250-Mile Journey: a Study Tour of Penance

The “250-mile journey,” a length of 400 km,
is described as a training exercise that challenges the limits of men–an
exercise undertaken by only some troops such as the special forces or marines.
However, the “250-mile journey” this author looks at is now taking in North Korea, with youths, not soldiers, as the participants. 

“Study tour of 250-mile journey for
national liberation” begins from Pyongyang

The 22nd of last month marked the beginning
of the “1,000-ri Journey Study Tour” of Red Flag Mangyongdae Revolutionary
School in Pyongyang. This study tour comes from the ‘1,000-ri [400 km] Journey
of Revolution,” reportedly made by a 13-year-old Kim Il Sung in 1925 from
his home in Mangyongdae to Manchuria, driven by the “will of
independence for his nation” after hearing the news that his father, Kim Hyung
Jik, had been arrested by the Japanese police. The walking study tour path
starts from Pyongyang and stretches to Popyeong, where a number of
revolutionary sites, such as the location of the ferry Kim Il Sung purportedly used to cross the
Amrok [Yalu] River are visited. This is all aimed at 
strengthening loyalty for the Kim dynasty, instilled in these children by walking the “path of penance” traveled by Kim Il Sung.

The start of “250-mile journey for national liberation” study tour.
The majority of children look very young.
 Image: KCTV

Organized in time for the “90th anniversary of
the 250-mile journey for national liberation made by Kim Il Sung and the 40th
anniversary of leader Kim Jong Il’s organizing of the march along the course,” hundreds
of young participants from all over North Korea take part in the tour. Watching the gathering for the start of the event, televised by KCTV, spotting young faces that look like those of South Korean elementary school
students is easy. One boy was introduced as being 13 years of age, but many of the boys
seemed much younger. These children are not setting off in full combat gear like
special forces or marine troops, begging the question: can these young children actually endure the
“250-mile journey”? 

The day the study tour embarked on the
journey from Pyongyang, large crowds flocked to the streets to cheer them
on, and energized by the outpouring of encouragement coupled with ardent
reports on state media, the boys appeared excited. One boy interviewed for the
piece even claimed that the marching made “every student in the country look at him
in envy,” with no apparent pretense.

On the day the “250-mile journey for national liberation study tour” left Pyongyang,
a large crowd cheered them on in the streets of Pyongyang. Image: KCTV

The study tour group hikes up a tall mountain. Image: KCTV

However, this “250-mile journey” is truly a
“250-mile journey”–no exaggeration. Excitement at the surrounding cheers is
fleeting; they must make the meandering 400km trip over the course of 10 days during the coldest
months of winter. One defector recalled completing the trip himself at age 15,
saying, “It’s a grueling journey, during which blisters on one’s feet are popped with
needles and thread during rest periods.” He explained that since it is a
“sacred journey,” following in the revolutionary tradition of Kim Il Sung, “no
stragglers are allowed.” 

From an outside perspective, the concept of this arduous
journey is all but impossible to grasp,
but from North Korea’s perspective, it is considered an “honor”. This is
because selection for the study tour itself confirms individuals to be of the
“loyal class.” As such, participation in this sojourn full of blisters and
bone-chilling cold earns one a great deal of bragging rights in North Korea.

Baekdu Mountain study tour organized at the
start of each year

Although not to the same extent as the “1,000-Ri
Journey of Revolution”, various groups hold study tours in the Mt. Baekdu
region for the upcoming birthday of Kim Jong Il on February 16th. These
excursions focus specifically around Milyong, where North Korea claims Kim Il
Sung fought against the Japanese and Kim Jong Il was born. It is a arduous path
in the frigid cold, but according to defectors, these projects are still somewhat
effective at increasing loyalty to the Kim dynasty.

Members of the study tour visit Milyong on Baekdu Mountain. Image: KCTV

Milyong, the place where North Korean
propaganda claims Kim Jong Il was born, is actually a fabrication concocted by
the state. Kim Il Sung did fight against the Japanese, but his troops
were pushed back by Japan’s 1940 suppression operation and in a state of
retreat in the Soviet Union. Therefore, during Kim Jong Il’s birth on February
16, 1942, Kim Il Sung’s troops could not have been fighting on Mt. Baekdu. Scholars
estimate that Kim Jong Il would have been born somewhere near Vladivostok in
the Soviet Union. 

However, North Korea managed to effectively
combine Kim Il Sung’s fight against Japan with Baekdu mountain, the sacred
mountain of our people. The expression, “While continuing his battle against the Japanese on
the snow covered Baekdu mountain, Kim Il Sung gave birth to the revolutionary
second generation, Kim Jong Il,” plays an integral role in propagandizing the legitimacy
of the North Korean regime to the people. Moreover, events like these journeys are
prepared tirelessly to preserve and perpetuate these myths, making the
“250-mile journey for national liberation” undertaken by children a “study tour
of penance” set to increase stability and longevity of North Korea’s ruling

*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.