October 10th: The big day. This is the day that the whole of North Korea has been waiting and preparing for. Party Foundation Day. It’s been 70 years since the Workers Party of Korea (WPK) was formed.
The capital, Pyongyang, is filled with tourists and delegations. Over the past couple of days our tour group, with Koryo Tours, had been told that we “may or may not” be able to attend the huge parade which was planned to take place in Kim Il-sung Square, but one thing was for certain: we’d get to see some flowers.
In North Korea there are two famous flowers: Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia. Both developed by botanists in Indonesia–apparently as a gift from the Indonesian president to the first two Kims–they feature quite frequently in paintings, videos, and basically wherever one might find flowers.
As part fo the 70th Anniversary celebrations we attended a Kimjongilia and Kimilsungia exhibit. Throughout the country, various governmental departments, regional governments, trade organisations, and even the tour company taking us around (Korea International Tourism Company or KITC) had made huge arrangements of these two flowers in honour of the leaders, and they were all on display here.
One interesting thing which happened at the exhibit was when I asked one of my tour guides what the name of the traditional Korean dress is. In South Korea, it’s called Hanok. Most traditional things in South Korea start with Han. Unsurprisingly, the North Korean dialect calls traditional clothes Choson-ot. There we see the familiar prefix “Choson” which I mentioned in a previous post about the name of the country and of the alphabet.
The flower exhibit, while impressive, was quite repetitive. The same two flowers can only be arranged in so many ways. We signed the guest book and headed off. There was still plenty to do to fill the time before the parade. We were going to see one of Pyongyang’s greatest monuments.
Hard work, with a dash of artistry
Most people are familiar with the hammer and sickle which appears in so much communist iconography. The Soviets used it, the Chinese Communists used it, as did those in Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba. All over the place. Often it represents the party, rather than the country, in a communist state, which is true for North Korea. But in North Korea, the party logo includes not only the hammer and sickle, but a calligraphy brush; a symbol of art and intellectualism in between the two aggressive symbols of industry and agriculture. Intellectuals are considered to be very important by the Workers Party of Korea.
This iconography, being of three parts, is easily adapted to suit a three-dimensional model. That is quickly apparent in the Workers Party Monument, recently refurbished, sitting on the other side of the river from but facing the Mansudae statues.
We were shown this impressive structure by a middle-aged lady in a Choson-ot. In South Korea, she probably would’ve been an ajumma - but here she was a kindly lady with a very, very polite accent who had a deep respect for this monument and the huge amount of work put into it.
Our stop here did not last long. We were taken towards a building which we were told contained a photo gallery and bookshop. But on the way we stopped in a small souvenir shop where, in an attached sitting room, an old Korean man was explaining, in English, something about the war. I became quite captivated by his lecture and after about 5 minutes realised my entire tour group had gone. I was now hanging out with a different group. All people I’d never met.
After panicking for a few seconds I realised that I was unsupervised for the first time. So, I was excited. I wandered around for a minute, looked at the monument again on my own and went behind an open door that probably wasn't meant for me (it was a supply closet, sorry).
Soon, though, boredom overtook curiosity and I went to what looked like it was probably the entrance to the aforementioned gallery and bookshop. Luckily, it was. There was plenty of good art - not all party- or leader-related. But the most fascinating thing was the literature and DVDs available.
Best-sellers such as On Enhancing the Party’s Role by Kim Jong-il, Let us learn Korean by Anonymous and, my favourite, Let us give a strong impetus to the three revolutions and effect a fresh advance in production, also by Kim Jong-il, were available at this store. Also available here on DVD were hit children’s made-for-TV movies The Youngest Bear and Two Friends Drink Mineral Water.
Of course, most of these books weren’t works of literature, but transcripts of the leaders’ speeches: they were small enough to carry around and remind you of the current or past objective of the party. There were plenty by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-un, too.
Many tourists bought multiple books and DVDs. The party is most certainly aware of the quirkiness of these items, of that I am sure. One needs only travel to China (as many top-ranking Koreans often do) to know that these sorts of things are not generally available to Westerners. Therein lies what Kim Jong-un believes is the solution to Korea's financial woes: He wants to turn the place into "socialist fairlyland".
