The Day of the Sun

DayoftheSun02

Pyongyang, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea)
April 15, Juche 105 (2016)

Rise, children. Shine. On this day, the clouds never darken our skies. Rejoice in the 104th dawn of the Eternal President.

DayoftheSun03

Highly impressed by his noble love for his compatriots and his great generosity, the businessman bowed deeply to Kim Il Sung and said sincerely, “Your Excellency Kim Il Sung, you are indeed the God of all the Korean people.” –Anecdotes of Kim Il Sung’s Life, Vol. 2

DayoftheSun07

His earthly body lies in the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, encased in glass and bathed in the soft red glow of perpetual sunset. In another chamber lies the Son of the Sun, the Shining Star, General Kim Jong Il. Two days ago, I passed through those immense, silent halls. The only sound was the faint whir of the moving walkway that transports the living deep within. Photos line the walls. Material for contemplation. There he is inspecting farms and turtleneck sweaters and overhead projectors. Has another smile ever held such radiance? Everything in this world is astonishing and delightful. Every little thing.

In photos and paintings, the General is often with the Eternal President, pointing at something out of sight. The President’s response is, as always, a luminous smile. Something truly wondrous lies forever beyond.

When asked why the General almost always wore sunglasses, one of our guides replied, “It is because his eyes were often red, so the people were worried that he was too tired. He wore them so that we would not worry.”

DayoftheSun08

The fog that has obscured the city over the past few days has indeed dissipated. The diffuse morning light casts a faint shimmer on the massive bronze statues at Mansudae Grand Monument. Rows upon rows wait for the invitation to approach and pay their respects. Women in traditional dress. Men and women in military uniform. Schoolchildren. Tourists join in, out of respect for their guides.

DayoftheSun09

A hammer for the workers, a sickle for the farmers, a brush for the intellectuals. All of them encircled by the unity of the Leader, Party, and people. Just below it: living, blazing color. Sound and movement are executed with fierce precision. Our group spreads out behind the crowd of locals. Curious glances on both sides. Our Western guide begins to clap in time to the music. The noise reverberates through the silent crowd.

I flinch. “Do they like that?”

“Yeah. Why not?”

Before his words are even finished, the locals follow his lead. It is an instinctive reaction. Eyes awaken. Faces brighten. They only needed to be reminded that it is an option.

DayoftheSun11

Bloom, delicate creation.

DayoftheSun06

Kimilsungia is not simply a beautiful flower of nature; it is a flower that symbolizes the greatness of President Kim Il Sung, who illuminated the road ahead for the world by means of his Juche idea, and a flower that has bloomed in the hearts of the people in the era of independence in honor of a great man. It gives our people an infinite dignity and pride in living and waging revolution in Kim Il Sung’s motherland, and inspires them with determination to devote their all to the consummation of the cause of Juche pioneered by him. Because it grows in the hearts of mankind and blooms among our faithful people, it is so beautiful, so ennobling and so precious. There are tens of thousands of varieties of flowers on the earth, but none is as meaningful as Kimilsungia.  —  Kim Jong Il, “Kimilsungia Is an Immortal Flower That has Bloomed in the Hearts of Mankind in the Era of Independence”

DayoftheSun04

An afternoon stroll through Moran Hill Park. Beyond the wedding parties and picnicking families, I perceive her glow long before I can discern her features. The music hovers above the crowd, so ethereal that it’s almost imperceptible. One long breathless sigh. Arms float through the air like the wings of drowsy butterflies. Some of us are coaxed into the gentle fray. I am caught off guard. Self-conscious. I need some of what they’re drinking.

DayoftheSun14

The crowd has swelled with curious onlookers. I stare into my partner’s aged face and imitate her movements. When the song finishes, she shoos me back into the crowd.

DayoftheSun05

The Mass Dance has just begun by the time we arrive. Once again, we are encouraged to join. I shake my head. Not again. One of our Korean guides grabs Felix, the Venezuelan in our group, and leads him to a dancer. A spasm of panic seizes his face. He puts his hands on his hips and steps forward, out of time with his partner. He shakes his head at himself. Even so, his incorporation into the languid rotation causes no agitation. By the time he has come full circle, he is beaming. He waves at me and mouths, Photo, please! I aim my camera his way until he is once again swept away. Even the reluctant eventually fall into step.

