Unaware of international affairs, ignorant of what happens beyond their own town, children in North Korea enjoy a casual day at the beach with their families and picnics under the shades. I took this photo in Namp’o.
There are strange borders all over the world, but some of them are even stranger. The DMZ is the de facto border and buffer zone between North and South Korea, a 4 km wide and 240 km long strip that slashes right across the peninsula visibly decorated with military tanks, electric fences and army soldiers. Supposed to be one of the scariest places on earth, Stanito found it for you…
They call it De-militarised Zone but in fact it is anything but heavily militarised, with a 4 km buffer zone filled with land mines. Not that we saw any of them, of course, but we did cruise through the 4 km road across the fields as our guide was explaining everything about it. Even pill-boxes I could see there.
It all looked very surreal, not to mention that this border is major attractions for those who dare to come to this part of the world. Truth is, my friends and I found it very interesting and relaxing experience in spite of what many people say about it from the South Korean side. I haven’t personally seen the border from Seoul but I’m told by many that the place is indeed a stressful one as tensions are palpable.
Not the North Korean side though. Here the atmosphere was overall surprisingly relaxed and, while normally taking photos would be a problem, here our guides really didn’t budge an inch about it.
Tension was the last thing we perceived here. In fact, soldiers were quiete but still friendly enough to take their picture with us
This part of our tour encompassed a full immersion on the historical events that led to the creation of this buffer zone in 1953.
As we arrived the first thing saw was the actual delimitation between North and South side which is literally a thin strip that marks the border. If you want with one step you’re in country and with a step back you’re in the other
Throughout our walk and itinerary we were told the story that led to the eventual official separation of both countries according to their version.
We paid special attention to the Negotiations table, where Kim Il-Sun signed the peace agreement in 1953 with the imperialist power, the United States…
… and the monument that symbolises Kim Il-Sung achievement
So we spent time listening to their version of the facts and witness the places where these events actually happened.
It is definitely very interesting to hear all of their history even though you might think that many of the facts are altered and the glory of their nation. The US and Soviet led-Korea claim completely different versions where the ‘surrender’ changes depending to whom you ask. Both Koreas claimed unification at some point, problem is they claim the territory over the other one. Only time can settle this difference I think.
What not many people know about the DMZ is this…
A long long time ago there used to be a road connecting Kaesong and Seoul by crossing a river. The local people built a bridge and a town which was named Panmun.
Harsh weather, however, made the village short-lived and the heavy rains eventually washed it away and prevented people from crossing the river. People persisted though and there they built an inn for those travellers that were delayed to cross the river due to weather conditions. It was called Panmunjom.
Then the Korean War came and the town Panmun was in fact erased from the map. But the name persisted until this very day. In fact, dear Reader, Panmun is where they built the houses to hold the Negotiation Tables with the United States.
These are some of the photos I took of Pyongyang, North Korea, which means ‘flat land’, an ideological statement forged in concrete, bronze and marble. A totalitarian metropolis, built almost entirely from scratch following its destruction in the Korean War, Pyongyang is a fascinating yet simultaneously inaccessible place, so inimaginable and hardly accessible where people walk by on the streets dressed as from the 1940’s.
Every visit to North Korea focuses heavily on the capital, it’s monuments and its historical proud spots. Even their maternity hospital is a ‘must’.
And yet, while these are all impressive, the real delights of Pyongyang are found in the quieter moments when you can get glimpses of everyday life. As you wander the streets between sights, you’ll still be able to find a semblance of normality surviving in the capital. You just have to look hard for it because you will perceive that people are not keen on engaging with foreigners.
This is just a glimpse at food I ate in North Korea…
It was delicious.
Do you recognise any of these dishes?
I received a question via contact page which I find quite interesting:
What religion/s do North Koreans practice? Do they go to a church or kind of temple like the Chinese maybe?
The answer is a long one.
North Korea is officially an atheist country. Or at least it has been since the ascent of the Kims. Even the DPRK official guide book won’t mention ‘religion’ in its contents.
But let’s start in chronological order.
Until the year 300 AD Koreans of the entire peninsula mainly believed in an indigenous shamanic religion known as Mu. The Mus were shamanic intermediaries between their people and the gods of nature so you can expect their rituals to be something similar to ancient Greek religion where sacrifices to the Sun, Moon, Ocean were on the daily agenda.
Then the years 370’s BC come and Korea sees a wave of invasions and a range of “foreign visits”. It is here where Koreans come to know Buddhism for the first time thanks to the Chinese, more precisely the Former Qin Dynasty. Over the years Buddhism flourished into becoming more of a political influence. In the year 900-1000 we see the arrival of Confucianism, always from the Chinese. At the time Korea was divided in three kingdoms under the rule of one sole king. This king welcomed new doctrines and eventually transformed them into a more Korean stile of religion with traditions of their own.
