China and the DPRK- Day 5, Pyongyang – The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

No, this isn’t the War Museum! It’s just an apaertment block. Look at the curvy walls. It reminded me of the artists’ colony we saw in Beijing with the curved walls.

Here’s the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

The space devoted to the public areas and buildings is huge. It’s clearly quite deliberate, as it makes everything look incredibly impressive. I suppose one advantage of being able to rebuild Pyongyang from scratch is that they were able to lay out the city exactly as they wanted it to – a bit like Canberra. Not many capital cities start from nothing like this. Normally they’ve grown and evolved.

You can see the dates of the Korean War on the front of the gates. It’s strange to think that something that was only 3 years in duration was powerful enough to still have a huge hold on a population’s collective psyche. We were about to get schooled…

Lots of military. Lots of sculpture. Lots of pride in their (sometimes re-written) history.

After our guide met us at the front and talked to us about the Korean War, giving a bit of background, she led us around to the side, where there is a huge undercover area with captured US and UN hardware from the war. We were taken from one end to the other, where we saw a huge assortment of jeeps, tanks, planes, helicopters etc, all displayed like trophies.

This was the first time our guide reeled off the list of 15 countries who came to fight with the US in the war, with the implication being that we all ganged up on Korea. Australia was number 3 in the list, in case you’re wondering. Awkward…

You wonder what happened to the guys driving these jeeps and planes and you hope they escaped unscathed.

I never really thought much about the Korean War, apart from watching and loving M*A*S*H, but I’ve got to say that tanks were never in my hazy view of it. It was a little confronting to see them here. I’m not sure why… maybe because when you stand in front of one it seems so invulnerable. How would you fight it?

This line of bombs really affected me. The guide said that in Pyongyang in 1950 the population numbered around 400,000. The US/UN dropped more than one bomb per person over Pyongyang – estimates range from 450,000 – 500,000 bombs. Imagine how awful that would have been?

When I was doing some fact-checking of numbers for this, I found an article written in 2010 that talks about how many people were killed in North Korea over the 3 years of the war. It states that close to 30% of the population was killed as a result of the US bombings. It makes the rhetoric we were hearing about “the American Aggressors” a lot more comprehensible, especially when you compare the numbers lost in WWII:

“After destroying North Korea’s 78 cities and thousands of her villages, and killing countless numbers of her civilians, [General] LeMay remarked, “Over a period of three years or so we killed off – what – twenty percent of the population.” It is now believed that the population north of the imposed 38th Parallel lost nearly a third its population of 8 – 9 million people during the 37-month long “hot” war, 1950 – 1953, perhaps an unprecedented percentage of mortality suffered by one nation due to the belligerance of another.”2

During The Second World War the United Kingdom lost 0.94% of its population, France lost 1.35%, China lost 1.89% and the US lost 0.32%. During the Korean war, North Korea lost close to 30 % of its population.”

(Taken from the article I linked to, above,)

Since getting back and doing a bit of research, I’ve found that these figures appear all over the place, so I’m inclined to believe them. Never forget that our side of the story is also capable of political spin – anyone who believes otherwise would be very naive. After a hellish decimation like that, it would certainly be easy to retreat into the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ and turn to Juche (self-reliance) if you feel the whole world is against you. Especially if you’ve been told from birth that the Americans/South Koreans invaded North Korea… not the other way round, which is what really happened.

I’m not excusing the regime, but its success with the population of the DPRK is certainly more comprehensible if you take all of this “it’s us against the world” into consideration.

Here’s another wreck, with more stretching off into the distance.

A M*A*S*H helicopter!

They took the pilots prisoner. They love photos showing the ‘American Aggressors’ being submissive.

Once we were back, we set off again to see the USS Pueblo. I was looking forward to seeing this ship, as it was one of the things I’d learned about before I came over here. In the late 60’s, the US had sent the USS Pueblo over to North Korea to do a little bit of spying. The US was used to how they did things in Russia, with “fishing boats” being an open secret for spy boats. Russia tolerated them, so the US thought it would be the same deal in the DPRK.

