In April 2016, I visited the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, more commonly known as North Korea. My interest in visiting was purely anthropological. I wished to observe one of the most isolated cultures on the planet without judgement, or at least as much as was possible. I am indifferent to politics and I stopped consuming the media years ago. There is no hidden agenda in the following account, except to show that there are two sides to every story and both are just as real to the people to whom they have been taught.
With the exception of the final quote, all italicized sections of this post are quotes from the book, “The US Imperialists Started the Korean War” by Candidate Academician Ho Jong Ho, Dr. Kang Sok Hui, and Dr. Pak Thae Ho. This book is translated into many languages and is available for purchase at propaganda* bookstores throughout the DPRK.
*The use of the word “propaganda” is theirs. In the DPRK, no attempt is made to call it anything other than what it is.
Chapter One: The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum
The US imperialism's vicious policy of world domination was based on the insatiable avarice of the US billionaires who had fattened to the utmost.
She strides towards us. Chin forward, steely eyes. A tight smile as she is introduced as our museum guide. We follow her down the path. Statues of fighting men rise beside us. Faces forever frozen in fury. First stop: a row of battered war machines. Planes, Jeeps, tanks. Captured weapons from the US aggressors. She bares her teeth in a smile. Trophies.
I lift my eyes to the photos displayed above. Soldiers with arms lifted in surrender. Lifeless faces.
Next stop on the tour: the Pueblo. It was an armed US spy ship that had disguised itself as a research ship, the museum guide explains. It was captured in DPRK territorial waters. We step inside the vessel. Each bullet hole is circled in blood red. We sit in darkness as a film about the incident is shown. I settle back in the seat and try to focus. I've had only a couple of hours sleep every night over the past four days. The grainy images blur. I close my eyes and take slow, deep breaths. The retro-dramatic musical score drowns out the heavily accented narration. From time to time, I open my eyes. Images flicker: the Pueblo crew with arms raised; President Johnson's face contorted with cartoonish rage; a closeup of the official apology from the US government; the crew striding past the camera, one by one, to freedom.
(Below is the actual video.)
The Korean people's great victory in the Fatherland Liberation War was a brilliant victory of the Juche-oriented, revolutionary military strategy of President Kim Il Sung, the ever-victorious, iron-willed brilliant commander and gifted military strategist, who had accumulated rich experience in the protracted arduous anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle and combined a great revolutionary idea with outstanding leadership ability and brilliant military art.
No photos are allowed inside the museum. The guide waits for us to put our cameras and phones away before leading us inside the massive building. It is both austere and opulent. Marble floors, soft gold military insignia. A color statue of Kim Il Sung presides over the central hall. He stands against a backdrop of fireworks, arm raised, beatific smile. He is reacting to the crowd.
I whisper to one of our Korean guides, “The Marshall** really looks like his grandfather.”
A soft glow lights up her eyes. Her voice thickens with fondness. “He does.”
The museum guide turns our attention to the flower carvings in the wall. Magnolias are very special to the Korean people. The last part of her explanation is muffled.
As she leads us through the vast corridors, I approach her. “Excuse me, did you say that magnolias represent the pure hearts of the Korean people?”
My question provokes a glimmer of delight and a twitch of annoyance. “Clean hearts,” she corrects me. Her face relaxes into a slight smile. "Thank you for asking."
For the next hour, we wander through a labyrinth of reenactment and commemoration. Life-size dioramas of field life. All four seasons are represented. Birdsong emanates from the speakers for summer; icicles hang from the huts for winter. We continue through replicas of soldiers' tunnels and rooms lined with memorabilia. The mood darkens. The museum guide raises her tiny porcelain hand, palm up like a show model, to the glass jars displayed on the shelves. These contain some of the actual insects that the aggressors used as germ warfare. Millions of flies, spiders, mosquitoes, beetles and other insects were infected with cholera, typhus and other epidemic bacilli and then they were dropped on the Korean people.
Her hand falls to her side. She beckons us into the next room, which depicts a wasteland of defeat. White crosses and corpses. Blood red sunset. A crow picks at the flesh of a dead US soldier. An endless loop of cawing pours out of the speakers.
