One chapter in the rocky historical road of North Korea which inspires great pride in every North Korean is the caputuring of the USS Pueblo. In 1968, this US spy vessel was captured in North Korean waters trying to secretly find the magic Kimchi ingredient and other important DPRK national security secrets. Though the Korean War had been finished for fifteen years, there was still a painful standoff between the Americans and the North Koreans, and the issue was finely settled with a written apology from the Americans and a promise not to do it again, with the sailors on board (minus the one who'd been shot dead) repatriated to the States.
Thesedays, the boat sits in the waters of the Taedong River, and carries important symbolic value for the DPRKers. American slipperiness, the untrustworthiness of foreigners, the military might of the DPRK are all captured within the slowly decaying metallic womb in the river. On board, an ageing Korean People's Army soldier took us to watch a propaganda DVD (on a Japanese DVD player, no less!) on the incident, narrated in accentless English by someone who was no doubt a friend of the revolution. A tour of the vessel then follows, and it is clear that it has been remarkably well maintained in the 37 years since its capture. Recording rooms, living space, surveillance areas, navigational equipment and all the fine details of a 1960s navy vessel are on display for all to see.
Facing on to Kim Il Sung Square is the Great People's Study Hall, fulfilling much the same role as a central library. Typical of most public buildings in DPRK, the lobby includes a commanding Kim Il Sung portrait, this time in the case of a massive mosaic dominating the vista as the Great People enter the Hall to Study. Through the central pillar of the building is one of the slowest, clunkiest lifts ever to be unleashed on the vertical-travelling public. A trip up two floors took the best part of a minute, and it was during this epic journey that we wrily observed that walking would be a much swifter option. Still, the length of the journey wasn't all bad - it gave me ample journey to ask whether the bored looking lift attendent really enjoyed her job. It had its ups and downs, I concluded.
On our guided tour we were taken to various rooms of interest inside this bustling place of study. There is a large lecture hall inside the Hall, with seating for several hundred and a vast stage area with a KIS and KJI portrait hanging loftily overhead. Interestingly the tables and chairs on the stage were arranged as if there was a panel discussing which had either taken place or was soon to take place, suggesting some possibility for public discourse. Slim, but it's something. Elsewhere in the building was a listening library, with a vast NKorean record collection as well as a surprisingly good collection of western classical music CDs. Some more modern sounds had crept into the collection as well, with the sultry sounds of Simply Red being pumped into one set of headphones.
In another room a foreign language class was taking place. Several dozen students were seated at desks, and were calling out in unison in what sounded like Russian and English in response to words being called out in Korean by the teacher at the front of the room. Two languages, and possibly a third, were being taught simultaneously in a very Korean twist on learning a foreign language. At each desk was a pair of headphones, whist a conventional blackboard sat at the front of the classroom. Moving to the information desk at the library, we were shown a small selection of the 30 million books which apparently reside in the library. A pair of books in English were shown to us, both of them modern computer programming books with a strong Windows theme. The inside cover revealed that the books had bene donated by a Californian charity keen to promote education in the developing world. No attempt was made to cover up the Americanness of the book.
It was also here that we had our only fleeting encounter with the internet, with a chat room as part of the DPRK internet linking up the bored and sexually frustrated youth of Pyongyang. There was plenty more about communications in DPRK in this earlier post. The balcony jutting out from the library provides a wonderful view of KIS Square as well as the rest of the city. Whilst soaking it up, we couldn't help but notice that it would provide an ideal snipers vantage point during the occassional public appearance of KJI on the platform below, overlooking the square. Sensing the direction that our conversation was headed, our guides quickly reassured us that the balcony was closed during any public appearances on the platform below. Phew.
The Mansudae Grand Monument is the holy shrine of the religion of Kimilsungism. At one end of this vast public space stands the commanding statue of Kim Il Sung, constructed on the occassion of the Great Leader's 70th birthday. KIS stands, with his legs slightly apart, shaking hands with the sky/hailing a taxi/guiding his people on the path to enlightenment. The story has it that when it was first constructed, the statue was lined with gold, but the Chinese, who even then were bankrolling the DPRK, objected to this show of largesse and demanded the gold be removed. The NKoreans, in complete contradiction of Juche philosophy, acquiesed.
In the large open area in front of him, a significant number of Koreans gather to remember the Great Leader. It is customary to present flowers to the statue, and there are no shortage of enterprising Koreans on hand to sell a 10-euro bunch of flowers to the group. At the suggestion of our guide, we stepped forward, placed the flowers at KIS's feet and then bowed in a few moments of humbled silence, before walking away. Around us, a large crowd of young families were showing their respect and placing flowers at the feet. Whilst not overcome with emotion, many were clearly affected by their presense at the sight, and an air of hushed respect pervaded the space.
Immediately behind KIS is a mural depicting Peaktusan, the mountain on the border with China that historically is the birthplace of the Korean people, and mythologically is the birthplace of KJI. To either side of the no-longer-gold-plaited statue are two lively depictions of the courageous Korean People's Army, in the struggle both against imperialism and for communism. As the mid-February snow settled atop this scene and the brisque wind passed through the crowd, it was clear that we were at a place of worship for any hardcore communist. It is not unusual, apparently for ordinary NKoreans to head past this site as part of their daily routine. As a means of perpetuating the glory of KIS, this site in Mansudae is clearly an effective tool.
The idea of monument-as-propaganda is a recurring theme, and this becomes particuarly acute when the irrationallity surrounding K1 and K2 becomes involved. Whilst nations around the world may chose to remember fondly their past leaders, the North Koreans have taken such an act to a new extreme, with vast tracts of public space dedicated to distilling the essense of their historic leader. Perhaps there is something deeply psychological about the response of communist nations to their deceased leaders. Alongside the North Koreans, the Russian, Chinese and Vietnamese all have a fetish for glorifying the dead - and subconsciously keeping them alive in the mind of their followers. Unfortunately ordinary visitors are not easily able to complete the Communist Corpse Grand Slam (Lenin in Moscow, Mao in Beijing, Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, KIS in Pyongyang) since an invitation to visit KIS in is current embalmed home is strictly by invitation only. What a shame.