Nearly all the great buildings and monuments of Pyongyang were built to mark a significant event linked to the Great Leaders, usually a birthday; and Kim Il Sung was especially fortunate on his 70th to be honoured with three such gifts. This special event was marked with a grand library, a triumphal arch and a tower.
Today I want to take you on a tour of the first of these. The Grand People’s Study House is the DPRK’s national library. It was built in a ‘neo-traditional Korean style’ between 1979 and 1982, opening in April of that year to coincide with President Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday celebrations.
A tour of the library
We were greeted in the impressive lobby by a local guide. She started the tour by giving us all the statistics about the scale of the building: a total floor space of 100,000 square metres; ten stories high (eight above ground, if I remember correctly, and two below); 600 rooms (including 21 reading rooms and 17 lecture rooms); space for up to 30 million books.
The library’s stated purpose is to be a centre of study for Juche ideology (the official state ideology of North Korea, developed by Kim Il Sung and based on a principle of self-reliance), as well as science, technology, and the arts. Attendance at classes and lectures is free, as is the use of the library; around 10,000 Pyongyang citizens visit each day.
The walls are hung with educational posters on all sorts of topics – farming, various industries, space travel and satellites, computing.
Educational wall posters
An English lesson
We dropped in on an English language class, sitting at the back while students repeated phrases spoken by the teacher, parrot fashion. I had to wonder how much of the meaning of what they were saying sunk in this way. But as we only observed for about ten minutes it’s possible that other parts of the lesson focused more on understanding.
Certainly I spotted on the computer screens a quite detailed set of examples of the use of the ‘present simple’ tense, never easy for foreign speakers to grasp:
I want a cup of tea = now
The sun rises in the east = all time
I play tennis on Sunday mornings = regular time / habit
The bus leaves at 9 tomorrow morning = future
In another classroom people were watching films on computer monitors or listening to music. But apart from the English lesson, none of the rooms we were taken to seemed very full.
Going around the library we were shown several well-known English language novels, both in the original and some translations into Korean e.g. Huckleberry Finn, Sherlock Holmes, Anne Frank’s Diary. We were not shown, but spotted anyway, the shelf of books about weapons, nuclear missiles etc! I wondered afterwards if we were intended to spot it; certainly no one stopped us taking photos.
Views and perspectives
Our visit finished on the library’s eighth floor balcony. From here we had excellent views, despite the gloomy weather, of Kim Il Sung Square, the surrounding buildings and the Taedong River and Juche Tower (another of Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday presents) beyond.
As a demonstration of how North Korea wants to be perceived The Grand People’s Study House has it all. It combines a nod to tradition with a statement about the future. It speaks of the power of the leadership but also the devotion that leadership has for the people, providing them with free access to education and information. Most North Koreans using these facilities will be grateful for them; they will probably be unaware of the degree to which the information provided is very carefully curated and restricted. And even those who do realise this will, for the most part, accept it as a normal function of government.
I’m sharing this rather unique library for Cee’s Books and Paper challenge.
I visited North Korea in 2019