The Songun tour through the eyes of defectors

Summer vacation is approaching, and many of us are trying to find somewhere beautiful with mountains and clear water to spend the summer. Places far from the city, with magnificent scenery, can always be counted as popular vacation spots.

In South Korea, one can simply leave for a trip, but North Koreans do not have such freedom of movement. In many cases, they hear about famous places from others, or see them in the media, but that’s all they can do. However, North Korean authorities are utilizing systematic propaganda to advertise travel destinations that are unreachable to ordinary citizens. Amongst them are North Korea’s so-called “Nine Songun Sights.”

According to many North Korean defectors, citizens that see the “Nine Songun Sights”– which the authorities are now advertising under the Songun (military first) campaign as exciting and beautiful places with magnificent views– on TV are surprised by the views, but they don’t feel any sort of inspiration from them. This is because mixed into the programs’ beautiful scenery are propaganda songs glorifying military commanders.

With this in mind, how is North Korea using propaganda to advertise these nine places? Daily NK spoke with several defectors, most of whom shared their views on condition of anonymity, to unpack the official narrative put forth by the regime. 

Sight 1: Paektu Mountain Sunrise

North Korean authorities claim that Paektu Mountain is a fortuitous mountain for the North Korean people and the origin of the Korean independence movement. They have also claimed that it is the birthplace of Kim Jong Il, attaching symbolic meaning to the sun rising over the mountain. Because of this, North Korea is asserting that sunrise at Paektu Mountain, which might be said to have the most magnificent sunrise in the world, is an indication of the Songun campaign’s bright future. They tout the location as a “symbol of Juche-based North Korea” overlaid with Kim Jong Il’s spirit.

Sight 2: Snow at Dabaksol Checkpoint

North Korea advertises Dabaksol Checkpoint– stunningly lush even in the winter– and its pure white snow as a sight that gives inspiration befitting a tenacious struggle to checkpoint soldiers. It asserts that ‘Songun’ policy began on New Years Day in 1995 after Kim Jong Il visited Kumsu Mountain Memorial Palace, where the body of Kim Il Sung is interned, and then visited Dabaksol Checkpoint. It also advertises that there, Kim Jong Il created the slogan “We must arm the People’s Army 100 times,” which served as impetus to fully implement his Songun policy. However, the specific location of Dabaksol troops and what they are like is not known.

Sight 3: Cheollyeong Azaleas

In order to reach Cheollyeong, one must ascend Kangwon Province’s high mountain passes, and the entirety of the 1st, 2nd, and 5th corps of the People’s Army are said to be deployed here. The authorities advertise that during the famines of the 1990s, Kim Jong Il visited Cheollyeong and stressed that citizens must “overcome hardships” and “succeed.” He is also said to have “strengthened his determination for Songun, stating that [citizens] must protect the country with real bullets, not those made of candy, and continue the succession of the People’s Revolution.” However, the roads are steep and treacherous, so people rarely go there. And as azaleas are readily seen elsewhere, North Koreans would not specifically go to Cheollyeong just to see them.

Sight 4: Changja River at Night

It’s said that the stars in the night sky above the Changja River in Chagang Province are so bright, they appears so though they are falling, making for a fantastic view. North Korean authorities advertise that they visited the area for the benefit of the people of Chagang Province, who suffered most during the famines of the 1990s, and afterwards created power plants whose lights lit up just the area near the Changja River. But the Changa’s nights views are little more than a folk tale. The authorities uses the image of villages twinkling with lights as propaganda [despite the fact that there’s no longer electricity in the area].

Sight 5: Echoes at Ullim Waterfall

North Korean authorities have long advertised that the Ullim waterfall, in the midst of a forest, has shown its natural beauty in the Songun era. Because Ullim Waterfall is located inside an unusually shaped valley surrounded by cliffs on three sides, tens of meters of water fall from a dizzying cliff each second, stirring up a mesmerizing fog of water droplets, and its echo is said to be audible up to 10 ri (approximately four kilometers) away. Ullim Waterfall briefly became known during the famines because of a visit by Kim Jong Il, but the absence of a proper path to the waterfall is a major deterrent. Most North Koreans do not make the trip as a result.

Sight 6: The Horizon at Handurebol

The land at Handurebol, located in Taechun Country in North Pyongan Province, is wide and fertile, but whatis rare here is water. It is so lacking in water that when travelers visit Handurebol, it is said that they can scarcely beg for a bucket of water. North Korean authorities state that Kim Jong Il said that “if South Koreans visited this place, they would be surprised and jealous,” asserting that a government system was implemented here to grant citizens’ wishes to allow them to farm more easily. They laud Handurebol as if Kim Jong Il filled the place with water himself.

Sight 7: Taehongdan’s Sea of Potato Flowers

North Korea asserts that the blooming image of Taehongdan, which carries out extensive potato farming, concretely reflects Kim Jong Il’s grand plan to provide plenty for the people to eat. It advertises this main potato production spot as a fairyland, draped in white from the end of June to the end of July, that gives hope for North Korea’s future as a prosperous and powerful country. While the authorities claim that potato farming in Taehongdan in Ryanggang Province is due to Kim Jong Il’s achievements, this is obviously fiction. The people, not Kim Jong Il, tirelessly cultivated the land for farming.

Sight 8: The Enchanted Lands of Beomanri [aka”Beomanri’s Outskirts”]

North Korea authorities advertise Beomanri as the “pride of a communist country,” turned into a paradise during the Songun era under the leadership of Kim Jong Il. Beomanri was originally a small mountain village in Sohung County in North Hwanghae Province, but during the times of famine, Kim Jong Il tore down its disorderly old homes and built approximately 100 modern homes and 30 welfare facilities, as well as multiple fisheries. North Korean media states that in 2001, Kim Jong Il visited the village and upon seeing its scenery, stated that paradise was not somewhere else, but right in Beomanri, the paradise of the Workers’ Party era and fairyland of socialism.

Sight 9: Unusual Nut Landscape

North Korean authorities assert that after Kim Jong Un came into power, he instructed [the military] to provide nuts for soldiers, causing a nut-farming sensation in the military. Kim Jong Un’s orders for soldiers to eat food products made from nuts caused the entire military to engage in nut farming, resulting in propaganda stating that Kim Jon Un promoted nut farming. The North Korean state-run publication Rodong Sinmun also published an image of Kim Jong Un looking delighted as he entered a nut warehouse.

What started with eight Songun sights in the time of Kim Jong Il has continued under Kim Jong Un and is said to have recently expanded to 13 sights. It is unlikely, however, that this would have aroused any interest from the greater population.

So Jae Pyong, secretary-general of the North Korean Defectors Association, told Daily NK, “The people also know that the Nine Songun Sights are not so much beautiful scenery from nature but something for the sake of political ‘systematic propaganda’ and ‘idolization,’ so people are not really paying attention to them,” also adding that “average citizens not only can’t go to these places, they also don’t want to.” 

Adding to this, So said, “Kim Jong Un inherited this type of systematic propaganda from his father, Kim Jong Il, and is now strengthening it” and “in order to strengthen the ideological thinking of citizens, he is continuously looking for beautiful scenery that he himself can discover.”

One anonymous North Korean defector noted that “the worse the economy gets, the more North Korea authorities show the nine Songun sights on TV” and that “the authorities are not looking for a way to help struggling citizens but instead just focusing on propaganda like this.”
*All images credited to Korean Central News Agency [KCNA].