Like many authoritarian regimes around the world, North Korea doesn’t recognize even the existence of LGBT people. In 2014, state media declared, "This practice can never be found in the DPRK boasting of the sound mentality and good morals..." Likewise, Chechnya and many central African and Asian states claim that homosexuality is a moral aberration brought about by capitalism or as a remnant of decadent imperialism. Of course, reality is rather different. There is no debate that homosexuality has existed in all parts of the world for all of human history. It is just as normal as any other form of humanity, be it blue eyes, dark skin, or being right-handed.
While former colonial nations take great pains to erase obvious signs of their national subjugation, many of those now independent countries opt to keep their anti-LGBT laws on the books and go to great lengths to defend them, despite the bad intentions behind the original implementation of those laws. Various colonial laws, from India to Kenya, remain on the books and many of these laws were put in place to suppress indigenous cultures and religions, and to force the inhabitants to behave the way their morally superior overlords demanded. Unfortunately, 70 countries still outlaw same-sex relationships, with many threatening extended jail times or even death. But what happens when a country doesn’t even recognize the existence of those with same-sex attraction?
The North Korean government has spent decades trying to reverse the effects of the Japanese occupation, trying to show the deficiencies of former Korean kingdoms, and attempting to strike a balance between socialist ethics and Confucian morality. North Korean propaganda would tell us that the country is a socialist paradise, free from all of the impurities of capitalism, class division, and imperialism. Among those impurities, of course, is not just homosexuality, but free democratic processes, the ability to decide what to do with your own life, and the right to dissent. There are no known laws specifically aimed at homosexuals, but there are laws pertaining to the security and unity of the state and society. The government’s outlook on LGBT people is likely similar to their outlook on religion. You’re free to believe what you want, so long as it doesn’t threaten or question the supremacy of the state in any way. In practice, this means there is no religion and those caught sharing religious ideas, or even ancient mysticism, can be executed.
Like religion, homosexuality brings up "dangerous" questions surrounding individuality. North Korea prides itself on unitary thought and actions. The Mass Games are a key piece of that propaganda for it demonstrates the unity of spirit that socialism brings by showing 100,000 people putting on a show. Threatening unity threatens the very existence of the state, and little else highlights the beautiful diversity of humanity than a group of people that not only don’t conform to traditional sexual roles but can also bend gender lines to the point that, for many, such artificial social constructs no longer. So, while a specific law may not exist, the appearance of threatening society is itself a crime.
There are no international gay travel groups that visit Wonsan’s white beaches and there are no known gay clubs in Pyongyang (at least, none that openly operate). But gay North Koreans exist surely as right-handed North Koreans do. Various estimates show that anywhere from 2 to 5 percent of a population will be gay or lesbian (the numbers tick up even higher when you include bisexuality). That means that statistically there are between 500,000 and 1,250,000 LGBT North Koreans.
Very little direct information from inside the country has reached the western world regarding matters of sex and sexuality. And, out of over 100,000 known defectors, only one, Jang Yeong-jin, is known to be openly gay. It would be fair to assume that the vast majority of LGBT people do not live open lives. North Korean’s general knowledge about sex and sexuality is primitive at best, with many women not even knowing what sex entails until the time comes. The rise of markets has helped in this regard, with rooms being rented out by the hour and young couples engaging in more open dating behaviors (like holding hands), but many North Koreans remain naïve. North Korea has many social anachronisms and is often described as a place lost in time.
Despite a clear history of homosexuality in ancient Rome, Greece, and China, the words “heterosexual” and “homosexual” weren’t even coined until 1869. This, plus what little information has leaked out of the country on the topic of homosexuality, leads me to believe that those million LGBT people probably couldn’t even describe themselves as gay or lesbian because they don't have the words. (Something Jang Yeong-jin has said as well.) They know they have different desires and they know that living their lives being open with those desires would be dangerous. Undoubtedly, most end up marrying members of the opposite sex and do the things expected of them by family and society, as we know countless others do around the world.
In certain situations, like within military and university settings, same-sex behaviors appear to be an open secret. Older officers or students will take a younger man for his lover until such time as they get married to an approved female spouse. Whatever emotional relationships formed will either come to an end or are forced to be transformed into a platonic friendship or professional relationship. Even in cases where this is only "situational sexuality", where the participants aren't gay but engage in same-sex sex when women aren't available or when celibacy is required, the consensual behavior itself can get you into trouble as it is viewed as part of anti-socialist moral weakness and a threat to the state.
"Jang says he could cope with limited food or clothing in North Korea but having nothing to dream for left him miserable." - CNN
Socialist governments pride themselves on “granting” equality for women, agency for children, and being the voice of the oppressed, but when it comes to sexuality, they are often more illiberal than conservative capitalist states. While criminalization of same-sex activity became de facto legal within Soviet Russia due to the abrogation of the Tsarist legal code, other soviet republics who never had such laws before (like Abkhazia, Georgia, and Turkman) ended up making it illegal. Among all communist countries, this push back against minorities of all kind, sexual and ethnic, was greatly increased during the Stalinist era. North Korea was no exception. The DPRK is both a highly homophobic regime and deeply racist one. What little exposure people in North Korea may receive to the idea of homosexuality is negative. Placing homosexuality in terms of it being unnatural, only behaviors animals engage in, part of the moral corruption of their enemies, etc., adds to the difficulties of living life for gay people, particularly youths.
As noted earlier, there may be as many as 1 million LGBT people living in North Korea. One million people who may not even know the word for what they are or that their difference is shared by hundreds of millions of others around the world. The one thing they do know, is that having pride in themselves isn’t an option. There is no option to be recognized as existing. No option for marrying the person they love. No option for living free of fear.
June is traditionally “pride month”. It’s the month LGBT people and their allies around the globe celebrate who they are, remember the sacrifices and work of previous generations (like the Stonewall Riots in New York City fifty years ago), and when countless people make their most visible demand for equality; the right to be treated the same by the law, and the right to not be arrested, beaten, or killed. In short, the right to live and love as the human beings they are.
This June there will be no parades down the streets of North Korea’s major cities. There will be no public advocacy groups fighting for their legal protections or recognition. There won't even be a rainbow flag flying on some distant embassy. This June, let us not forget one of the most overlooked populations within one of the most overlooked countries in the world. They are all our brothers and sisters and deserve every happiness in the world.
Each year North Korea sounds the alarm on its food supply. Droughts, floods, bad harvests, sanctions, there's always some reason used to appeal for food aid. However, various reports for 2018-2019 show that recently they have indeed had lower than average cereal production, and childhood malnutrition has been ongoing for over a generation. The typical western response is to send limited aid, followed by the admonition to stop wasting billions on nukes and luxury goods and then maybe the regime could feed its people.
Despite military spending and market crackdowns, the government doesn't seem entirely blind to the need. In 2018 Kim Jong Un visited sites around Kyongsong County in North Hamgyong Province and declared that the air force regiment at Jungphyong-ri (aka, Kyongsong-Chuul) was to be removed. In its place, a large-scale vegetable greenhouse facility was to be built. Kim's orders are being carried out at "lightening speed". The northern provinces routinely face food shortages, so as long as the food grown here isn't redirected to Pyongyang or into the hands of the military, it should help alleviate some of the local problem.
Kyongsong-Chuul had been part of the Sixth Transport Division and included an officers training school (which lies slightly to the north).
Satellite imagery from October 2018 clearly showed a massive amount of work happening at the airbase. However, Jungphyong-ri technically lies about 8 km north, and there is another base 6 km to the north of the village, so I wasn't 100% certain what going on at Kyongsong-Chuul.
