After leaving the airport, our tour in North Korea began with our first sight-seeing experience. We stopped at their version of Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. The North Korean one was built to honor Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder, in his struggle for independence. It was built in 1982 and is the second biggest triumphal arch in the world.
A side note here, North Korea is probably the world leader in monuments. Seriously. Some smaller countries actually have North Korea build their monuments for them since North Korea is so good at it. I don’t know if it is just legend or if it’s for real, especially in a pre-computerized era, but pretty much all of the numerous monuments I visited had some numerical significance beneath the surface. For example, this Arc de Triomphe was built with 25,500 blocks of granite. Why 25,500 blocks? Each block was meant to symbolize a day in Kim Il Sung’s life up to his 70th birthday (70*365=25,500), the day he inaugurated the monument! Impressive.
The Arc de Triomphe is set in the center of a huge roundabout next to Triumph Return Square. The square has a propaganda poster (don’t they all!) and a “fun fair” (small amusement park).
As we took pictures and roamed around the square, kids wearing soccer uniforms started pouring in. They struck up a game in the square. We had some interaction with them. The interaction wasn’t verbal, of course, but was through sports. I can’t play soccer at all, but some of the Germans on my tour kicked the ball around a bit with them.
Though I had been to 84 countries before visiting North Korea, I really didn’t know what to expect. At all. I kind of expected the population to be downtrodden and dreary. What was there to be optimistic about? The older people have survived famine and the younger people probably don’t have much control over their own destiny. Yet what did I see? I saw smiles, happy kids running around playing soccer. And every adult I saw was wearing formal or business casual clothing. The adults were not open to interact the way the kids were. Perhaps that’s due to their education and the general idea of the foreigner being the enemy, but it was nice to see the kids open to interaction.
I guess I was just happy to find signs of happiness within an hour of arriving. There may be a lot of pain behind those smiles and not all may be what it appears to be, but at least there were smiles and at least kids were playing soccer and being kids. I looked forward to learning much more about the strange place I found myself in!