Pyongyang to Moscow by train – with comments and observations along the way – Part 3

Train on the east coast of the DPRK

Train on the east coast of the DPRK

No longer alone

Although there were people getting on at the various stations not many were coming into the carriage at the end of the train – and I don’t think it was ever full at any time during the journey. It was probably about two to three hours into the journey before a couple of men came along the corridor (some time after the most recent station stop) and joined me in the compartment that housed berths 5 – 8. We soon realised that we had no common language with which we could communicate but that didn’t really become a problem.

Being by myself for the first part of the morning I wasn’t really as much aware of the general protocol of travelling in the sleeper carriage of the train. The majority of the passengers were male (in the whole 33 hours of the journey no more than a couple of female passenger in the carriage – not so in the rest of the train) and as soon as they had settled down, having found their berth and stowed any luggage the first task was to strip off the outdoor clothes.

I learnt on this journey that the majority of men in the DPRK seem to wear one-piece thermal underwear (that used to be called ‘long-johns’ but as they have come into fashion again in the west recently – for all, men, women and children – they are now known as ‘onesies’) and many of them would spend the journey dressed like that, even when it came to getting off the train at some of the longer stops. Others, perhaps with a different attitude to modesty, would take off their street wear and spend the journey in a track suit. Many of the men were dressed in suits and this was to keep these in a good condition but as well it was just mirroring what they would do at home. It might be moving across country but these compartments were effectively our home for the duration of the journey. Street shoes were replaced by some sort of slipper or flip-flops – again just as they would at home. This reluctance on behalf of many in Britain to leave the dirt of the streets on the margins of their homes is one of the reasons the British are considered ‘dirty’ in some countries of Europe, especially the further east you go.

Although they didn’t have a lot of luggage but what they did have was a medium-sized, cardboard box which was placed underneath the table by the window. I was to find out what was in that in a matter of a couple of hours.

How to cater for a long journey

When it comes to food planning it is a necessity on this route from Pyongyang to Moscow, especially if you are going straight through and not planning to stop off en route. I could have done better in my planning but was saved by serendipity. If I were to make the journey again I would plan for the worst case scenario as the greatest disaster in such a situation is that you arrive in Moscow with a lot of food which you didn’t need.

One stand-by (although far from providing a memorable gastronomic experience) are dried noodles, these are especially popular for long distance travellers on Chinese trains. It was for this reason that I had initial concerns about the samovar taking a long time to heat up after departing from Pyongyang. Really the only thing that can be said for instant noodles is that they are light in weight and will keep you alive – and at the end of your journey will swear never to touch them again for the rest of your life.

Due to DPRK restrictions on tourist, as it stands at the moment you won’t be able to make this trip unless it’s tagged on to the end of another pre-booked, organised trip. This means your official tour guides will be able to get you to a supermarket to stock up before you get on the train. I had to shop taking into account the longer stretch on to Moscow but I ended up hitting it lucky on that stretch as well (more in a later post) – so my errors were covered over. Obviously, if you make this trip with a group of people you can turn it into a gastronomic extravaganza if you so wish. Travelling alone means that the responsibility falls on yourself but at the same time opportunities open up to a lone traveller that will denied a group.

The more I think about it the more I don’t understand why the food trolley didn’t come to the last carriage. As far as I could tell the door was locked between the sleeper carriage and the rest of the train – but I might have got things wrong there. Before boarding I thought this trolley would have been a useful fall back option. On the other hand there might have been the problem with currency. Chinese Yuan might have been accepted as on the train from Dandong (on entering the country) but I don’t if that would have been the same with Euros. Presenting US Dollars might well, rightfully, have resulted in you being thrown off the train – before it stopped at a station.

Shopping in the DPRK

It seems appropriate here to make a bit of an aside and talk about shopping in the DPRK. Shopping is something I do only when I have to so won’t be talking about what might or might not be good value in the DPRK. Here I want to concentrate on some of the practicalities that any foreign tourist might find useful on a visit to the country. This is even more important as one of the few English language guide books about the DPRK (Bradt’s ‘North Korea’, 3rd edition, published 2016) is so out of touch with present day reality it is even more than useless. The author is more intent on making negative comments (as he does throughout) that he forgets that a guide book is useful only if it provides a visitor with up to date and accurate information. Virtually all his references to shopping are inaccurate. In fact, if he took out his childish ‘political analysis’ the whole book would be half as long and twice as useful.

What is true, which I’ve stated a number of times in previous posts and which many people are aware, is that you don’t have the same freedom to walk into any shop that is the case in most countries. That aside for shopaholics or just the curious it is possible to get an idea of how this works in the country as well as an indication of what ‘s available to buyers. Whether or not every citizen of the DPRK can actually purchase these items or not is totally irrelevant. Shops are full to bursting with all kinds of items many places throughout the world but that doesn’t mean that all citizens of those countries can take advantage of what’s on sale. I don’t know how much a Rolls Royce car might cost but as the saying goes ‘if you need to ask the price you can’t afford it’.

I suppose for a foreign visitor the number of places where they might be able to shop are limited to a small number of categories.

Those places which are a common part of the itinerary and where there will always be a slot in the timetable. One of these is the Stamp Shop – which is just to the left of the main entrance to the Hotel Koryo on Changgwang Street (not far from the main railway station). As the name implies there are a lot of collectors postage stamps here. These are interesting for people other than stamp collectors as since the very beginning postage stamps have told the story of the political situation internationally, commemorating events that might be taking place nationally or internationally (where there’s a DPRK presence) or celebrating an idea, an achievement or individuals within North Korean culture. (Even, bizarrely, a series of commemorative stamps in 1982 for the birth of William Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.) For those interested in DPRK Socialist Realism some of these are miniature art works of the genre.

Also on sale in the Stamp Shop are small, poster reproductions of some of the stamps. My group was told that the ones that depict the US being destroyed by soldiers of the DPRK are especially popular. A paper version of these would cost about the equivalent of £3.00 and one printed on cloth about £10.00. Here both Yuan and Euros are happily accepted.

The other place that is on the itinerary of virtually all tours is a visit to the Foreign Languages Bookshop on Sungri Street, just a block away north from Kim Il Sung Square. This is only a small, one room bookshop but it has a reasonable selection of books that cover the spectrum from the political to the cultural. The most common languages will be Russian, English, French and German, many books (especially picture books and albums) being in two or three languages in the same edition. These will be of various prices and probably more expensive than was normally the case in such bookshops in Socialist countries in the past. Here, again, Yuan and Euros are accepted without any problem.

Sanctions mean that it’s not easy for the country to export its publications and it’s even difficult for foreigners to subscribe to magazines from the DPRK. This probably has had an impact on the prices requested. However, technology has become a sanctions buster here with much historical and contemporary political material (including the monthly magazines ‘Korea Today’ and ‘DPRK Pictorial’ – in various languages) available as a download – in pdf – from Korean Books.