The most recent freely available imagery is from May 2, 2019 and it leaves no doubt that this is the airbase in question and that the farm's construction is well underway.
I was able to count 198 foundations for greenhouses. There is apparent room for at least 39 more. The area covered by this new agricultural center covers approx. 203 hectares (501 acres). This figure excludes the space occupied by the temporary worker's housing, which will be torn down once construction is completed.
I counted 54 apartment blocks under construction with a new school in the lower right-hand corner of the district.
Only two greenhouses have been finished by the time of this image. In the administration quarter, the required Juche Study Hall is under construction and there's a spot for the Tower of Immortality monument as well.
It is unclear what will become of the training school. There hasn't yet been any construction (or deconstruction) of the facility.
I have written a lot over the years about North Korea's military activities, especially the growth and modernization of their bases. It seems that this time they have finally turned swords (or at least a runway) into plowshares.
The short answer is, there may have been. Maybe even more than one during the seven decades of the Kim family regime. Word of the event(s) simply may have never made it to the outside world, as little does. It’s also possible that the Korean Stauffenberg(s) never made it as far as the real Stauffenberg and were cut down before they could make a serious attempt on the lives Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, or Kim Jong Un. But all signs point to there never having been a coup attempt with any realistic chance of success.
For those who may be unaware, Colonel (German: Oberst) Clause von Stauffenberg was a German military officer and minor noble who was a leading figure in the July 20 plot of 1944 to assassinate Adolf Hitler by blowing him up in a conference room. July 20 was the last known attempt to kill Hitler. Despite the murder of 6 million Jews, the deaths of millions of rank and file German soldiers and tens of millions of European civilians, and despite the creation of an authoritarian regime that eliminated nearly every freedom one can think of, no mass uprisings occurred in Germany. Even during the final year of the war, when it was obvious to everyone that the war was lost and that Germany would be destroyed, after July 20, 1944, not one stray bullet or bomb found Hitler, and certainly not a nationwide coup as July 20 had attempted.
So what does World War II history have to do with North Korea? (Besides a lot) North Korea has created a state every bit as brutal and oppressive as Nazi Germany or Stalin-era Soviet Union. Nazi Germany was only destroyed from the outside after nearly six years of war. The Soviet Union managed to survive for a staggering 69 years. However, even the USSR wasn’t immune to challenge and revolt. The countries behind Iron Curtain chaffed at Moscow’s reigns and occasionally this spilled out onto the streets, such as during the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Within Soviet Russia itself, you had the Kronstadt Rebellion and anti-Bolshevik peasant revolts. But North Korea appears to lack this kind of internal strife, at least, to a very large degree. It has certainly managed to hold off mass violence and protesters marching in the streets longer than any country I’m aware of, communist or otherwise.
Andrew Scobell’s 2006 monograph “Kim Jong Il and North Korea: The Leader and the System” mentions the fact that totalitarianism demands tremendous resources, both human and material. By necessity it creates systems for coercion and surveillance. And after a while, resources start to dry up and wear down. The economy suffers, infrastructure breaks down, and people grow weary of constant “ideological struggles”, mass mobilizations, as well as the more immediate and constant struggle of feeding one’s family. This leads to a burnout of faith in the regime and a burnout at a more fundamental level – the people themselves simply become tired of it all. North Korea has managed to hold on for 71 years and counting, longer than any communist country in history. The Nazi’s fell because of outside forces and the Soviets fell because of unstoppable economic forces. And both countries had to deal with internal dissent and the burnout of their people. The question I’d like to answer is, why has North Korea not only been able to survive, but why hasn’t it even had a Stauffenberg figure?
I suspect that a full answer and explanation would end up being many, many pages long, too long for the purposes of this blog. So, I will attempt to give a satisfactory but abridged answer here as told through a history of the country.
Kim Il Sung
After the July 20 plot, Stauffenberg was viewed by his contemporary citizens as a traitor. This wasn’t necessarily because he tried to kill Hitler the person, but because he tried to kill the leader of the nation during a time of crisis and war. The people of Germany saw this as dishonorable and as an act that, if successful, would have hurt Germany – after all, the average German still saw Hitler as the reason for the economic improvements of the 1930s and directly responsible for the amazing military successes earlier on in the war. Hitler was still viewed as the only one who could bring about ultimate victory. The world may have been collapsing, but the Führer was the personification of their ultimate hope.
Likewise, Kim Il Sung became the embodiment of the hopes and dreams of the North Korean people.
The Kingdom of Korea, it would be fair to say, was one of the last feudal-esque kingdoms in the world by the time it was annexed by Japan in 1910; slavery wasn’t even officially banned until 1930. Millions of people lived in abject poverty and few had access to education. Japan’s annexation brought with it rapid modernization. The northern half of Korea was industrialized, while the southern half became the breadbasket of the peninsula. But all of this “good” also brought tremendous, continued suffering on the part of the native Korean people. Korean language and culture was banned in favor of Japanization. Japanese citizens were moved into Korea and countless Koreans were forcibly moved out to the far reaches of Japan’s growing empire.
The treatment of the Korean people continued to be abysmal. Then came along a shining example of Korean nationalism and the greatest general of all time, Kim Il Sung. (So says the official myth, anyway.) Japan was defeated in 1945 and a Soviet-backed state created in 1948, with Kim Il Sung at its head. He instituted broad reforms, imprisoned the landlords and gave the farms to the people. He attacked the Christian minority (seen as a stain of imperialism) and replaced such superstitions that repressed the people with faith in him; a god they could see. Education, healthcare, housing, no sector was left untouched by his brand of Korean-Marxism. Then, a short two years later, he launched his country into the most devastating war it had ever seen.
Millions of Koreans died and nearly every building in Pyongyang (and everywhere else) was destroyed. The truth is that North Korea only survived because of Chinese intervention, but the official regime story is that it was the iron-willed leader, Kim Il Sung, who saved the northern half of Korea from American imperialism – while the southern half was forced to languish under the American whip until a new war of unification could be waged. The end of Japanese occupation and the Korean War created a situation that gave Kim Il Sung the opportunity to lay claim to the titles “creator” and “savior” of North Korea. The people, naturally, had been given a front row seat to the horrific abuses of the Japanese and the devastation of modern warfare. North Korea would now forever be at risk. It would always be in the sights of much larger powers just waiting to destroy them.
However, while the peasantry was happy enough to take their anger out on abusive landlords, the apparatus of state was far from settled. Kim Il Sung was only one of many would-be national heroes. In fact, by the end of WWII, he had spent more time outside of Korea than living inside the country. Multiple factions existed and it wasn’t until 1961 before he could really lay claim to being an absolute dictator. But this struggle was largely limited to political machinations on the part of those that opposed him, or at least against his desire to be a dictator. Unfortunately for them, Kim & Co. wasn’t afraid of violence. He and his guerrilla warrior faction were largely uneducated and cared little for the rules of war (or law) and they didn’t mind purging those who opposed his will – either by exile or outright murder. By the 1960s, his Manchu-based guerrilla faction was the only one that had any real power.
Afterwards, the dictatorship he created was constructed to help ensure his continued rule. Some dictatorships are “cooperative”. Those in the military, the bureaucracies, and economic bosses tend to work together within their respective sectors to create a stable state. Lots of other dictatorships lean on a more competitive design. They pit people against each other, and agencies try to usurp one another in the grab for resources and political favor. This creates an inefficient and unstable state, but it also breaks up possible alternate bases of power and limits the risks to the dictator from anyone within government or the military. Kim chose the latter design.
