North Korea trip (part 3): goose stepping and card playing

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Part 3 of my May 2010 North Korea trip (see parts 1, 2, and the conclusion, part 4).

The next morning, what figured to be a grinding day of monumental sightseeing did indeed start that way, but plenty of surprises made it more memorable than the day at Kaesong.  In steady drizzle we went to a cluster of monuments near the rubber stamp assembly, first Mansudae Fountain Park, lots of gray stone as usual.  Interesting murals on the building behind attracted my attention for a closer look, though the appearance of a plainclothes security officer out of the bushes prompted me to take better note in the future of when my shadow (Miss Kim) would pull back.  Though I saw plenty of soldiers going about daily business, this was a rare overt glimpse of the security state, which is either incredibly well concealed or perhaps at a point where is it not necessary to make public displays.  The square had Tiananmen Square-style poles bristling with lights, speakers and cameras, though.

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Pyongyang's traffic ladies put on quite the show

We headed up past the assembly to the hilltop Mansudae Grand Monument, a huge Kim Il Sung statue unveiled in 1972 and the main shrine to Kim.  Reportedly originally covered in gold, the ostentatious display angered their Chinese patrons so much that it was stripped down to its inner bronze.  Miss Kim and I had a running joke about her Korean indirect way of giving important instructions, and though having read that it is strictly required that every tour group buy flowers to place at the base of the statue (4 euros!), she phrased it as another gentle, “If you don’t mind…”

Like every other site I visited, Mansudae was nearly deserted, one elderly lady coming to pay respects and a handful of stern-looking people hurrying by. Perhaps the locals are so numb to the drumbeat that they tune it all out, only coming to such sites when required.

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Elderly woman paying respects.

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Sculpture detail

A real treat was next, a stop at the Taedong Gate and park along the Taedong River.  Seeing university students jogging, elderly men smoking, a film crew applying makeup to actresses for a costume drama (and young men lustily looking on), children riding a pony, all this almost made me forget I was in upside-down land.

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Out for a run along the Taedong River, 12th-century Ryongwang Pavilion behind

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18th-century Pyongyang Bell

I was then taken to a Foreign Language Bookshop, propaganda central.  I bought a bookmark with a cartoon picture of an earnest girl exclaiming “Study hard for Korea!” which was enough to get the hovering clerk off my back, and headed for the Tower of the Juche Idea, a big Washington Monument-like tower with a flame on top and of no interest to me.  To my delight, on the river promenade were several hundred female soldiers, large handwritten numbers on white paper pinned to their jackets, in some kind of goose-stepping audition and practice.  Unlike a formal parade, it was a treat to see not only perfect synchronization, but some mistakes and also playful rest breaks.

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Prior to lunch we stopped at another large monument, this the Monument to the Party Founding, three pillars, capped, respectively, with hammer, sickle and torch.  I had tried my best all trip to wear a beaming smile, showing deep interest, but the park behind caught my attention and I felt bad when the earnest site guide asked about the gray monument, “Are you interested?”  Fortunately, the walk-though was brief, and back with Miss Kim, I successfully petitioned for a horseshoe stroll along the surrounding park, my sights set on the clusters of retired men playing cards by the pond.  Some had that “I am too old to give a darn” attitude, so spoke a bit to me through Miss Kim.  Hearing that I did not know the card game, they jokingly offered to let me try as easy pickings. I gave a crowd-pleasing reply, “Koreans are too smart, a simple American like me will surely lose,” which elicited a chorus of raspy chuckles.  The elderly ladies were clustered around a different pond, playing a traditional game that involves a kind of dice, but were more reticent.

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Poker games behind the monument

The USS Pueblo, the US spy ship captured in 1968 off North Korea’s east coast, was next.  The propaganda film was interesting, the rhetoric and commentary extreme, but the basic facts presented generally followed the accepted history, cherry-picking classic moments like President Johnson’s initial claim that it was a harmless marine research vessel (one look at the equipment room made that claim a bit hard to sustain, let alone all the mission documents that were not destroyed before capture).  The military guides proudly showed the ship, from the captain’s uniform to the bullet holes near the armory where one US sailor who resisted was sadly killed during capture.  The remaining 82 sailors were held hostage for eleven months until the US delivered an apology in exchange for their release.

Next to the Pueblo sits what the North Koreans claim is a US surveillance torpedo captured in 2006.  I subsequently poked around online and found conflicting scattered information, the weight of which concluding it a fake.  If real, then it took real bumbling to not have some kind of self-destruct activated.  If fake, the North Koreans deserve some kudos for such an elaborate, creative mock-up.  Anyway, I will leave it to the military experts and treat it is part of the show they put on for tourists.

Lunch was back at the hotel, the revolving restaurant still not revolving.

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President Johnson initially claimed it was a marine research vessel, pretty impressive equipment for that!

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Bullet marks from when the ship was stormed, one sailor died while the remaining 82 were captured

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