Visitors might want to buy drinks in their hotels at the end of the (what is normally a very long) day. I have no interest in other country’s beers when I’m travelling and stick to whatever is the local brew. In the Koryo Hotel a local made beer, 660ml, cost the equivalent of about £1.20. Stay local with the spirits and the prices are still very low (taking into account these are hotel prices and much more expensive than they would be in a local supermarket). Go pretentious and international and the prices will probably start to get to what you’d pay in any international hotel. Why anyone would do that is beyond me but there’s no accounting for taste.

All the international tourist hotels will also have a small supermarket somewhere in the building. These are rarely very busy and have a selection of both local produce as well as international products – almost certainly from China. Here it is the case that you have to pay via the system of getting a chit of you purchases, paying for them and then returning to the first counter. This, for people who are used to going to a supermarket and then paying for their goods via the self check-out, does seem (and in fact it is) somewhat archaic. But why do people who go to other countries demand that everything is the same there as in their home country? It’s different but once you know the system it’s no more complicated than queuing in any major department store in Europe. Even there things have changed – remember when cash tills were everywhere but now there’s a common queue? Anyhow, my limited experience at the hotel shop was easy enough the staff, knowing that their system might be strange for foreigners, making the process as easy as possible. Why this constant search for tiny inconveniences to make a negative point about a society?

The other shopping opportunity – that might only be normally available to those tourists on some of the longer tours – is a visit to a ‘normal’ department store in the centre of Pyongyang where foreign currency could be exchanged for DPRK won and used to buy whatever was available to the local population. This was a three storey store along one of the main streets of the capital – unfortunately I didn’t get the name or the address, but I’m sure it would be the same one used for tourists each time.

The idea here is that the visitor is allowed to wander around and see what is there and after a pre-arranged time meet up with the guides and then the process of currency exchange and purchase would go from there.

This store was similar to many in any other reasonably well-developed city. On the ground floor food and household goods. The range of food was extensive and prices by European standards were cheap – but then the cost of living in general is much less than in Europe. Most of the goods on sale in this store appeared to be local, DPRK produce. The food hall took up most of the ground floor and the household goods section was relatively small – specialised stores for such goods holding a bigger selection.

The first floor was mainly clothing and other items of personal use. Here there was a requirement to deposit any bags at a counter before going through a turn-stile to enter the sales area at the top of the stairs. I would have no idea of the incidence of shop lifting in the DPRK but I suppose there will always be someone who wants something for nothing. I’m the worst one to ask about what might be on sale but all the (very few) items I inspected looked of reasonable quality. There was nothing I needed but I’m sure that many tourists taken to this shop would buy a small something just to say they handled DPRK currency and that they had something authentically North Korean.

The top floor was dominated by a huge canteen. I was there at lunch time and the place was full and very busy. There seemed to be a wide selection of dishes, some similar to what we had been served in various restaurants at previous meal times and other more esoteric dishes which would be the norm for Koreans but which I really only came across when I was on the train journey from Pyongyang to Rajin – on my way to Moscow. This included a wide selection of sweets and desserts, that section full with children. I would have preferred to have eaten here rather than the fancy restaurant somewhere in the depths of the same building but that was not possible.

I suppose I should have decided to buy something, just to experience the actual process of currency exchange, but there’s nothing to be gained by knowing the process as it would only take place with the involvement of the official guides so the role of the visitor would be to merely pull out the foreign notes. When I met with my two female guides and I said there was nothing I wanted they neither expressed surprise nor suggested that surely there must be something I would want – i.e., there was no pressure to spend foreign currency. This was the case in all the places that we did any shopping, you could spend as much or as little as you wanted and all the guides would do would be to make the transaction as trouble-free and quick as possible – there nearly always being time constraints.

A whistle salute as the train departed

There was an interesting ritual when the train left one of the stations after about 3 hours into the journey (possibly Sudok or Sinsongchon) which didn’t occur anywhere else. As the train started to move out of the station a number of female station staff, all immaculately dressed in dark blue uniforms, blew their whistles as the train moved away. There were quite a few of them as if they were at each of the carriages along the whole length of the train. As my carriage was the last the whistling stopped after we passed and can only surmise it was to make people aware that a train was moving away from the station. I can’t recall this happening anywhere else which makes it all the stranger as I would have thought these procedures would have been standardised throughout the network.

My concerns about food came to nothing and Korean hospitality

Before getting on the train in Pyongyang I had been given a take-away, packed Korean lunch as the meal was considered to be part of my tour package. This sort of multi compartment, plastic container is common in many countries of South-east Asia. They have a time scale of a couple of days outside of refrigeration, there are and six or seven sections in the base with a number of local dishes, a mixture of meat/fish and vegetables, as well as the ubiquitous rice. When I had been handed this I decided that if other food options didn’t present themselves I could have survived on this for the length of the journey, it being easy for me (a relatively small eater) to spread the contents over a couple of meals. However, that didn’t become necessary.

From my experience North Koreans (reinforced by the almost 12 days I spent on trains with citizens of the DPRK) tend to have quite regular habits when it comes to eating, when they have the opportunity to choose when to eat. That’s basically 06.00 for breakfast, 12.00 for lunch and then 18.00 for the evening meal. Obviously it could, and did, slip from time to time but unless something major interfered (such as a longer stop at a station occurring at one of these times if travelling) it would rarely slip more than 30 minutes or so.

Around about 12.30 the question I had asked myself about what was in the cardboard box that my two compartment companions had brought with them was answered. It was their picnic for the duration of the journey. This was not home-made food but different dishes that had been prepared on a commercial basis and which local people would have bought in the stalls, stores or supermarkets before getting on the train.

Obviously there are no take-away places that have become like a virus in most countries, culturally homogenised but dominated by the fast-food that has spawned around the world from the United States. One of the great joys of being in the DPRK was that it was a Coca Cola/McDonalds/KFC/etc., free zone. Not only was the country not poisoned by the food itself, neither was the eye continually assaulted by their garish advertising and promotion. Also the country was free from the pollution of the streets which always comes with these businesses and the attitude of those who eat there of the throw away nature of what they had paid for.

Back to the compartment at lunch time. Slowly, out of the cardboard box came a number of these small, clear, plastic containers. They were talking amongst themselves about what to bring out, deciding how to spread the different dishes over the meals when they were on the train. The small semi-circular table that was fitted beneath the window was soon full of different containers. Also making an appearance was a bottle of a reddish coloured liquid in a bottle that was first used to store iced tea. The bottle was followed by a small stack of shot sized, clear, plastic cups.

Next to appear was a plastic bag which held a number of packs of use once and throw away chopsticks. These are, again, common throughout this part of the world. The chopsticks are made from flimsy wood and are shaped to about a centimetre or two from the end you hold in your hands. When released from their plastic wrapping (plastic is dominating so many aspects of life in the DPRK as well as other parts of the world) you just pull them apart and after the meal throw them away. (For anyone making a long journey by rail it would be useful to have some of these little packs as washing facilities are basic and the disposable sticks are a better option – although that might horrify many environmentalists.)

There had been little communication between us since they had joined the train apart from the nod of the head and a smile at the beginning and I just sat and watched this all play out. I was thinking that I, too, would start on my lunch – such an early start had meant I hadn’t had any breakfast.