As the country recovered from war and Kim rebuilt the nation, the average person genuinely respected him and had faith in “socialist construction”. It’s important to recall that most Koreans were poor, uneducated farmers and laborers prior to the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The only education they received after that was education that promoted the state and made Kim Il Sung the center of the universe. And the country’s elite and military leaders knew to respect and fear him. They were also well aware of the threats facing their country and that they would not have their positions without Kim, thus loyalty was required.
Kim Jong Il
Kim Jong Il on the other hand was disliked by basically everyone by the time he died in 2011. When Kim Il Sung died in 1994, many outside observers thought the country would soon collapse. What Kim Jong Il had going for him and the first hereditary succession of a communist state was that throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he had been maneuvering himself into being the only viable successor to his father. He built up the personality cult surrounding his father beyond anything Stalin received. He placed himself at the center of every powerful agency, and most importantly, he ingratiated himself with the military. He played up Kim Il Sung’s “divine” bloodline, which he, too, shared. And he slowly cut the elder Kim out of active politics and control.
Kim Jong Il didn’t escape unscathed in his transition to power. But, once again, the opposition was limited to palace intrigue, with the requisite purges that followed. There wasn’t visible public out crying against this most un-socialist of transitions and there weren’t any overt attempts on his life by the elite. Once again, their own survival depended on his, much like the survival of the Nazi elite depended on the continued patronage of Hitler, even in the last weeks of World War II.
The great famine of the 1990s proved to be his greatest threat and it became the greatest example of the regime’s durability. Around a million people died and the state failed in many of its obligations. This is one of a few periods when consistent, but limited, stories pop up of dissent; however, they’re largely limited to factory strikes and such. But this dissent wasn’t necessarily aimed at Kim Jong Il himself (although any dissatisfaction or grumble is viewed by the state as going against the Leader and is treasonous). The people simply wanted food. Luckily for Kim Jong Il, there were plenty of plausible things to blame the famine on that deflected attention away from him and the inherent flaws within socialism: droughts and floods, corrupt officials stealing, and the perennial favorite, Western hostility.
The closest example of a Stauffenberg-like revolt is rumored to have happened in 1997, while the famine was still ongoing. Elements of the Korean People’s Army Sixth Corps, based in North Hamgyong Province, conspired to begin a general uprising. This is where the regime’s insistence on extreme political surveillance and “centralized decentralization”, where Kim is the only one with an overall view of the nation, while the military and state apparatuses are fragmented – particularly when it comes to communication – came into play. The plotters were unable to reliably contact others to arrange a mass uprising. They also failed to overcome the fact that every high-ranking official has their own (one or more) state security officer watching their every move. The commander of the corps refused to take part and the Sixth Corps was disbanded. The conspirators and their families were never heard from again.
The popular perception of organizations like the Nazi SS or Soviet KGB is that they had absolute control over the people. That they knew everything, saw everything, and heard everything. But that isn’t reality. The reality is that Colonel Stauffenberg was recruited by others and that they had far reaching support (even if that support wasn’t exactly based on mass support). An entire apparatus including military officers and political leaders was able to be assembled for the purposes of the July 20 coup attempt. (Some 7,000 people were eventually arrested in connection to the plot.)
What little we know about the 1997 plot paints a much different picture. The conspirators weren’t even able to reach outside of their own units, and they didn’t seem to have had any political supporters. North Korea’s multilayered approach to state security and the security of the supreme dignity (another term for Kim) far surpasses the capabilities of the SS or KGB.
One very plausible reason for the military’s opposition to revolt, even though their own families were suffering during the famine, is that Kim Jong Il switched the center of national power away from the Worker’s Party (WPK) and state bureaucracies and moved it to the military. Kim promoted the military by instituting the Songun policy (military first). By securing his power base among the largest and most powerful (literally) organization in the country, he ensured his continued survival. He also managed to build up a base of support early on, before his succession, by taking over the ideological and propaganda departments. With these behind him, there was little chance of a sustained or deeply rooted challenge to his authority.
A rare example of popular dissent comes from 2009. The people were protesting unpopular currency reforms which wiped out what little people had managed to save. It was viewed as an attempt by the government to steal wealth and crack down on market activities. However, Kim Jong Il, unlike many dictators, learned to listen to the opinions of others and made limited changes to the reforms in response. He also had the “mastermind” behind the reforms executed. The ability to know when to bend to pressure while also maintaining the appearance of personal infallibility served Kim Jong Il well. For the second time in a row, a dictator was able to die of natural causes, as he did in 2011.
Kim Jong Un
Successful dynastic succession is completely unheard of among communist and totalitarian regimes. Within communism, such a thing as hereditary leadership cuts against every aspect of the ideology. And totalitarian systems are largely created by a single strongman and then fall apart as soon as he dies. Kim Jong Un is the grandson of Kim Il Sung. Unlike his father, Kim Jong Il, he didn’t have decades of grooming. In fact, he didn’t have a single decade. To outside observers none of this bode well for the young man. However, Kim the Third seems to have taken rapid actions to secure his reign. A series of purges and executions allowed him to consolidate his power. He took steps to reaffirm the authority of the Party while emphasizing a parallel track that allowed the military to hold on to its power.
Kim Jong Un has managed to accomplish what his father and grandfather couldn’t: the completion of the nuclear program, the successful test of a missile that could hit any part of the US, and face-to-face meetings with the leader of their greatest enemy, President Donald Trump. Furthermore, whatever problems arise from sanctions, Kim Jong Un has still managed to oversee a billion-dollar construction boom. He has also learned the lessons of his forefathers and struck against those who could harm him (his uncle Jang Song-thaek and his half-brother Kim Jong Nam), and he has begun to reach out and rebuild relationships with old allies. His personal characteristics play in his favor, too. Like his grandfather, he is outgoing and more charismatic than his father. Not to mention his striking physical resemblance to Kim Il Sung.
From the outside, it seems like he is in a very good position to maintain power.
Kim Il Sung was the father of the nation. Kim Jong Il led the country out of famine and protected it while it was weakest. Kim Jong Un has managed to accomplish multiple regime promises. And all were able to maintain ruthless control, even if absolute power has waned slightly generation-to-generation. North Korea’s take on Confucianism, filial piety, ultra-nationalism, and severe coercive and security systems has meant that at any given time, the people were either unwilling or unable to reject the Kim’s. Kim Il Sung is viewed as the father of each of the 25 million North Koreans alive today and the Kim dynasty is the personification of the people’s will and of the state. A lyric to a North Korean song goes, “without you, there is no motherland. Without you there is no us.” The leadership has built for itself a system in which the people are inherently opposed to the very idea of dissent or overthrowing the Kim’s, and one in which open dissent or revolt is all but impossible.
The regime’s ability to react positively, but only just, to popular demands and its ability to navigate and command the numerous group interests within the “competitive dictatorship”, has enabled the Kim family to rule for 71 years. In 2019, there is no real outward sign of imminent collapse. Going back to Andrew Scobell, perhaps instead of collapsing the way Libya or the Soviet Union did, North Korea will take the path of China (albeit more slowly) and manage a gradual transition toward a post-totalitarian system. Pyongyang’s total control over the flow of information and economic activity has been greatly reduced over the years. The average citizen no longer relies solely on the state for their needs, but instead relies on their own ingenuity to get what they want. And, the system has become highly corrupt. These weaknesses may enable the transition to a post-totalitarian state, or they may simply be the first visible cracks before the entire edifice comes crashing down. Either way, a Korean Stauffenberg seems as unlikely today as yesterday.
