so unused to not take pictures of construction sites that I just happen to forget. We enter the restaurant. Food is not really my topic. I like to eat but, in my mind, food is located somewhere in the necessities section. I like to try new things but I also quickly forget what I tried. The more so if I am on a group tour where I am neither choosing the restaurants, nor the food myself. The quality of the North Korean food is variable, sometimes very good, sometimes average and sometimes mediocre. Service is often slow and sometimes we arrive and find food that is already rather cold. It is usually plentiful. We have one vegetarian and some restaurants struggle to deal with that. Sometimes she gets really nice stuff but sometimes emergency foods like eggs with mayonnaise. Some of the restaurants are privately operated and they usually have a higher standard as the state ones. We always get water and usually beer with our meals, sometimes soju in the evening. I drink a surprising amount of alcohol since I arrived to North Korea.

In that particular restaurant all men received a beer, the ladies did not. Some of them protested but the serving girls did not change their ways. Only after Miss Kim intervened forcefully did we return to the equality of the sexes. The same fights have to be fought everywhere.

Walking Tour

We drive with the bus to another highlight: A walk through town. Usually, we are always ferried by bus from A to B but today we will walk. We start in the most modern corner of Pyongyang. Walking feels good. We pass the new concert hall (Mansudae People’s Theatre) where for example the Moranbong Band, an all-female music group whose original members were selected by Kim Jong-un himself (how perverse), perform. Don’t stand on the cycling lane marked in red, please. The new apartment blocks look good, 40 storeys and modern rounded shapes, attractive architecture. After a few minutes of walking, we need a break. We enter a building that had a fabulous year in 2012. On the 24th of May and the 31st of August Kim Jong-un stepped through that same door. In May he must have taken the stairs or the elevator to the second floor but in August he walked right into the same supermarket as we do. What honour! It is a surreal shopping experience. On the small side compared to a western supermarket and only equipped with mini-karts, the supermarket is completely free of costumers but with our arrival all the attendants spring into position. There are fruits, meat, cheese, drinks, sweets. The range is eclectic, again a lot of things from Germany (“Gut&Günstig”) and some is outright weird as the brown bread from the island of Sylt in metal boxes. The shelves look full but often they are rather stuffed sideways than in depth. Taking pictures is, unfortunately, forbidden. According to our guides everybody is allowed to shop here but I suppose the availability of hard currency limits access. Prices are marked in won and will be converted (118 won per Euro) while paying. As we learned in the water park, the prices shown in tourist shops have no relation to the real prices. The can of orange juice that was 3000 won in the water park is marked with 100 won in the supermarket. If every North Korean could pay in won here, they could shop very cheaply. So, they can’t. But as we leave a few other Korean-looking people arrive.  

I’d love to take a picture but my DSLR is not good for clandestine photography and the signs are clear, no pictures allowed. But maybe there is a chance as most people have already moved upstairs and only the guide of our sister group is still around. He seems to be a nice guy and is smiling a lot. Together with another guy we ask if we can at least take a picture from the outside of this impressive supermarket. He is uneasy, he wants to say no, he has been told to say no. But he also does not want to disappoint us, he seems that he doesn’t get himself what would be bad about us taking a picture. We keep on pushing until he says “yes”. Click, click.