The next thing to happen was that one of them handed me a pair of the chopsticks and indicated with his hand that I should help myself to what was on the table. Thinking that I should at least attempt to bring something to the feast I brought out and opened my commercially prepared lunch pack and found space for it on the edge of the table, indicating that – if they wished – that was available for the table.

Food for foreign tourists

This food was unlike any that had been presented at the something like 20 meals in the different restaurants during the first ten days or so of my visit. This was ‘Korean’ food but very different from the ‘Korean’ food that’s presented in the places where tourists go to eat. These restaurants are a mix of KITC (the official Korean Tourist company) owned restaurants or those attached to hotels. In many respects these are the up-market type of restaurants that aren’t in normal use. Those attached to hotels are the sort of places that would be used for large, family celebrations, such as weddings, so are close to a normal restaurant as they would be in any country.

I also feel that, although there’s no total pandering to foreign tastes, many of these places have a ‘westernised’ menu. It takes the fundamental of local cuisine but then twists it slightly to take in influences from the capitalist west. This is yet another impact, which affects virtually all countries – a sign of ‘wealth and prosperity’ is defined by the consumption habits of those in the richer countries of the world. A consequence of this is that meat, of all varieties, appears in quantities that aren’t the norm in the local cuisine. This is done not taking into consideration the negative effects that this change in diet might have on both the economy, ecology and health of a country.

On the other hand to have provided typical North Korean cuisine to foreign visitors on all occasions would have caused riots. I have been in circumstances (especially in Spain) where tourist hotels, catering for those from northern Europe, have tried to introduce local dishes in all meals but have soon changed back to a more homogenised menu (perhaps having a ‘local’ menu on one night of the week) as what people say and how they react when presented with a different menu is very often not the same – especially if this goes on for a number of consecutive days.

At the same time reject all the rubbish you’ll read on other sites where people claim that eating in these restaurants is all to do with a separation of foreigners from the rest of the population. If these people had travelled anywhere in any other part of the world they would have experienced a situation where the places to eat are not chosen for the benefit of the tourist themselves but of another self-interest – whether that be of a guide (who will get some commission) or a place that has an agreed relationship with a tour company. So on virtually all organised tours, in all countries of the world, the choice is no choice whatsoever. The only way you could do that is when you travel independently – but those who the most vocal in their criticism of the DPRK are the very ones who would be like fish out of water if they had to depend upon their own wits.

I agree it’s unfortunate that independent travel is not possible in the DPRK but that has historic reasons – which anyone with a modicum of political analytical ability will understand. The biased and prejudiced attitude of some travellers being a prime example of what this has produced. If you want to find fault when visiting another country then no country would be omitted – including the country from where these complainers come. It’s a case of people in glass houses. But hypocrisy is not confined to political so-called ‘leaders’.

It’s also not true that no Korean can enter the restaurants where groups of foreign tourists are eating. It would be difficult to place a percentage upon it (I wasn’t thinking in that strangely constrained manner when I was eating) but I would say that about a third of the places I ate in during the 11 days I was in the country there were a few local people also having a meal. This was especially so in the restaurants attached to any of the hotels in the centre of Pyongyang. If there was a limiting factor it was probably down to cost, making the realistic assumption that the hotel restaurants would have been more expensive than those regular eating places along all the streets.

I personally would have preferred to have eaten on those more ‘local’ sorts of places as well as at some of the street stalls that existed on occasions. There seemed to be some semi-permanent places in the centre of Pyongyang that only seemed to be open at weekends – which seemed to be attracting a regular stream of customers whenever I passed them.

But back to what the locals had for their lunch – which I was now sharing.

There must have been a half a dozen different dishes, with a mixture of meat, fish and vegetables. The fish, in such circumstances, is almost invariably the small, dried fish (which I learnt more about when on the next stage of my journey from Tumangang to Moscow). The meat was pork and this was in a spicy thick sauce. (Knowing that many foreigners are used to bland and flavourless food probably the most frequent questions about food preferences was whether you liked spicy food or not.) And, of course, there was always plenty of rice together with a container of kimchi. (There seems to be as many recipes for kimchi as the number of people who make it and I probably never ate the same version twice.) The fresh veg was provided by a small cucumber that was handed to me and which was eaten by biting off a chunk – having the effect of refreshing the mouth from the spicy cooked vegetable and meat dishes.

Soon after we had started eating the little plastic cups began to be passed around. This was their version of the local, home-made alcohol, possibly soju (rice wine) but this version had a slight reddish tint so was almost certainly flavoured by some fruit – perhaps to soften the impact (although I didn’t think it too harsh). Again the awful Bradt guidebook ‘warns’ visitors off this tasting these home-made versions for some reason.

As I was eating I was aware that the train staff were passing past the door taking food they had prepared and cooked to other passengers who weren’t as organised as my companions. This is useful to know for anyone who might like to try what could be produced on a tiny stove in an equally tiny kitchen. I stored this idea away for possible back-up when I was on the Tumangang-Moscow train – but that was before I knew the actual logistics of that part of the journey. There would still be the problem of communication but I’m sure that, if necessary, the problem could have been overcome with body language and a few selected words of Korean. As always, if I had known then what I know now.

After the meal the unfinished dishes were put away in their cardboard box and any debris from the meal thrown into the rubbish. Then my two companions went to sleep. In fact, virtually everyone in the carriage, passengers and staff, disappeared for at least an hour or so for the afternoon siesta.

Apart from me. The corridor was quiet as I watched the world go by.

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Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum – Pyongyang, DPRK

Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum - Panorama

Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum – Panorama

The complex that is the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum contains one of the largest collections of Socialist Realist art in Pyongyang, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Comprising of ten slightly more than life-size tableau, stand alone statues, bas reliefs and mosaics these amazing works of art tell the story of how the people in the north of Korean peninsula stood up against the invading forces of the United Nations – puppets of United States imperialism – during the just over three years (25th June, 1950 – 27th July, 1953) of what the west calls ‘The Korean War’ but which the people of the north call the ‘Victorious Fatherland Liberation War’.

(The other large concentration of Socialist Realist Sculptures are at the Mansudae Grand Monument where the two huge statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are flanked by two tableau, comprising 228 bronze figures which depict, on the left, the War of Liberation and, on the right, the Construction of Socialism. This is considered the most sacred site in the DPRK and photographing, in detail, the tableau is not really possible.)

From the introduction to the book ‘Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum’ (Foreign Languages Publishing House, DPRK, 2014):

The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum is located on the bank of the picturesque Pothong River in Pyongyang, the capital of the DPRK.

Under the auspices and energetic guidance of Marshal Kim Jong Un, the museum was renovated in July Juche 102 (2013) on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the victory in the war in order to hand down to posterity the brilliant tradition of invincibility and immortal patriotic exploits performed by Generalissimos Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and the indomitable fighting spirit and heroic feats displayed by the DPRK service personnel and people in the struggle for national defence.

Covering an area of 93,000 m², it comprehends the protracted history of the Korean people’s struggle, ranging from the periods of the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle and the Fatherland Liberation War to the anti-imperialist, anti-US showdown in postwar years. On display there are over 300 revolutionary relics, 120,000 war relics, materials and data in their original state.

