The anticipated climax of the trip, the 70th Anniversary of the Founding of the Workers' Party of Korea Extravaganza, turned out to be a bit of a dud. Though we never expected to be right on the square, we thought we'd see the action further along. We had only been in there a day and a half by the anniversary celebrations, but we had already begun to understand what it meant when the answers to our questions elicited vague, noncommittal responses. At first we got a few firm "Yes!" responses about the parade, but they quickly degraded into "I am not so sure". (To be fair, I think our guides often didn't know either; they always had to call into the central tourist organising agency, KITC, to be told what we could or couldn't do. Lottie and I made quite a few changes to our itinerary, and each one necessitated a call to KITC.)
Eventually we accepted that we weren't going to get to see the Supreme Leader give us a thumbs up for waving our DPKR flags and settled into the supreme bureaucracy of the day. We, as well as all the other tourist groups, were shuffled about from place to place, and given shifting answers to the same questions, until we were all eventually safely corralled into the same parking lot outside the Kimilsungia-Kimjongilia Exhibition Hall, a rather large space dedicated to emphatic displays of the flowers bred in honour of, and named after, the Great Leader and Eternal General. It was kitty-corner across the Taedong from Kim Il-sung Square, so we could hear the celebrations, if not see them, except for the aerial bits.
After some time, we were led to a road where the military parade would progress after the main event. We waited for hours, growing ever colder, until finally the parade started to trickle in. At first it was truckloads of soldiers, but eventually this gave way to tanks, planes and ever bigger missiles, all wrapped up and ready to go back to the DMZ. We tired of this fairly quickly, and asked our hosts to take us to dinner where, as we were getting out of the van, we saw a Kim Jong-il pass on a rise next to the restaurant. We went up with one of our guides and found ourselves in a completely different parade. Rather than being surrounded by tourists watching the soldiers commute home, we were amongst Koreans, absolutely ecstatic Koreans, cheering on their soldiers. There was a live group singing over loudspeakers, everyone was waving flowers and flags, having a bit of a party. Lottie commented that it looked a bit like the clips we see of Europeans cheering the liberating troops in WWI
It felt for the first time that we were seeing North Koreans as themselves.
A display of Kimilsungias (purple) and Kimjongilias (red) at the Kimilsungia-Kimjongilia Exhibition Hall.
Lottie and I enjoying the sounds of celebration.
About as exciting as the main event got for us
: fighter planes forming a 70 approaching Kim Il-sung Square.
Some of the hardware on display.
Eventually we found where the real party was.
The parade stretched on and on - and they kept on cheering.
There were fireworks to end the night; our hosts were very excited about fireworks (as they were about the one passenger plane we saw in our week there - "Look! A plane!"). I took
tutre a bit out of politeness, but more so because I was intrigued by the lack of light in the nearby blocks of flats compared with the distant sparks.
We had two trips outside the capital. The first was the obligatory daytrip to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), the armistice line between North and South Korea. It's definitely a site that, without the history, loses its impact. Tourists snap a few photos, buy some "Down with the USA" postcards, and then have lunch. There is legitimate tension at the border - the soldiers are for real - but the DMZ is, by definition, in stasis. The iconic flags of North and South flutter at one another across the border, and every tourist is dutifully shown the line that crosses through the buildings showing where the peninsula is divided, but not much happens.
For our safety, of course, we were shown around by three soldiers, one of whom told us the history of the Korean War from the perspective of the North. You could tell he had told the same stories many times before; the
ywere probably the same stories about American imperialist aggression he'd heard since childhood, but you could feel the earnest with which he relayed them. There is a genuine feeling of threat from the outside world in North Korea. Of course, I grew up hearing the flipside of the same stories, believing my truths as deeply as he did his. But as he was telling his version of the truth, I couldn't help but think back to 2003 and the gusto with which America went unprovoked into war
withIraq, and it made me think the real truth must lie somewhere between his and mine.
A sign outside the DMZ, which says North and South should leave a reunited country to their children.
. The line running through the middle of the buildings in the
raised line between North and South Korea; the building in the back is the
tourist complex in South Korea.
This flag was left on the table where the UN - sorry, the US - signed the armistice agreement. The story behind it is that the Americans were so upset about having lost the war that they forgot to take the flag with them, and though the colours of the flag may have faded, the aggression of the imperialist invaders is as strong as ever.
The other excursion was an overnight trip
toMyohyang-san ("Mysterious Fragrant Mountain" - it wasn't a mystery for long, the fragrance was stale cigarette smoke) to a temple (we nixed that in favour of a lie-in) and the International Friendship Exhibition. This is a massive - and probably massively expensive - museum where the all the diplomatic gifts that have been given to the Kims are on display. North Koreans are very proud of the admiration shown by world leaders and dignitaries, and that the Leaders display the gifts for the people to see, rather than keep them as private gifts. Lottie and I weren't so enthused about this on our itinerary, especially when we first started and it seemed as if our local guide was going to read every one of the 220,000 plaques labelling
each item in the musem.
As we went along, she asked some questions, which we answered honestly, but sensitively, and she become more and more animated and engaged. Proper from the start, she matured into what could only be described as a Juche fundamentalist. It was intense and genuine - and Lottie and I loved her for it. We weren't there to judge, and I think she sensed that
. You could literally feel the pride and love she had for her country and the Leaders, and the genuine joy she felt in sharing them with a receptive audience. Other than a photo of the Supreme Leader with Dennis Rodman, I couldn't tell you anything we saw in the museum, but we were enraptured. It was, quite surprisingly, one of the highlights of the trip.
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