The US mercenary troops, on the order of Harrison, tore the babies away from the bosoms of their desperately resisting mothers and locked them up in another warehouse. The hills and air of Sinchon reverberated with the babies' cries for their mothers and the screams of the mothers calling for their darlings. The US cutthroats gave gasoline to those innocent babies crying for water to burn their hearts to death. They starved and froze them to death. They threw rice straw over the heads of the mothers and children, poured gasoline over it, and set fire to it. Not satisfied with this, they threw more than 100 hand grenades into the warehouse through the window to murder the detainees cold-bloodedly. As a result, over 910 people, including 400 mothers and 102 children were killed together in the two warehouses.
The museum guide invites the ladies of our group to take the elevator to the second floor. I shake off my daze and break the silence, “It's all really interesting.”
She beams. “Thank you.” She begins to quiz me on things that she has told us. Dates and names of battles.
I stammer. My answers are wrong. She sighs and her shoulders slump, but her hands finally unclench.
I'm not usually such an airhead, I want to explain. I haven't slept properly in days and I'm going through caffeine withdrawal. Tea just doesn't have the same kick as espresso. I've always had problems memorizing rigid facts. My brain works with the abstract – observation and feeling. But somehow I don't think she would understand the concept of jet lag, insomnia brought on by travel excitement, or a brain that does not follow rules.
The grand finale of the tour is a 360 degree panorama of the Battle of Taejon. The museum guide stands before us. Schoolteacher enthusiasm. Gentle condescension. How many figures are in the panorama? How deep is the image? Some venture guesses, but none of them are correct. She smiles at the effort. The lights dim. The reenactment commences. The battle orbits the audience. Gunshots, explosions, and smoke.
As we ride the elevator back down, I say, “The museum is very impressive.” Exclamations of agreement arise from the others.
Again the radiant smile. “Which was your favorite part?”
“The panorama,” we say in unison.
She clasps her hands together and bows her head.
After we buy souvenirs and refreshments, she leads us outside. A group of school kids has begun their tour. They fidget and giggle. Some of them make goofy faces at us.
I linger by the guide. “Can I take your photo?”
“Only if you are in it,” she says.
“Thank you,” I tell her afterwards. “I will always remember this.”
Her handshake is warm. “Thank you very much for your respect.”
Chapter Two: In the Zone
The data released later show that Dulles met Syngman Rhee and Sin Song Mo at the US embassy housed in the Pando Hotel, Seoul, and re-examined the “northward expedition plan” behind closed doors. He instructed them to “attack north Korea along with the counter-propaganda that north Korea had invaded south Korea first” as planned and hold out for two weeks at any cost.
The parking lot is filled with tour groups awaiting their turn. Chatter hovers overhead. Chinese, Russian, and English mingled with other languages. Some of our group stands in a circle.
One of the Americans shakes his head, “I can't believe they believe that the Americans started the war.”
One of the Canadians says, “Well, it's not entirely impossible. There are a lot of gray areas when it comes to wars and history. It's not like the US hasn't started wars on false pretenses before.”
The American stiffens. “What do you mean?”
We all look at him and reply in unison, “Weapons of mass destruction.”
“Oh,” he nods. Rolls his eyes. “Yeah.”
The conversation turns to the upcoming US presidential election. My eyes glaze over and I slip away. Maybe they sell iced coffee in the gift shop. I pounded two on the long bus ride down here, but it has had little effect. No sleep again last night, dammit. I am exhausted to the point of incoherence.
No iced coffee for sale, but I do score a “Meet Me in Pyongyang” t-shirt for my husband.
We file into a small building where a steely-eyed colonel awaits. He responds to his introduction with a glare. He whacks the pointer on the wall map. Words flee his clenched jaw. He stares over our heads and blinks while one of our Korean guides translates. Another whack. Some of us flinch. Whack. More words are spit out. He sets the pointer aside and stalks out.
Before we enter the gates, we are instructed to line up in five rows. One row will go first, and then each row will follow behind in turn, in one long stream. Once inside the entrance, we are again instructed to line up in rows, but this time we will walk in our respective lines. The colonel waits until we are ready, and then marches forward. As soon as we set forth, our rows blur into each other. We are disheveled, bewildered, and some of the guys are bleary-eyed after late night partying in the hotel. Our guides beckon us forward in our slovenly march.
