After we stepped out of the hurly-burly of the Flower Show, we took a short bus ride to Kim Il Sung Square in the centre of Pyongyang. Today was a Saturday and a public holiday, but there weren’t as many people walking around on the streets as I would have thought there’d be. Maybe they’re all having a bit of a sleep-in?
On the other side of the Square there was a group of people outside a government building chanting something-or-other. Funny – in the West you’d see something like this and assume it’s a protest of some kind. Here – especially given that it’s Kim Il Sung’s birthday – it’s clearly a loyal rally. We walked past them and into a building on the same side of the square: The Art Gallery.
We weren’t allowed to take photos in the Gallery and the attendants watched us like hawks, so I’ll be interspersing this account with photos that I took later in the morning.
The gallery itself was empty, with lots of echoing rooms made of marble as we paced around them with our guide. To be honest, she didn’t seem to like us much. She was polite, but severe and she didn’t crack a smile. She led us through rooms, armed with a pointer that she’d use to point to various paintings. She’d rattle off information about it in Korean and Un Ha would translate.
At first we began in the rooms with artworks from the 1100’s – 1500’s. Some of them were huge, taken from tombs of the kings of the era, but all too soon I began to hear the same phrase uttered time and time again from our guide: “This is a copy of…”
My initial reaction was annoyance. Why on earth were we traipsing around seeing COPIES of things? Then someone, I think it might have been Maria from Finland, mentioned that it was probably because the originals were all stolen by the Japanese during their occupation. D’oh! Of course. Then it became much more poignant. The Koreans are so proud of their homeland and their history, so to only have copies of their heritage hanging in the official art gallery in the centre of town would have been galling.
The traditional paintings were FAR removed from the propaganda paintings I bought at the DMZ.
I ended up buying a copy of one of the paintings that I saw. I’ll post a photo of it with the posters that I bought when I reach the end of this saga…
As we were walking, we passed through a room full of sculptures. Tucked away near a corner, a white sculpture of a young Korean girl in traditional dress with a couple of ropes around her caught my eye. She had a resolute gaze and she was looking straight ahead. Un Ha was near me and I said to her, “I love this statue.”
Un Ha brightened up and she told a few of us the story behind the statue. She said that this girl was a hero of the Korean people and her story is told to children to illustrate honour and bravery. I wish I could source a photo of the actual statue, or I could remember the girl’s name, but I’ve already spent far more time than is reasonable trying to track these things down. Anyway, here’s how Un Ha told it:
Josephine Lunchbucket (NOT her real name) was a young 9-year-old girl in a village in the mountains. The Japanese Imperialists were in power and Josephine was involved in helping the heroic Korean resistance by carrying notes for them.
One day she was stopped by Japanese soldiers when she was carrying a note for the brave Korean resistance. Before they could read the note, she cleverly swallowed it. Enraged, the soldiers carried her off to the jail, where they kept her imprisoned. Day after day they would try and get her to tell them what she knew about where the freedom fighters were, but no matter what they said or did she bravely refused to tell them.
So in the end, they put out her eyes and shot her dead.
I have to admit, I got a shock when Un Ha said this. I was expecting a happy ending. I guess I’ve been conditioned by the Western ideas of the stories that are suitable for children.
While I was stuck in the gift shop buying my painting of the ox and the sleeping cowherd, the rest of the group walked across the square and over to the Foreign Language bookshop. Wally had ordered a daily newspaper covering the marathon and it was ready for him to pick up.
I bought some excellent propaganda postcards that sent my kids at school into ecstasies of horror and disbelief when I brought them into class. Again, I’ll post photos of them at the end of this series.
James found this book. How could anyone resist?
We drove to a café to kill some time before lunch. As we drove up I saw one of the few dogs I’d seen in North Korea – it looked exactly like a cross between a Cavalier and a dachshund, just as if Jeff and Scout had had a love child. By the time we were out of the bus he and his owner had gone, but there were a few kids hanging around.
I couldn’t help thinking that this little pink girl must come from an incredibly privileged family. She has roller blades and a watch. Pierre and Olly still had some lollies left to give out, which of course made them very popular with the kids.
There she goes, clutching a chuppa-chup.
Our first indication that this café sold more than coffee was in a fridge near the front door.
We started off with coffee, while some people wrote postcards.
As I was chatting with Niall and Bek, James came up to me and thrust his Kim Jong Il book under my nose.
“Read this,” he said. “It’s comedy gold.”
As I flicked through it, I knew I HAD to get a copy of this book. It’s difficult to imagine how 180 pages could sustain this type of rhetoric, but it certainly seemed to. I hoped the hotel gift shop sold it.
After a while, we moved on to cocktails. I had a gin something-or-other, which, when topped up with some soju, made me feel ready for anything.
We were in this café for around an hour before we left to have lunch. And no, only one of these glasses was mine!
The number plates on this car – the white numbers on a blue background – signify that it’s a diplomatic vehicle.
We ate an excellent lunch and then we set off for the park, where one of the most memorable hours of the whole trip was about to take place…