Archive | October, 2009
October 16, 2009

North Korea: Good morning, Pyongyang!

When you’re on vacation in North Korea, you don’t get to sleep in. And really, how could you, when there are so many Kim Il-Sung monuments to pay homage to and ill-maintained roller coasters to ride? Thus, your morning in North Korea typically begins with a wake-up call at 7am (and 7:05am, in case the lazy U.S. Imperialists just pick up the phone and then go back to sleep), breakfast at 7:30am, and on the bus by 8am.

Our first morning in North Korea I actually woke up a little early (shocking, I know), downed a canned “coffee milk”, and opened the window to let some fresh air in. I was still pretty amazed that you could open the windows, considering I was on the 33rd floor of the hotel. Even more amazing, however, was that the city was completely silent. There were no honking car horns, sirens, or any of the other sounds you would find in a city of 3.2 million people. Just silence…until 7am, when the sound of air raid sirens began to echo throughout the city. Great. My first morning in North Korea and we are apparently under attack. My parents are never going to let me hear the end of this.

But Pyongyang wasn’t under attack, of course. The air raid sirens there basically serve as a city-wide alarm clock to wake up the residents and let them know it’s time to get to work and school. I suppose it’s cheaper than issuing every household an alarm clock. They wouldn’t have the electricity to run them anyways.

The wailing of the air raid sirens was then followed by snappy revolutionary music and several announcements. Since I don’t speak Korean I hadn’t the slightest idea what they were saying, but I imagine it was something extolling the accomplishments of the Dear Leader and criticizing U.S. Imperialists. Just a guess.

Here are a few photos I took of Pyongyang covered in a thick, early morning mist.

Taedong River

Juche Tower

The incomplete Ryugyong Hotel

Schoolchildren practicing with flags

October 14, 2009

North Korea: U.S. Imperialists attempt to retake the USS Pueblo, and fail miserably

If you’ve known me for a while then you’re well aware of my interest in touring US warships. Ever since I can remember, my parents would take me down to San Diego so we could visit whichever ship was open to the public. I’ve been on everything from aircraft carriers to dock landing ships to guided missile cruisers. It’s a good way to see your tax dollars at work and convince impressionable youngsters that the navy life is for them (I will admit that to this day I still think of escaping the cubicle and enrolling in Navy OCS. At least I would live near the ocean, where there might be waves…).

Still, North Korea is probably the last place I would have expected to walk the decks of a U.S. navy ship. Yet, anchored on the bank of the Taedong River in Pyongyang is the USS Pueblo, a still commissioned U.S. naval ship captured by the North Koreans on January 23, 1968. It is the only U.S. naval ship currently held captive by a foreign entity, and the North Koreans are very, very proud of this trophy. They have made the “US ARMED SPY SHIP PUEBLO!” (as they refer to it) into a tourist attraction and gladly show it off to visitors, including U.S. Imperialists such as ourselves. For background information on the USS Pueblo, I highly recommend this website run by the USS Pueblo Veteran’s Association.

This monument marks the location where the General Sherman, a U.S. merchant marine schooner, was destroyed by the Koreans in 1866. The North Koreans claim that one of Kim Il-Sung’s ancestors led the attack on the Sherman. There is, of course, no actual evidence to support this assertion.

The Pueblo

Our tour guides

The North Koreans claimed that the Pueblo was in North Korean waters. The United States denied this, saying the Pueblo was in international waters. Regardless, the North Koreans opened fire on the Pueblo with 57mm guns. You can see some of the resulting damage to the ship in this photo.

The Pueblo was lightly armed, with only two .50 caliber deck guns and small arms. Commander Lloyd Bucher did not give the order to return fire. Instead, the crew began frantically destroying classified material so that it would not fall into North Korean hands. One sailor, Fireman Apprentice Duane Hodges, was killed during the attack on the USS Pueblo. The remaining 82 sailors were captured when the North Koreans boarded the Pueblo. They remained prisoners of the North Koreans for 11 months and endured brutal treatment, including torture and starvation.

