Large building with green oriental roof
Architecture,  CFFC,  Culture & tradition,  DPRK

A look inside the Grand People’s Study House

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.

Library books

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.

Shelf of books including one about missiles
Books in the library
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.

View of large buildings and river in a city
View from the 8th floor balcony

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

20 Comments

  • wetanddustyroads

    What a fascinating library … they don’t do ‘small’ in North Korea! May I say it’s to show the world they can compare with the best out there? Well, at least what they show you on the guided tour …

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, definitely they want to show the world that they can compare well with any other country. It’s also true that they do value education and culture, but obviously only within the constraints of their closed society. A large part of their education is learning about the lives of the Leaders, their great deeds etc. They also learn some earlier Korean history (but not much), English as you can see, arts such as music and painting, science and maths, and practical subjects such as engineering.

  • maristravels

    A very interesting article and I envy you your visit there. What a fascinating visit. Closed countries always are. I remember my first visit to Russia (before Gorbachev) when it was all a matter of swapping anything from the west, cigarette packets, jeans (ah! jeans would get you the world), sweaters, for Russian badges, watches or vodka! Most of the people in front of me as we passed through the entry customs had their reading matter confiscated (all magazines) but I was reading a Henry James novel and the customs inspector praised my discernment! There was a female guard on every floor of our hotel to make sure nothing untoward happened and the saddest thing to happen was when two young children and their grandmother (I presume) ran away from us when we smiled and tried to speak to them: the Russians were more afraid of us that we were of them but our politicians never knew it.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Ah yes, the joys of visiting the Soviet Union! We were there when Andropov died and the whole country went into mourning! A Finnish tourist was told off for playing his guitar n the bar because no music was allowed in public places! I remember those hotel guards too – very fierce-looking 🙄 You’re so right about the Russians being afraid of us and I think there are definitely echoes of that on present-day North Korea.

      • maristravels

        And Western governments have their citizens almost paranoid about Russia without explaining that the Russians are afraid of us because NATO has them surrounded by missiles. But it always has been like this and the only way to make a difference is to travel to these countries, see for yourself, and if possible, talk to the locals, but the only place I found conversation easy was in Cuba and even there, the people I spoke to pointed out the secret police who were eveywhere. I think the Cubans were helped by the many Basques who went there to live, some terrorists but many just normal citizens who wanted to live without harassment. Being Basque they kept their independence of mind and speech and some of this filtered down to the ordinary Cubans. Incidentally, it’s not just communist countries that try to keep their people from speaking to foreigners, right-wing ruled countries are just the same. We had trouble in Greece under the colonels way back when, and a guest was removed from our table one evening. Turns out he was a civil servant, so that explained it! And don’t get me started about Portugal under Salazar! Now that was real scary!

        • Sarah Wilkie

          ‘And Western governments have their citizens almost paranoid about Russia without explaining that the Russians are afraid of us because NATO has them surrounded by missiles.’ You could easily insert North Korea in the same sentence. They are determined never again to find themselves at the mercy of Western (US) bombs on the scale of the Korean War, and that’s the main driver for their nuclear arms programme – fear rather than aggression. But you only really realise that by going there and learning how they see the world.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Oh yes, anyone is welcome to visit apart from South Koreans. You have to travel with guides and follow a set itinerary, no wandering off on your own. And US citizens are currently barred from visiting by their own government, not the DPRK, perhaps surprisingly. It’s a fascinating place!

  • margaret21

    Fascinating. Our experience of English speakers in South Korea was that they they were pretty good – and it was noticeably American English (and American English was what my daughter had to teach). Woe betide you if by accident you ask to be directed to the lift, rather than the elevator! The inside of that building seems to be thoroughly at odds with the outside, no? 😉

  • Manja Maksimovič

    Your last photo is incredible! I thought it was a painting. Fascinating, all of it. I think I prefer going there through your posts than for real. Did you know that the Slovenian band Laibach were the first “rock” band from the West to perform in North Korea in 2015? There is a telling documentary on this occasion, called “Liberation Day”.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Manja 🙂 I see what you mean about that last photo looking more like a painting – I think it’s because the dull light flattens the perspective, plus some of those buildings are a bit unreal-looking, and the square is so empty!

      I hadn’t heard about that band playing there. I’ll check that out, thanks.

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