Huge statues of young women holding a stone map above an empty road
Dark tourism,  DPRK,  Photographing Public Art

The Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification

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 monument

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


  • Christie

    Reading your posts on North Korea (which has nothing democratic in it, although they prefer the other name) brought me back so many mixed feelings. I do not believe that dictators emerged because the after WW2 division, but rather the communism system proliferated, finding its final stage in dictatorships. And Kims’, as all the other megalomaniac dictators, in their arrogance, they will always build the public art in a such big scale (i.e. People’s House of Ceausescu – one of Kim’s ‘friends’ to say so).
    I do not believe in any reunification, maybe in an after-dynasty time. Reunification means opening the borders, which will never happen. Unfortunately.
    Growing up in a similar environment was not easy, but we had to move on, even with that type of propaganda, and with the fear (not of the foreign visitors) of being questioned by the secret police anytime. Some people never came back from the interrogatories. Luckily the Iron Curtain came down at some point (well, after almost 50 years)..
    I think I will never be able (emotionally) to visit North Korea.. we visited tough Havana few years ago, but that was a different mix😊

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I take your point about the proliferation of Communism, but it was the post WW2 division of Korea between the US and USSR that gave the latter the opportunity to install their puppet leader Kim Il Sung. He brought Communism to the North, at first modelled on the Soviet version of that system but later evolving it into his own brand, the Juche philosophy. That’s why I argue that you can trace the development of North Korea as it is today back to that original agreement between the US and USSR. It is not dissimilar to what happened in Germany. But there the Communist East remained much more closely aligned to the Soviet Union, until the fall of the Iron Curtain and reunification of the country.

      I do agree with you that a similar Reunification in Korea is highly unlikely under the current regime, much as they desire it, because their systems and cultures are too far apart to allow for joint rule. The best they could achieve in the medium term would be a more open border and better relationships but even that seems a fairly distant dream. However under Kim Jong Un there has been (until Covid) at least a slight softening of the approach to international relations more generally, e.g. more interest in engaging with the US (or perhaps more accurately with Trump) and a tolerance of border crossings between the north of the country and neighbouring China. That in turn opened the door to a trickle of information about the rest of the world which may in time have an impact. Slow drips and all that.

      • Christie

        I totally agree with your points, so true!! I just wanted to point out how come some of the Eastern Bloc countries ended up without having a dictator while still under the Soviet Union spell, while other countries (I mean their leaders) led the ideology to the peaks of unimaginable..

  • leightontravels

    I really like the monument and don’t actually find it all that kitsch. I have seen way worse, let’s put it like that. More great photography Sarah and additional insight into this bewildering country and its art.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I think what makes it a bit kitsch is mainly the huge scale but I too like it. And yes, there are far worse monuments! Thank you for the kind words about the photos and text 😊

  • rkrontheroad

    It’s a grand monument and a grand idea. As we have discussed and you outline so well in this post, the two cultures and economies are so far apart now, it would be difficult to see a reunification any time soon.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Ruth – I feel their best hope would be a lose alliance rather than total reunification but even that would be hard to achieve while their ideologies are so alien to each other. Having said that, there are very small signs that Kim Jong Un will develop a slightly more open policy, perhaps because he may have no choice. With the world becoming ever more connected it’s going to be difficult to keep his people totally isolated forever.

  • Gradmama2011

    The photos of the museum are excellent, so well done as art in themselves, but the accompanying history of the Korean Conflict, and the even-handed articles that accompany the photos. I am a historian myself, although Korea and the East in general is not a major field for me. However, as a Latin American and United States historian, the discussion and points you make in your essays are very familiar when it comes to US relations and hegemony. I did undergrad study of Korea, etc., but not any upper level seminars, etc….. your fine articles on the blog helped to fill in missing knowledge. Thanks!

    I was in high school during the Korean war. The draft was in effect then, and many of the boys/men that I knew from school signed up to avoid putting off military draft. One of the tenth grade friends that I remember well was killed in an armored tank in Korea. My future husband also signed up before our junior year, but as fate and maybe luck would have it, he was sent to serve his time in Germany several years after the war in Korea. Then after the war was over, he was sent to Korea when he reenlisted. As a young army wife I was very interested and concerned with the wars.

    I enjoyed the photos, and read the history articles closely. Very impressive.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you. I gather from your comments that you have been reading some of my other North Korea posts too, and I really appreciate the positive feedback 😀 I’ve tried to take a balanced approach in my commentary on the things we saw there; I’m glad it resonated with you.

      • Gradmama2011

        On the bottom of today’s post there were a few “also ran” references, and I was intrigued by the question (I think) “was the US to blame for the war…” and of course the answer is yes. 🙂 Your balanced approach is good, not too blatant. I know well what happened in Central America, and the Cold War was starting in Korea.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Actually, although there must be things they would criticise about the regime if they could, I suspect the art isn’t among them. If you’ve grown up with this style of art, and no other, you would see it as the norm for great monuments. I reckon many of the ordinary people are genuinely proud of these monuments. And I have to confess to having a soft spot for them myself – they may be kitsch, as you say, but their grandeur is quite impressive in its way and many of them (not so much this one) are pretty well executed.

  • maristravels

    That certainly is one gigantic statue, one that could hardly be missed by travellers along that road. If the two Koreas ever become reconciled then perhaps there is a chance that Britain and Ireland could do away with the border in Ireland and so unite the North and South of that country! The border there is no longer a physical barrier since the Peace Agreement, nevertheless it is still a factor although the Brexit Protocol seems to have moved the border to the Irish Sea which is proving even more contentious than the former land border. Borders aren’t only put in place by dictators.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Very good points, and I quite agree that dictators don’t have a monopoly on creating borders. In the case of North Korea at least, it’s sort of the other way around – the creation of the border by the US and Soviet Union, after WW2, allowed the dictatorship to emerge and flourish.

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