With a total floor space of 51,000 m² its main building consists of three storeys above and one storey under the ground.

In the central hall stands the colour statue of Generalissimo on Kim 11 Sung who is acknowledging enthusiastic cheers of the Korean service personnel and people in the plaza of war victory in July 1953.

On the first floor are a hall displaying the materials relating to the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle which was organized and led by Kim Il Sung, especially those relating to main operations and battles fought in those days, a hall displaying the materials about the building of regular armed forces for the first time in Korea after its liberation, and a hall displaying material evidence that the US imperialists who had occupied southern half of Korea committed, in collusion with the south Korean puppet army, armed provocations against the north and at last unleashed the Korean war.

On show on the second floor are the materials relating with the strategic policies for every period and stage of the Fatherland Liberation War advanced by Supreme Commander Kim Il Sung, brilliant military strategist and iron-willed commander, main battles and heroic struggle of soldiers and civilians who defended every inch of their country at the cost of their lives to carry out the orders of the Supreme Commander and other relics.

On the same floor are also halls dedicated to the Chinese People’s Volunteers who participated in the war upholding the slogan “Resist America, aid Korea, safeguard the home and defend the motherland,” to the peoples over the world who rendered selfless material aid and moral support to the Korean people, to the materials about brutal atrocities committed by the US forces during the war and their bitter defeat, and to the brilliant victory won by the soldiers and people in the hard-fought war for national defence. On this floor are the halls of peculiar style dedicated to the anti-Japanese revolutionary fighters, leading commanding officers of the Korean People’s Army during the Fatherland Liberation War and internationalist fighters.

On the corridor linking the main building with the hall dedicated to the battle for liberating Taejon are exhibited the photos showing war heroes’ feats that would go down in national history and their relics.

On the third floor are the halls displaying the materials relating with Party political work Kim Il Sung conducted energetically to enlist all the soldiers and people in the effort to achieve victory in the war and those showing the struggle of the officers and men of services, arms and corps and the brave activities of the people in the rear.

In the hall dedicated to the Liberation of Taejon there is a large-scale panorama showing the victorious battle, which was recorded as a “living example of modern encirclement battle,” fought in line with the original tactics and under the adroit command of Supreme Commander Kim Il Sung.

The museum has also a hall that comprehensively shows the immortal exploits of Generalissimo Kim Jong Il who adorned the history of anti-imperialist, anti-US showdown with victory on the strength of Songun-based revolutionary leadership.

On show outside the museum are the merited weapons in the war, enemy military hardware captured during and after the war, and the Pueblo, a US armed spy ship which was captured in 1968 while committing espionage acts in the territorial waters of the DPRK.

The museum, built in a characteristic way in conformity with the architectural and aesthetic demands of the new century, will remain a structure representing the unshakeable faith and will of the Korean service personnel and people who are determined to defend the exploits of victory performed by the Generalissimos and carry them forward through generations under the wise leadership of Marshal Kim Jong Un, and a symbol of eternal victory of Songun Korea with great traditions.

The uniqueness of Korean Socialist Realist sculptures

Those of you who have visited this site before will be aware of the respect I hold for the art that’s represented in the Albanian lapidars – and that respect remains undiminished. But (why is there always a but?) the examples you will see in the DPRK are different. They tell the same story – more or less – but the images (and this is in all the main sculptural fields – sculpture, bas reliefs and mosaics) seem, in a sense, to be more refined. There’s a, dare I say it, finesse to the images in Pyongyang and the rest of the country which is missing from those in Tirana and other parts of Albania.

I’ve discussed this difference between different Socialist countries and the ‘feel’ you get from observing those images which were produced during the period of the construction of Socialism. For example, although both fine sculptures in their own right there’s a marked difference in style between the two bronze statues of Comrade JV Stalin which now stand neglected behind the National Art Gallery in the centre of Tirana.

As I consider the matter more I believe it’s possibly a difference between European Socialist Realist Art and that produced in Asia. The art traditions of the far east were finer than those of the west even before the first Socialist Revolution in Russia in 1917. The fine prints that have been produced on all sorts of materials in Asia are reflected more in some of the examples of British realism of the early part of the 20th century rather than the work of the Soviet Union or the paintings inside the actual National Art Gallery in Tirana.

When it comes to sculptures I believe the Asian examples, of both the DPRK and Socialist China, have been able to capture emotions in a manner that was much more subtle than their European counter-parts. The finest example I know of in China is the series of clay statues which were produced in 1968 (during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution) depicting the suffering of pre-revolutionary peasants. This series of statues telling the story of how poor peasants had to make payments in kind to oppressive and exploitative landlords is called ‘Rent Collection Courtyard’ (with the interesting Introduction to photographic version) which were displayed in what used to be a landlord’s house in Szechuan Province.

(I don’t know the fate of this collection of 114 statues. They were reproduced and put on show in Beijing but the politics represented by this story of the peasantry doesn’t fit with the present capitalist regime in China. The post 1976 (the date from which all the revolutionary achievements of the People’s Republic of China began to be reversed) regime even has an impact upon the public art, witness the tableau outside of Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum in Beijing – impressive in many ways but lacks the passion of the likes of ‘Rent Collection Courtyard’. Their sense of aesthetics also doesn’t bode well – just have a look at what they used to celebrate the Anniversary of Chairman Mao‘s Declaration of the People’s Republic in October 2017.)

Tienanmen Square - October 2017

Tienanmen Square – October 2017

It’s revolutionary passion that determines the feeling and impression the viewer gets from the tableau at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. The artists believed in what they were creating. Believed in the story they wanted to tell. Believed that it had a purpose over and above their own personal vanity. Yes, they should be proud of what they had created but their names will not be found on the results. They subsume their personal ego to the common good – which should be the aim of artists, as with all other workers, in a Socialist society. Celebrity status is an anathema to Socialism. All of these artists work out of the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang.

This finesse means that you get a much better impression of the emotions that the artists have wanted to create in their characters – anger, jubilation, compassion, determination, struggle, happiness and joy, etc.

The sculptural aspects of the complex

To enter the museum grounds you go through a triumphal arch. On the left side is a statue of three males representing the three military services – army, navy and air force. Above them is the number 1950, the year the War of Liberation started. They are dressed and armed with the weapons of that time. On the opposite side are three other males, of the same military services, but now everything has moved on a few years and their weapons and clothing have been updated.

1950-1953 - How things had changed

1950-1953 – How things had changed

Above the vehicle entrance to the site, carved into the stone, are partially unfurled ceremonial banners, and in between the two sets of three banners is a campaign medal, the star in evidence.

Going higher there’s a long, rectangular metal plaque with gold lettering where it is written in Korean (obviously) the words ‘Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum’.

