DPRK: Doing the timewarp: Day 4

Trip Start Jul 11, 2006
Trip End Mar 16, 2007

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Flag of Korea Dem Peoples Rep  ,
Tuesday, October 3, 2006

The North Korean food served to us three times a day was plentiful in supply, at times quite tasty, but more often than not pretty humdrum, a reflection of the limited availability of ingredients in the country. Eggs, fried and boiled beef and chicken were the staple diet although our hosts did try to provide as broad a variety as possible during our stay. This included several delicacies such as the fertility-enhancing Ginseng Chicken (at least that was how it was sold to us) and North Korean culinary speciality, Dog Soup. Both needed 24 hours notice to prepare but, despite this, one could chose neither which chicken nor which dog was to end up in front of you. My brother had told me a horror story about smelling cooked dog in China so animal rights activists amongst you will be pleased to hear that i passed on the opportunity although i did have a mouthful of one serving ordered by one of our Spanish tour-goers (who had did not like it because it was too spicy!). I found it rather stringy and slightly tasteless but certainly not as unpleasant as my brother had led me to believe. Clearly the 24 hour cooking process is needed to tenderise it.

Day four, with the group back in Pyongyang, began at a leisurely pace despite a busy itinerary. For our first stop, we paid a visit to the national embroidery institute where we witnessed the thrill of live embroidery and were given the unique opportunity to purchase embroidery-based pictures of Korean landscapes, animals and, most bizarrely, a stitched but faithful recreation of The Last Supper (Has someone slipped a copy of the Da Vinci Code into the country?). This was, however, simply a prelude to the main event of the day and one of the most interesting of our trip, a chance to explore the Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

At the museum we were given a guided tour by another Korean lady although she was disappointingly less impassioned than our previous site guides and narrators. One of our North Korean tour guides acted as the translator and unfortunately took the full brunt of the ridicule and difficult questions that flew from the tourists. Between the two guides, they explained the North Korean view of the start of the war, highlighting the US's constant "provocations" from the end of the second world war until the start of the Korean war in 1950. They provided documented "evidence" that the South, with the assistance of the US forces, was planning to invade the North and certainly historians believe that at one time the US had contemplated it. They also maintained that on the 25th June 1950, the south launched a vast invasion, attacking the Northern defensive positions every 2km along the 38th Parallel. This invasion was repelled at every point, so they told us, within a remarkable "90 minutes" from which point the North launched a devastating "counter-attack" sweeping south to take Seoul.

The historicity of this, of course, is utterly flawed. I had got them to grudgingly acknowledge that the US troops had pulled out of the Korean Peninsula months before the start of the war (they had largely withdrawn to Japan) and they had stated that the South Korean troops were fewer in number compared to them and in poor military shape. To suggest, therefore, that the South, at the weakest they had been since the end of WW2, would launch a full-scale invasion with no softening of targets via artillery and such limited resources is patently illogical. However, my attempts to point this out were met with terse, angry responses such as "you believe your history and we will believe ours". I knew it would have been as futile as arguing over the existence of a particular deity with a religious zealot but i had wanted to see whether there were any concessions or cracks in their personal beliefs. North Korean history is clearly set in stone. And then had steel-reinforced concrete poured around it. This could be a far greater barrier to reunification, should it happen, than any economic or social disparity. Predictably also, they viewed the outcome of the Korean War as being outright victory, delivered, as ever by the same Glorious Leader, Kim Il Sung, that had single-handedly vanquished the Japanese and driven them from the peninsula.

The basement of the War Museum contained the unusual sight of rows upon rows of captured or partially destroyed and crashed tanks, planes, helicopters and other vehicles. These are surrounded by a series of photographs of UN troops surrendering to jubilant and victorious North Korean soldiers. The presence of such exhibits, unique amongst war museums that i have visited around the globe, is clearly founded on the need to reinforce their "victory" over the Americans wherever possible and yet further evidence of their Korean War inferiority complex. This was also demonstrated at our next stop, the US spy ship the Pueblo, captured in North Korean waters in 1968.