As we had all expected, we were soon told that we would not be allowed to go to the parade. It had been suggested a few times before. We were also told that in fact, the parade would be delayed anyway because of poor weather conditions. It was true: the clouds overhead were haunting and would definitely put a downer on the day’s festivities. Maybe China will step in with their anti-cloud rockets? The tourists’ imaginations, free from the reality anchor of the Internet, were obviously running wilder than usual.
However, that didn’t slow us down much. KITC (Korean International Tourism Company) took us to a recently-opened waterpark/leisure center.
An upright, jolly-looking, green-camo-jumpsuit-wearing, larger-than-life Kim Jong-il.
As we entered, we were quickly warned not to take any photos of what we were about to see. Then I came up against a terrifying vision: An upright, jolly-looking, green-camo-jumpsuit-wearing, larger-than-life Kim Jong-il. He was standing there, greeting guests to the waterpark as he stood in front of a beautiful painting of the Korean countryside with Paekdusan (the special mountain) making a central appearance.
This statue of Kim the Younger was so accurate it could easily have been taken right out of Madame Tussauds - except that it was much, much larger than he was. It wasn’t meant to exaggerate his height or anything, it was simply scaled up. But everything else about it–the dimensions, the colours, the expression on the face–was life-like. Life-like, of course, in the photoshopped sense. Kim rarely smiled so broadly, or stood up so straight. It was a cariacature of him, but a realistic one, nonetheless.
It was times like this when I wished I’d had a hidden camera. So, we passed by without taking any photos. We just gasped, quietly, and shuddered.
The pool was huge. Not a pool for doing laps in, more one for messing around in. It was mostly filled with families playing, and apparently it would’ve been OK for us to go for a swim, but unsurprisingly nobody was keen to buy the speedos they had on sale and take a dip with the Koreans. Partly out of fear of weirding out the locals, partly out of fear of speedos.
Instead, we were served our lunch. This was hugely exciting for me because our lunch was one of my favourite Korean meals - the classic Korean packed lunch, in fact: Kimbap! It was quite a basic one, not much in it: just some rice, carrot, dried cucumber and a little bit of omelete. Still tasty though.
Rishi and I managed to order some draught beer too. This was neither the first nor the last time that speaking Korean would get us something a little bit extra on top of what we were already getting. Until now, we’d really only been drinking bottles. And boy, was the draught good.
We enjoyed our lunch, and enjoyed watching people splash about in the pool and speed down the slide. Some went for coffee, others played billiards, and others explored the pool areas, inside and out.
As we waited, our situation was explained to us in disjointed parts and the picture soon became clear. The tourists, for some reason, were had been kept away from the parade preparations. The general feeling was that because the roads were so busy, it would’ve been disruptive for us to be taken around in our big tour coaches.
Soon, however, they rushed us back onto the buses. There was no time to waste. Apparently we’d be missing the parade proper, but we’d see parts of it.
We were taken to the side of the Taedong river opposite to Kim Il-sung square, where the parade would be taking place. This is where thousands of soldiers would pass through and stand, and Kim Jong-un would stand later with his wife, family (those whom he hadn’t exiled or executed) and close political allies to address the crowd.
At the waterfront of the river, we looked towards the square. Nothing happened. All was quiet. We were waiting for some kind of cannon fire or planes to fly over us. The clouds had mostly cleared up, so it was looking good.
After half an hour of inactivity, things started to get a bit more exciting. Huge crowds of children wearing red caps and scarves started walking by our viewing point and across the bridge. These were the Young Pioneers, a Youth Movement for 9-15 year-olds, sort of like a socialist Boy Scouts or Girl Guides.
To our surprise, there were a fair few Koreans walking around in the park near our viewing point, rather than attending the parade on the sidelines. I suspect space was limited, and just like us, not everybody could attend.
Eventually, we heard some loud cannon fire - I don’t remember how much, but it wasn’t a lot. And soon, fighter jets flew over spewing out coloured smoke, reminicent of the Red Arrows back in the UK. Propellor planes also turned up, spelling out “70” in reference to which anniversary was being celebrated.