One little white building and then another. The locations of the armistice talks and signing. More dates and facts. My mind drifts out the window to the spring blossoms and chirping birds. Behavior reminiscent of Catholic school. Even at a young age I resisted anything that I was told I must believe, no matter what it was.
As the complete failure of the “new offensive” plan of the US imperialists was obvious, the US imperialists had no choice but to give up the daydream of an “honourable armistice”. They turned up at the armistice talks without regard to the prestige of the United States around which the myth of “mightiness” had been crystallized. On July 27, 1953, they fell to their knees before the Korean people and signed the armistice agreement.
The Joint Security Area is the neutral zone surrounding one section of the military demarcation line. We shuffle forward in our listless rows. Surveillance cameras are perched on every ledge and corner, monitoring the slightest movement. Someone mentions that the South Korean soldiers are not present today, because the current situation is too tense to have the two sides staring at each other. We are led into the blue buildings in the neutral zone and then the colonel takes a group photo with us. He accompanies us back to the bus, exchanges a few curt words with our Western guide, and then strides away.
Our Western guide takes a seat next to me. “Whew. I've never seen him so angry. He grabbed my jacket and said, 'Why are you wearing this stupid jacket? You look like an imperialist bastard.' He's usually really cool. I wonder what's going on.***”
Chapter Three: That Which Does Not Exist
The big bus churns up the narrow, pothole-pocked road. My superficial doze dissipates. Rather than return to Pyongyang after the DMZ tour, we have received permission to visit an outpost and view the fabled concrete wall.
We file up a steep path. Pink blossoms frame the small white building at the top. A colonel steps out to greet us. We follow him into a white room. Photos of the two departed leaders and a large map are the only decorations. He gives us a short lecture, which is translated by one of our Korean guides. Soft-spoken voice, gentle demeanor. He couldn't be more different than the other colonel. The concrete wall was built by the imperialists to divide the Korean people. According to the United States, this wall does not exist. But now we will see it for ourselves.
We move outside. While the others jostle for a look through the binoculars, I step up on the mound and use my zoom. The landscape has not yet awakened from winter. Look, there is a building on that hill. South Korean and UN flags flying overhead. And there, just to the left, a long concrete ribbon stretches across the muddy brown hills.
All these past facts show that the US imperialists, travelling a downward path ever since the armistice, have not given up their criminal ambitions to cling to south Korea and, with it as the base, to invade the whole of Korea and Asia and that to realize this aggressive ambition they are scheming to ignite a fresh war of aggression by putting the south Korean puppet clique to the fore as they had enkindled the Korean war in the past by egging on the Syngman Rhee clique.
Chapter Four: The Aftermath
Conversations over meals. Reaffirmations of what was seen and heard and felt. I will remember these as much as the tour itself. Yes, it really happened. Yes, we are really here. It's possible that I'll never meet such a fascinating group of travelers again. Spirits of curiosity and defiance.
I glance around to be sure our Korean guides are out of earshot. “My great-uncle was a prisoner of this war.” The others fall silent. “It was for a few weeks, I think. He was injured. Shrapnel was embedded in his broken leg. They didn't set it properly and it got infected. Somehow he lost his rosary, which was giving him the will to hang on. He got really sick. Delirious. The Blessed Mother appeared to him and gave him back his rosary. For his entire life, he has remained devoted to her.”
All faces are turned towards me. The mention of religion hasn't provoked sneers or eye rolls. I sigh. “He has cancer now. He would never speak to me again if he knew I came here. He wouldn't understand.”
Nods of agreement. Solidarity. Few will comprehend our compulsion to visit and many will criticize.
Kim Il Sung laughed heartily and said, “I have no worries. The US imperialists have said time and again that they will drop bombs on our country. Each time they do so Supreme Commander Kim Jong Il telephones me. We agree that if they drop a bomb on our country, we will do the same.”-- “A Bull That Can Gore and a Bull That Can't”, Anecdotes of Kim Il Sung's Life, Volume 2
**Kim Jong Un ***When you take a tour of the DPRK, there is, of course, a total blackout of outside information. Upon our return to Beijing, we found out that on the day we visited the DMZ, the DPRK's missile test in honor of Kim Il-Sung's birthday failed.