By the time we visited the Mansudae Grand Monument we had been in North Korea for at least a couple of hours. We had already have picked up the absolute loyalty to, and reverence for, Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and the current leader, Kim Jong-un, from everyone we met in that short time. It had also been explained to us that every citizen holds the current and past Leaders in the same high esteem. This is cult of personality at its most extreme, surpassing those surrounding even Joseph Stalin or Chairman Mao in their heydays.
In the very unlikely event that this has not dawned on us, a visit to this monument brought it home. Whether or not the Leaders are as close to everyone’s heart as they outwardly show is an entirely different matter and could only be tested if people had a genuine choice.
Be that as it may, this iconic monument was on top of my list of must sees in North Korea as indeed it is for most people. It is truly magnificent.
Both of the very intricately detailed bronze statues which form the centre piece of the Mansudae Grand Monument are 20 metres tall but seem much larger because they stand on what is a three – four metre high stone plinth and you approach them from below.
On arrival at the monument we were greeted by ambient revolutionary piped music. Prior to fulfilling our touristic duties, like everyone else, we had to pay our respects to the two former Leaders (Kim Il-sung on the left and his son, and successor, Kim Jong-il on the right). This task was accomplished by our western guide solemnly placing a bouquet of flowers at the foot of the statues and the group forming a line facing the statue and making a formal bow (from the waist).
Respect paid, we were able to have a look around and take photos – in regards to which there is a very important rule. When taking photos of statues, etc of the leaders the full statue must be in the frame and the photo must be taken face on. No photos of heads, legs or arms only and no photos from the side or back are permitted. Yes, my next photo is technically a breach of the rules though of course the subject of the photo is a group of female admirers paying their respect. I have included it to give you an idea of the size of this monument and let you see how visitors come attired in their “Sunday best”.
Visitors are permitted to have photos taken with the statues but, in addition to the above rule, you must stand in a respectful pose and, in the case of this particular monument, certainly no outstretched arms mimicking the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung.
It is important to note that these statues are not memorials. The statue of Kim Il-sung was unveiled in April 1972 (Juche 61) to celebrate the Great Leader’s 60th birthday. Apparently the original intent was that it be 60 metres tall and be covered in gold leaf. At this time North Korea was going though a great famine and China was a significant benefactor (as it still is). At China’s instruction (or as we were told, due to Kim Il-sung’s inherent modesty) the statue erected was a ‘mere’ 20metres high and of brushed bronze with not a speck of gold in sight.
In April 2012 Kim Il-sung was joined on the podium by a rather informal looking Kim Jong-il. Kim Il-sung was ‘refurbished’ at this time. Out went his Korean top for a jacket and tie and he got a smile to match that of his son. The current statue of Kim Jong-il is actually an October 2012 replacement of the original April statue. A more formal dress coat on the April statue was replaced with Kim Jong-il’s trade mark parka jacket. Shortly after his death, the Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) had hailed his “threadbare and discoloured” parka as a “symbol of revolution” and reported that “The parka will be remembered forever by the Korean people”. Did Monty Python and the writers of Life of Brian, in particular, just rework old KCNA news reports?
Both statues were produced locally in the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang and according to the KCNA “It was possible to erect the statues on the highest level in a matter of some 100 days thanks to the yearning and devotion made by all the soldiers and people, overseas Koreans and the world progressives”.
Behind the statues is a 22.5 metre high and 70 metre wide mosaic (on the wall of the Korean Revolution Museum, which I did not get to visit) depicting Mount Paektu.
Mount Paektu is a very holy mountain with strong ties to Kim Il-sung in the days he was ridding Korea of the Japanese. It is the mountain of revolution. North Koreans believe that Kim Jong-il was born in a very basic hut on the slopes of Mount Paektu. Outside authorities say he was born in Russia. Mount Paektu is often referred to as the birthplace of the Korean people.
Throughout the day North Koreans (and in particular groups of soldiers, school children and newlyweds) visit the statues to pay respect to, and worship, their leaders. This was the first of many instances during our trip that we were invited to have our photographs taken with brides and grooms on their wedding day. I wonder of any of them now have a picture of me displayed along side the Leaders in their homes?
Given that our visit coincided with the 102nd birthday celebrations for Kim Il-sung there were more flowers and visitors than normal. This is a very sacred site for North Koreans and tourists are expected to treat it accordingly as everyone in our group did.
Flanking the Leader’s statues are two large Soviet like socialist realist monuments.
Seeing these monuments brought back memories of a visit, many years ago, to the old Soviet Union and a more recent visit to a Soviet style monument “graveyard’ on the outskirts of Budapest. Similar style monuments currently viewable outside Mao Zedong’s mausoleum in Beijing pale into insignificance (size-wise) compared with these sculptures in Pyongyang.
Both sculptures are about 50 metres in length, over 5 metres high and have over 100 individual bronze figurines each and large red tiled concrete flags. The detail is amazing and worthy of careful examination though your time at the Mansudae Grand Monument is limited and you really are expected to be admiring and paying homage to the statues of the Leaders.
One of the double sided monuments extols the virtues of Socialist Revolution and Socialist Construction while the other recalls the country’s successful Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Struggle.
The Socialist Revolution and Socialist Construction monument (to the right looking at the Leader’s statues) shows workers’ of all types (ably assisted by the army) dedication to the creation of a socialist utopia founded on the principle of self-reliance (Kim Il-sung’s Juche Idea). You will notice a hammer, sickle and paintbrush on one side of the monument. This is an extension of the old Soviet Union’s communist hammer and sickle. More about the North Korean variation in a separate review on the Monument to the Foundation of the Workers’ Party – which, incidentally, can be seen in the distance looking straight down from this monument.
The monument to the Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Struggle (to the left looking at the Leader’s statues) recalls the anti-Japanese struggle lead by Kim Il-sung and depicts brave soldiers and the general citizenry answering the call of duty to rid Korea of its Japanese rulers in the 1920s and 1930s.
Nowhere, that I am aware of, outside North Korea makes statues and sculptures like these any more and indeed North Korea now exports the art of social realist statue making to many parts of the world.
This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries on The Rambling Wombat’s trip to Pyongyang, North Korea which I recommend you read in a particular order. I suggest you continue with my next entry – Liberation Tower. If necessary, go to my Pyongyang introduction entry – Pyongyang – A Capital City Unlike any Other – to start this loop at the beginning.