There are 20 air bases and one heliport with underground facilities within North Korea, however, one of those air bases stands out from the rest. While the others simply have maintenance taxiways that take aircraft away from the main runway and to underground facilities for their maintenance, resupply, and general protection, the air base at Kangda-ri (near Anbyon) actually has a runway that goes completely through a mountain. It is the only one of its kind in the country.
Kangda-ri has existed since at least 1984 based on Landsat images. At the time, it was just a simple dirt runway with the mountain some 500 meters off to the east. Basic work on the secondary runway which goes through the mountain appears to have began around 1997-98. Work soon stalled but was restarted in 2000. Additional work occurred in 2009-2010 and since then, almost nothing. However, imagery from late 2018 shows that new work has commenced.
1984 satellite image of Kangda-ri. The small dirt runway is barely identifiable as a thin line running parallel to the river.
By 1998, clear evidence of tunneling work under the mountain can be seen.
By 2001, the main tunnel through the mountain has been cut and the runway is beginning to extend out both sides of the mountain.
Imagery from 2002 is of high enough resolution to show detailed construction work.
This image show two main features. First, that blast doors were installed. These will, theoretically, protect the tunnel from attack. The second is that the tunnel employs a very clever but simple design: having two ceilings. The first ceiling is simply the exposed stone of the tunnel, the second is a separate concrete arch. This "tunnel within a tunnel" acts as a shield and protects whatever is inside the tunnel from debris and small collapses of the outer stone tunnel should the mountain be bombed. This type of design was employed by the Nazis to protect key naval and missile facilities and has been used by other nations, like the US in the construction of Cheyenne Mountain.
The original runway was then upgraded in 2009-10 to a larger paved runway.
The original runway was approx. 5,400 feet long and 70 feet wide. The upgraded runway that was completed in 2010 is substantially larger at approx. 8,200 feet long and 145 feet wide.
Construction work on a bridge and road to connect the two runways actually began sometime before 2007 but was never completed. Additionally, it seems that this larger runway was abandoned as it has been overgrown and repeatedly flooded. Minor activity of various kinds can been seen between 2010 and 2017 at the underground site, but no further substantial work happened until 2018.
By 2018 several changes could be seen. 1) the pile of spoils (debris) from tunneling work has grown; 2) the southern section of runway has been resurfaced; and 3) there is an extension protruding to the west off of the northern section of runway.
The current dimensions of the extension is approx. 455 feet long and between 75 and 105 feet wide (depending on the section measured). There's no way to know what it's for at this point and based on the mind-numbing slow pace of work here, we may not know for a very long time, if the place is ever even finished. However, the fact the regime has continued to expend resources here across two generations of leadership shows that the site retains some level of importance.
The exact purpose of Kangda-ri is unknown, although we do know that it is part of the 2nd Air Combat Division (HQ at Toksan). According to Joshua Stanton over at Free Korea, the underground runway is both too short and not wide enough for fighter jets. But, the Anbyon region is suspected to hold a major chemical weapons storage facility, so perhaps the smaller runway is supposed to be part of loading and transport. Smaller aircraft can then be lined up and taxi to the main runway (should the bridge ever be completed) where they can take the weapons to any other part of the country when needed. At this point, it's all conjecture.
North Korea's asymmetric and urban warfare training capabilities have been the center of intense focus by Kim Jong Un. Nearly every MOUNT (military on urban terrain) facility in the country has been enlarged or upgraded and multiple new sites have been constructed since his rule began.
The post-training ruins of the replica Blue House, constructed near Pyongyang in 2016.
The country already has a history of constructing mock ups of important buildings like, South Korea's Blue House and defense headquarters. North Korean special forces blew up the mock Blue House during a training exercise in 2016, and in 2017 a replica of South Korea's Gyeryong military services headquarters was spotted at another MOUNT facility near the Yongbyon nuclear facility. Now, a third famous site can be added to the list: Panmunjom.
Gyeryong replica building as seen in September 2018.
Panmunjom (aka Truce Village, aka Joint Security Area) is a small collection of buildings that straddle the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and is the only place where soldiers from both sides stand face-to-face. If you've ever visited the DMZ, you were undoubtedly taken here. The site was the location of the 1953 Armistice signing and has hosted many diplomatic and military negotiations over the years. While Panmunjom was the site of the 2018 Inter-Korean Summit, which marked the first time a North Korean leader stepped foot into South Korea since the Korea War.
The real Panmunjom is located less than 11 km from the North Korean city of Kaesong. The copy is also near Kaesong, a mere 7 km to the northwest, close to the village of Haeson. The copy is built at a small military training base that was constructed around 2006 and has had incremental changes over the years.
Locations of the two Panmunjom's in relation to Kaesong. 2019 Google Earth image, annotated by Jacob Bogle.
The first satellite evidence of the site is dated Nov. 29, 2017. Well before the Inter-Korean Summit which happened in April 2018. Curiously, on Nov. 13, 2017, a North Korean soldier defected the country and fled to South Korea via Panmunjom. The layout of the site doesn't perfectly match the real place, but there are plenty of similarities - most notably the design of Freedom House and the facade of the Phanmun Pavilion.
The purpose of this mock facility can only be guessed at, but it's possible it was a rushed construction to give border guards more accurate training to deal with any possible future defections. It could also serve diplomatic causes by giving dignitaries a place to do trial runs and walk through's prior to visiting the real place. However, the fact remains that it was constructed at a military base and during a time when the Kim regime was enjoying blowing up other important locations. This leads me to believe that there is likely a military purpose for it as well as any theoretical peaceful mission.
Murals of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at Jangdae Hill, Pyongyang. (Image source: Commons/Nicor/CC 3.0)
Monuments usually mark the place of an important event or memorialize important historical figures. But they can also be used to to enforce the ruling regime. Through murals of the gentle leader playing with children (subtly suggesting the regime controls all ages) to massive monuments declaring the absolute power of the party and state, North Korea uses monuments physically stamp its control across the country.
However, they're more than just symbols of authority with little part in people's everyday lives. Monuments play a central role in ordering society and maintaining control. Wedding photos are taken next to them, locals are required to pay homage to the Kim's at the monuments on holidays and at other times, and their display and proper upkeep (which is required by law) helps to demonstrate loyalty - which in turn can assist in a town or factory in receiving favors from the government.
Various estimates place the number of monuments at up to 34,000. However, the 2017 AccessDPRK Mapping Project, using Google Earth, has established that there is only a fraction of that total in reality. It located 9,896 individual monuments. In 2018 I resurveyed all of those monuments (spending roughly 150 hours on the project). As part of the survey, I classified them by type and was able to located additional monuments. Despite that, I still cannot substantiate the 34,000 estimate and I feel the 2018 survey places restrictions on the maximum number of monuments (it is greater than 10,000, but will not be higher than 15,000, even considering any others I may have possibly missed). With this in consideration, the only realistic interpretation of the 34,000 figure is that it represents the total number of monuments ever constructed, which would include those that have since been demolished, includes memorial plaques (such as on a chair Kim Il Sung may have sat on), or was simply largely based on anecdotal evidence that led to an incorrect figure.
The 2018 review found 11,170 monuments (an increase of 1,274). This increase in number over the original 2017 map can largely be attributed to the erection of new monuments and updated satellite imagery which made seeing them more easy. Regarding new statues in the context of Kim Jong Un, all joint statues and murals of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are "new" in that they were constructed under the rule of Kim Jong Un. In the new file, I have also pointed out selected other monuments that have been erected since he came to power. In total, there have been at least 410 monuments constructed since 2011.
