To the North Koreans, the Korean War isn't the Korean War at all. Such a title is far too tame, too passive, too clinical to capture the true feelings toward the largely pointless battle from 1950 to 1953 which claimed so many lives yet saw the changing of hands of remarkably little land. Instead, the Korean War is the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War, and the museum devoting to chronicalling the events is the, um, Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Mueseum. The Museum itself is a fascinating place to visit, but it is particularly insightful after visiting the far more reserved complex in Seoul which provides a very different perspective on the conflict.
The NKorean take on the VFLWar is remarkably different from the conventional western (and indeed, Southern) understanding. Essentially, the North argue that the South, acting under instructions from US imperialists, started the Korean War. To support this rather unconventional case, the Museum presents a number of newspaper articles at letters from the senior players at the time, which spoke of the southern desire to claim the entire Korean peninsula, and their fierce opposition to Communism. There is no doubt that the Northern view of the war in heartfelt, and the body of evidence is substantial given that the claim is farcical. Typical of propaganda museums, the much more likely option - that of Northern agression with the aid of the trigger-happy Russians - is not at all canvassed. Then again, neither is the "North started it" theory aired in the South Korean museum.
There is a vast collection of US arsenal, tanks and aircraft which the North Koreans proudly captured during the three year battle. One floor of the museum is dedicated to it, presumably demonstrating the military might of the North despite much of it coming their way thanks to the Russians who were keen for that one extra domino to fall in its favour. Another part of the museum features a 360 degree diarama portraying the horrors of the war, with representations of bloodied soldiers and civilians constructed through both paintings and realistic sculptures. The rotating platform is the middle is surprisingly sophisticated, and is clearly the favourite place in the museum for the throng of Koreans who visit the museum regularly to bask in North Korean military might. A strange little giftshop sits near the exit of the museum, where visitors can take home brochures and books as a memento of their visit. It's not like they're likely to forget the visit any time soon, but the brochure is a nice touch.
(Note the book in Aruna's hand: The US Imperialists Started the Korean War.)
For the most stunning view of Pyongyang, it is necessary to head up the painfully slow lift in the TV tower. A heavy layer of snow prevented our vehicle from getting too close to the tower, so we were forced to walk for several minutes before finally reaching the base of the tower. Once upstairs, we found ourselves in a surprisingly cosy classy restaurant, with an abundance of North Koreans. As we tucked into our kimchi and shabu-shabu (with real mushrooms!) we heard the lively chatter of the Pyongyang society elites who were enjoying part of the KJI birthday public holiday. From what we could tell, they were mostly party elites and their adult children, the sort of people who make Pyongyang atypical of DPRK. The view from the tower is truly stunning, allowing a 360 degree perspective on the entire city. It's not until you reach the viewing level of the Pyongyang TV Tower that you realise just how many different shades of grey the human eye can actually perceive.
Beside the Koryo Hotel in downtown Pyongyang is the Stamp Shop, which is frequented almost exclusively by tourists and hardcore philatelists. NKorean stamps have unfairly gained a reputation as being harsh, severe propaganda pieces completely lacking in tact, subtlety, diplomacy or a sense of humour. Alas, the reality (at least according to the evidence in the SS) is much different. The stamps were a surprisingly tame collection, with many of them dedicated to particularly sporting events, usually ones that had absolutely no NKorean involvement. Olympic Games and Soccer World Cups were recurring themes, featuring the typical action-shot imagery accompanied by a DPRK ensignia. Yes, there were plenty featuring the glories of KJI and KIS, but no more than Her Maj makes an appearance on stamps in the UK. Odd inclusions in the collection, such as a series dedicated to Princess Di after her wild night in Paris, are hard to forget.
One of the most majestic sights in Pyongyang is the war cemetery for heros of the DPRK. Most of the martyrs entombed at the site died in the Korean struggle against Japanese occupation prior to 1945, and are honoured with an immense, pristinely maintained cemetary. Numerous heroic deeds were shared with us by our guides, and the emotional intensity increased as we reached the most senior row of tombstones and busts, which featured the most important members of the DPRK regime from the 1950s onwards.
For the first several decades of the country, all senior figures had to have proved their mettle in the earlier struggle against the Japanese. Alas, the Great Leader himself is not buried here - he has a mausoleum to himself at another site, which was unfortunately off limits on our visits. The fine Italian marble at the war cemetary gives a clue as to the value placed in the memories of the war dead.
Not far from the giant KIS statue at Mansudae is the birthplace and childhood home of the Great Leader. As if the emphasise the humble means and upbringing of KIS, the home is little more than a basic Korean hut, partly decorated with props to bring the site to life. The wonderous stories of KIS in his younger days were trotted out, as well as glorification for both his parents (who were simple Pyongyang peasants when the gave birth to their bundle o' joy) and his wife. Whilst the site itself is not terribly interesting, the barely contained excitement of the throngs of visiting Koreans is nice to be a part of.
In the mid-1980s, the North Koreans fancied themselves as a chance to be the co-hosts of the Olympics, sharing the honours with their southern counterparts. To show they were capable and ready to go, a vast sports complex was constructed in the Mangyongdae district, just west of the Taedong River. Alas, the Games were not shared, and NKorea showed its displeasure in the usual way by blowing up a civilian Korean Air flight in 1987. The sporting complex remains, however, with an indoor swimming ppol, athletics gymnasium, handball centre, football stadium and of course Taekwon-do hall all neatly clustered together. Our encounter with sport, Pyongyang-style was in the shooting hall, where for one Euro we could fire three bullets out of either a pistol or a rifle. Though my experience of shooting halls outside DPRK is rather limited (ie, non-existant) the centre looked safe and clean, with surprisingly sophisticated looking computer screens, although clearly the air conditioning hadn't been switched on since Kim Jong Il was a young boy. Firing my three bullets, I scored a couple of eights and a nine, but missed out on the allusive bullseye.
There are few overt signs of organised religion in NKorea. It is so true that it has entered the realms of cliche to describe KIS and KJI as being the figureheads of a religious cult. They have supplanted the role of religion in a society that desperately needs to hope for something. In the minds of most ordinary NKoreans, the Kims are divine in their presense, and the DPRK are blessed to have them. Nonetheless, there are three churches operating in Pyongyang, as well as a Buddhist temple which we were able to visit. The temple is similar to Buddhist shrines all around Asia, with a dazzling array of colour and slightly trippy architecture. The monk who we met inside the temple explained that Buddhists have coped well in Pyongyang, and that the temple we were at had in fact been maintained and supported by the government.
If ever Contiki tours decide that they're sick of taking drunk Australians around the breweries of Europe, and want a real cultural experience, then there is plenty for them to see in Pyongyang. Whilst the beer is not quite in the same league (although Taedonggang is a surprisingly tasty little drop), there are plenty of attractions to keep even the most jaded visitor enthralled. There is a sense that the city has all the things it needs to be a truly great city, but that these things are overwhelmed by the politics and opression of the place. It's hard to enjoy the scenery when everyone around you feels like a prisoner.