DayoftheSun01

I lay my camera down and gaze into the swirling rainbow, mesmerized by the effortless harmony. Spin, turn, churn. Serene gears in a reliable machine. A somnolent order. When the music takes on a military tone, the men perk up. Arms and legs stiffen. Otherwise the steps and gestures have the indolence of flowers swaying in a soft summer breeze. Dreamy smiles, half-closed eyes. When everyone cooperates, there is no need for fervor.

DayoftheSun13

Wistfulness washes over me. Now I wish that I had joined in. The gentle motion seems so soothing. What would it be like to lose myself in the masses? For an instant, I allow myself to feel the profound relief of surrender. Gooseflesh rises on my arms.

Don’t you remember? You tried, all those years ago, to join the fold. To be normal. You failed. Your kind always ends up banished. Efficiently eliminated.

DayoftheSun10

Somehow, we missed the fireworks. As compensation for our disappointment, we have come to Kim Il Sung Square to take some photos. Red signs smolder against the black sky. For days, we have seen large groups of people sitting in the squares. White caps, red caps. They are preparing for the torch-light parade that will take place during next month’s Worker’s Congress, the first such event since 1980. As soon as we reach the middle of the square, a military guard appears. He speaks to one of our guides and then marches away. “We have to leave now.” She beckons to those who have wandered off.

From out of the darkness beyond the square, they materialize. Many voices melded into one. A chorus of joyful unity. We pause, spellbound. After they pass, we move along. Another group jogs out of the darkness. A more forceful chant: Do it in one strike!

Some of us march alongside them and join in the Korean chant. They look over at us in surprise and break into laughter as they disappear, once again, into the night. Never once breaking stride.

DayoftheSun12

72 thoughts on “The Day of the Sun

  1. Ah, I was thinking, a little while ago, “It’s been a while since I read from Julie”. And here you are! (I’ll try and think about a bagful of cash landing on my doorstep, but I doubt it’ll work…).

    Jokes aside, a terrific (in the British English sense) read. I’ve got friends who visited the Hermit Kingdom, I read trip reports from travellers and plane geeks, but your post is something else, and better (hardly surprising I’d say). I really liked the contrast between the excerpts in italic coming from the Juche and your impressions, your descriptions of the people. Makes for a very interesting, very poignant contrast between true and false, reality and dystopian fiction.

    Once again, another blog I wish I’d been able to write.

    • Hahaha. The power of positive thinking.

      Oh, Fabrizio. What a TRIP it was. I decided to just immerse myself in it all. It’s both completely normal and profoundly surreal. So many memories to process. What, in their world or ours, is really real?

      • I can imagine! A friend of mine who went there grew up in Albania, before doing what many did – Zodiac-ing it to Apulia – and he told me that, sometimes, he got a very strong feeling of deja-vu, of his time growing up with Enver Hoxha. The parades, the seclusion, the paranoia, but also – and surprisingly, perhaps – he mentioned how everyone seemed to be united, or wanted to be united. A part of me would like to go there, but another is resisting it.

        • I understand the hesitation, of course. I am so happy that I ignored it and went. I never felt unsafe, and we had lots of freedom to take photos and mingle with the locals. I gained so much understanding and had so much fun.

    • Yes, it sure would be. Only those who have a DPRK embassy in their home countries are entitled to a stamp. The rest of us got Tourist Cards which we had to return upon our departure.

  2. Very interesting post – of course. I cannot help compairing to the trip my husband made for the great jubilée (100 years) with massive parades and all, in 2012. I guess the places you took photos from here are free, but according to my husband there were many things he could not photograph. They were searched as well, and their memory cards emptied.
    The great massgames seem to have been replaced by mass dances. This is a very strange country. Interesting to follow your reflections and compare with 4 years ago!

    • I remember you telling me that your husband went there. I didn’t know it was for the same holiday. I would have loved to see the mass games, but they are no more. I was really surprised that we could photograph anything except the military, the inside of the Palace of the Sun and some of the museums, but this is standard for many countries. The Korean guides actually said, several times, “Please take photos.” Customs didn’t even look at our memory cards when we left. They just waved us through.