For this article, I am only focusing on permanent monuments that are made out of stone or metal. There may be upwards of 1,000 propaganda signs, but many are often transient and may be left to deteriorate. Additionally, there are countless wooden signs placed in fields, at construction sites, and other places which promote whatever propaganda theme is being pushed at the time. These signs are likewise often temporary.
To directly download the Google Earth KMZ file, click here. (You must have GE to access the data.)
Monument Types and Identification
North Korea's monuments can be broken down into six main categories: Towers of Immortality, statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, murals of the two Kims, general murals (may feature the Kims, images of daily life, nature, etc.), general monuments and statues (monuments to an event, ones carrying slogans or sayings, non-Kim statues), and large monuments (such as the Juche Tower). Slogan signs, general murals, and other such monuments all fall within a broader system of generalized monuments and so I haven't given each general monument its own classification label. A key reason for this is the fact that many are small and any detailed identification via satellite is basically impossible. So I have focused on breaking down the monuments into the following major categories: Towers, Kim statues, Kim murals, large monuments, and "others" (which encompasses everything else).
Tower of Immortality on Sungri Street, Pyongyang. (Image source: Commons/Nicor/CC 3.0)
From satellite imagery, Towers look like this
This is the primary Tower of Immortality and is located in Pyongyang.
Towers located in towns and elsewhere, such as in this example, will have a more simple appearance and will be smaller.
This is the Mansudae Grand Monument which features giant bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. While these are the largest statues in the country, smaller statues of the Kim's exist in each provincial capital and at some major institutions.
This is the site as seen on Google Earth.
Murals of Kim Il Sun and Kim Jong Il at Jangdae, Pyongyang. (Image Source: Commons/Nicor/3.0).
From satellite, the murals look like this
Many murals are placed at schools, universities, and factories, and because they are relatively thin (as seen from above), it can be hard to locate them as they may blend in with trees or building facades.
Joint KIS-KJI murals are all labeled within the KMZ file "Others". However it also includes all additional murals, which can have a wide range of images painted on them, as well as slogan monuments, which are typically the smallest kind and has various quotes from the leadership and Party, and larger monuments like the monument to the foundation of Korean Worker's Party and Juche Tower.
This is an example of an institution that has multiple types of monuments around the grounds.
Air Defense and Combat Command, Pyongyang. Base image by Google Earth with annotations by AccessDPRK.com.
As a general rule, there's one joint statue of the deceased Kim's in each provincial capital and one joint mural in each county seat. Towers of Immortality are placed in every city, town, and village of note, as well as universities and major factories. In most cases, military bases will not have a monument, but some key military schools, headquarter facilities, and other important bases will have at least one monument.
North Korea has at least 11,170 monuments, a 13% increase from the 2017 file. Of those, 5,175 are Towers, 29 are joint statues of Kim Il Sung-Kim Jong Il (KIS-KJI), 265 are KIS-KJI joint murals, and 5,701 are various other monuments. While I did not attempt to locate every monument erected since Kim Jong Un came into power, I did determine that there are at least 145 of them (representing 1.3% of the total number of monuments in the country). This doesn't include the joint murals, all of which were erected after the death of Kim Jong Il (usually in the place of the single murals of Kim Il Sung that existed prior). If you take those into consideration, then at least 410 monuments are new.
Breakdown by Province
Chagang has 657 total monuments. Of those, there are 346 Towers, 1 is a KIS-KJI statue, and 16 are KIS-KJI murals. There are an additional 294 monuments of various types.
N. Hamgyong has 864 total monuments. Of those, 463 are Towers, 1 is a KIS-KJI statue, and 19 are KIS-KJI murals. There are an additional 381 monuments of various types. There is also an example of a demolished monument (not included in the overall counts). There are 7 other examples of new monuments (built in 2009 or later)
S. Hamgyong has 1,295 total monuments. Of those, 690 are Towers, 1 is a KIS-KJI statue, and 26 are KIS-KJI murals. There are an additional 578 monuments of various types. There are also 7 example of a demolished monument (not included in the overall counts). There are 12 other examples of new monuments (built in 2009 or later)
N. Hwanghae has 1,265 total monuments. Of those, 568 are Towers, 3 are KIS-KJI statues, and 25 are KIS-KJI murals. There are an additional 669 monuments of various types. There are also 6 examples of a demolished monument (not included in the overall counts). There are 16 other examples of new monuments (built in 2011 or later)
S. Hwanghae has 1,254 total monuments. Of those, 667 are Towers, 2 are KIS-KJI statues, and 24 are KIS-KJI murals. There are an additional 561 monuments of various types. There are also 9 examples of a demolished monument (not included in the overall counts). There are 22 other examples of new monuments (built in 2011 or later)
Kangwon has a total of 1,073 total monuments. Of those, 444 are Towers, 2 are KIS-KJI statues, and 16 are KIS-KJI murals. There are an additional 611 monuments of various types. There are also 3 examples of demolished monuments (not included in the overall counts). There are 23 other examples of new monuments (built in 2011 or later)
N. Pyongan has 1,252 total monuments. Of those, 637 are Towers, 2 are KIS-KJI statues, and 39 are KIS-KJI murals. There are an additional 574 monuments of various types. There is also an example of a demolished monument (not included in the overall counts). There are 9 other examples of new monuments (built in 2011 or later)
S. Pyongan has 1,497 total monuments. Of those, 673 are Towers, 4 are KIS-KJI statues, and 54 are KIS-KJI murals. There are an additional 766 monuments of various types. There are also 10 examples of a demolished monument (not included in the overall counts). There are 32 other examples of new monuments (built in 2011 or later)
Pyongyang has 1,473 total monuments. Of those, 449 are Towers, 11 are KIS-KJI statues, and 21 are KIS-KJI murals. There are an additional 992 monuments of various types. There is also an example of a demolished monument (not included in the overall counts). There are 20 other examples of new monuments (built in 2011 or later)
Rason has 109 total monuments. Of those, there are 33 Towers, 1 is a KIS-KJI statue, and 2 are KIS-KJI murals. There are an additional 73 monuments of various types. There are also 3 examples of a demolished monument (not included in the overall counts).
Ryanggang has 431 total monuments. Of those, 205 are Towers, 1 is a KIS-KJI statue, and 23 are KIS-KJI murals. There are an additional 226 monuments of various types. There are 4 other examples of new monuments (built in 2011 or later)
Below shows the ratios of monuments to population. The population figures are based on the 2008 national census. The annual population growth rate between 1993 and 2008 was 0.84%. That period included a major famine and economic collapse. To estimate current populations, I am going to use growth rate of 10% for the 2008-2018 period, as the economy and food supply situation has improved.
To directly download the Google Earth KML file, click here. (You must have Google Earth to access the information.) Remember, this file has over 11,000 places marked. The file is broken down by province, so in order to not slow down your computer, click on the province you're interested in, or to view the full file, click on each province one at a time.
The town of Ichon, Kangwon Province is located a mere 20 miles from the DMZ, and 5 miles east of the town, new facilities have been popping up in the hills of the Kŏnsŏl-li valley.
Click on any image for a larger view.
Based on open-source satellite imagery, construction began in 2015 and lasted until late 2017. It includes bunkers, storage sites, and housing facilities.
The below image shows the locations of all of the bunkers, storage sites, and some other features.
This military base is of brigade size and likely plays a role in the production and storage of various munitions.
This 2013 image shows the two small valleys where most of the sites are located prior to any construction.
This 2017 image shows the area after construction, with multiple new buildings and 23 new housing units.
This 2016 image shows various bunkers under construction. The base has 8 (possibly 9) bunkers, two hardened structures, and at least one underground site.
