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.
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’
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!
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.
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’.