      • How extraordinary! My husband follows NK News and keeps himself updated – Would you mind if he asked a question? He wonders if you were free to ask the guides anything, and if they could freely speak about the regime, not only praising, or they seemed to use “government controlled” answers. From your post it seems some things have changed, the people becoming more open. He was also surprised you were allowed to take part in the dances.

        • We weren’t told to not ask things, but those in my group respected their beliefs. As a result, the guides opened up and shared stories about their lives and country. I didn’t get the impression that anything they said was government controlled. I went with a rather unconventional tour company that’s geared more towards backpackers, so we joked around a lot, too. It was totally relaxed. I got a very strong sense that the guides truly love their Leader and country. I base my judgement on subtle reactions rather than vehement proclamations. They thanked us many times for being respectful. I could feel that it meant a lot to them.

          • Sounds great. Then they must have opened up more! My husband and his group were not allowed to walk alone, without guards, and not allowed to speak to ordinary people in the street, not to photograph the poor people in the countryside. Your group and experience sounds more “normal” and positive.

          • I have heard that it has opened up a lot more in recent years. It’s hard for me to compare, because it’s the only time I’ve been there. We were allowed to take photos of the poorer countryside as we drove through, as long as there were no military installations/personnel in the photos. You can now do tours to other regions outside of Pyongyang, too. We were encouraged to speak to locals anywhere – if they spoke English or we spoke Korean. Most of the time communication consisted of smiles and gestures. They even took us to a microbrewery where locals hang out. I was exhausted that evening, so I didn’t try to mingle, which I now regret.

  3. Remarkable, Julie but I think I will be sticking to the Outer Hebrides 😉 How did you get there and what was the visa process like. I didn’t realise they let westerners in.

    • They’ve let Westerners in for years. More of the country outside of Pyongyang has been opening up to tourism. You can even do volunteer homestays on farms. There were quite a few tourists when I went, but it was the biggest holiday of the year. It’s not difficult to go. You need to book an organized tour and there are several companies that do it in conjuntion with the official DPRK tour company. The tour company takes care of the visas if you don’t have an embassy in your home country. It’s actually very safe to visit, if you don’t break the law, of course. 😀

  4. Another amazing experience, Julie. I had no idea that NK was so open to tourism. We have a very different image of them, I believe. The unity, the dance, the colors…all so impressive. You captured a lot of their energy in words and picture. Great post. Thanks for sharing a part of the world that is remote to so many of us. 💕

    • Hi Van – In spite of recent events, it’s actually becoming much more open to tourism in terms of where you can go, what you can do/see. They’ve even got a shiny new airport. It’s clear that some of the people walking around and riding bikes or taking the subway had never seen a foreigner. It was an emotional trip to a complicated place. The more we understand about their culture, the more we can start to open the lines of communication. I’m not a people person at all and usually shy away from interacting with people when I travel, but they are really warm-hearted and funny people.

  5. I’m glad you went so I could read your impressions! Fascinating. Did you stay in Pyongyang or did you manage to get out of the city on your tour? Was your guide from Pyongyang or another part of the country? In the past few years I’ve read some books on North Korea; I seem to have a curiosity about digging into the ethos of cult-of-personality countries such as those that were in the USSR. Seems like I’m not the only one who feels that draw!

    • Hi Leah – I was on a short tour, so we mostly saw Pyongyang, but we also drove down to the DMZ one day and passed through some villages and had lunch in Kaesong. The countryside is poor, but clean. I took a few photos from the bus window, which I might put in a later post. They’re not very good quality, but it does give an idea. Our guides were all from Pyongyang, I think. One of them actually lived overseas in several countries because his father was a diplomat. In spite of his contact with the outside world, he was still very nationalistic. As far of cult-of-personality countries go, this one is the Daddy. As soon as you’re airborne on your Air Koryo flight, a video of the girl’s band, Moranbong, appears on the video screen. A massive propaganda video plays behind them. The current Leader makes an appearance, his hair blowing in the wind, a la Beyonce.

      • So interesting. I’d love to see some of the photos from the bus, no matter the quality! It’s fascinating about your guide having lived overseas yet still being so nationalistic. I wondered the same about Kim Jong-un. I feel like living elsewhere has only expanded where I target loyalties, rather than reinforce them as solely for my home country. Though, of course, these are very different situations. Thanks for the great thoughts, as usual!