The existence of protective berms between many of the buildings, and the presence of storage facilities suggest that this base is used in the manufacture and/or development of ammunition. There is no apparent testing range, so it is unlikely that this is some kind of training base, which would also require ammunition storage.
This new addition may help support other military units in the area. Specific details about this site are sparse, however, it ties into the previous article I wrote on the continued growth of North Korea's conventional forces despite sanctions and talks of peace.
Much attention has been paid to North Korea's nuclear weapons, and the focus of recent talks and summits has been to get the country to give them up. However, little to no attention has been given to their conventional military forces which is among the world's largest. With a million men and women currently under arms, nearly 6 million citizens belonging to paramilitary organizations, 200,000 special forces personnel, 1,600 air defense sites, over 800 underground locations, 700 hardened artillery sites, and thousands of tons worth of chemical and biological weapons, North Korea's conventional military remains an extremely deadly force despite the outdated nature of its equipment.
Kim Jong Un has not only accomplished North Korea's long-standing goal of developing functional nuclear weapons and the capacity to launch them at the US through their ICBM program, but he has poured millions of dollars into modernizing the country's conventional forces. This modernization program includes the construction of entirely new bases, the expansion of existing ones, and there has been a large focus on specialized warfare centers like hovercraft bases and military on urban terrain (MOUNT) facilities. An important take away in the face of denuclearization talks is that all of this activity has been happening since Kim took power and it continues to this very day. This article will examine five examples of this to show that Kim's army is marching right along.
Click on any image for a larger view.
Kyongsong Air Base Reconstruction
Under Kim Jong Un, several changes to the country's air force bases and airports have been observed, and I have tried keeping you up-to-date with these changes (see Rockets and Runways and NK's Air Force). However, the changes to the Kyongsong Airbase is one of the most extreme cases of modernization since Wonsan's Kalma Airport was reconstructed at a cost of $200 million.
Kyongsong in August 2018 before any construction has begun.
By October 2018, the entire airbase had been razed and new facilities are under construction.
Kyongsong isn't expected to cost such a grand sum, but the complete reconstruction of the runway and administrative area is a major recent change to the country's military infrastructure. Kyongsong is subordinate to the 8th Transport Division and is the home of an officer's training school. The school, located to the north of the base, isn't currently undergoing any major changes.
New Urban Warfare Base
One of North Korea's newest MOUNT facilities is located 21 km northwest of Haeju. I have written about these facilities before, but this is a large base, was constructed within the last two years, and is located in an area with several other military training bases that have also undergone expansion.
2017 satellite image of the MOUNT facility's location before its construction.
The MOUNT facility after its construction. It has three sets of mock buildings used in training activities.
A close-up of the mock buildings constructed at the site and another training course.
The continued construction of MOUNT facilities, some small and some large like Haeju's, points to the regime's commitment to asymmetric warfare and their dedication to the long-standing policy of supporting the forced reunification of the peninsula under Kim family rule.
New Hovercraft Base
Yonbong is a hovercraft base under construction that places North Korean military assets within 30 miles of South Korean territory. Located near the city of Songang, South Hwanghae Province, construction of the base began in 2014 and is ongoing. The hovercraft shelters are dispersed around small sea inlets and are built into the sides of low hills, which provides greater protection for the site. According to Joseph Bermudez, this is one of the most forward deployed naval sites North Korea has. While it may take some time before the base is completed, once it is, it will represent a great danger to South Korean islands in the region and to marine traffic.
Yonbong facilities under construction in 2015.
This image shows multiple years of work at the base, including work done in 2018 which was close to the Kim-Trump summit and despite North Korea's apparent "good behavior" of not testing missiles since 2017.
A close-up of the different groups of hovercraft bays.
The construction of this new base has been happening at the same time as several other facilities and while the Muncho Naval Base has undergone major upgrades. Munchon, located near the east coastal city of Wonsan, is home to Korean People's Navy units 155, 597, and 291 and houses a large number of hovercraft. Additionally, Kim Jong Un has ordered an increase in the production of high-speed torpedo boats. North Korea currently has over 200 such boats. The combined effect of all of this is the heightened capabilities of North Korea to launch rapid attacks against South Korea and to defend their own borders against any Western allied invasion, thus it poses a risk to American forces in such an event.
ICBM Bases Activity
North Korea has an estimated 20 missile bases. Of those, 13 have been positively identified, and one of them shows substantial recent activity (despite wrongly reported claims that North Korea agreed to halt production of their missiles).
The base is Yeongjon-do, located near the Chinese border. Known about for decades, previously unidentified construction has been located at the site and may be a second headquarters facility for an annex of the expanded base.
This 2004 image of the older, core base shows five tunnels and two "drive-thru" bunkers where mobile missile launchers could be loaded and deployed. Image from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS).
The area of concern lies 7 miles away.
This 2018 image shows the new "headquarters" which was originally constructed in 2014. Image from CNS.
Additional activity shows the ongoing construction of a large underground facility.
This comparison image shows the growth of a spoil pile (discarded soil and rock) from the excavation of the underground site. Image from CNS.
North Korea maintains over 800 underground facilities and tunnels which include sites to protect factories, nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, missiles, and other important equipment. Based on the images, construction progress has sped up significantly since 2017. Its exact purpose is unknown to the public, but private sector analysts and intelligence agencies are carefully watching the area.
(Side note: I would like to say that while I had marked new housing construction associated with this area years ago as part of AccessDPRK, I did not identify it as a missile base.)
New Surface-to-Air Missile Base
Based on an AccessDPRK review of military sites in 2018, North Korea has 58 verified SAM (surface-to-air) locations (with a further three that may actually be dummy sites). This new site may be the 59th, although more recent satellite imagery once the site is completed will likely be needed for a positive identification.
North Korea has been working to deploy their version of the Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile system, the KN-06. The KN-06 has a range of 150 km and is vehicle based, unlike their older SAM systems which are launched from dedicated SAM bases. However, the KN-06 can be stored in hardened bunkers until needed as well as kept mobile to avoid detection.
This new site is located within the main SAM belt that runs the length of the DMZ and it is placed near major cities and military bases that would need aerial defense. Its general design also somewhat differs from older, more conventional SAM facilities which makes me think it may be a kind "shelter site" (North Korea houses thousands of different missiles and various other equipment in bunkers across the country).
Relations between North Korea and the US and South Korea have definitely changed since 2016. But despite the current rapprochement with South Korea and photo-op summits with President Trump, their suspension of nuclear tests, and all of the claims coming from the Trump administration of denuclearization and even hints at general disarmament, the fact remains that North Korea's conventional military is marching right on with no signs of slowing down. These examples show that nearly every other non-nuclear branch of their military is continuing to be developed and countless millions are being poured into modernization schemes.
North Korea may have halted the development of new nuclear technology, but their current nuclear and ballistic technology is already more than capable of inflicting great harm on the US and our allies. And regardless of any nuclear halt, Kim Jong Un's army, navy, and air force are even more capable and adaptable today than it was two years ago.
For every large article or big mapping project, I try to mix in several smaller ones to continue to the goal of exposing North Korea and keeping my readers interested. This year was no different, however, I made the choice to focus more on those bigger items. In 2018 I made eleven posts to this blog (making for 70 posts overall). Three of those this year included either a release of information via Google Earth files or an explorable Google Map. And when you make room for the various images included, these eleven posts represent 85 pages of printable material.
