In my previous posts about North Korea I’ve stayed away from the touristy parts and spoken about Paekdusan, watching a football game, and some of the hidden bits you don’t usually see. Today I’ll talk about one place that almost every visitor gets dragged to: The Victorious Fatherland Liberation Museum.
When people talk about tourism in North Korea, one complaint is that you get dragged around to all the places the government wants you to see, which is largely true. You do get to see other stuff, of course, but you have to put up with doing the touristy bits. Thankfully, because it’s North Korea, even the touristy stuff is fascinating and weird.
One my second day in North Korea I woke up somewhat hungover from the local (rather delicious) beer, and went for a 5am run. If you want a unique view of North Korea, trying running around the city in the wee hours. But then again, Pyongyang’s always pretty unique.
After breakfast my group was taken to participate in the obligatory tour of the museum dedicated to the Korean war. The museum is stunning and the guides unfailingly friendly, although their rhetoric grows tiresome. The whole thing is almost parodic. At no point could our friendly guide (above) say, “Americans.” She would always refer to “the Imperialist dogs” and talk about “the evil Japs.”
Even worse were the pictures of dead US soldiers proudly hanging here and there. Evidently, it wasn’t enough to have a collection of downed US places and the entire seized USS Pueblo pored over by countless visitors – they needed to have the actual bodies of young American men on display.
Throughout the visit, we are told the history of the Korean War from the North Korean side, obviously. It is fascinating and, quite frankly, refreshing to here a different perspective on history. What amazed me was that their narrative differs only slightly from ours. Although this country is famous for its bizarre propaganda, they tell more or less the same story about the Korean War, only with emphasis in slightly different places. They completely omit the fact, for example, that the war with Japan came to an end because of their sworn enemies, the US.
We were made to watch several ludicrous videos and listen to lots of stories. It was all a bit silly, and often it seemed the guides were embarrassed by holes in their own plots. Interestingly, they never told us this was “the truth” or that what we in the West believe is wrong. All they said is, “This is what we believe and we want to present our side.”
The museum seems to be visited by a lot of North Korean citizens. It is hardly surprising, as a healthy dose of indoctrination helps keep the populace in line. It felt a bit awkward, though, walking around amidst all the North Korean people, who were at that moment being told of foreign devils who raped their lands and want to come back and do it again. We did wonder whether our presence sent another message: At every junction, when there were lots of people, all the North Koreans would be held back and the foreign tourists allowed to go first… Perhaps the museum is sending a message about rude foreigners… Or perhaps they’re showing these people that the foreign devil has come to learn of his peoples’ evil and repent. Who knows.
Altogether, as bizarre as it was, North Korea’s museum was enlightening and, like everywhere else in the country, as pleasant adventure.