  6. Thanks for a very interesting post. I like your take on the country and it’s leaders. I went to DPRK in 2012 with a group of friends. We attended the Mass Games which were unbelievable. A pretty sad country out of the capital Pyongyang I found. Sad life for those who are not the selected ones to go into government jobs.

    I did a post on my visit if you are interested (https://tangmengxiu.wordpress.com//?s=DPRK&search=Go). I also have just finished a book on Kim Jong Il’s kidnapping of the South Korean film director and his ex-wife the most popular actress in South Korea. A very interesting book to see how the Great Leader lived (and what he ate) whilst his people were dying of starvation. All in all I am glad I went and saw how the country looks and meet some of its people.

    • Hi Sue – I think I actually discovered your blog because I was following the North Korea topic on WordPress and your post showed up. Wow, the Mass Games. Wish I could have seen those. I’ll read your post, for sure. Yeah, it’s poor outside the capital, but I’ve visted a few third world countries (filth everywhere; children, the sick, and the elderly begging in the street) in the past and didn’t find it particularly shocking. That story about the director and actress sounds like another bizarre facet of a bizarre land. Our tour group was the first to attend a screening of a 1990s film (Order No. 027) starring the NK version of Robert De Niro/Chuck Norris – People’s Actor Cha Song Chol. He (the actor) was there and signed DVDs and took photos with everyone.

  7. quite a destination
    for a holiday!
    glad to see signs
    of joy of some
    of the faces!
    reminds me of travels across
    South Korea back in the 70’s
    only darker & more militaristic 🙂

  8. This would have been an amazing experience, particularly in the almost certainty that your movements would have monitored. If ever you were to become part of the herd, this is the place to do it. You should have danced just for the experience.

    Thank you for taking us there. It’s a different side from what we see/hear in the news, but then in a tour group, you’re not going to be shown what we see/hear in the news.

    • I had expected that we would be monitored, that the guides were government spies, but now I honestly think that they (authorities) really can’t be bothered unless you make a scene or break the law. I couldn’t believe how slack airport customs was. I’ve heard that they take more time to look though photos when you take the train, but it’s more out of boredom and curiosity than paranoia…they’ve got 2 hours to kill before the train leaves. The guides were just normal people who were lucky enough to land a really good job.

      No, we weren’t shown the ghettos and secret prisons that the media talk about, but I’ve never heard of a tour to the USA which includes a trip to the cities’ ghettos, dirt poor Appalachia, or Guantanamo Bay on the itinerary, either.

  9. Oh my gosh – I just booked my next big trip and now I want to change it! Your reflections are fascinating; I would have expected (not especially from you but from anyone western) more disdain or skepticism or cynicism, yet your feelings seem warm and appreciative in many ways. I love that you let yourself become immersed in a radically different culture and in the process, perhaps found it not so radically different! Wow, wow, wow – so awesome! And beautifully written, as always.

    • Hi Lex – There’s no shortage of Westerners who have written shrill, sarcastic, or scornful things about the country. And lots of visitors go there with the goal of convincing the locals that the West is superior. This way of life is all they know. It’s the equivalent of visiting an isolated tribe in the Amazon. More modern, but just as isolated from outside information. I wanted to try to see things from their perspective. Even though living in a culture of such obedience and conformity is absolutely my worst nightmare, I respect other beliefs as long as they’re not forced on me. It is a fascinating place in many ways. If you decide to go, feel free to send me an email. I can give you more details about the traveling there.

  10. The Year of the Monkey … And you did it!
    I appreciate the reminder to be respectful of other cultures, regardless of whether we like it or not.

