A roadside field guide to places and things along the Pyongyang Marathon course. Today we look at Pyongyang's triumphal arch. Larger than its Parisian counterpart.
Good or bad, what Paris produces is Paris, be it a letter, a bit of bread, a pair of socks, or a poem. What we give the world, we have borrowed from no one; it is ours. It may be taken from us, stolen from us, but imitated? - never. - Julian Green, Paris
Approximate race distance: 300 meters
Your first high-speed pass, and no doubt one of your higher speed passes since it is right at the start and end of the race, will be the Arch of Triumph. A triumphal arch is, of course, an ancient Roman tradition. Generals (and later Emperors) returning to the city after a great victory were granted huge celebrations. The first triumph was for Romulus, son of Mars, triumphed over the Caeninenses and Antemnates, two Sabine towns. And from there, the list of conquered peoples would grew through the ages: Gauls, Samnites, Etruscsans, Carthagians, more Gauls, Macedonians, Numidians, Pontus, Parthians, the Jews, and many more. Sometime in the Republican Era, arches were added to the triumph. This practice continued into the Roman Empire. Augustus, Titus, Septimius Serverus, Hadrian, and Trajan all had an arch or two.
Pyongyang’s Arch of Triumph is dedicated to the President Kim Il Sung’s struggle against Japanese colonial rule in Korea. Two years, 1925 and 1945, are written on either side of the arch. In the winter of 1925 the future President left Mangyongdae, the name of his native village just outside Pyongyang and also the official namesake for this here marathon, for China. There he would stay for the rest of his teens and twenties, attending Chinese-language schools and living out the life of a Communist agitator and then guerilla. And there he would become fluent in Chinese. He would not return to his native Pyongyang until August of 1945, following the end of World War II.
What follows is not an official story recounted in North Korean histories or anywhere else. I once met an elderly Chinese man who had been the flower boy who presented flowers to Kim Il Sung on state visits to China. The man recounted that the president spoke Chinese ‘like a movie star’ and, therefor, spoke his second-tongue closer to standard Mandarin than the majority of the first generation of Chinese revolutionary leaders, including Mao Zedong, who had mostly hailed from the rural provinces.
The Arch of Triumph has its own China connection. It is built on the former location of Mao Zedong Square, a name bestowed on the location in recognition of Chinese support during the Korean War. The name, like ‘Stalin Street’, in central Pyongyang was later removed.
The arch itself is steeped in symbology and numerology. The monument was erected in 1982 on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the birth of President Kim Il Sung and is made of 25,550 granite blocks. Each block represents one day of the President’s life until that day. (The calculation does not take into account leap years.)
The flowers inscribed on the arch are azaleas, which have long been considered the harbinger of spring and the end of northern Korea’s cold winter. By extension it is a symbol of the long winter of Japanese colonial rule and there is an associated ‘revolutionary’ story about the flower. (In the DPRK, the adjective ‘revolutionary’ implies an association with the leadership.)
This story, official unlike the one above, tells of a Korean People’s Revolutionary army’s advance into Japanese occupied Korea and encountering azaeleas in full bloom upon crossing the border. There then Commander Kim Il Sung said: ‘The azalea of the motherland looks beautiful all the more as we look at it.’ The text written on the arch is the ‘Song of General Kim Il Sung’.
At 60 meters, Pyongyang’s Arch of Triumph is 10 meters taller than it’s Parisian counterpart. The height of the four arches is 27 meters. It is 50 meters wide. It is sometimes possible to visit the viewing platform at the top (5 EUR ticket to be paid on the spot) from which there is an excellent view of nearby Kim Il Sung Stadium, Moranbong Park, and the surrounding district. To get to the platform, once first takes an elevator up one arch leg to a cavernous interior hall. Inside the hall is a stage/screen, larger comfortable chairs for sitting, and a gift shop. From the hall to the top one must walk up a seemingly endless flight of stairs. The effort is well worth it for the view.
The Run Down
· The Arch of Triumph was built in 1982 for the 70th anniversary of the birth of President Kim Il Sung.
· President Kim Il Sung spent his formative years in China. He could speak excellent Chinese.
· The location of the monument was formally called ‘Mao Zedong Square’.
· The flowers on the monument are azeleas, representing both spring and national liberation.
· The song is the ‘Song of General Kim Il Sung’. You can listen to it below.
Our next posts will take a look at Pyongyang's kisaeng, women entertainers of traditional times, and the story of Kye Wol Hyang.
'A Pyongyang Marathon Runner’s Guide’ is a roadside field guide to places and things along the Pyongyang Marathon course brought to you by the Koryo Tours North Korea Travel Guide.
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