Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A glimpse of Kim's Juche dreamstate - part 2

After a long karaoke night in our rocket-shaped hotel, we went next morning to the 'International Friendship Exhibition hall', which is also located in Mount Myohyang area. This exhibition hall consists of two huge palaces which display all the gifts to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il from other countries. The presents to Dear and Great Leader are mostly from (former) socialist states like Cuba, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, etc. but still the site is impressive. Especially the exhibition hall of Kim Il Sung is absolutely huge with over 200 rooms. On the balcony we drank a nice coffee from where with had a beautiful view over the mountains.
From the Friendship Exhibition Hall we drove towards the mountains for a short hike in North Korea's nature. The paths were surprisingly well marked and the steep hike uphill brought us some nice views. The cold November weather made me appreciate the nice lunch back in the hotel and afterwards we drove back to Pyongyang.
Back in the capital city we visited the planetarium of 'Three revolution exhibition', which showed us some Cold War stuff. It was interesting to hear our guide speak about North Korea's satellite Pyongyang-1 and she explained us some things about the planet system. The next stop on our tour was more interesting to me however. We visited the 'Fatherland Liberation War Museum', which (obviously) shows the Korean war from their perspective. The Americans are named 'US imperialist aggressors' and South Korea a 'puppet state'. What mostly impressed me is how alive the Japanese invasion of Korea in the 1930 still is in North Korea. While South Koreans live their life without caring to much about history, North Korea is pretty much stuck in their own interpretation of history. What North Koreans basically want is apologies from Japan and the US for invading the Korean peninsula. And walking around in the war museum really gives them good arguments to demand so. North Korea still sees the US military presence in South Korea as 'invasion', therefore they call South Korea a puppet state.
The creation of the European Union and the numerous apologies of Germany to the rest of the world brought stability in Europe and generally speaking most Europeans don't really judge Germany on their Nazi past. In East Asia things are very different as Japan never formally apologized for their cruelties in the first half of the 20th century. Although the average Chinese or South Korean people don't really seem to care much about it, like I mentioned, in North Korea it is very important.
On the other hand it is interesting that North Korea views itself as 'winner' of the Korean War in the 1950s (1950-1953). The material displayed in the museum suggests that Kim Il Sung almost solely beat the Japanese and Americans, but in reality (at least what I learned during history class) the military support from the Soviet Union and China brought the American army back to the 38th parallel. Concluding this history discussion, in my opinion both sides have strong arguments and I believe it is simply wrong to judge complicated wars like this one only by reading western history books. To me it was very interesting to hear the North Korean point of view, despite that they have different 'facts' and a bit naive way of displaying history.
After a hard topic like this, we visited an English language bookstore and we went to a bowling hall afterwards. It seems a bit strange to visit a bowling place during a tour through North Korea, but actually it was really nice to see how normal (read: wealthy) people enjoy themselves. We played a round of bowling and had dinner in a very good hot pot restaurant. Back in the hotel I played some games at the pool table.
Already the fourth day in North Korea started with a bus journey to Panmunjom, a small village in the Demilitarized Zone (the border with South Korea). The road towards Seoul is remarkably empty, it is a huge highway, but very few cars make use of it. On the way we passed some checkpoints and we stopped for coffee in a highway restaurant (we were obviously the only customers). The scenery on the way brought us a glimpse of North Korean countryside.
In Panmunjom we visited some meeting places where the US and North Koreans negotiated back in the 50s. Our guide (a soldier of the DPRK army) showed us the heavily guarded and fortified Demilitarized Zone (which ironically is one of the most heavily armed places in the world) and marched us at the actual border with South Korea. At the border we were able to visit one of the UN-blue colored negotiation buildings and I formally stand 2 meters in South Korea (inside the building). From a viewing platform we were looking straight at South Korea and we could see two huge flags weaving on each side. The flagpole with the North Korean flag is the largest in the world. This fact might explain a bit of the tensions I could feel at the Demilitarized Zone. Unfortunately I couldn't spot any South Korean soldier, but sometimes the North and South Korean soldiers are facing each other while guarding their side of the peninsula.
Back out of the Demilitarized Zone we visited the city of Kaesong, 15 kilometers back on the road to Pyongyang. In Kaesong we had lunch in a traditional restaurant, my lunch consisting of kimji (hope I spelled correctly) and dog soup (!). Korea is famous for its dog soups and although the thought wasn't so nice, the soup tasted really good. It has some spices and especially the cold winter day (the meter recorded -5 that morning) made me appreciate it a lot. After lunch we made a quick picture of a statue of Kim Il Sung and we drove back to Pyongyang.
Although this was the last full day in Korea, we still had some sights to visit. The first one is the reunification monument, again a huge monument dedicated to North Korea's wish of reunifying with the South. After that we drove to the Victorious Liberation War Monument, which has some decorations about soldiers during the Korean War. At the monument I spotted a group of young people marching passed us with a large red-colored flag.
The last stop of our tour perhaps is the most impressive one, the School Children's Palace. Inside we saw amazing performances by children who study instruments, sports or art. What they do is basically practising all day with enormous discipline. Some play ping pong, others learn to play piano and others practise calligraphy. At the end we went to an amazingly choreographed show with dancers and singers (all children up to 12 years or so). It is hard to describe their abilities, therefore a small video below (not the main performance). At the end of the show we gave some flowers and a crowd of kids weaved us enthusiastically goodbye.
We finished the North Korea 'winter tour' in a duck restaurant and a karaoke hall. Our guides from Koryo Tours Nick, Simon and Hannah proved that they all have been living in East Asia for a while with their singing skills and it was a nice last night in Pyongyang.
The next cold morning (again around -5) I said our lovely guides goodbye and hopped on the train back to Beijing. The 5 hour ride to the border gave me an impression of Korean life in the countryside, although I couldn't save a lot of that pictures, because the DPRK border guards deleted some on my camera at Dandong border. Back in China I stayed a few more days in Beijing, finishing a paper in the hostel. And I went to the Great Wall at Badaling together with a Swedish guy Fredrik, who was on the North Korea trip as well, before taking a train back to Hong Kong.