Memorials separated with low green hedges and city view beyond
DPRK,  Sunday Stills,  War

Commemorating the fallen: the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery in Pyongyang

On a hillside above Pyongyang, commanding a wonderful view of the city, stand row on row of granite blocks, each topped with a bust. The figures portrayed gaze out over the wooded slope of Mount Taesong to the rapidly changing cityscape below. These are North Korea’s fallen, martyrs in the cause of freedom from Japanese occupation.

Most of the rest of the world recognises that the occupation of Korea came to an end when the Soviet Red Army invaded the north in 1945. The country was divided, with the north coming under Soviet control and the south under the USA. Subsequently the Soviets introduced Kim il Sung to the people as a guerrilla hero who had fought with the Red Army against the Japanese. As leader, Kim il Sung built on that mythology and today the North Koreans tell a rather different version of that period in their history (as they do about the Korean War). In their account, Kim il Sung led a group of Koreans in a heroic battle against the Japanese; and they owe them their freedom and independence.

The Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery is both cemetery and memorial, commemorating those who fought in the revolution against Japanese occupation. Our guide told us that this site was chosen so that the martyrs who had died during or soon after the struggle could see how the city had developed, and what a success was being made of the country they had fought for.

Steps leading down to a pavilion with city view
View of Pyongyang from the cemetery

Visiting the cemetery

On either side of the approach to the site are massive white granite sculptures. They portray groups of revolutionary fighters in the typical brutalist style that always fascinates me.

Beyond these on either side are equally massive slabs of the same white granite, engraved in Korean text. The one on the left carries a quote from Kim Il Sung:

‘The noble revolutionary spirit displayed by the anti-Japanese revolutionary martyrs will dwell forever in the hearts of our Party and our people.

October 10, 1985’

Large stone block inscribed in Korean
Quotation from Kim il Sung

The one on the right is, I think, a poem. No doubt our guide told us, but it’s a detail that didn’t stick in my mind as I was too busy taking photos!

Next came a large monument with a giant medal in its centre. This is the collective medal of all the martyrs who are commemorated here. Some visitors had laid flowers in front of this; our guide, who had brought a bunch, selected one of our group to place it with the others while we all lined up in front of the monument. We then bowed solemnly in unison when prompted: ‘Shall we pay our respects?’ This was our guide’s usual phrase on these occasions, but the question was for sure rhetorical!

Large marble slab with gold coloured medal
Medal of the martyrs

On either side of this were more figures, this time of mournful-looking people with drooping flags, and in bronze.

The memorial busts

The main part of the cemetery consists of those uniform granite blocks, each topped with a bust of one of the martyrs. The busts are based on photographs and are very realistic. The blocks are staggered, ensuring that every martyr has a good view of the city.

As we climbed the steps between the rows our guide pointed out a few of the more interesting memorials. One of these was, she told us, unusual in that she wasn’t a martyr herself but gave her son and daughter to the cause. Later Kim Jong Il adopted her as his mother and looked after her.

At the top of the hill are the most recent memorials. From these it becomes clear that the Korean definition of martyr is different from ours, as these are for people who participated in the revolution but didn’t necessarily die in it. In fact the most recent died less than a year ago, from natural causes. They are honoured here nevertheless for the contribution they made to the fight for freedom.

Kim Jong Suk

Beyond these are the memorials of the highest serving in front of a huge DPRK flag made of red granite. At the centre is the most revered of all, Kim Jong Suk, the first wife of Kim Il Sung and mother of Kim Jong Il. She was born in 1917 (some sources say 1919) and started her fight against the Japanese in 1934. In that year she joined a partisan unit where she was involved in training Children’s Corp members, including her younger brother Kim Ki Song, despite being still very young herself. She joined Kim Il Sung’s guerrilla forces (most sources say as a kitchen-hand) in 1935. There she rose through the ranks to become his personal assistant and bodyguard. She is frequently depicted fighting off an attack by the Japanese and saving Kim Il Sung’s life, as described in the latter’s official biography:

One day, while the unit was marching under the General’s [Kim Il Sung] command, five or six enemies unexpectedly approached through the reeds and aimed at the General. The danger was imminent. Without losing a moment, Comrade Kim Jung Sook [Kim Jong Suk] shielded the General with her own body and shot down an enemy with her revolver. The General also shot down the second enemy. Two revolvers spurted fire in turn and annihilated the enemy in a twinkle. But this was not the only time such dangers occurred, and each time, Comrade Kim Jung Sook rose to the occasion with fury, and protected the Headquarters of the revolution at the risk of her life.

Courtesy of Wikipedia and widely quoted

Here too we bowed in respect, although I don’t recall that we laid any more flowers; maybe we did, as it is normal practice, and many others had.

Descending the hill on our return to the bus I watched the local visitors to the site, including groups of school children.

School boys and guide in traditional Korean dress
Visiting school group

It seemed to me that, notwithstanding the many differences between North Koreans and ourselves, there is usually some common ground to be found. As there is here, in their respect for those they perceive as having laid down their lives in the service of their country. Putting aside any doubts about the accuracy of their historical accounts, these are still a people who mourn their fallen, as do people everywhere.

I was prompted to post this by Terri’s Sunday Stills theme of ‘Fallen’.


  • Easymalc

    I love to see impressive monuments – and the communists certainly know/knew how to build impressive monuments. A super selection here again Sarah.

  • margaret21

    I was astonished, in our visit to South Korea, to understand something of the centuries long subjugation of the Koreans by the Japanese, and the systematic and repeated destruction of their cultural icons. And the steadfast way in which said icons were replaced, sometimes more than once. In some ways I’m surprised not to have come across a monument similar to the one you describe – in intention at least . And it surprised me that on the whole, Koreans spoke fairly neutrally about present-day Japan. So unlike many older Brits who still consider Germans to be The Enemy.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      It’s interesting comparing your experiences in, and observations of, South Korea with my own in the North. Certainly there resentment of Japan is still quite high. At one point relationships between the two were better, and there was regular liaison so that ethnic Koreans living in that country could visit relatives in North Korea. But these broke down after Japan imposed sanctions in 2006 because of the DPRK’s nuclear programme. There are still some visits, I believe (we met a group of ethnic Korean teenagers visiting from Japan at a children’s camp in Wonsan) but generally Japan is not liked there.

      • margaret21

        What we thought we’d observed was no great love, but a willingness to put it in the past. But we didn’t have any profound conversations, obviously. The similarities in the way Japan and South Korea have both embraced modern technologies and a very driven work ethic and ambitions for their childrenmay have given them similar world view more recently?

        • Sarah Wilkie

          Yes, I’m sure that’s true, especially in relation to modern technologies and a drive to modernise generally. North Korea is way way behind on that score, and of course it also has a very different style of government! It’s also the case that it’s not a country that easily forgets its (recent) past.

  • Terri Webster Schrandt

    What gorgeous photos of the area, Sarah. People everywhere mourn and uplift their fallen in the service to their countries. Japan was a force to be reckoned with and could have overtaken that part of the world had things gone differently in WW2. My auntie is a Korean War orphan who married my uncle. The whole family moved to Seoul in 1970 for a few years then came back to the states. I love what you did with fallen. You captured the feeling of awe and respect to the appropriate degree.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Terri – I’m pleased you liked my contribution to your interesting theme 🙂 You’re right, things would have looked very different in that region had Japan retained occupation of the peninsula.

  • Victor Khorishko

    Many thanks for your great illustrated story, Sarah! The memorial must be very dear to their hearts…

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