Unfortunately for the navy sailors on board, this wasn’t the case. There was some dispute as to whether the US ship was actually in North Korean waters – the US states that it was in International waters and the North Koreans say the opposite. Anyway, the result was that the ship was captured, resulting in the death of one sailor and the detention of about 80 sailors for a year.

The guide was so proud of the fact that the ship was captured by only 5 soldiers… Another guide from a different tour company was telling his people that the ship was badly retro-fitted by the Americans to become a spy ship – it was too top-heavy and was difficult to manoeuvre. The guns on the deck were covered and tied down for the winter so tightly that when the ship was threatened, the sailors couldn’t untie them and defend themselves.

The Americans weren’t released until the President sent a letter admitting the intrusion into Korean waters and apologising for the spying. The rest of the display board outside the ship, pictured below, shows the actual letter, whereas these pictures show the sailors being taken off the ship and the captain penning a letter of apology.

The whole thing became pretty famous because of what the sailors did when they were photographed for propaganda purposes while they were being held prisoner. You can read about the Digit affair here. Flipping the bird was all fun and games until the Koreans were told by the media what they were doing.

Another interesting thing that the guide told us was about how they moved the Pueblo. It’s only been in the last couple of years that the ship was decommissioned from the US Navy. For years it was the only US warship captured by an enemy force and the US wanted it back.

When the Koreans built the current War Museum, they wanted to exhibit the Pueblo here, but it was moored on the other side of the country. They knew that if they set it going, the US navy would swoop in and take it back as soon as it went outside Korean waters. So what did they do? They disguised it as an ordinary fishing boat, openly sailed it up to Japan, which is exactly the direction that nobody would expect them to go in, then along a river and down to the current spot that it’s in now.

This was the captain’s room. Cosy. Actually, I was expecting the boat to be a lot bigger. It was very compact.

Whenever there were bullet holes from the capture, they were helpfully outlined in red so that they were easily visible.

Even now, nearly 50 years later, they want to show that they mean business when defending their borders.

The map that shows how the US were trespassing onto their waters. Who knows whose story is the correct version? It’s all he said/she said.

Um… yeah. The Americans were definitely spying. They don’t deny it. The display on the ship shows everything from classified documents in glass cases, to uniforms, photos, ancient computers and other machines. They really rub the Americans faces in it – that they were caught doing the wrong thing.

More trophies displayed with pride.

Bek from Germany and Maria from Finland on our way out.

Another bad hair day for Frogdancer. Story of my life. But see me here educating James in the art how to take a brilliant photo/selfie for a blog. Obviously, he’s awestruck at my prowess.

Remember that old story about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire? Where Fred Astaire is always thought of as a brilliant dancer, yet Ginger Rogers had to do the exact same steps backwards, in a long dress AND wearing high heels.

Every female soldier I saw was wearing high heels. Just saying…

Once we went inside we had to check our phones and bags in. No photos allowed.

The foyer was a massive expanse, with a huge statue of Kim Il Sung, dressed as he would have been during the war. It was immense, with magnolias carved around the edge – magnolia being the national flower of the DPRK.

Before we headed off, some of us ducked into the loo. Strangely, only one handbasin had water… the other two didn’t. Not what you expect for a showcase building…

The first thing we were taken to see was this video. It’s well worth the time to watch it, as you can see how letters and facts have been manipulated. The soundtrack alone shows how locked in a time warp this country is. It was made in 2016, but the soundtrack sounds like something out of the 1950’s. This movie was another indication of how their perspective of world events differs from the one that we are usually exposed to.

After this video was over, we were taken on a tour of many rooms depicting the passage of the Korean War. The tour guide was very reverential about the President, giving him his full title all the time and often praising him as well. A frequent phrase was something like: “..this was all due to the wisdom of our great leader, President Kim Il Sung…”, with her voice rising in tone with the ‘Il’ and falling with the ‘Sung’.

