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Published: December 14th 2017
Statue of "the Great Leader" Kim Il-sung at Mansu Hill in Pyongyang. Each visitor to North Korea is required to leave flowers and bow to the statue.
Since this photo was taken they have added one more statue here, one of "the Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il
A place very different from everything else
We travelled also before we joined TravelBlog. We have started to digitalise photos from those pre-TravelBlog trips and we are planning to write about maybe a handful of those. We will write when we have the time and time is usually scarce so these blog entries will be long in between. Here is the first one and it is about a country very few have visited – North Korea where Ake spent five days in late April and early May 1997.
But before I begin the travel tale there are a few things I would like to say
1 This is a travel story, not a political statement. We try to avoid political statements because we don't think this blog is the right place for those.
2 When I visited North Korea the guides gave me the North Korean side of the Korean War and the situation in North Korea. I will neither relay nor comment on that side of the story mainly because that might violate paragraph number one above.
3 I am not proud of the quality of the photos. The photos are
Monument at Mansu Hill
Monument at Mansu Hill is called "Monument to the heroes of the revolutionary war". Actually it's only half of the monument. There is a similar one on the other side of the big statues
dull due to a combination of the following
• I am a pretty lousy photographer
• I didn't have a digital camera, I used film in 1997. The only film I had available was of low quality and it has deteriorated over time
• When I took the photos I did not have the freedom to stand where I wanted. I was shepherded from place to place and I could either take the pictures from where I was, and try to make the best out of it, or not take the picture at all.
Now let me begin with the story.
I went to North Korea a long time ago. In those days it was only possible to visit North Korea if you were booked on a tour. To travel independently, roam around with a guide book in hand and book accommodation via various websites was impossible then and I am sure it still is. The only thing that might have changed is that it might be somewhat easier to find travel agents arranging tours in North Korea today than it was then.
I started planning this trip
The Korean War Museum
"The Great Leader", Kim Il-sung, is in the middle of this painting surrounded by soldiers, children and others.
several months before I left home. I started by contacting the North Korean embassy in Stockholm. They could not help me get a visa so I went to Beijing in China instead in hope that the embassy there could help me. That worked a lot better. In Beijing they had helped tourists many times so for them to arrange a visa and a guided tour was not a problem.
I was booked on a five day long tour with a tight schedule every day. I flew with Air Koryo, the national airline of North Korea, from Beijing to Pyongyang International Airport. At the airport I was met by two guides and a driver, three men who were to follow almost every step I took the next couple of days. Not being possible to travel independently meant that I wasn't allowed to move around by myself at all. I wasn't allotted any free time to explore Pyongyang or any other place on foot. I actually wasn't even permitted to leave the hotel without company.
The first sight I visited was the Korean War Museum. The Korean War officially lasted from 1950 to 1953. But since
The Korean War Museum
Statue of a female soldier who was captured and held prisoner by the enemy
a peace treaty was never officially signed it might be argued that it still hasn't ended. The Korean War Museum contains exhibitions of weapons used, stories from soldiers who fought in the war and several dioramas displaying various episodes in the war.
On the second day I was first taken to the southern part of North Korea and the city Kaesong and the DMZ and Panmunjom.
Kaesong was once the capital of Korea. Around Kaesong there are a number of historically important places. I remember visiting an old temple and an ancient historical bridge. The bridge is called Sonjuk Bridge and is famous in Korea because on that bridge in 1392 the diplomat and high ranking political figure Jeong Mong-ju was assassinated, an assassination that symbolised the end of the Koryo Dynasty and marked the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty. To us who don't have a big fascination for details in Korean history Sonjuk Bridge is still worth seeing since it is a pretty good looking bridge from the 13th century.
DMZ stands for the Demilitarized Zone and is a narrow strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula along the border between
The blue buildings at Panmunjom
Across the border several blue buildings stand. Their purpose is to provide a place to hold meetings where neither part can claim to be inferior to the other. The border runs exactly though the middle of them. In the middle of each building there is a table where they can sit and talk. Half the table stands north of the border and half stands south thereof
South and North Korea. In a way it is ironic that the strip is called "Demilitarized" because it is probably the most heavily armed border in the world.
The DMZ can in most places not be visited. One exception is Panmunjom. Panmunjom is the name of a small village next to the border and the DMZ but has become synonymous with the border station between North and South Korea. When the Korean War ended they foresaw that there would be tension between the two countries for decades to come. They therefore created a neutral zone where representatives from the two countries could meet and have discussions. Across the border, which of course runs through the border zone, there are several blue painted buildings erected for the purpose of enable meetings where neither part can claim to be inferior to the other. The buildings stands so that the border runs exactly though the middle of them. In the middle of each building there is a table where they can sit and talk. Half the table stands north of the border and half stands south thereof.