On the highest point of the arch, in the middle, is a large, metal rondel with a large star in the centre. Flanking the star on either side is an almost semi-circle of ripe ears of rice. This follows the format established by the Soviet Union where the rice would have been replaced with ears of grain but in both cases stresses both the idea of providing the staple food as well as a reference to the importance of agriculture. On either side of this rondel is a DPRK National Flag, also of metal. This flag in reality is a red star inside a white rondel which sits on a red background. A blue strip, about a fifth of the width of the flag, is above and below the red portion. This design was adopted in 1948.

Once through the arch you enter a large, open esplanade. This, I assume, is where formal events take place at the location, especially anniversaries of the Liberation War, as this is the start of what is officially designated as the ‘Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War 1950-1953’. This was created in 1993 in time for the celebrations of the 40th Anniversary of the end of the war and extends from this esplanade to the single statue of the ‘Victory’ just before the entrance to the Museum building itself. This monument is dedicated to the Korean People’s Army and Korean People who defeated the US imperialists and its allies in the Fatherland Liberation War.

(I can understand why nations celebrate the end of wars but haven’t been able to get my head around the obsession that has gripped officialdom (and some of the population) in Britain over the start of the 1914 World War – the war that was supposed to end all war – and at every possible opportunity in the subsequent (almost) four years. I can only assume it’s part of a propaganda battle to keep the population numb with the idea of war and allows the country to threaten, and often take action, against other perceived enemies. There is only one year (1968) since the end of the Second World War in 1945 where British armed forces have not been involved in killing people in other parts of the world. On the other hand the DPRK has not invaded any country and they are branded as the aggressors. But then, why should we take facts into account?)

There’s a large, metal schematic of the complex, at the edge of the grassed area.

Schematic of the Museum Complex

Schematic of the Museum Complex

On either side of this plaque there are two Korean Soldiers – effectively on sentry duty to the monument. Standing to attention, with a rifle hanging from a strap over their right shoulders, they stand in front of huge stylised red flags, constructed of marble. They are looking slightly to their left, therefore covering the space between them. The soldier on the left stands underneath the symbol of the Korean Workers’ Party – the hammer, sickle and ink brush – and the soldier on the right stands beneath the emblem of the DPRK. At the top is a large red star, radiating light to all below. Beneath that is the outline of Mount Paektu, the highest mountain in the country and one which has had symbolic importance for centuries. Next is a schematic representation of a hydro-electric dam with a pylon taking the power to other parts of the country. Supporting these images, on both sides, are ripe ears of rice. Finally, in gold lettering on a symbolic red scroll is written the words ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’.

From here on symmetry rules – as it does in many of the monuments in Pyongyang, both their construction and the relationship they might have with other structures in the city. One of the consequences of the blanket bombing of the North’s capital between 1950 and 1953 was that during reconstruction the architects were provided with a, more or less, blank canvas as there were virtually no buildings that survived intact in the city. That US bombing campaign saw more tons dropped on the north of Korea in those three years than were dropped by all combatant nations in the Second World War. That unenviable ‘record’ was broken when the US decided that it had the right to determine the future of yet another Asian people, when they interfered and invaded Vietnam in the 1960s.

Down the centre is an immaculately manicured lawn with seasonal flowers in the beds. There are also a couple of large and ornate fountains which are connected by a tunnel of water when operating. This whole area looks impressive at night (see the front of the booklet on the museum, link below) but, unfortunately a night time visit wasn’t on the cards when I was in the country.

However, for me, the main interest is the collection of ten, large tableau which seek to tell the story of the Liberation War. There are four of these on each side of the lawns, then there’s a smaller esplanade where two others flank the large statue of the male allegorical representation of ‘Victory’.

Some of those tableau represent specific battles or campaigns but in general they represent the whole nation’s struggle against the invading, imperialist forces. The three main strands of the armed forces, the army, navy and air force, are depicted as well as the ever important guerrilla forces and the role of the work carried out in the rear. Women are shown (although in a minority) both armed and taking part in battles as regular fighters or guerrillas, but also in supplying the front with necessary equipment and materials. As in the various battles and wars that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the People’s Republic of China, the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam had to fight to achieve and then construct Socialism women played a crucial role in the final victory.

The group statues also illustrate those values that a Socialist country wants to celebrate from those who have fought in the past as well as to instil such values in future generations.

The People's Liberation Navy

The People’s Liberation Navy

People's Liberation Army

People’s Liberation Army

Liberation Air Force

Liberation Air Force

Women in the Liberation War

Women in the Liberation War

Three Generations

Three Generations

Compassion

Compassion

Civilians are warriors too

Civilians are warriors too

Liberation

Liberation

Sweat of her labour

Sweat of her labour

Behind the group sculptures on the right (as you walk towards the museum building) is a mock-up of trench warfare that leads to open sheds where captured military hardware of the invaders is stored. On the left hand side, behind other plastic trenches, is a collection of the hardware used by the People’s Liberation Army, including the likes of Russian MIG jets and T34 tanks.

The capture of The Pueblo

January 1968 wasn’t a good month for the US President Johnson or the USA in general, when it came to their foreign ‘adventures’. On the 23rd their spy ship, The Pueblo, was boarded and captured by the forces of the DPRK whilst carrying out surveillance activities in the East Sea of Korea/Sea of Japan. A week later the Tet Offensive began in Vietnam – the one single event in that murderous war that showed the US imperialists that – however much they spent, however many Vietnamese they killed and however many of their own troops would return in body bags or scarred for life – they would be unable to win.

The Pueblo - US Spy Ship

The Pueblo – US Spy Ship

The DPRK, obviously pleased to have achieved such an important propaganda coup, didn’t flinch under pressure from the US to return the boat and its crew and it wasn’t until 11 months later, when the US admitted its espionage activities, that they got their crew back. The ship, no. It is moored on the banks of the River Potong and is now a permanent part of the exhibits of the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum and a visit is always on the itinerary of all visitors to the museum.

However, this episode didn’t deter the US from maintaining spying activities over the country and they faced another disaster on April 15th 1969 when one of their spy planes, EC-121 was shot down and all 31 Americans on board were killed. Now, I’m sure, a number of satellites regularly monitor what’s going on in the DPRK.

‘Victory’

'Victory'

‘Victory’

The statue of ‘Victory’ is posed in a manner which is common in Socialist Realist military monuments, a soldier going forward but looking behind and calling for others to join him/her in the advance. Here he holds a DPRK flag, his right hand high on the flag pole, with his left arm outstretched behind him, his hand adding urgency to his call for others to join the fight. Hanging from a strap around his neck is a Soviet Shpagin PPSh-41, sub-machine gun, millions of which had been produced in the Soviet Union for the defeat of the Hitlerites in the Great Patriotic War and which were now used in another war against an aggressive, invading force.

The Museum Entrance Façade

Entrance to the interior of the museum is by a door in the centre of the concave façade just behind the statue ‘Victory’. Before going inside have a look at the 17 large bas reliefs that take up the whole of the frontage. These tell the story of the Fatherland Liberation War, some images reflecting actual events whilst others episodes of warfare that would have taken place during the three years of the conflict. Only one of them has a date, (7 27) the 7th July, and that’s the one on the extreme right, which shows an image of the celebration of the end of the war in 1953. If you have had a look at the statues in the Memorial Park you will notice that certain images are repeated in a slightly different form, but as with the statues all the armed forces are represented and the role of the regular and guerrilla fighters, the old and the young, of men and women are all represented and their achievements and efforts commemorated and celebrated.