We saw replicas of the dugout tunnels they used and models of the camps that the soldiers lived in, with the piece de resistance being a massive diorama that we sat in front of while the whole thing revolved around us. The soundtrack was in English. Helen and Pierre said that they noticed little details in it that weren’t there 6 months before, so I suppose it’s a work in progress. They were very proud of it.

One thing I noticed – nearly all of the escalators we used only turned on when we approached. Some of the bigger displays and models were only brought to life by the guide flicking a switch. I’d read hotel reviews of the places we were staying in on Tripadvisor that mentioned power blackouts even in the centre of Pyongyang. I wondered – was this an environmental decision or is electricity so precious that it cannot be wasted?

One thing was made absolutely clear. While we have been taught that the Korean War was pretty much a waste of time, with the line dividing the 2 countries ending up exactly where it was when the war began and the conflict ending up as pretty much being a draw, the North Koreans have a very different view. To them – the war was a massive victory for their side and they view it as decisive evidence of what an incredibly valuable and brave leader they had in Kim Il Sung.

Every time he’s mentioned… and they mentioned him A LOT… they puff up with pride about him and his achievements, all while he was working tirelessly to improve the lot of the Korean people without regard for his own comfort. For someone coming from a country that has a vastly more cynical view of its politicians, this was a very interesting attitude to witness. It was genuinely whole-hearted and we witnessed this every day of the trip, no matter where we were. The Korean people absolutely adore their leaders, particularly the first one. Kim Il Sung was clearly a master of building a cult of personality that thrives to this day.

We heard lots about the achievements of the North Koreans during the war, particularly in the beginning when they took over around 90% of South Korea before the tide turned against them. I was a bit dubious about whether this was true but James assured me that it was. We also heard how the American Aggressors were only able to defeat their little country after they called in 15 ‘satellite countries’ to help them, meaning the UN. Twice more, the list of shame was recited off by heart by our guide. We were always number 3. The message was that if the US had played fair and not brought in other countries, the Korean peninsula would be unified today under one leader. Even our guide conceded that there was no way one country could withstand a fight against so many others.

When the tour was pretty much finished and we were walking back to the ground floor to pick up our things, the guide asked me if I knew much about the Korean War and if it was much talked about in Australia. Talk about awkward…

I said that the Korean War wasn’t mentioned much in Australia and that the main source of knowledge I had on it was the American TV show called M*A*SH. She’d clearly heard about it; she rolled her eyes and sniffed. I hastily added that this museum had made me want to find out more and that I’d be doing a lot of reading about it once I got back home. This seemed to make her happier.

After this, it was off to lunch!

We went to what turned out to be one of our favourite meals of the trip. Korean Hotpot, modelled after the Korean soldiers during the war, who used to cook their meals in a helmet over an open fire. We were given a selection of meat and vegetables, along with various herbs and spices, and we cooked our own meal in these metal cooking pots. The waitresses lit a gas flame underneath and we sat around, talked and waited for our broth to heat up. Then we all launched into our culinary endeavours. Most, if not all of us, ended up with a very tasty meal. Some people were slightly too adventurous with the chili, though.

Olly, Helen and I waiting for our lunches to cook in the hotpots.

James was about to dump his ingredients into the top part. Such excitement!

After lunch, we were back on the bus and heading through the streets of the city towards our next few targets. We still had 6 more sites to see before dinner!

3 thoughts on “China and the DPRK- Day 5, Pyongyang – The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

  1. Unlike Vietnam, I suppose ignorance on our part means there is not much sympathy for North Korea, and the country doesn’t exactly go out of its way to receive any. So we were aggressor number 3, a dubious honour.

    • Yes, I didn’t know whether to meet her eyes or not. The first time she reeled off the list, she hadn’t yet said that the North Koreans believe that THEY were the ones who were invaded, so I thought, “Well, what do you expect when you start a war?!?” The other 2 times, I could see where she was coming from. Still slightly uncomfortable, but I guess it’s all about perspective. When they finally open up to the world, some of the things they learn will come as a definite shock to them. ________________________________

  2. Pingback: North Korea trip. | Burning Desire for FIRE

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