  11. What a treat to discover this, Julie! I am really grateful to have stumbled on this and been given a little window into part of the world I know so little about. Your images and words were lovely– the smiling faces and the scope of human choreography you encountered were kind of stunning. It gives me a peaceful feeling, what you’ve shared here– a reinforcing of commonality somehow. That people everywhere flower in unique ways, and beyond the bluster we hear so much of, there is this inevitable coming to being in a unique way of what it means to be human…

    Peace
    Michael

    • Hi Michael – It was stunning to witness in person. I’m so grateful for the experience. So many surprises. It took a few days to find the words to describe it, and I’m still not sure I got it right. Your last sentence brilliantly sums up what I intended to show. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  12. Of course this is beautifully written, but it makes me so sad that half my people are suffering so much. And with the older generations dying out and their memories of the North fading, so is much of the caring for the people under the regime. Younger generations in the South want reunification less and less…understandably, but it is beyond tragic what is happening up there, whether they are opening more to tourists or not. 😦

    • Hi Shelley – One of the other members of my tour group worked as an English teacher in the South. She told me the same thing about the younger generations not wanting reunification. We heard so much about reunification during our visit. One country, two systems. They’d be heartbroken to know that they’re not wanted anymore. They’re hard workers and I’m not so sure they’d all flock to the South, especially if their economy was allowed to develop. It’s not easy going from being under total control to suddenly having the freedom to make your own decisions. Here’s a short documentary about this issue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0QVkf-B0qc.

      Here’s another one about the current leader which shows recent changes, most notably how he sent people overseas to learn economic reform in the China model: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVYbMBdxQCo right around the halfway mark is when they start talking about these changes. Anyway, I hope it helped to see the smiling faces.

      • Yeah, there are some “small” changes happening there, but that doesn’t mean that Kim Jong Un isn’t still a egomaniacal dictator that leaves most of his population suffering and starving. I’ve met defectors here in Seoul, and their stories are unbelievable…people without toes, fingers, hands…from frostbite because they don’t have heat, or even socks to wear in the freezing cold winters. Unfortunately, for me, each smiling face, just underscores the probably 1000 people that are crying under the regime…still I understand the appeal of wanting to visit there. I just wouldn’t…least of all, because it would break my heart.

        • I didn’t mean to say that he’s a great guy. I was just surprised and happy to see that there are signs, no matter how small, of progress. I’m not an optimistic person in general, especially about the world’s current situation, but I came home with a feeling of hope. Thanks for not being judgmental, especially as you are Korean, of my decision to go.

  13. Excellent post … It is quite amazing to see how many popular leaders play such an important role among citizens, even after their death…
    The tributes, the solemn honors, and the high respect seem to be eloquent in that sense.
    They are symbols of a certain moment, but their influence is still alive…
    I think that point might be illustrated by the example you provided above concerning the flower Kimilsungia, which symbolizes the greatness of President Kim Il Sung…
    Sending love and best wishes, dear Julie. Aquileana 🌟

    • Hi Aquileana – It is said that during Kim Il Sung’s time, the country was doing very well, at times even better than the South. The hard times came after his death. The people genuinely love him. He is still officially president, still receiving honors which are displayed in a room adjacent to his body. I saw a medal which was dated 2013. He died in 1994. There’s an elaborate mythology (cult of personality) created for the North Korean leaders. Thanks, as always, for adding your thoughts.

  14. so …intense. Reading it I felt a sensation of profoundly surreal. I’m just a little “envious” about the experience you had, wish to have something similar too, almost once in a lifetime. Your photos are just so beautifully full of significance and symbolism.

    • Before my trip, I had read quite a few travel blogs about going there. Many of them mentioned how it would take time to process it all. It is like stepping into a parallel dimension. The fact that I had jet lag, a lack of sleep, and caffeine withdrawal (no espressos there!) only added to the surreal atmosphere. The really strange thing is that it began to seem normal very quickly and it was only when I left the country that the memories started to mess with my head. What is real, anywhere?

      • Right. I perceived very well this dreamlike atmosphere in your words, no wonder you felt these conflicting feelings…(i don’t give too the fault to the lack of caffeine, of course)

  15. Quite an experience Julie, ma chère.
    I’m not sure I would go to South Korea. 🙂 But it definitely must be worth the trip.
    Are you still there right now? (I’ve been lagging a bit in blogging for a variety of reasons, and I wanted to dedicate time to your post)
    Are you planning to visit other SE Asian countries while you’re at it?
    Bon voyage mon amie.
    Brian

    • Hi Brian – I went to North Korea, not South Korea. I would go to South Korea if I had the opportunity, but I was more compelled to visit the mysterious North. I’ve been back for a couple of weeks now. It took some time to organize my photos and thoughts for this first post. I also spent a couple of days in Beijing, China and of course I’ll post about that in the near future.

Comments are closed.