All the images in the centre of these bas reliefs are different but the surround are in common – apart from the slogan written at the top. A folded, ceremonial scroll creates the border at the top and to about half way down on both sides. Then, on the right hand side is a furled national flag which just shows the star. On the left hand side a similar banner is folded to reveal the symbol of the Korean Workers’ Party – the hammer, sickle and ink brush. (The Party Foundation Monument is a huge representation of this symbol.) Above and below these two banners ears of ripe rice poke their way into the light.

At the bottom there’s a busy scene. There are three, partially furled banners on each side which rise from the bottom centre to each side of the bas relief, forming a V for Victory. All these banners have a spear shaped finial at the top. At the point where these banners cross there’s a large red star surrounded by ears of rice – similar to the star over the main triumphal entry arch. On the banner closest to the viewer on the left hand side is a large star and on the right the emblem of the DPRK – as described above. Finally, at the very bottom are more ears of rice.

Female guerrilla activity and the Red Star

Female guerrilla activity and the Red Star

Mosaics

At the right hand edge of the concave facade the wall becomes convex and here there’s a mosaic depicting a victory of the People’s Liberation Army over the US imperialist forces. Flags of the DPRK flutter in the wind and the largest, which dominates the mosaic, is attached to the central figure’s rifle (again another trope that can be seen in Albanian lapidars, for example the statue at Fier Martyrs’ Cemetery). In celebration of their victory the men (strangely all men in this image), some of them wounded and bandaged, have their arms in the air, weapons in hands as they cheer themselves for their success. At the base of the image a tattered Stars and Stripes (the US flag) of the defeated aggressor lies in the dirt. To its left is a discarded helmet of an absent US soldier, the skull and crossbones image indicating that they have brought death to a country where they have no right to be.

US = Death

US = Death

There are many fine mosaics, some of them very large, in Pyongyang and other locations in the DPRK (some of which I will be posting at a later time) but this one at the museum is slightly different. Most of the mosaics use small pieces of coloured stone. Here, on the other hand, the image is almost monochrome as the image is created by a handful of colours (a couple of shades of brown, black, white and a slightly bluish off-white) on rectangular tiles. Some of these are broken but the majority of the image is constructed by a technique that is similar to brick laying, the tiles in a regular pattern. From afar it’s difficult to even realise that it is a mosaic but getting close you can appreciate the artistry of those workers from the Mansudae Art Studio who created these images.

On the left hand side of the bas reliefs there’s another large mosaic. This is, again, a victory scene but this time a group of combatants are on the rocky summit of a high hill. Tall pine trees set the scene but it’s uncertain exactly what has been achieved. Interestingly here the banner is not the national flag but the red flag of Communism. Although a scene of jubilation the feeling is different. Yes there are one or two weapons raised high in the air but the celebration is much more intimate. An older man, who could be the commander of the group, is hugging a young bugler and a couple of young women are also holding each other. You get the impression of what has been achieved is a victory over their own weaknesses rather than that of the enemy – as in the first mosaic.

Victorious Comrades

Victorious Comrades

Kneeling down at the bottom left of the image a male soldier has scooped up a couple of handfuls of soil which he holds in his hands as he looks, smiling, in the same direction as the others. Soil to a peasant is everything and here we are given the impression that these fighters are now the possessors of all they survey.

The rest of the outside

There were many parts of the building, from the outside, I wasn’t able to visit due to constraints of time but I was aware that there were many other bas reliefs on display, especially on the part of the museum extension that was completed in 2012.

The interior

It’s not permitted to take pictures inside the museum but you can get an idea of what is presented from book Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, published in 2014. Unfortunately, although an English version exists (the introduction at the beginning of the blog comes from that version) it’s not available for download. To get a copy which shows the same images but with captions in Korean go to Publications of the DPRK, click on the Korean page (the language link on the extreme left) and type 조국해방전쟁승리기념관 in the search box.

Who started the war?

No one ever starts wars – or, at least, it’s always the other side. That obviously is impossible. War is the extension of politics by other means and truth is always the first casualty of war. Whatever answer you give to this question in relation to the Fatherland Liberation War, as well as in what you might call that particular conflict, is equally a statement of political allegiance.

I don’t intend to go into any depth here about the conflict between 1950 and 1953 – which, in theory still exists. An armistice was signed, not a treaty. However, as this post is about the Museum in Pyongyang that celebrates the achievements of the workers and peasants of the north in that war I don’t think it can be completely ignored.

So a few points:

  • The idea of ‘drawing lines’ at the end of World War Two might have seemed like a good idea at the time but it’s long-term effects have been disastrous for many millions of people. I believe this was agreed by the Soviet union as an attempt to prevent war – the problem the agreement was made with imperialist powers who were not prepared to give up what they had or wouldn’t be prevented from acquiring more control in those parts of the world where the weakened European imperialist could no longer guarantee their control of the old colonies.
  • Although prepared to support the DPRK against imperialist aggression both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China were tired of war and it made no sense to instigate another confrontation with the capitalist states so soon after such destructive wars in their respective countries. The US had no qualms about this having benefited from the World War Two and feeling that it had the right to decide what peoples’ should do and what system they should live under.
  • It was under US instigation that aggressive border controls were set up along the 38th parallel in 1946, restricting movement and creating needless antagonism in the border region.
  • The US constantly went back on agreements when they could get a way with it. In Korea they supported the ultra-right, ultra-nationalist, neo-Fascist Syngman Rhee who would be a willing tool in the attempts by the US to destroy any attempts to construct Socialism in the Korean peninsula. (It should be remembered, when many people refer to ‘Democratic’ South Korea, that Rhee and his successors were virtual dictators of the country and it wasn’t until 1988 that any sense of a parliamentary system was instituted in the country. During all that time the country was supported militarily, politically and economically by the US – with no criticism of a dictatorship.)
  • Korea was seen by the US as a place where they had to stand against the spread of Communism, especially after the success of the Communist Party of China, led by Chairman Mao, and the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The failure of the US (and its UN puppet supporters, such as the UK) to defeat the DPRK in the 1950s was to lead, inevitably, to the US involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s.
  • Although tensions were high at the beginning of 1950 overtures from the DPRK for nationwide elections were summarily rejected by the puppet regime in the south. Only a spark was needed to ignite a full confrontation but the south (with American support) made no attempt to reduce the tense atmosphere.
  • The U.S. Diplomat John Foster Dulles visited Korea on 18 June 1950, seven days before hostilities broke out. Syngman Rhee would have done nothing without US approval and would also do whatever they required.
  • The US sought ‘legitimacy’ from the United nations, securing a resolution of the Security Council on 7th July 1950. The USSR at that time was boycotting the UN in support of the seat on the Council reserved for China was held by the Nationalist Government in Taiwan and denying hundreds of millions of Chinese representation in the international forum. The US doesn’t always need UN support (and had not called for it in the previous five years in their wars of intervention and didn’t call for it in Vietnam) but it helps in the propaganda war to have a piece of paper to justify the killing. When they failed to get such a resolution in 2003 they invaded Iraq nonetheless.