Sooner or later, the sound of music and cheering began to float its way across the river. The military parade was happening. By now, troops would be goose-stepping their way past Kim Il-sung square, enormous rockets would be rolling by on the back of trucks and tanks would be rumbling along the road. North Korea correspondents from major media outlets around the world would be broadcasting details and making notes, and the regular task of reminding the world of North Korea’s threatening military might would be underway.
And we were missing out!
By this point some of the tourists were getting a little impatient. We’d been waiting around a fair bit and didn’t get to see the parade. However, what we did get was something which, in my opinion, is far more valuable: more freedom than ever before. All around us, the Koreans who weren’t attending the parade were wandering around in the square near the waterfront, often watching the red-capped children go by, having a picnic or just hanging out like us, trying to get a glimpse of the action happening across the river. It was a rare day off from work for many people, after all. We were able to observe this all happening, wander around and even exchange pleasantries with a couple of people.
As the sun began to set and the air cooled, we were asked to start walking along the road going south, Juche Tower Street, past the monument known as “Tower of Juche Idea” (Juche, pronounced “Joo-chay”, being the official ideology behind the North Korean Regime, perfected by Kim Il-sung and his successors). We saw more Young Pioneers, and even spotted a couple of precocious-looking kids with their caps worn backwards in an act of petty teenage defiance, who looked at us intimidatingly. Not even the uniforms of the Young Pioneers can suppress such natural rebelliousness.
Soon we reached a bridge, and stopped. This bridge, and the road to which it led, was manned by police officers and presently used by only a select few vehicles. It was the route for the military to take out of town back to their various bases. This was our chance to see the parade!
So, we waited. The light began to fade and the crowds began to grow. Tourists from all over started turning up, and locals gathered with their friends and families to pass the time before the parade made its way towards us.
I met a tour guide here, a North American man who ran a different tour company called Young Pioneer Tours, having a few laughs with some of the staff from KITC. I remember him particularly because he had a party badge, bearing the portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, attached to the lapel of his jacket. This is interesting because these badges aren’t handed out to just anybody who asks for them, and they can’t be bought. Every North Korean is given one at a certain time in their life as a gift from the government, but foreigners have to have some importance to be worthy of this honour. I didn’t ask what he did to deserve it, since he was clearly quite occupied - but it’s curious indeed.
Sooner or later, I, too, got a little bored of waiting. It was at this point that I started wandering around and speaking to the locals.
My first chat was with a group of boys (aged at most 7 years old) sitting and waiting for the parade on a raised part of the pavement, posing for the photos of some women from Singapore. I told the boys my name was Daniel, and asked them their names. One of them quickly piped up and told me. I asked the other, and he looked shyly down at the ground. His friend egged him on, and he mumbled it under his breath. Soon, though, our little chat was over, as a police officer gave us a very understandable look of, “That’s enough”. So, I walked away.
Next, I stood for a while waiting for something to happen on the road. The crowd was getting rather big and a fairly uninteresting cars had begun to drive by. A Korean family (father, daughter, and much younger daughter) came up, so I offered them my place. They still couldn’t see, so I positioned my camera above the crowd so that the little girl could see through it, and told her, “Look here”. The father thanked me and so did the girl, but soon we realised that not much was happening so I wandered off to find something to do.
I eventually found myself on the other side of the road where the crowd was a little thinner. By now the vehicles were getting more interesting. Trucks with guns and soldiers driving by, and little minibuses spouting propaganda very loudly from speakers.
I had my camera out, trying to get photos, but in the darkness it was difficult to make anything out and we were asked not to use any flashes.
I was standing near a group of teenage boys, so I said hello. One said hello back, and asked where I was from. I told him from Yeongguk - England. A few moments of silence followed before he looked at my camera and asked how much it cost. I was a little shocked at this question, and had to take a moment to come up with an answer which made sense. I wasn’t sure exactly how much £1 was in North Korean Won, so I gave him an answer in Euro, which most people I’d met so far understood. I told him, *I-baek-won yu-ro”. 200 Euros. That was an understatement, but even at this he seemed very surprised. We didn’t exchange many words after that, just a “nice to meet you” and “goodbye”. But it was nice to be asked a question.
