The city of Pyongyang, relatively small by international standards, is most well known for buildings and sites located in the heart of the city. For this reason, a walk between the Grand Theatre and Kim Il Sung Square may seem to an outsider as a boring stroll through the government buildings of North Korea’s capital. However, this area is the beating heart of the city and the country. The Pyongyang Grand Theatre sits at one end of Sungni (Victory) street which stretches through the city parallel to the Taedong river. The building itself was constructed in traditional Korean style with a green peaked roof, similar to the roof of the Grand People’s Study House. Walking down the road, we passed the offices of Rodong Sinmun, the Worker’s Party Newspaper, whose publications are often quoted in the international media and serves as one of the few mouthpieces for the North Korean government to the world stage. On the walk, we passed numerous flags and banners erected for the upcoming Victory Day (7.27) Celebrations. Eventually, we arrived on Kim Il Sung Square; this square has been the site of parades and mass demonstrations for the majority of the nation’s history. It is headed by the Grand People’s Study House, a public library open to locals (and tourists on some tours). Either side of the square are government offices and on the eastern side of the square, nearest the river, sits the Pyongyang History Museum and the Pyongyang Art Gallery. The square is built with a raised section near the bank of the river, to an observer on the square, this raised area obscures the Taedong and creates the illusion of the square extending much further, all the way to the Juche Tower on the opposite bank.
Pyongyang Grand Theatre
National Flags and Revolutionary Flags to celebrate Victory Day
Offices of Rodong Sinmun – the Worker’s Party Paper
Grand People’s Study House on Kim Il Sung Square
The forced perspective suggests the square extends all the way to the Juche Tower
From the square, we headed off to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. This museum was originally constructed in Haebangsan-guyok (near the current Party Foundation Museum) but was moved in the 1970s to the current site on the Pothonggang river in central Pyongyang. The USS Pueblo, a captured US spy ship from the 1960s, is docked on the river and makes up part of the museum. Outside the main building is a display of captured and shot-down American military vehicles from the Korean conflict, many of which come with backstories and exquisite detail regarding their capture. Inside the Museum, beyond the statue of the President Kim Il Sung, is a detailed account of the most important moments in the conflict, as told from the northern perspective of course. The tour culminated in the Museum Panorama – an enormous panoramic painting of the Battle of Taejon, complete with sound effects, narration and actual tanks and other vehicles placed tactically between the viewing area and the painting to create a beautiful sense of depth. Throughout our time in this part of the city, the enormous Ryugyong Hotel towered above us. The building, still unopened, has been complete (on the outside at least) for some years now. It dominates the city’s skyline and hopefully one day soon will house tourists, foreign and domestic.
Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum
Following the theme of the Korean War and Victory Day, we headed to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Martyrs Cemetery. A cemetery for those who died during the Korean conflict and veterans of the war who have since passed. Interestingly, the day following our visit, the Marshall Kim Jong Un paid a visit to the site as part of a series of appearances leading up to 7.27.
Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Martyrs Cemetery
We then embarked on the relatively short bus ride out of Pyongyang, north, to the satellite city of Pyongsong, provincial seat of South Pyongan Province. After a quick lunch at the local Jangsusan Hotel, we headed to the city centre. A modest square in the middle of town, headed with bronze statues of the President Kim Il Sung and General Kim Jong Il, greeted us as we turned the corner. Personally, this moment held great significance since it was the first time I had come face-to-face with these iconic statues which are present in every city in the country. Compared to the Mansudae monument in Pyongyang, these statues are smaller. They are backed by a forest which provides a cosier atmosphere to the area; a beautiful metaphor for Pyongsong itself when compared to Pyongyang.
From here, we headed into town to a local school. Here we were greeted with a musical performance; singing, dancing and magic. The students were incredibly impressive at their playing, singing and wizardry. I stood at the back alongside the other guides as the tour group captured the performance on their phones – personally, I enjoyed listening to the songs I have heard so many times, online and through radio and TV, but this time in person.
A classroom in Doksung Primary School
Corridor in the school
We then moved into the sports hall. Table-tennis is a very popular sport here; the pupils put our sports-skills to shame with their superior ping-pong techniques. Perhaps a highlight of mine was accidentally bouncing the ball off my opponent’s head, a very young but very skilled girl, who spent most of our game amused by my lack of ability. Nonetheless, it was a fantastic experience. Leaving the school, some children were peering out of a classroom window at the group of foreigners walking past. We exchanged a quick thumbs-up, they seemed to enjoy that, before getting back on the bus and leaving the city.
We soon arrived at Kongji-ri. A revolutionary site in the region just north of Pyongyang. The area housed the Korean People’s Army command during the Korean War and was used by President Kim Il Sung to command his forces for a large portion of the conflict. Since then, the house he lived and worked in has been enclosed in a temperature-controlled room (much like the Chernobyl sarcophagus) to ensure the building does not rot or decay. The local guide proudly displayed the damage the building sustained during an attack by US aircraft. A section of door had been destroyed along with a small hole which was created in the wall when the aircraft strafed the area with machine-gun fire. The majority of the Korean conflict was fought in stalemate – Pyongyang had been destroyed by US carpet bombing and so the site at Kongji-ri wasn’t just a tactical decision, but also practical since there were no suitable buildings left in the capital from where the military forces could be commanded.
The revolutionary site provided a unique insight into the revolutionary history which Koreans are taught in school. Later that day we saw the site appear on Korean Central TV in our hotel room – the area stands as just one of many deified areas which form the backbone of the revolutionary heritage of the DPRK.
Kongji-ri later appeared on Korean Central TV during Victory Day