Every messiah has a birthplace to which the faithful must make a pilgrimage and pay their respects. North Korea’s Bethlehem is Mangyongdae, a suburban park just outside Pyongyang’s city center where the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, was raised in a small, thatched hut.
Today, the Kim family home is nicely preserved along with, according to my copy of Pyongyang Review, “priceless relics associated with the immortal revolutionary exploits of the beloved leader Comrade Kim Il Sung and the brilliant feats performed by his revolutionary family.” This includes a misshapen water jug the Kim family purchased at a discounted rate since they were too poor to afford a proper one–a fact proudly pointed out by our guide whose sole job, it seemed, was to ensure that we all understood the austere, humble beginning of the Great Leader.
Frankly, the hut and personal trinkets contained within were all rather mundane. What made this stop truly fascinating, however, was the mass of pilgrims lined up to pay a visit. This wasn’t a special holiday or even a weekend for that matter. This was just an ordinary day in which thousands of faithful Kim fanatics showed up in their very best clothes and stood in a very long line to pay their respects.
Was this just another production staged to impress the foreigners? Surely so many people wouldn’t be visiting this historic spot if tourists weren’t in town. But I simply didn’t know–one never knows in North Korea. Nonetheless, it provided us with a rare opportunity; the visit was one of the few times we were able to get close to actual Pyongyang locals. We had been kept away from them for so long that I felt as though I had stepped out of the car at Wild Animal Safari and was finally able to stand amongst the exotic creatures.
And so, I was able to come face to face with the rare North Korean native and photograph them in the their natural habitat, donning traditional garb and bearing the ubiquitous lapel pin of the Great Leader. They seemed friendly enough, but it was tough to gauge their disposition. They’d smile and nod their head if we said hello, but otherwise they simply gazed upon us with stoic faces.
North Koreans rarely see foreigners and I can’t imagine what must have been going through their propaganda-stuffed heads as they gazed upon us. We were the enemy, the capitalists from abroad about whom they’d been brainwashed since birth. And that’s when I suddenly realized that we were the exotic creatures being stared at, not the other way around.