Chatting with Koreans was one of my favourite things to do. I know that the experience I’m getting of North Korea is very different from the experience one would have out in the countryside, but these are still real people. Individuals, with personalities, opinions, hobbies, likes and dislikes, crushes, dreams. Whatever amount of brainwashing they get at school and even in adulthood, each one of these people has a story to be told. Sadly, it would be improper and frowned upon to share too much, but the first barrier to real communication was my incompetence at the language. I hope that next time I visit, I’ll be a little more proficient.
The military hardware continued to grow in impressiveness. Armoured transports with gun turrets rolled by, sounding like out-of-order tractors. Soldiers were sitting and standing on top of various vehicles, smiling and waving at the crowds around them.
Long trucks, carrying large cylindrical objects shrouded by huge tarpaulins, drove quickly along the road out of town. When I asked Mr. Baek (one of our KITC tours) what it was, he said, “I don’t know!”. But we both knew. Rockets, obviously.
Ex-Soviet T-62 tanks obnoxiously hurtled forward. What action had they seen? How old were they? The people in the crowd around me shouted “Congratulations!” every time a vehicle drove by. We waved and cheered, but after an hour of this we were getting tired and bored. Even Mr. Baek started to lose his enthusiasm.
The air was getting cold and the light was all but gone. Very few streetlights led us back to the coaches, but Mr. Baek knew what he was doing and soon we were there. It had begun to rain by the time we got back, and after the last few soaked members of our tour had returned to the welcoming, dry coach, we made our way to dinner.
A heavy meal with light entertainment
A common report you hear from visitors to the DPRK is how many Karaoke performances you’ll receive. This, I’m happy to confirm, is a very accurate report. Just like their cousins in the south, North Koreans are very keen on singing publicly.
While we waited for the parade to go by, there was a Karaoke machine running for people to sing revolutionary songs.
Outside of the bookshop earlier, there was a Karaoke machine for staff to pass the time while waiting for customers.
On the coaches, more Karaoke machines. Our guides were more than happy to give us acapella performances of “My Heart Will Go On” and the extremely apt “When Will My Life Begin” from Disney’s Tangled. Our British tour guides also had a go, as did I, with “My Time of Day” from Guys and Dolls.
But it doesn’t end there: our first dinner in a proper Korean food restaurant also featured a Karaoke machine.
This was the best food we ate while in North Korea. Not only were we given a small bibimbap (one of my favourite Korean dishes) but we were also served something I’d never even encountered in South Korea: deep fried, medium-firm tofu covered in gochujang, the spicy Korean sauce. It was absolutely fantastic. In fact, thanks to the unwillingness of some of my fellow tourists, I had a second helping.
Towards the end of the meal is when the Karaoke began. Our hosts, dressed immaculately in Choson-ot, took turns singing some revolutionary tunes. At the end, at the suggestion of our guides, one of the other tourists bought her a bouquet of flowers; a small gesture to show our appreciation for having to sing that song, over and over again, in what appeared to be extremely uncomfortable clothing.
By the time it was all over, we were back on the coach. Exhausted, full, slightly overwhelmed. Time to rest - well, maybe just a little bit of Karaoke and billiards before bed. Not too late though. In the morning, we’d be stopping off on one very important part of what I call the “Pickled Leaders Tour”.
Before you go…
If you want to see some footage of the DPRK which I recorded, I’ve been posting videos on my YouTube Channel. Check it out.
This post is part of a series. You can see part one here, part two here, and part four here.
Also, Koryo Tours have plenty more DPRK information and photos if you want further glimpses into North Korean life, largely on social media: Instagram of Vicky, my tour guide, Koryo on Facebook, Koryo on Twitter, Koryo on Tumblr. They also have a website where you can find out about their tours and humanitarian projects, koryogroup.com.
Finally, if you’re interested in the divisive issue of the ethics of touring in North Korea, the Guardian recently wrote an interesting piece. Give it a read.
Heckle me on Twitter @basicallydan.