The Pueblo was a more clear-cut case and was a crisis handled with extraordinary, almost laughable ineptness by the US government who tried to claim it was a ocean research vessel and that the North Koreans had butchered all of the crew. The North Koreans, who had only killed one of the crew during the boarding of the vessel, persuaded (without resorting to torture) the crew to confess and promptly put them in front of international cameras to confirm their guilt. The US, in the end, had to write a groveling letter of apology admitting their wrong-doing. The Pueblo, claimed as spoils, still sits on the bank of the Taedong river in the middle of Pyongyang and is open to the North Korean public.

In an effort to provide more leisure activities other than listening to the one radio station and singing songs of Kim praise in the park, the state built a large number of fun-fairs, filled with Western-inspired rides and stalls. We passed several on our journeys, noting that they were conspicuous for their rust and the complete lack of people using them. Only the bravest amongst our crew, therefore, were willing to sample the rides at one small Pyongyang theme park we stopped off at. This one was equally rickety-looking and rusting and doubtless contained more Death Rides than had originally been planned. However, children bounded along the fun-fair paths with utter glee, teachers struggling to keep them reined in. I was drawn towards some of the smaller stalls offering fun-looking target shooting and ball throwing games. Check out the photos in this entry's photo album to see how they differ ever so slightly from Western ones. All good, wholesome fun.

Two other stops remained for this, our last full day in North Korea. The first of these was to take a ride on the fully operational Metro system in which East German trains (complete with German graffiti still etched into the glass windows) cover 17 stops on two lines. The metro stops also double as air-raid shelters and are located 100m down at the bottom of an escalator so long that some North Koreans sit down on the steps for the journey. I gathered from the guides that only two stops are open to Western tours and it is probably fair to suggest they are the best-preserved. Quite a sight they are too. Glittering chandeliers hang down from the ceilings whilst ornate wall decorations make the place look more like a banquet hall than a tube station. Again, take a look at the photos.

Our final stop of the tour was to one of Pyongyang's Children's Palaces, schools for gifted kids whether they are musical, dancing, acrobatic, academic or Taekwon-do prodigies. Our trip down the halls afforded us the opportunity to peer into some of the class rooms to see as normal a school scene as you would find in the west, albeit with a few minor variations. In one of the computer rooms, kids appeared to be spending the lesson playing games (or at least those at the back were), including a shoot-em-up game involving blowing up digitised George W. Bush heads. We were treated, in another, to a wonderfully tuneful and perfectly syncopated performance by kids playing Gayagum (a large stringed instrument that is both melodic and percussive) instruments. However, the purpose of the trip was to attend a gala performance by some of the school's most able students.

The show, apparently performed on a regular basis for students visiting from other parts of Pyongyang as well as other tourists, was unusually devoid of any anti-US rhetoric although numerous Kim songs were sung by a choir of girls whose voices would not have sounded out of place on a crackly 50s radio. More progressive material came in the form of a hilarious band complete with lead guitar, bass, synth and drums who were pulled by invisible hands onto and off the stage on a small, wheeled stage whilst trying to remain as inanimate and statuesque as possible. Their playing style was not dissimilar and it kept on reminding me of a Robert Palmer video. More bizarre was the military-style shark's fin-shaped salute provided by some of the students at the start and end of certain performances that was rapturously applauded and which we were later told was the student's union salute. However, there were also some very accomplished performances including an excellent classical piano/violin duet and some great drum and other percussive instrument solos. As we left the theatre, the school children waved, beamed and unleashed a salvo of enthusiastic hellos and byes.

It was a suitably up-beat and optimistic way to end our North Korean sight-seeing tour and, following a fun meal at a duck restaurant (which seemed to serve us a procession of exclusively duck-based dishes) we returned to our hotel to prepare (with alcohol and much discussion) for the long train ride back to Beijing the following day.
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