These houses are often shown on TV and they are
Plaque at Panmunjom
Plaque at Panmunjom commemorating a visit by Kim Il-sung
iconic in the sense that they have come to symbolise the animosity between the two countries. This is a place where it is very clear that the Cold War is far from over and it is probably as cold now as it ever was. I will never write my biography, it would way too boring to read it. But if I would I would dedicate two pages to when I visited Panmunjom and when I inside one of the blue buildings crossed the tightest border in the world. Inside those houses you can cross the border between North and South Korea. If you try that stunt anywhere else you get shot.
On the third day of the tour I was shown around Pyongyang. I was taken to several monuments built to honour either the military, the Juche ideology, Kim Il-sung or the Worker's Party of Korea. In 1997 there were still no monuments built to honour Kim Jong-il. He had then been president for less than three years and he had then not yet reached the status needed for having his own monument. My guess is that by now, more than 20 years after he became president
The road into DMZ
DMZ stands for the Demilitarized Zone and is a narrow strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula along the border between South and North Korea. This road leads to Panmunjom and is one of few places where it is possible to visit DMZ
and six years after he passed away, there are probably also some monuments dedicated to him standing in Pyongyang.
They have two sports stadiums in Pyongyang worth mentioning here.
Rungrado 1st of May Stadium or May Day Stadium - With a capacity to take up to 114,000 spectators at the same time it currently is the largest stadium in the World. It is mainly used for the so called Arirang Festival, an annual mass gymnastics and artistic festival.
The second stadium I haven't been able to track down the name of. Its claim of fame is that it was built for 1988 Summer Olympic Games. Those games were held in Seoul in South Korea and North Korea for a while hoped that they would be permitted to co-host the games. That didn't happen so the Olympic stadium in Pyongyang was never used in any sports event related to the Olympics.
The only time I was permitted to walk around by myself was when I took a short trip with the metro. The Pyongyang Metro is simply spectacular. The stations are very deep down, built so because they can also double as air
Me and a guard at Panmunjom
Me and a guard at Panmunjom. I notice that 20 years ago I had plenty of hair...
raid shelters capable of withstanding a nuclear bomb. The stations are decorated way beyond what you would normally expect. They actually look more like a corridor in a royal palace than a metro station.
The fourth day of the tour I was taken to International Friendship Exhibition. It is a large museum where all gifts the North Korean leaders have received from foreign countries, from foreign statesmen, various organizations etc are kept. It reminds a bit of a large storage house where each object is clearly displayed and labelled.
I was not permitted to take any photos in the International Friendship Exhibition but I can tell you that some of the objects were very spectacular. I remember seeing at least one train car for example. I don't know why I wasn't permitted to take photos there. Everywhere else I could snap away as much as I wanted to. The only restriction was that if I took photos of people they had to give their consent first.
One of few people I took photos of was a female police officer who was directing the traffic in a street crossing in Pyongyang. The
On this bridge in 1392 the diplomat and high ranking political figure Jeong Mong-ju was assassinated, an assassination that symbolised the end of the Koryo Dynasty and marked the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty
streets in Pyongyang are better described as boulevards. After the Korean War there was very little left of Pyongyang. They rebuilt much of the city from scratch and designed it with supersized boulevards. They are grossly over-dimensioned and that makes them look more comical than impressive. There are much fewer cars in Pyongyang than there are in a western city of the same size. So the boulevards are for the most time either totally empty or there is one or maybe two cars in sight. The female police officer was taking her job of directing traffic very seriously in spite that there was hardly any traffic to direct.
Talking about cars. The North Korean government owe the Swedish government more than 270 million Euro for 1,000 Volvo cars they ordered in the 1970-ies but never paid for. Originally North Korea owed Volvo the money but the Swedish government took over the debt from the failed business deal. Each year Sweden promptly reminds North Korea that they owe money and so far the North Koreans have, as far as I know, done nothing but ignoring the bill.
I kind of drifted away there for a
Village in the countryside
Typical village in the countryside. The inhabitants are mostly farmers
while. I mentioned that I visited the International Friendship Exhibition. The same day I also visited Pohyonsa or Pohyon Temple. The first temple stood in this place as early as in the year 1042 but most that can be seen today is newer. Much was damaged during the Korean War.
On the last day I was in North Korea I was first taken to Revolution Martyr's Cemetery. It is a cemetery where some of those who fought against the Japanese occupation during the Second World War are buried.
Another place I visited was Schoolchildren's Palace. It is a place where young people can go after school to practice dancing, sports, play instruments or pursue other interests. I was told they were ordinary kids but I had a feeling that they had handpicked the most gifted ones.
Before I reach the end of this blog entry I'd like to mention the Ryugyong Hotel. I didn't stay at that hotel and neither has anybody else. They started to construct Ryugyong Hotel in 1987 but it was never finished. The building is 330 meters high and has 105 floors but was in 1997 better
Temple near Kaesong
Kaesong was once the capital of Korea. Around Kaesong there are a number of historically important places. This temple is one of those.
described as a modern ruin than a hotel. They have been working on the hotel now and then over the years and there have been talk about opening it. But still today it has not seen a single guest.
The tour ended by me taking the train from Pyongyang to Beijing.
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