Even Christians arrived and endured a long battle against the Japanese Empire, in the attempt to establish Shinto.
In 1945 though the freedom of expression of any kind changed dramatically. Cold war sparks proxy conflicts all over the Asian continent and Korea find itself divided: North with the Soviet-Communist and South with the US-led anti-communist.
As the country is divided in two opposite sides many have time to flee south while many others, especially the more autochthonous communities, remain in the North.
Several constitutions have been drafted ever since and many of them literally express freedom of religion, like Article 14 of the 1948 constitution:
citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea shall have the freedom of religious belief and of conducting religious services
Even though this is clearly stated, reality is quite different. And furthermore, dear Reader, ever since the Kims rose to power it has been incredibly difficult to obtain any sort of reliable statistic information regarding the population. if there’s such information available it is obviously very questionable.
When the Korean peninsula split there were still indigenous religions and most of the ones I mentioned before. However the regime rapidly started to oppress and interfere with the individual freedom. The government has exercised extremely closed scrutiny and control over religious groups. Until this very day. The regime continues to repress the religious activities of unauthorised religious groups. If people are people are caught engaging in preaching, and specifically, those repatriated from China and found to have been in contact with foreigners or missionaries, normally are arrested and subjected to harsh penalties. Due to the country’s inaccessibility and the inability to gain timely information, the continuation of this activity remains difficult to verify.
Why all this harsh treatment against freedom of religion? Reasons are fundamentally two:
1- Communism is adverse to religion and the cold pragmatism of its adherents would argue against priests, preachers and churches that God doesn’t stop floods or guard against invasions, therefore their belief is found with no base.
This is because Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin saw religion as a form of retarding human development.
2- Marxism might have been the reason why religion is not acceptable in North Korea, but if we dig deeper we find that religion contrasts vehemently what Kim Il Sung created: a cult of image. Kim Il Sung followed the Marxist doctrine until he came up with the idea of Juche: self reliance. This is a concept that we will explore deeply in my next post.
However, briefly, Juche’s philosophy celebrates the power of man, of self reliance, of the State, and you can see it manifested in forms of supernatural powers attributed to the Leaders.
This cult has led to make the Kims the indisputable leaders of the country. Their portraits are hung everywhere. Every house by law has to have a painting of Father and Son in each main room. Same goes with main squares and monuments. Even libraries.
Both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il worked to build a cult of their image: they have visited every town and corner of the country. Farms, factories, hospitals are either named after the date they visited or have meaning built into their grouting.
Their deification makes it impossible to tolerate religion beliefs of any kind because such would strongly contradict its very mission. Kim Il Sung died in 1994 and he is still venerated nowadays as the country’s ‘Eternal President’.
No offence to our devoted guides but I think this is a question that many people who have been to the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea have asked themselves. Sometimes the reaction of people or even the very performances we have seen were so perfect that we were bewildered by them to the point we didn’t know if it was all part of an act or was true genuine talent.
Staged or genuine, the DPRK is still one of the most impressive countries I’ve ever been to. And the Mangyongdae Children Academy was another milestone of my North Korean journey.
In this particular case we didn’t think what we saw was staged at all but we did think it was all part of really hard work and training imposed on these children. Same sensation I’ve got after watching the Mass Games in Pyongyang.
The Mangyongdae Children’s Palace is a facility where children of most ages can engage in extra-curricular activities such as painting, playing chess, learning music, sports, ballet dancing and various other kinds of art.
To date it is the largest palace dedicated to children and is located in the north side of the Mangyongdae-guyok district.
Here we saw children practising a variety of artistic activities and hobbies.
This is the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace
And this is our welcoming tour little girl who will take us through the palace to see the performance in various disciplines that astonished us one after the other…
The dancing class
The music class
The calligraphy class where students learn how to write in the proper order and fashion the original characters of Hangul writing system
Speaking of writing and calligraphy, some Readers have asked me if North Korean speak any different from South Koreans. Originally, yes. The Korean Peninsula has used a Unified Korean Orthography since 1933 as defined by the Korean Language Society. The system has endured the Japanese rule of Korea even, but with the establishments of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea in 1948, the two states have taken on differing policies regarding the language. In 1954, North Korea established the rules for Korean orthography which was only a minor revision in orthography that created little difference from the one used in the South. In time, the standard language in the North and the South gradually differed more and more from each other having the North Korean version sounding and reading like a very old Korean language that hasn’t evolved through time. Keep in mind that most of the population (with the exception of the Government elite) haven’t had any window to the rest of the world, therefore their language hasn’t had a chance to evolve like in South Korea (which in time has indeed adopted new words like most languages do).
