Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Monuments of Pyongyang (Part 1)

Whilst Pyongyang might be lacking in many things - decent aesthetics, vibrant nightlife, a sense of humour - one thing it can proudly boast about is its public monuments. A quick glance along the Pyongyang skyline reveals a number of curious icons - each honouring a person, war, idea, organisation or date - presented with the unfliching strength of conviction that no one could ever possibly have about the truth. Pyongyangers obviously take great pride in the monuments which make the city unique: despite a chilly February winter and a think-KJI's-haircut-but-in-white cover of snow, people were out in great numbers to loiter in the presense of architectual greatness. In the true spirit of DPRK, at most of the monuments visited our tour guide, or occassionally the guide from the particular monument, would share the most vital detail - the date when K1 or K2 visited the site, and the words of wisdom that he proferred upon seeing the site. That's all that really matters, isn't it?

Kim Il Sung looks out over Kim Il Sung Square.


There is a recurring motif which appears all over North Korea, but its most prominant incarnation is a bold statue by the banks of the Taedong River. A peasant's hammer, a farmer's sickle and the intellectual's paintbrush (or is it karaoke microphone?) all crossed to show the unity of the people's spirit... or something like that. The statue is an imposing structure, with the three figures leaning forward with their instuments in hand, as if they were captured approaching the finishing line of a bizarre relay race, perhaps a demonstration sport at the '88 Pyongyang Olympics which were not to be. It's hard not to feel some sort of kinship with the idea of solidarity when it's conveyed in such a powerful way. Below the statue kids played joyfully, no doubt subconsciously becoming aware of their future as good peasants, farmers and intellectuals.

The hammer, sickle and paintbrush as wielded by the children of the revolution.


Nearby is the Tower of the Juche Idea, a tall, narrow monument with a depiction of a flame on the top. Juche is the Korean philosophy of self-reliance which has been the guiding principle of NK since its foundation, and supposedly allows the individual to reach their full potential in the spirit of forging their own destiny. Whether the philosophy itself is a success is highly doubtful, but what's not at all doubtful is that as a philosophy it makes a damn fine statue. Full marks to the creative team who sought to embody the notion of Juche in architectual terms. Inside are panels contributed during the 1970s by DPRK's sympathisers around the world. As perhaps North Korea's greatest export (well, that and possibly high grade heroin) Juche has attracted the attention of many great minds around the world, who have formed themselves into Juche Study Groups and even proponents of that grand area of study: Kimilsungism. Many of the signs are in a variety of European langauges, and there is a predominance of groups from India and Africa amongst the plaques on the wall - colonialism clearly created some unusual global alliances.

Proud to be an Australian.


Elsewhere in town is the Arch of Triumph, which bears a fitting resemblence to its counterpart in the Democratic People's Republic of France. You'd be wrong to confuse the two, though, since the Pyongyang construction is three metres taller than its Parisian duplicate. The Triumph which has been Arched is not in fact triumph over the south in the Korean War, but is instead triumph over the hated Japanese, who controlled the entire Korean peninsula for a short but painful period in the first half of the twentieth century. Hatred of the Japanese is still strong in DPRK, and relations between the two are icy. Mind you, there have been many Japanese coming to Pyongyang over the years, although they generally come when kidnapped by DPRK spies and depart as a pile of bones decades later, if at all. Such anti-Japanese sentiment is not limited to the north, however, with many South Koreans also holding bitter memories of Japanese occupation.

Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang.


Those truly committed to the spirit of Korean communism often pay their respects at the monument for the founding of the Korean Workers Party. Formed immediately after North Korea itself popped out of the womb of the Second World War, the KWP has controlled NK politics in government in much the same way that its equivalents around the communist world have done. This rounded, concrete structure features messages of hope and solidarity etched into the stonework, and even features representations of South Koreans (or as NKers would say it, south Koreans) joining in the struggle for communism across the Korean peninsula. Clearly the artist had not guaged the attitude to communist solidarity amongst many Seoul-dwellers.

It's Party time.


From a young age, North Koreans are indoctrinated with a narrative of their own history which combines truths, half-truths, fabrications, wishful thinking and lies. Whilst this prosess is not at all unique to North Korea, and indeed happens in any society with an awareness of its own history, the NK version of its own story is strained in its truthtelling. In much of the telling there is a nub of truth, around which is constructed a highly subjective and partisan mythology. To maintain the credibility of this mythology, the monuments are necessary to act as tangible evidence of a truth that never was - 'a reminder of the greatness of the KWP', or 'a celebration of the rightness of Juche', despite that fact that such greatness and rightness never actually existed. So does the truth really matter, or have multiple retellings become more powerful that the fact itself?

4 comments:

-A. said...
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Anonymous said...

"as if they were captured approaching the finishing line of a bizarre relay race, perhaps a demonstration sport at the '88 Pyongyang Olympics which were not to be"

THE JUCHE TRIATHLON!!

Anonymous said...

Great stuff Ari. I've tried to comment on your other posts bur fot some reason it doesn't go through (hope this one does).

Youngjin said...

The greatness of Juche is that North Korea (Chosun) has resisted 130 years against imperial US and other imperial powers, although they had to lose other half of peninsular.

That is not a bit of fabrication.

Of course, so called 'world history' has been written by such imperialists and their 'glory-seeking' decendents. but I can't blame that is Korean's fault. :)