Anyway, supermarkets and shelves. The academic Rüdiger Frank happened to get to Pyongyang as a student in 1991. Exchange agreements from the time of the GDR were still in existence. He wanted to buy a coffee cup and went to the central “Department Store No. 1”. He found a cup and tried to tell one of the salesladies what he wanted. She replied something that he did not understand, he insisted and at some point, the saleslady started to cry and ran away. He left the store without a cup. It took some time until he realized what had happened. Sometime before his visit to the store, Kim Il-sung had been to the same store for an “one-the-spot-guidance”. He had seen empty shelves and told people that he does not like empty shelves. North Koreans understood immediately and asked themselves why they did not have this brilliant idea themselves. With this one sentence, comrade Kim Il-sung had freed North Koreans from the menace of empty shelves. The shelves were filled. The only problem was that from time-to-time people came to the store with the wish to buy something. For the staff this was a dilemma, on one hand they found it natural that people came to a store and wanted to buy something, on the other selling something would lead to empty spots on the shelves and that would displease the leader. They decided not to sell and a system developed where you could only buy things that were placed on the floor in front of the shelves and not what was on the shelves. If this sounds absurd, it is not me who is responsible for that. In some ways the supermarket we just visited with the shelves stuffed sideways reminds me of that department store but in some ways, it is also the antithesis, everything is on sale here if you have the money.

One floor up we visit another milestone of the new era: a stylish coffee bar as can be found anywhere where people have more money than they need to survive. Nothing special elsewhere but revolutionary in Pyongyang. It has been around for a few years now. The beginning of the social separation, an option to spend one’s money, no matter from which sources it comes and to make a distinction to the people who cannot spend that money. Capitalist ideas slowly take hold.

We proceed on our walking tour. I love it to explore cities by walking, you are slow and have time to look out for small details. I enjoy our time without our bus. We cross the Taedong river, in the distance the 1st of May Stadium is visible. A group of Young Pioneers walks on the other side of the road. We finally have a good view on the small ships that dredge the river night and day. A traffic policewoman stands in her white circle, a car broke down and needs to be pushed away. More Young Pioneers are coming and we are entering a dark building. Our walk has ended and we are inside a bowling centre called “Pyongyang Gold Lane”. I am annoyed. The weather is beautiful, the sun is shining and I would just love to keep walking but instead we are having a session of “fun” prescribed by our itinerary. There are not even windows and I feel trapped. I play some pool and a short power cut throws our windowless “prison” into total darkness. After two hours, we are being released.

Juche Tower

The bus is waiting although the Juche tower, is in walking distance, we can already see it. It will take longer to get there by bus than on foot. The reason for that is that taking left turns seems to be discouraged in North Korea, we sometimes drive pirouettes because we are not taking left turns. Imagine, you come to a crossroads and should take a left turn, instead of doing so you go straight, then right, right again and right for a third time. You have surrounded a block, returned to the same crossroads and by going straight now, you come onto the road you originally wanted to go on. Why are we doing that? Heavy traffic cannot be the answer. In all of Pyongyang I only remember one time that we actually took a left turn. An ugly building appears and the two pictures immediately reveal its purpose, it is the Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia Exhibition Hall. One of the moments when I want to break the invisible bars of the bus and just jump out. I want to see that! The Kimilsungia is an orchid that was bred in Indonesia and named in honour of Kim Il-sung. If one Kim has a flower, the other needs one as well. The Kimjongilia is a hybrid cultivar of tuberous begonia, wow. It was cultivated by a Japanese botanist and is supposed to bloom on (or around) the 16th of February, Kim Jong-il’s birthday. If you want to come into good graces you might think about creating a Kimjongunia? Once a year there is a competition who can grow the most beautiful flowers. Otherwise, they are used as metaphors. They appear on posters and sometimes they are even the main act. A panorama of Mount Paektu with a Kimilsungia is nearly as valuable as a panorama with Kim Il-sung himself. In front of the exhibition hall, hundreds of similar well-dressed people are waiting. We see that from time to time, if we ask, we are being told they would train for some mass event.

“In case there is electricity, we can actually take the elevator to the top.” We have reached the Juche tower, a 170-metre-high granite pillar with a red flame on top. In front of it a sculpture of a worker, an intellectual and a female farmer. Together, they hold the symbols of the party. The tower symbolizes the power and the greatness of the Juche ideology. If you ask yourself if you missed something as you have never before heard about Juche (pronounced Yoo-yeh) you can rest assured. In the times of Kim Il-sung, North Korea was still closer to the communist mainstream and the decision was made that Kim Il-sung needed to establish an ideology like all the others (Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, Ho Chi Minh Thought, etc.). In the second half of the 1950s the Juche ideology was presented, not without claiming, in the typical manner, that Kim Il-sung had already developed it in 1930 at the tender age of 18. He just didn’t tell anybody for the next 27 years. 

