The third day started with a trip to Pyongyang’s most important landmark – the Kim Il Sung statue above. The guides told us to line up in front of it and together we bowed. Some people bought flowers to place at his feet. We could only take full-length photographs.
We got back on the coach to see the International Friendship Exhibition – two buildings full of gifts given to the Kims. No cameras were allowed inside, we wore shoe covers to protect the floor, guards carried silver machine guns. It felt more like a place of worship than a museum.
Inside was room after room of gaudy tat. If Saddam Hussein had had a jumble sale, it would look like that. There was a clock with elephant tusks from Mugabe, cars from Stalin and several rooms of bric-a-brac and luxury goods from China. Chinese tax payers should be angry to know that public money is being spent on buying a Buick and rooms of gold booty for Kim Jong Il.
We were taken to a room with a hilariously bad waxwork of Kim Il Sung – he looked like Mr. Toad. We lined up again and were told to bow three times. Bowing to a statue seemed strange, but not much more strange than laying flowers on a grave or holding a minute’s silence. Bowing to a shit Mr. Toad waxwork was nuts.
The museum was one of the few places where we saw large numbers of North Koreans close-up. Groups of soldiers and women in traditional dress were guided through. They bowed to various statues and portraits and looked around reverentially.
In the picture above, you can see two groups of North Koreans heading towards the museum. Even civilians walked together like soldiers on parade.
We went to a Buddhist temple nearby and I picked up a piece of paper off the floor. It was half written in Korean and half in English:
‘What’s the eclipse of the moon. When the moon goes between the earth and the sun them stops the light from the sun.
‘What’s the eclipse of the moon? When the earth goes between the moon and the sun the moon goes in the shadow and it disappears for a few minutes’
I assume it’s someone’s schoolwork. Because the trip was so inauthentic – we never touched Korean money, ate imported snacks from Singapore and Japan, and went to tourist shops, hotels and restaurants – it was interesting to see that little authentic piece of paper. I don’t usually make a habit of picking up rubbish from the floor.
We ate lunch in a hotel with a huge Kim mural. Unusually, there were North Korean guests at the hotel, though they ate in a separate room.
I don’t even really want to write about the next thing because I hated it so much. We went to a school in Pyongyang – the parts that we saw were so clearly not used by students – and watched some heavily made-up little girls dance and lip-sync Korean songs. After they performed, the girls dragged the guests – apart from me, the only non-Asian – up to the front to dance with them in a circle. The guide seemed annoyed that they had left me out. He roughly separated two of the girls and made them hold my hands. They looked scared and I could feel them shaking.
Look at their faces in the picture below. I’ve never felt so much like a Catholic priest – watching terrified little children degrade themselves for my enjoyment.
After visiting the Arch of Triumph, we went on to the highlight of the trip – The Arirang Mass Games. Kim Jong Il visited with his son and heir about a week ago. We were lucky to have the chance to see it – usually it runs for about two months from August 1st. But this year the run was extended for a few weeks.
All of the performers in the picture below are children. At one point, when they were standing in rows, I counted 560 children – then, several hundred more joined them. Apparently, when Kim Jong Il visits, he always stands when the children perform.
The mosaic picture at the back is made up of hundreds of people holding coloured cards and changing them at the exact same time.
This year, for the first time, the performance includes a celebration of China and North Korea’s relationship.
We went back to the hotel. I was surprised that we had BBC World News in the room in addition to several Chinese and Russian channels and the two North Korean channels which seemed to show little more than patriotic music.