The two largest projects I began this year involves the military and the country's monuments. The military project can be divided into two smaller, yet still large in themselves, projects. The first is a complete re-mapping of North Korea's military sites and re-organizing of my file system within Google Earth. I am wanting to take a much more granular look them to provide ever greater levels of detail. While this project will take some time to complete, I have already made over 500 additions to what was included in the Phase II map, and made hundreds of additional changes to the original material as well. The second part of the "military project" involves the country's air defense sites. The current, non-public map that I now have has even more locations identified and updates those older ones that may have become decommissioned, upgraded, or otherwise changed since 2016/2017. Without giving too much away, I am working on a new map specifically for this subject and it will help to give greater-detailed answers to certain questions that are out there.
The second major project is also re-mapping the whole country, this time, in regard to the vast numbers of monuments. I have also broken them down into a few specific categories that will be of use to others. One reason I decided to do this is to help resolve a discrepancy between my own findings and the often quoted estimations of others on the number of monuments around the country. It will also give a general idea as to how many new monuments Kim Jong Un has constructed, and offer insights into the amount of effort and money still being dumped in the personality cult at the expense of other sectors. I have completed the mapping portion. Now all I have left to do is write my report on it and publish the KML file, so that will definitely become available in 2019.
In terms of social media, it's been a fun year. Traffic to the blog for 2018 was over 600% higher than the first year of having it. I made over 80 Tweets about North Korea that was connected to #AccessDPRK and those garnered over 200,000 impressions.
Here was 2018's top Tweet.
I'm also proud to say that a GIS company reached out to me for some assistance with one of their projects earlier in the year, and I was able to give it. Additionally, I discovered that the RAND Corporation used parts of the Phase II map to help create their 2018 report, The Korean Peninsula: Three Dangerous Scenarios. It's always exciting to me when I see things being of use to others (when proper credit is given, of course, which is was by RAND).
I have still been considering setting up a Patreon page, as I first discussed last year. Well, I've already set it up (not published) but I haven't quite figured out what direction I want to go with it (either to allow people to donate monthly or per article. What kind of rewards to offer, etc.) But considering the amount of time some of these things take (over 150 hours just on monuments), I don't think it's the right way to go to shoulder the full burden of research, buying new books/articles, up-keeping domains, etc. without some support from those most interested. Life does get the way at times, and having some added income would help speed things up and allow me to produce more content.
Here's looking forward to another year of shedding light on the Hermit Kingdom!
Statue of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il riding horses. Erected in 2012 after the death of Kim Jong Il.
For the uninitiated, Juche is the official state ideology of North Korea. It is most commonly translated as "self-reliance". This self-reliance is supposed to mean the self-sufficiency of the state and that "man is the master of his own fate". In reality, neither of these is true. The general concept of Juche has a history that goes back to the 1930s, however, it wasn't until 1982 that Kim Il Sung wrote the main treatise on the subject. Mixing Korean ethnic nationalism with Marxism-Leninism, Juche also helps to support the Kim family personality cult, which is further backed up by the Monolithic Ideology System, which declares that there is no correct thought but the thought of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and (now) Kim Jong Un. Through it all, the web of Juche underpins the fabric of North Korea's political and cultural systems.
The cult of personality that exists within North Korea is the most extreme and pervasive example that has ever existed. With a genesis that dates back to the very foundation of the country, North Korea is strewn with thousands of monuments praising and commemorating the leadership. Its people are taught songs of praise to the Kim family, and important sites have become pilgrimage destinations for millions (as well as mandatory tourist sites). Christianity has Rome. Judaism has Jerusalem. Islam has Mecca and Medina. The Cult of Kim has Mangyongdae, Pyongyang, Hoeryong, Mt. Paektu, and Myohyangsan.
There are countless historic and revolutionary sites within North Korea, but those core locations provide the major, real-world backbone needed for the cult, and also helps to support its racialist overtones as the people of Korea are viewed within the cult as the "purest" race in the world: with the purest bloodline leading the revolution.
Locations of sites mentioned in the article. Image source: Google Earth/AccessDPRK)
Kim Jong Un's 2012 visit to the summit of Mt. Paektu. Frozen Lake Chol is in the background. (Image source: KCNA)
Located in the far north of the country, split in two by the borders of China and North Korea, the ancient volcano Mt. Paektu (9,003 ft) holds a special spiritual place in the hearts of all Koreans, north and south. The mountain really is a wonderful place and it is the highest mountain on the Korean peninsula. Lower elevations are covered with dense forests and countless wild animals roam. Higher up, the rich land turns to ice and rock, finally giving way to the enormous crater lake (Lake Chol/Heaven Lake) at the summit, which was formed by an extremely powerful eruption around 946 AD.
From this majestic setting, the foundation myth of the Korean people arises. The god-king Dangun is said to have been born on the mountain to his mother, the daughter of a bear and a human, and to his father, the son of the Lord of Heaven. Dangun eventually went on to found what has become known as Korea (Old Joseon) in 2333 BC. This date is celebrated in both Koreas as National Foundation Day and for over 4,000 years, the people of Korea forged a unique and ever unified identity that was later shattered by the events of World War II and the Korean War.
The mountain's military role also lends itself to the mytho-historical accounts of Kim Il Sung and his band of guerrilla fighters. Mt. Paektu and its geologic offspring, the lower mountains that run down the spine of the country, served as an important defensive line. It enabled the construction of many forts and walled cities that helped to defend Korea from invading Chinese, roving bandits, and other outside threats. Kim Il Sung's story here begins with his struggle against Japanese occupation. From the flanks of the mountain he, with his iron-will and band of peerless, peasant worriers, would strike Japanese strongholds, disrupt communication and transportation, liberate towns, and raise an army that eventually defeated the whole of Imperil Japan. The mountain gave them shelter and supplies. It taught them lessons through struggle that made them stronger and wiser. And as the Japanese threat vanished from the Earth, while Western imperialism threatened to devour all, it gave him a son; Kim Jong Il.
The alleged birthplace of Kim Jong Il at the Mt. Paektu "Secret Camp". (Image source: NK News)
The reality is that Kim Il Sung and his fighters never held more than a moderate-sized village for more than a few hours. Their military threats and ideological assaults on imperialism were never more than an annoyance to the Japanese. But after decades of spin and embellishment, Kim Il Sung, with the divine mandate of Mt. Paektu, all but single-handedly defeated the Japanese, overthrew the old capitalist order by creating the call to class struggle in the hearts of the people, and eventually created the most powerful nation in the world after defeating the former most powerful, the United States. Likewise, Kim Jong Il (who was actually born in Russia, not on Mt. Paektu), used the mystical nature of the mountain to legitimize his rule. Not only was he the son of Korea, he was the son of Heaven. He was part of a spiritual lineage that dated all the way back to Dangun and the founding of Korea. No true Korean could question him.
It is that lineage that also enables the tale of Juche to suppress minorities, exile the physical and mentally handicapped, and look upon all other races as inferior beings. Only Koreans are pure of blood and heart, and that must be defended at all costs by the Paektu Bloodline, the noblest bloodline that ever was.
Soldiers making their pilgrimage to the mountain. (Image source: Commons/Liaka ac/CC 2.0)
As such an important place, numerous songs and poems have been written about the mountain, and it features in national symbolism, like the National Emblem. The pine tree is even the national tree of the DPRK because of its association with Mt. Paektu and Kim Il Sung's activities there during the Japanese occupation. The nearby city of Samjiyon has been turned into the main stop before visiting the mountain itself. It has multiple monuments, walled of villas, and a secure palace for the ruling Kim. Since 2005, the city has undergone a series of upgrades and it is the intention of Kim Jong Un to turn it into major regional hub by 2020. After all, Samjiyon is the "spiritual hometown of the people" according to government propaganda.