You may not know what happened to the men of the Pueblo. The crew cooperated with their captors, appearing in press conferences and public appearances criticizing the US government. On March 4, North Korea gave the US representative of the armistice commission a letter, signed by the entire Pueblo crew, admitting the ship had violated the communist country’s waters and committed “hostile acts.” According to the letter, the crew expressed no anger at their captors, but rather guilt for their own actions.

To understand these confessions, we need to look at North Korean brutality. The North Koreans beat Charles Law for six hours with a hammer handle while a communications technician was struck 250 times with a two-by-four block of wood and left, semi-conscious, in a pool of his blood. The technician confessed to everything, including escape plans from a James Bond movie.

It also must be said that the men did resist with subtle language and hints, indicating that their confessions were not of their free will. Commander Bucher, after being beaten and tortured, signed the confession with a false serial number and date of birth. One letter had at the bottom in tiny Morse code “this is a lie.”

Interior of the Pueblo.

Trying to contact the Pentagon to request air support. No luck.

The “admission of guilt” that the crew was forced to sign.

The Pueblo crew was released on December 23, 1968, eleven months after their capture. This is how the Pueblo’s commanding officers were welcomed home by the U.S. Navy:

Based upon its findings of fact and the formal opinions which it derived from those findings, the Court of Inquiry recommended that Commander Lloyd M. Bucher, U. S. Navy, the Commanding Officer of USS PUEBLO., be brought to trial by General Court-Martial for the following five alleged offenses: permitting his ship to be searched while he had the power to resist; failing to take immediate and aggressive protective measures when his ship was attacked by North Korean forces; complying with the orders of the North Korean forces to follow them into port; negligently failing to complete destruction of classified material aboard USS PUEBLO and permitting such material to fall into the hands of the North Koreans; and negligently failing to ensure, before departure for sea, that his officers and crew were properly organized, stationed, and trained in preparation for emergency destruction of classified material.

Thankfully, Navy Secretary John Chafee ordered that all charges be dismissed.

On the deck

None of us knew how to drive a ship, thus foiling our plans to reclaim the Pueblo.

Near the end of our tour, we were all led down to the ship’s mess hall, where we were shown a video explaining the North Korean version of the Pueblo’s capture. We were actually shown the first 10 minutes of the video several times, as the DVD kept freezing up, forcing one of the embarrassed sailors to scramble for another copy. The video’s distortion of history was quite hilarious, and ended with the line “Death to the U.S. imperialist aggressors, the sworn enemies of the Korean people.” Well then. Following the video, our guide then yelled out, “OK U.S. group, let’s go!” Yeah, thanks. Go ahead and let everyone else on the boat know that we’re a bunch of Yankee imperialist dogs.

North Korea claims that this is an unmanned U.S. submersible they captured in August 2006. The U.S. denies that this is a U.S. sub. Who knows.

More photos here.

October 7, 2009

North Korea: Kim Il-Sung Square

Kim Il-Sung Square was the second site we visited soon after our arrival in North Korea. While Kim Il-Sung Square is incredibly impressive, it is far from the largest in the world. The Chinese, with Tiananmen Square in Beijing, are the current record holders for largest square in the world. Kim Il-Sung Square comes in at a measly #16! Nevertheless, Kim Il-Sung Square still manages to accommodate the Dear Leader’s need for a large area to show off his army’s precision marching capabilities and outdated military hardware.

(Reuters/Xinhua news)

Although we were in Pyongyang for one of North Korea’s biggest holidays (Independence Day), no massive parades were scheduled. And even if there were, we wouldn’t have been allowed to watch them and likely would have been sent off to some mountain resort far from Pyongyang. Apparently U.S. Imperialists just can’t be trusted to see anything.

North Koreans love volleyball, too

Grand People’s Study House

Across the river is the Tower of Juche Idea

Can you spot Marx and Lenin?

Kim Il-Sung (of course)


Our guides took us back to the square at night. I think the entire country’s electric generation capacity was being used to light up Kim Il-Sung Square, because the rest of the city was eerily dark.

October 6, 2009

North Korea photos

It only took me three weeks, but I’ve finally uploaded all 1,293 photos from my trip to North Korea. Free time has been pretty scarce lately, but hopefully I’ll have some more North Korea related posts soon.