For more detailed ideas of how the war is seen by the DPRK have a look at The Korean War – An unanswered question. If you want the point of view of the ‘victim of aggression’ – the put upon United States – I’m sure you will find justification in spades.

Further information

The attempted isolation of the DPRK means that it’s not very easy to obtain information about the country from the country itself – most information in the west being filtered through antagonistic capitalist media outlets. For those interested in the opportunity to see the DPRK from another perspective go to Publications of the DPRK where there are a number of language options (although not all books and pamphlets are necessarily available in all those languages).

Pyongyang to Moscow by train – with comments and observations along the way – Part 2

Commemoration of the Supreme Leaders

Commemoration of the Supreme Leaders

What’s the train like?

To describe my ‘home’ (I thought) for all but one night of the next 10 days.

The ‘soft seat’ coach was the very last of about 18 carriages which comprised the Pyongyang –Rajin train. As I’ve written in the post on train travel in China the name ‘soft seat’ is a bit of misnomer. It might have had relevance when the ‘hard seat’ was actually a wooden board (and not a six-berth compartment as it is now) but I can assure anyone that after spending a considerable amount of time travelling on trains in China, the DPRK and Russia the last adjective to describe those seats is ‘soft’.

The carriage had 9 compartments (4 berths in each) with a corridor running down one side – the sort of carriages that were the norm on British railways until they were phased out from the 1970s. This one was Russian made – quite a long time ago – and all the original signage was in Cyrillic. Everything was clean and the berths in all the compartments were laid with sheets and blankets ready for the passengers most (if not all) of whom, in this coach, would be travelling well into the night. Unlike the Chinese trains there was no hot water flask in the compartment.

There was a toilet at either end, the WC kind – some of these carriages often have a squat toilet as one of the options but not this particular one. There was a smaller two berth compartment (which was for the staff) next to which was a small galley – not very well equipped but adequate for the task it was to perform. Next to the galley, accessible to the public, was a large hot water boiler – an indispensable piece of kit for any train operating in the east Asian and Russian area – instant, dried noodles being a staple for many travellers.

The carriage had seen better days but as I got to ‘know’ it over the next few hours I thought that I would be able to accept what it had to offer for the time of my journey. Until I arrived in Rason (and more particularly after I had arrived in Tumangang) I thought it would be this very carriage that would see me all the way through to Moscow – I was wrong (but, again, that will come later). It could have done with a bit of tender loving care and a small investment would make it as acceptable as anything new and more up to date. It didn’t have a power point in the compartment – which I would have liked for my computer – but there were a couple of points in the corridor and with a little bit of planning and forethought the power issue could be overcome.

I knew there were no catering facilities available but a short time after the train left Pyongyang, when I went exploring, I realised that the connection between this final carriage and the rest of the train was locked and that a trolley that would serve the rest of the train couldn’t come anywhere close to me. That was something I wasn’t expecting, having thought that the trolley would be able to supplement whatever I had brought with me. Here was another of those ‘unknowns’ that didn’t work out as I had hoped. This had not been the case on the Dandong-Pyongyang train as the two young women who operated the trolley on that journey seemed quite fascinated that two Caucasians were on board – and who were wound up by some of the men in the carriage about our reasons for travelling.

Another point worthwhile making here, before going any further, is that even though the people in the north of the Korean peninsula are demonised by so many of the governments (and its sycophantic media) in the capitalist world (including the erstwhile Socialist countries of China and Russia) I never encountered any animosity in the limited amount of contact I had with the people during my time in the DPRK. In fact, it was quite the opposite when they realised that I was there to try to learn and understand a bit more about their country and not to continually find fault with all that I saw. I’m not saying that the country doesn’t have its issues but critics would do well to look at the problems in their own countries before loading their opprobrium on to the DPRK.

When I had arrived at the station there was a lot of activity in and around the carriage as those travelling stowed their luggage (many people who travel on these long train journeys often travel with huge amounts of luggage and there’s a rush to find space before others get there first) but once we moved away from the station the whole carriage got very quiet, everyone, including the staff but apart from me, retreating to their compartments, doors closed, probably resting after an early start. Even the samovar took some time to warm up and it was three hours or so before hot water was available.

It’s always possible to see much more from a train than in a mini-bus so it was useful to get my bearings as we passed through the outskirts of Pyongyang, picking out the landmarks helped as there are some very tall and distinctive buildings in the city, and was able to put together a mental image of the locations I had been to, and had passed, in the previous days. Pyongyang main railway station is in the west of the city (the newer part expanding towards the east and the south) so the route out is initially to the north-west and then curving around to the north and the city is left behind after less than 10 kilometres into the just a smidgen under 800 kilometre journey.

The importance of rice

Being predominantly an agricultural society it wasn’t long after leaving the capital behind that the route took us between rice paddies, as far as the eye could see. This had been the same on the journey from Dandong, all the fields on both sides of the train filled with the golden colour of just about to be harvested rice. And this went on for miles, only being broken up by occasional orchards, fields growing cabbage (for the ubiquitous kimchi) and other smaller concentrations of other vegetables.

Not being an expert on rice everything looked well to me. The crop looked ripe, it wasn’t blown down or damaged (except in a very small number of paddies – indicating that the weather hadn’t been unfavourable at the wrong time) and some of the early rice was already being harvested – an increasing number of paddies had cut sheaves of rice standing on end in order to dry out before being taken away for threshing. Although the area covered by rice was huge the paddies were of varying sizes, as is the case with paddies in order to make the flooding manageable, but there was no indication of any individual ownership. When people were working in the fields they were almost always in groups much larger than you would get with private ownership so these must have been collective or State farms.

This should mean that the autumn 2017 rice crop was a good one for the DPRK. There have been a few bad years in the recent past, an issue which is affecting many countries due to the consequences of climate change, so a good year offers the country the opportunity to fill up grain stores for possible collapses in the crop in the future.

The country’s dependence upon one crop is something I would have thought should have been studied. If so much importance is placed on one crop then there are any number of possible problems that could arise from climate being wrong at the wrong time to the threat to a whole crop that could arise from pests and disease. Although I was only travelling along a very narrow corridor rice dominated the horizon and the only change in the dominant crop occurred when passing through areas where rice was impossible to grow – where maize became ubiquitous.

One thing that was very obvious, from both the train journeys and passing so many rice paddies, was the lack of any significant mechanisation in the process, of either the harvesting or the transporting of the rice crop. Although land ownership looked collective I only saw one small tractor being used during all the time I was looking out the window. There are economic reasons why mechanisation is not appropriate for farmers with small areas of cultivation but when it comes to a whole village working the land surrounding it there should be more than an economic reason to employ machinery. Rice planting and cutting is a particularly back-breaking form of agricultural labour – constant bending being necessary – so anything that can reduce that will have an immediate benefit to the workers in the countryside.

