By RAHUL PATHAK
So this is what war feels like.
You can see the soldiers with their machine guns, crouching under trees – figures so life-like that the sound of their gunfire makes you flinch. You can see the American aircraft raining death, targeting even civilians huddled under a bridge.
The story of the Korean War, from 1950 to 1953, is being re-enacted on a circular screen 132m long and 15m high, with forests, campfires, and figurines of dead and dying soldiers arranged in the foreground. It seems that 40 artists worked for 18 months to create this warscape, and it unfolds as your rotating stage slowly takes in the entire panorama.
By the time it ends, some of the North Korean children brought to watch this – and they all are, at some point in their school lives – have clenched jaws and grim faces. Some are fighting back tears.
They have learnt that the United States dropped 32,557 tonnes of napalm – an incendiary liquid that scorches the skin – on the Koreans to burn down entire forests and those hiding in them. That more bombs were dropped on Pyongyang – 432,000 – than its entire population of 400,000. That no city in their country was spared. That more than two million Koreans died.
As they step out of the theatre at Liberation War Museum, they are shown the actual American bombers and tanks that were captured during that war on display outside. This was not a movie. This happened, the children are told.
The enemy killed the Korean people just for pleasure, says First Lieutenant Jang Un-hye, her voice low.
It is in this country – and among these people – that US President Donald Trump’s rhetoric to rain fire and fury has resounded like a whiplash.
Images from the Korean War are burnt into every citizen’s psyche. More than 60 years on, the possibility that the same superpower could re-enact an even more terrible war is being used by officials to justify North Korea’s missile and nuclear programme.
A Tour Of A North Korean Museum
With a shortage of funds but a surfeit of bravado, country capital Pyongyang is spelling out its intentions in concrete.
Its new sci-tech complex is shaped like an atom – the building in the middle a nucleus,
with others surrounding it like electrons.
A new housing block – green, white and futuristic – rises to the sky in the exact shape of a rocket.
Hwang Chol, a top Foreign Ministry official, says without hesitation, “We are proud of our nuclear programme. It is keeping peace in the Korean peninsula”.
He spells out the rationale that North Korea is spreading among its people.
“Libya and Iraq show that if you are not strong, you will be eaten up by the strong,” says Hwang. “Libya gave up its weapons and ... see what happened to Gaddafi? Iraq got attacked because the US knew it didn’t have weapons of mass destruction in the first place.”
He claims that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was killed by Nato-backed rebels in 2011 only because he had halted his nuclear and chemical weapons programme years earlier. And that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was captured following a US-led invasion and executed in 2006 because he was weak. (Nato is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation that involves several North American and European countries.)
The North Korean arsenal is no match for that of the US. Its nuclear warheads number fewer than 60, while the US is known to have 4,480 which are many times more powerful. But Pyongyang’s calculation is that even a moderate arsenal will stop the United States from attacking it.
It is a logic that appeals to many of President Kim Jong-un’s fellow-citizens who have been clinically cut off from the world, who have far lower earnings per head than Bangladesh but who have been taught, from young, that the United States is their enemy.
“The enemy is striking us with a sword and we cannot allow ourselves to be killed by it,” says a young soldier at the demilitarised zone on the border with South Korea.
Like most others, he has never surfed the Internet, made or received a call from outside the country’s borders, let alone been overseas. He even needs a permit to travel to Pyongyang since he is not registered as a resident there.
The isolation is complete.
You get a taste of it as you enter Pyongyang on a weary Tupolev plane run by Air Koryo from Beijing and are asked to declare every book and item in your possession. The pictures on your phone are scrutinised. Once inside the city’s borders, there is no phone or Internet service and you can call only through the hotel’s land line.
No piece of information that is not sanctioned is allowed to creep through the North Korean border.
On the other hand, Trump’s threat plays repeatedly over state-run TV, crackles across the state-supervised Intranet, and is splashed on bulletin boards at street corners and metro stations.
North Korea’s own version of history is also drummed into every child through 12 years of education.