The sewing class, I remained to stare at their creations for who knows how long as these girls worked patiently on their marvellous drawings…
The chess and board games class
The ballet class
At the end of our visit the children gifted us with a remarkable (to say the least) performance. I’ve never seen children performing with such talent…
The performances were truly out of this world, absolutely dazzling.
Our North Korea tour certainly enlightened us on many things, I probably didn’t pay much attention to the itinerary they sent us at the beginning because I remember being very surprised when we arrived into this films studio. It’s nickname is Cholliwood.
According to what our guide was telling us, the Pyongyang Film Studios had a big shining moment in the late 1970’s, where the studio produced many films with specific themes: anti-Japanese, anti-US Imperialism and somehow even China has a place here.
It seems like Kim Jong-il’s love for movies got completely out of hand in the late 1970s when he had two South Korean actors (husband and wife) abducted. He wanted to have them working for him, producing films for him and North Korea.
After the demise of the films époque, the escape of the two abducted actors and the critical situation of the country which led to famine, the film industry collapsed. However, me and my friends were lucky to see that even though it is almost completely disused we could still find some people working in it.
The entire idea of Cholliwood (from Chollima) is to recreate from ancient Korea to nowadays, from Japanese streets to Korean and Chinese towns, buildings, and époque.
Facts about the Pyongyang Film Studios are hard to find and the propaganda certainly doesn’t help uncovering truths, not even about its size and number of studio staff. Some sources claim that the studio produces 20 movies a year, others say that it churns out up to 60, while critics claim that only one or two movies are produced a year and higher numbers include documentaries and shorts films.
But the buildings are still there for us to see, here are some views of this peculiar place
Only few people were around that day but we could still see enough.
On that day some of the crew were working on signs to be used in the respective scenarios.
The following signs would have been used in the Japanese set
Speculations over a future reunification of the Koreas have been going on for decades since the War ended and the two Koreas signed the Armistice Agreement in 1953.
Below is the photo I took during my stay in North Korea of the Arch of Reunification, a symbol of the Korean reunification proposals put forth by Kim Il-Sung. The two women symbolize the two Koreas, and together they are holding a map of a unified Korea.
The idea, a pipe dream for now, has met tremendous difficulties in order to even envisage a possibility of reunification. Not only the two countries have grown considerably different both politically and economically, but also continuous tensions between the two nations have this process more unlikely to happen.
Kim originally proposed a federation of two states where initially the powers would remain as they are today with a foreseeable slow transition. However this proposition has met many difficulties as the proposed unification expressed by Kim would follow a German-unification style with the big question on how the South Korean government would handle such a scenario and what should be done to transform the North Korean economy (of which we know almost nothing due to lack of statistical reliable data).
As far as we know, on paper, both Koreas are firmly committed to the principle of national unification. During official contacts between the governments, both sides mention that the unification should peaceful and gradual and that they should be able to co-exist. Hopeful words in theory but still unlikely in real life, although not impossible.
A few days ago a fellow reader asked me what is the difference between Pyongyang and the rest of the North Korea country in terms of people and perceived culture and lifestyle. I can tell you, dear Reader, that the differences are so vast that as soon as you leave the city it feels and looks like a complete different country. The only similarity that I have found between both capital and countryside is the presence of military people everywhere and propaganda billboards attached everywhere. Other than that, it’s two completely different worlds.. Continue reading “Pyongyang and the Rural North Korean countryside”
Along the storyline of my trip to North Korea, our tour eventually took us to Namp’o, West seaport city located on the Taedong River.
Here we stopped for a visit at the Chollima Steel Complex, located in Nampo, North Korea.
Originally built by the Japanese in the 1940’s, this photo is just a glance of North Korean steel industry which has been treasured dearly by all three DPRK leaders.
This was an important stop during our tour as this complex proves vital for the ongoing construction and building in the main cities of North Korea and it provides a interesting idea of how the country deals with its industry demands and needs. The complex boasts a number of hangar-sized buildings, machine tools, lathes and so on that the workers use to make shaped steel, turbine components, and other products.
We could only visit the ground floor of the production and for such we were given safety helmets
Like other symbolic places in North Korea, the Chollima Complex has a particular significance for people, no only because the Kims paid many visits to this heavy industry site, but also because it represents the birthplace of the Chollima movement: the State sponsored movement that intends to promote rapid economic growth and hard work under the guidance of Kim Il-Sung.
As we will continue to go through Stanito’s adventure in North Korea, you will notice that in many places there are vivid propaganda posters aiming to portray the Kims as pioneers, promoters of hard work, spiritual guides, etc.
Below is the poster we found near the Chollima Complex, portraying Kim Il-Sung probably providing his expertise on how to work really hard, how to work with steel, agriculture, etc. In few words showing and teaching people about the art of hard work and dedication.
More on the Propaganda on my next post. Stay tuned, Dear Reader.