The collectivisation of agriculture in the Soviet Union in the 1930s – and 20 years later in China – was only possible with the revolutionary transformation of industry in the cities and the bringing of the industrial revolution to the countryside. Tractor stations which provided, and maintained, all the machinery needed for an efficient and productive countryside were an integral part of collectivisation. Without one you wouldn’t have had the other. Not only is it economically more efficient it also transforms the peasant in the countryside into a worker in the countryside, raising him/her to the same status as the worker in the city. Breaking down the divide between the town and country being an important aim of the revolution in what were predominantly peasant countries.

Reducing the time spent in the fields doing hard manual work allows the agricultural workers to diversify and also to improve their skills through education for themselves and their children. There’s nothing wrong with children working, at times, in the countryside, especially at times of harvest, as it educates them into the world of labour. But to depend upon that labour has the potential of keeping the countryside in the past and prevents developments for the future.

Economic sanctions under which the DPRK has had to live for a number of years now (assisted by the pusillanimous and sycophantic attitude of both Russia and China – whose own self-interests are more with the DPRK than the US imperialists and their hangers-on) don’t help. Fuel oils being in short supply mean that priorities have to be decided and perhaps fuel for farm machinery is one area that suffers. However, after so many years after Liberation I would have liked to have seen more evidence of machinery in the countryside.

I don’t think that people who haven’t spent a significant amount of time living in an Asian country can quite understand the importance of the rice crop and how much of a staple it is. Rice is served at EVERY meal and people eat rice in quantities which have never ceased to amaze me. Rice has an importance in Asia which is not reflected in the same way with the staples in the west, which is spread across a number of crops. Maize does play a small role in diversification – and in those areas of the country where rice growing is impossible maize is much more in evidence – but it can only be a small percentage of the whole. I don’t know how much effort is being made to wean the population off such total dependence on one crop but with the uncertainties with which agriculture is having to deal with the man-made effects on the climate it would seem to be a priority.

I also don’t know how productive these paddies might be. It’s quite possible to fill the land with low yield strains that look good but have low productivity. I would like to think that this issue has been addressed in the DPRK as they have had many years where they have been developing their own science institutes. As an example of this I was shown a small area in Pyongyang where experiments are being carried out to grow rice directly on slow flowing rivers. In a country where levels of pollution of the rivers is low this makes more use of valuable resources, both of water and land.

Obviously, a good crop in itself doesn’t mean that the food gets to all who need it. This is an issue everywhere and is evident in all capitalist countries. The supermarkets in Europe and America are bulging with all kinds of foodstuffs but the same countries have an increasing rate of poverty and food shortages are a serious problem for many. If that’s wasn’t the case why is there the abomination of the proliferation of food banks in some of the richest countries in the world. Yes, many people depend upon them, but what does that say about these societies? It’s not what you produce, or how much, it’s all a matter of distribution and control of the means of production. As long as profit dominates people will go hungry.

In my limited time in the DPRK I wasn’t aware of these problems. People in all the places I visited seemed healthy enough, the people on the streets of Pyongyang, the people in the two trains I travelled on, the cultural places I visited as well as the people in the countryside. Those in the cities were well dressed and seemed, more or less, content with their lot. If you are up to your shins in mud cutting rice stalks all day you are unlikely to be wearing your best party frock so judging people in the countryside by what they are wearing is fraught with danger. But the bicycles and motorbikes that were standing close to the railway, whilst their owners worked in the fields, looked quite modern and functioning well.

Yes, often there were children working in the fields. That’s not unusual in agricultural communities, especially at harvest time, throughout the world. However, I would suggest that children in the fields in the DPRK is a long way from the children who are forced to work in sweatshops in the likes of the so-called ‘world’s biggest democracy’ of India, so a little bit of perspective might well be useful here. As children do in all parts of the world they would look up from their work, or from playing at the sides of the fields as their parents worked, and wave at the passengers going by. (Perhaps not in all countries. In Albania and Vietnam – for reasons I just don’t understand – they throw rocks.)

A short anecdote about child poverty

When I went around the National Art Gallery in Pyongyang I was asked how I read a painting of a poor, young, peasant boy ignoring a large dragonfly which was hovering around his head. This introduced one of the many cultural differences between Britain and Korea. For Koreans this had an immediate significance as it seems that all young Koreans (and here I assume both north and south of the false border at the 38th parallel) love to chase the big dragon flies that can be found throughout the countryside. The fact that he was ignoring the insect was proof that he was too tired or concerned with more important things, i.e., his empty stomach, than the almost innate wish of Korean children to chase these large insects.

As well as the people the buildings in the countless small villages the train passed through looked in a good condition and gave the impression of a thriving community. Yes, many of the roads weren’t paved but when you have an embargo on the import of petroleum products that doesn’t leave a lot of slack for the ‘luxury’ of a paved road.

Iconography

Over the entrance into the railway station buildings there was always the dual portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. In many of the villages you can also see columns commemorating these two previous leaders of the country. Also large mosaics would be erected in the main squares, sometimes with images from the revolutionary past, a visit from one of the Kim’s to the area or depicting life in the countryside – I saw one on the way from Dandong to Pyongyang of a couple of white cranes flying over the ripe rice paddies.

Village showing revolutionary mosaic

Village showing revolutionary mosaic

Restrictions on foreigners?

Although, in the main, I understand the restrictions that foreign travellers have whilst travelling in the DPRK, they can, at times, be frustrating. After a little over an hour into the journey the train stopped at the town of Pyongsong. Here there were quite a few stalls selling whatever. Other passengers from the carriage had got off so I knew we would be there for at least a few minutes but when I tried to get off – just to see what was going on, after all I didn’t have any local currency even if I did want to buy something (although Chinese Yuan might have been accepted if you got that far) – it was politely indicated to me that it was not permitted.

Now it’s possible that the train staff knew that the stop was only for a matter of a few minutes and they didn’t want me to get myself stranded. This is not as far-fetched as it might sound, as in many Asian countries foreigners are not considered to be really adults and are treated like children – probably based on the inability of generations of Europeans being able to understand the people and the customs in the countries they have invaded, normally due to their lack of desire to do so. In all these situations I encountered until I got into Moscow ten days later I could only use supposition to try to understand what was happening as the lack of any meaningful, verbal interaction was virtually nil – there’s only so much that can be conveyed by body language.

This restriction was not repeated at any of the other stops where the ongoing passengers got off to buy something or to just smoke or stretch their legs so I’ll have to remain mystified why it occurred at the first station stop which was longer than just one allowing passengers to alight or jump on board. Needless to say that when I did go on to the platform, or beside the track when in the middle of nowhere, I never strayed too far and always kept a watch on what everyone else was doing, which was to include a few false alarms for all us.

I think it was when we had just left Pyongsong that I received a salute from a young soldier who was manning one of the rail/road crossings. The train was still moving very slowly and I was just looking out of the window and he saluted as soon as he saw me. I smiled and nodded in return. I think that was the first time I’ve had such a response in my travels – often authority figures, whilst not necessarily being hostile (although I’ve met enough of them) are certainly more distant to foreign visitors.

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