Pyongyang, translated to English, means flat land. Anyone who has been here knows that this place certainly is not flat in the abstract sense of the word. There is a rich cultural history in this city and multiple landmarks that have been built in the last 60 years. After the Korean War, it’s said that there was only one standing building left in the city. Once the ancient capital of the Choson, Koguryo and Koryo kingdoms, it’s now a completely modern and rebuilt city. Even though the country may be mysterious to many of us, this city is ready to show itself to the world. Check out these top 10 sites that you can see for yourself if you visit North Korea.
1. Mansudae Grand Monuments
Come pay tribute to the former leaders of North Korea by visiting this monument complex. At 22.5 meters tall, it’s obvious that these men stand larger-than-life to the people of North Korea. Maybe second only to the depiction of the birthplace of the Korean people, the Paekdu Mountain mosaic which decorates the wall behind them. When the monument was first constructed it only featured Kim Il Sung, shortly after the death of Kim Jong Il another statue was built in order to honor him as well. During the addition, renovations occurred to change the facial expression of Kim Il Sung and to change his coat to his signature parka. Make sure you follow the regulations when you take your selfie and you fully capture both of the statues in the picture.
2. Kim Il Sung Square
City squares are often places of expression and history. That is no different in North Korea, right in the heart of Pyongyang lies the Kim Il Sung Square. The square is highly publicized and is the host of organized dances and military parades. Several buildings of notable significance surround the square. Notably the Korean National Art Gallery and the Ho Hum Korean Central History Museum, both of them treasure troves of the Korean nation.
3. Juche tower
Right across the river from the Kim Il Sung square stands the granite megalith known as the Juche tower. Towering over Pyongyang at 170 meters tall, this tower instantly commands respect. Named after the philosophy of self-reliance, the Juche tower symbolizes the life of the revolutionary leader of North Korea, Kim Il Sung. Each one of the 25,550 granite blocks the tower was built with represents a different day in his life. This tower stands as a sign of the strength of the country, despite the turmoil it has faced; it needs to be strong to keep the 45 ton heavy flame fixture on top lighting the city below.
4. Pyongyang Arch of Triumph
Modeled after the Arc De Triomphe in Paris, but at 10 meters taller makes this arch the third tallest in the world. This monument was built to honor Kim Il Sung’s role in the anti-Japanese struggle, from the start of the revolution in 1925 to final year of the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula in 1945. Engraved in the middle of the arch is a poem called “Song of General Kim Il Sung,” which is recited on national television every day. The architecture of the arch is also renowned worldwide for merging classic Roman architecture with Buddhist influences. It is also lit beautifully at night and is a wonder driving under. For visitors that want to get an excellent view of the city the arch offers modern elevators to the top.
5. The Party Foundation Monument North Korea
This monument was built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the North Korean Workers Party. The symbolism of the brush, sickle, and hammer, represent the intellectual, peasant, and worker respectively. Each of these pillars stands at a striking 50 meters tall signifying the 50 years since the creation of the party. Take a look around and see symbolism about the history of the Korean nation and the birthday of Kim Jong Il. The monument is nestled in between two buildings that have signs that form the Korean words for “ever-victorious.” If there is one monument that defines North Korea it is this one. This monument is even shown on postage stamps and the national currency.
6. Grand People’s Study House
No trip the Kim Il Sung Square is complete without checking out this celebrated library. This is by far the country’s largest library, with 600 rooms and the capacity to hold up to 30 million books. Built with the intent to educate the entire populace; it surely holds up to its purpose, since citizens can receive free lectures on various topics, even the English language. There are also computers available here for people to browse the North Korean intranet. When you interact with the workers here, make sure to think about this fun fact, librarians are one of the more prestigious jobs in this country.
7. Pyongyang Metro
For less than 1 US cent you can explore one of the world’s deepest subway systems. It takes over 3 minutes going down on an escalator to reach the platforms and it is deep enough that the entire subway system doubles as a bomb shelter. This system differs from the standard format of having location-based names and instead all the station names give you a sense of what the country stands for with names like “Comrade” and “Prosperity.” On a busy day some of these stations transfer around 700,000 people; this fact serves as proof that Pyongyang is a bustling city. See it for yourself by taking a virtual tour of the Pyongyang Metro here.
8. Kumsusan Palace of the Sun
Visit the former parliament that has been remade into a tomb, both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s bodies lay here embalmed. All visitors who wish to enter the room where the bodies are showcased must go through extensive checks and be cleaned off, no talking or photography is allowed here either. The surrounding rooms are filled with possessions of the former leaders, even including a degree awarded from a US university. The transformation of this former residence is rumored to cost up to $900 million US dollars. Exploring this mausoleum is a surreal experience.
9. The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum
This museum is a colossal building that also tells a long story, the story of the Korean people’s fight against foreign invaders. This story starts with the chronicles of the anti-Japanese occupation followed by the resistance of the American forces. Notable exhibits at the museum include the rotating 360 degree diorama depicting the battle of Daejon and the captured American helicopter from the Korean War. The controversial USS pueblo that was operated by US sailors who were held prisoner for a year before their release is also held here, complete with bullet holes from the engagement. This North Korean war museum will show you the North’s viewpoint and is essential to understand both sides of this long and complicated story.
10. Ryugyong Hotel
Construction on this hotel started in 1987 but it looks like something out of the future. Up until 2009 this was the tallest hotel in the world but it still continues to dominate Pyongyang’s skyline. With 360,000 square meters of floor space it is hard to imagine this hotel being filled to capacity. Nor has it ever happened since this hotel is still under construction, although presumably construction will resume soon. Once this hotel is finished it will be a city within a city: with businesses, restaurants, various services, and different accommodations within it. This site is definitely one with a huge amount of unrealized potential. It is hard to witness it yourself and not wonder about what it may come to be.
See it for yourself. Join a North Korea tour.