Like many such states, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea does public art on a big scale. The many statues of the Dear Leaders are well known, but perhaps a little less so is this rather astounding example, the Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification.
It straddles the road that leads south out of the capital, Pyongyang, the Reunification Highway. This road links Pyongyang with the southern border and the Demilitarised Zone. Its name, like that of the monument, reflects the North Korean desire for reunification. It was built to serve, one day, as the route between Pyongyang and Seoul. At the moment of course it is impossible to make that journey which helps to explain why the road is so empty. It isn’t quite a ‘road to nowhere’ but it certainly doesn’t go as far as its builders would like it to; and only a handful of locals and the odd tourist bus use it.
The Reunification Highway from a roadside service area
The white granite monument depicts two women in the north and south wearing traditional Korean dresses; they are holding between them a sphere with a map of a unified Korea. It was opened in August 2001 to commemorate Korean reunification proposals put forward by President Kim Il Sung. His proposals were based on three principles: independence, peaceful reunification and great national unity. These principles formed the basis for the July 4th North-South Joint Communiqué, signed by the governments of the two Koreas on 4th July 1972.
The communiqué was the first of several so far abortive efforts at reunification; something that is desired far more strongly in the north than in the south. In 1997 Kim Jong Il published a paper with the catchy title of Let Us Carry Out the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il Sung ‘s Instructions for National Reunification. This established the Three Charters for Reunification which are commemorated in this monument: the Three Principles of National Reunification; the Plan of Establishing the Democratic Federal Republic of Koryo; and the Ten Point Programme of the Great Unity of the Whole Nation.
Following a series of diplomatic meetings between North and South, the June 15th North–South Joint Declaration was adopted between the leaders of the two countries in June 2000. In it they agreed to continue to work together on reunification; on resolving some humanitarian issues (e.g. allowing exchange visits by separated family members); and cooperating in various fields such as sport and health.
The North Koreans like to incorporate significant numbers into the design of their monuments, and this one is no exception. It is 30 meters high, symbolic of the Three Charters; and 61.5 metres wide, symbolic of the June 15 North-South Joint Declaration.
Implementing the Three Charters?
Relatively little has happened since that declaration; although the two leaders did have a symbolically significant meeting on Mount Paektu, situated in the North but sacred to all Koreans, in September 2018. Despite the stated desire of North Korea, it will be a very long time before reunification I suspect, as there is little incentive for South Korea to do so. Their economy is so far ahead of the North that they would fear being dragged down and held back; the difference is far more marked between that between the two Germanys when they became one.
Maybe it’s possible that in time they could reconcile enough of their differences for the border between them to open. At the moment however a lack of trust on both sides (understandable given past events), and a totally different perspective on just about everything, make even that seem unlikely so this may well remain a ‘road to nowhere’ for some time to come, and the monument a wistful (if that’s an appropriate adjective for something so huge) reminder of a charter that promised much but delivered little.
It’s also a brilliant example of North Korea’s monumental approach to public art, perfect for the Photographing Public Art challenge.
I visited North Korea in 2019, a year after President Moon Jae-in