The Samjiyon Grand Monument (Image source: Commons/Liaka ac/CC 2.0)
Myohyangsan as seen from Pohyonsa Temple. (Image source: Commons/Uri Tours/CC 2.0)
Myohyangsan (which translates to "mysterious fragrant mountain") is a mountain along the border between North Pyongan and Chagang provinces. The mountain is the home of the mythical King Dangun after he descended from Mt. Paektu and established Korea. Myohyangsan is another beautiful mountain and has been recognized by UNESCO as a world biosphere reserve for its many endemic and endangered plant and animal species. The mountain is also dotted with century's old temples, graves, and other historic ruins, which tie its current modern use to the past.
Nestled in the valley are a set of two large underground museums called the International Friendship Exhibition. These museums hold over 200,000 gifts to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il from people around world. Satellite imagery from 2017 suggests that the museums are undergoing expansion, perhaps to include new gifts being received by Kim Jong Un. Unfortunately, photography inside the exhibition is prohibited, so I can't show you what it looks like indoors.
One of the museum entrances. (Image source: Commons/Uwe Brodrecht/CC 2.0)
The associated city of Hyangsan (Kuwollim), largely built in traditional Korean architecture, serves as the urban center that helps support the several luxury hotels pilgrims stay at. The existence of these museums (rather, the fact so many gifts have been bestowed on the leadership) is used by the government to prove the supremacy of the Kim family. Countless honorary degrees from questionable universities of the Communist era, an array of now meaningless awards and medals from defunct Eastern bloc countries and former African despots, and all manner of other things from the simple to the magnificent are all to be found here. Citizens (and tourists) are walked through dozens and dozens of rooms being told who, when, and where each item came to Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il. They are to how the gifts demonstrate that the ideology created by the Kims is correct and seen as important worldwide. The exhibition also helps to instill a sense of community, that North Korea really isn't all alone; rather, it is just the evil capitalists who are trying to destroy the country and to harm "true" freedom loving people around the world. But thanks to the Kims and their tireless work, all people can rest assured in the ultimate victory that is to come, and these gifts prove it.
The recent activity at the museum is also part of an overall improvement of the area. The construction of a new airport and renovated facilities have all occurred under Kim Jong Un. He has spent millions around the country improving the major sites associated with his family and the government.
Located nearby is the curious Hagap Facility. Once thought to be an underground nuclear complex, it is now thought by many to be a massive underground repository for the works of the Kims and other important national archives. It, too, has ongoing new construction activities.
Pyongyang and Mangyongdae
The site rich capital of Pyongyang. Click for larger view. (Image source: GoogleEarth/AccessDPRK)
Pyongyang is the central focus of the cult of Kim. It is the claimed birthplace of Kim Il Sung (in the Mangyongdae neighborhood) and it is the center of government. While residency in the capital is tightly restricted, all North Koreans are expected to make the journey to visit the main sights. These include, the Juche Tower, the premier Tower of Immortality, the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, his eternal resting place (along with that of his son, Kim Jong Il) at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the monument to the foundation of the Korean Workers' Party, the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery, and all must bow before the enormous bronze statues at Mansu Hill.
Juche Tower at night. (Image source: Commons/Martyn Williams/CC 2.5)
As briefly discussed earlier, Juche is the guiding light of North Korea. Kim Il Sung's explanation of Juche was, "Establishing juche means, in a nutshell, being the master of revolution and reconstruction in one’s own country. This means holding fast to an independent position, rejecting dependence on others, using one’s own brains, believing in one’s own strength, displaying the revolutionary spirit of self-reliance, and thus solving one’s own problems for oneself on one’s own responsibility under all circumstances." Unfortunately, this notionally positive concept was never meant to empower individualism.
To honor the invention of the Juche idea and to honor Kim Il Sung's 70th birthday, the Juche Tower was opened in 1982. Standing at 560 feet, the tower contains 25,550 blocks - one for each day of Kim Il Sung's life to that point. The tower is one of the most iconic and popular sights in Pyongyang and, from the top, is the best place to take panoramic photos of the city. The tower serves as a iconographic focal point for the city (as it can be seen across the Taedong River from Kim Il Sing Square) and is the backdrop for parades and mass celebrations.
To underscore the importance and claimed universality of the Juche idea, the tower also contains 82 "friendship" plaques from supportive organizations across the world.
Kim Il Sung's birthplace. (Image source: Commons/stephan/CC 2.0)
The birthplace of Kim Il Sung at Mangyongdae carries with it the same importance and sense of awe as Bethlehem does for Christians. Mangyongdae was once a very rural community, but now contains the claimed original birthplace of a demigod, it is a major tourist attraction, and has become infused with a religious and recreational nature.
This Revolutionary Site has been a place of pilgrimage since 1947. Kim Il Sung's childhood 1,000 ri (~300 mile) "Journey of Learning" and his other youthful exploits emanate from this spot. The site contains not just the house, which is surrounded by green and wooded spaces, but it has been expanded with modern amenities such as the Mangyongdae Revolutionary Museum, a large amusement park, water park, and is adjacent to the Mangyongdae School where North Korea's next generation of elites are taught. The amusement park can technically accommodate 100,000 people a day, which attests to the area's importance.
Kumsusan Memorial Palace (2010). (Image source: Commons/David Stanley/CC 2.0)
As is even the case with a demigod, death tends to follow life. Kumsusan began as a palace and office for Kim Il Sung and was constructed in 1976. Following his death, it was converted into a mausoleum. Kim Il Sung, still officially the Eternal President, lies in a glass sarcophagus at the heart of the palace. When his holy son, Kim Jong Il died in 2011, he, too, was placed within the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. The original construction of the 115,000 square feet palace and the subsequent renovations needed to turn it into an everlasting mausoleum have been reported to have cost a combined $900 million.
Statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il within the palace. (Image source: KCNA)
Visitors are required to pay their respects to the lit, lifelike statues of the gone but not forgotten leaders. The current statues replaced pure white marble ones in 2016.
The reopening of Ryomyong Street with the renovated tower in the center. (Image source: KCTV)
To underscore the fact that Kim Il Sung never truly left the people, thousands of "towers of immortality" were constructed across the country. These local towers are gathering places for holidays, mass celebrations, weddings, etc. People are required to bow as they walk passed them and maintenance of them is the highest priorities. In fact, the towers as well as major murals and other key monuments are often the only places that have 24/7 electricity provided and nighttime lighting. Your home may be cold and dark, but you can warm yourself by the glow of the tower.
The preeminent 92-meter (301 feet) tall tower in Pyongyang was renovated in 2017.
Monument to the Foundation of the Workers' Party of Korea. (Image source: Commons/Bjørn Christian Tørrissen/CC 3.0)
No trip to Pyongyang is complete without a visit to the Workers' Party of Korea Foundation Monument. The WPK was founded in 1949 and serves as the only real political voice in the country. While it is in reality little more than a rubber-stamp body for approving "laws" dictated from on high, the legal system, political activities, education, correct culture and thought, and nearly every other aspect of one's daily life is ultimately controlled by the Party. To be a Party member is to have an easy life and a future for your children. To be denied membership, or worse, ejected, is cast a multi-generational shadow on your family, from which they may never recover. Obedience to the KWP is the primary function of every North Korean.
The monument was erected to mark the 50th anniversary of the Party's founding. The granite and bronze monument is in the shape of the WPK's emblem, a hammer (workers), sickle (farmers), and calligraphy brush (intellectuals). It lies on the right bank of the Taedong River, across from the Korean Revolution Museum on the left bank. These, in turn, lie upstream from Kim Il Sung Square and the Juche Tower. These form two axis that ties the city together based on the Kim family and the Party.