Every child is taught that the Korean peninsula is a single country that has been occupied in the south by the United States since World War II. With force and fire.
Occupied by Japan for 35 years, Korea was divided into two along the 38th Parallel in 1945, with the Soviet Union in charge of the North and the United States running the South. Most historians agree that it was the North, led by then Presi-dent Kim Il-sung, that started the Korean War in an effort to reunify the two Koreas.
In Pyongyang’s version, it was the United States that started the war.
“They were the warmakers ... they have always wanted to wipe us off the map,” says Hwang.
Hard Lessons At School
The children learn this in school.
At Moranbong Middle School No.1, we move from a classroom where students are conversing in English – every child in the country is now taught the language from the age of seven – to another where they are learning about the lives of their leaders, and then to one devoted to the pain that their country has suffered at the hands of the Japanese and the Americans.
There is a life-size figure of a Caucasian priest carving the word “Thief” on the forehead of a hungry boy who stole an apple.
In the kindergarten, the only toys children play with are plastic models of tanks, guns and aircraft. They are taught music from a young age, and we hear them sing – “We are building up our bodies ... To reunify Korea ... And drive away the US ... From our country.”
The Man Behind Pyongyang’s Monuments
The man behind most of the monuments that define Pyongyang is about to weep.
Ro Ik-hwan, 83, master sculptor at Mansudae Studio, has gone back in time, all the way to 1970, when he was building the Grand Monu-ment of Mansu Hill – a giant, 22m statue in tribute to North Korea’s Eternal President Kim Il-sung.
His eyes well up with tears as he recounts the story: “The president was returning from a farm when he saw the construction site. He said, ‘Please don’t build this statue as I still haven’t done enough to improve the standard of living of the people’. But the officials said to him, ‘President, we have never disobeyed you. But this time we must. This is the desire of the people’.”
There is no North Korean alive today who has known any leader other than Eternal President Kim Il-sung, his son Leader Kim Jong-il (who could not be president since his father was declared eternal president) and grandson Kim Jong-un who simply wears the title of Supreme Leader.
Kim Il-sung – who is also known as Marshal and General for fighting the Japanese, who occupied the country for 35 years – is regarded as the patriarch who founded the nation. A sign carved on a hillside outside Pyongyang, visible for miles, says “Follow marshal to the end of sky and land”.
The home where he was born is a pilgrimage for children. They are told that at the age of four, he wrote “Long Live Independence of Korea”. And when his son, Kim Jong-il, was four, he wrote “Long Live General Kim Il-sung”.
Every time North Koreans come across a statue or picture of father and son – often together – they bow.
There is one of them at Man-sudae Studio, riding horses, and Ro describes how he got around the height difference between the two: “Kim Il-sung was a tall man. His son was not. I made leader Jong-il’s horse kick higher so that the two figures are almost level,” he says.
North Koreans will also tell you how their three leaders visited a site and gave on-the-spot guidance to vastly improve their work. They will also tell you the exact number of times a leader visited a spot. The places where they sat are marked with a red plate.
“Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un gave instructions 17 times,” says the spokeswoman at Pyongyang School Bag Factory.
“He said there should be more padding where the strap of the backpack touches the shoulder and less at the bottom of the strap so that little hands could hold it.”
At an amusement park, the guide Kim Hye-gum will tell you that leader Kim Jong-un personally tested every ride – from the carousel to the roller-coaster – to ensure that it was safe.
You will be told that Kim Il-sung died in 1994 and the last documents he signed were an attempt to reunify the Koreas. And that Kim Jong-il died on a train and his last gesture was to ensure that the people of Pyongyang were given fish with their rations.
“Foreigners will never understand how we feel about our leaders,” says Kim Jong-a from the Ministry for Cultural Relations With Foreign Countries.
“We feel blood-bonded with them,” she says.
When Kim Jong-il died, his statue was placed alongside his father’s at Mansu Hill and, in death, they were the same height.
We never did get to see the monument, though.We were told that a plot to blow up the statues had been uncovered and the monument was out of bounds for foreigners. – The Straits Times/Asia News Network