I read speeches by Kim Il-sung and the ideology gives the impression of being kind of “loose” or maybe also of being non-existent. Complicated sentences that lead nowhere, but that contain the word “Juche”. You have to let yourself be guided by the ideology of Juche, the masses have to be educated in Juche and so on. But what is Juche? One of our guides struggled to explain as someone wanted to know more details, he smartly rescued himself by saying: “It’s complicated, you should buy a book.” The one defining feature of Juche is the demand for autarky. According to Kim Il-sung the three principles are political sovereignty, economic self-sufficiency and military independence. Hardly new ideas, and hardly communist ones. In 1977, Juche replaced Marxism-Leninism as the guiding principle in North Korea’s constitution. Since 1997, North Korea lives in the age of Juche that began with the birth of Kim Il-sung in 1912. I am visiting North Korea in the year of Juche 104.

In front of the tower some Young Pioneers train for a soon to happen torch procession. The tower guide welcomes us, tells us some stuff and shows greetings hewn in marble from Juche study groups from around the world. There is electricity, the lift is 5€ extra and I am not ready to spend that amount for a closer look at the hazy Pyongyang sky. I walk around the tower, have a look at the smaller monuments around and try to take a few nice pictures at the riverfront. A moment of relative freedom. People also train on the other side of the river, on the central Kim Il-sung square. Maybe I should have taken the lift. I rather take pictures of the people employed to keep the tower and its surroundings clean and tidy.


We enter an ugly building with golden mirrored glass windows without any signs. Hidden is the serving room of a micro-brewery. The windows are darkened and the brick walls are way to tidy to be real. We sit on leather around rustic wooden tables. Football scenes, a best of the worst goals is projected on a silver screen. Booking our tour, we had received a detailed plan for every day of our trip. In North Korea many things were changed. I don’t care if we visit the Juche tower today or tomorrow, the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun on the first or last day of our trip. What is annoying is, when things just disappear from the itinerary without anyone saying anything about it. Especially if you were really looking forward to these things (still missing the mineral water factory and the film studios). We were supposed to go to a “local bar”, where North Korean workers would have a beer with their rationing cards. One of the opportunities to see the “real” North Korea. Instead, we are in a hipster brewery, that could be in Berlin, Moscow or New York. The brewery is interchangeable. If I would be a free man, I would say this is not what I came for and leave. But I am not a free man, I am a voluntary short-time prisoner of a group tour to North Korea.

A short stop in the dark. For the soon to be anniversary the monument to honour the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea is being renovated. That is why we are not visiting the monument properly. I dislike the party; I think its rule has been a catastrophe for North Korea. But I like the symbol. Three hands are rising from the ground, one is holding the hammer of the worker, one is holding the sickle of the farmer and the third is holding the writing brush of the intellectual. Communist parties usually based their ideology on farmers and especially workers, forgetting or even persecuting intellectuals. It is a revolutionary concept to see intellectuals as a full part of the movement. The reality though, seems to have been different. The former “workers’ and peasants’ state” with the capital of East Berlin paid bonusses to skilled workers and an intelligence pension to academics and other bright lights. In contrast, in a speech by Kim Il-sung, I found an interesting paragraph on the topic of qualifications. He had sent some proven revolutionaries to the Ministry of the Interior and received the feedback that they were unsuited for the intended positions. He got enraged, this is no way to deal with proven revolutionaries, unsuited or not, they will get the job.

On the way back to the hotel Mr Ri is singing for us. The song is about his beloved Korea. We don’t get a single word but his fervour and what it all seems to mean to him, is impressive.