Weekends, we usually take day trips outside of Pyongyang. Today's Saturday, so we'll take a drive out to neighboring South Hwanghae Province, which occupies the southwestern corner of the country. Our first stop: rural Sinchon county. Home of the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities.
I've been wanting to visit the museum for years, but it is rarely put on group itineraries. It's considered one of the more "sensitive" sites, a polite way of saying that its contents are actually rather incendiary. The Sinchon Museum is intended more for domestic rather than international propaganda purposes; virtually every North Korean visits the museum at least once, on mandatory educational pilgrimages.
After the three-hour ride along the potholed highway through depressed bucolica, our van pulls into the empty parking lot.
"You know what kind of place this is, right?" Min asks, a hint of warning in her voice, as we climb out of our metallic, air-conditioned box on wheels.
Elevated on a royal slope above the parking lot, the museum glistens beneath the scorching late July sun. The guide, in yellow joseon-ot, is already making her way down the sidewalk toward us. Above the entrance, a large propaganda slogan has been inscribed in gold lettering. Alek teasingly asks if my Korean is good enough yet to read it. His is, "Do not forget the lesson of blood on the ground of Sinchon." After we exchange greetings with the guide, our tour commences as we make our way up the hill.
Halfway up, we pause before two elevated mounds, familiar to anyone who has visited a Koryo Dynasty-era imperial tomb, such as that of King Kongmin outside of Kaesong. These, however, are not the tombs of an emperor and his wife; one, we are told, contains the remains of one hundred women who died in the slaughter that took place here, the other the remains of one hundred children. To the left of the museum building stand two warehouses, so nondescript that I hadn't noticed them a moment before. These, we are told, are the buildings in which the victims were murdered by the American capitalists.
The museum opened just five years after the Korean War armistice, on March 26, 1958. It was rebuilt in 2015 on the orders of Kim Jong Un, who instructed that it be made "more comfortable" for Korean visitors. Previously, the museum space was located at a greater distance from the warehouses where the victims had been killed; now, they were located side-by-side, presumably to strengthen the dramatic impact of the horrors contained in each of the buildings.
At the time the war broke out, Sinchon was a regional transportation hub and, therefore, a strategic point militarily. To get to Pyongyang or Haeju, the provincial capital, you had to pass through. In the early days of the Korean War, the town was captured by the U.S. military. For the 52 days they occupied the area—from October 17 to December 7, 1950, when they were driven out by the advancing Chinese troops—U.S. troops, according to the North Koreans, committed numerous mass murders and atrocities, aimed chiefly at local civilians, that amounted to nothing less than a total holocaust. At least this is the story the museum is here to tell. It has been erected on the locale where many of these crimes against humanity allegedly took place.
The museum is not merely a commemorative site but a vivid, stomach-churning evocation—replete with wax dummies, fake blood, and a piped-in soundscape of screaming children—of the savage butchery and malicious nature that signify American imperialism.
We proceed along a chronology of brutality. The U.S. soldiers launched their adventure, our guide relays, by gathering 900 local residents into an air raid shelter. Through the air ducts, they poured gasoline and then incinerated the victims. "All of them were innocent civilians. Mostly women and children," she somberly intones.
This was followed by the massacre of October 20, when 520 people were placed inside yet another air raid shelter, in which the devious Americans had planted dynamite. They locked the doors and detonated it. Our guide takes great relish in elucidating all the gory details. Min takes less delight in interpreting, rendering the English translation in an affectless monotone of a description of human flesh left hanging from the walls of the shelter.
I'm reminded of Eden Eden Eden, Pierre Guyotat's anti-war novel, with its overwrought and crude incantations of sadistic violence, rape, and mass murder meant to evoke the horrors of the Algerian War. Indeed, with its lack of historical contextualization and refutation of any causal factors that might bolster the verisimilitude of what is displayed—even the blurred black-and-white photographic documentation looks abstract, as though it could have been pulled from any number of the past century's mass slaughters—the museum, like Guyotat's book, is a collection of fragments of violence; both works are essentially pornographic.
The action shifts to a nearby hot springs resort, commandeered by U.S. soldiers as a barracks. There, our guide explains, they dragged local women, raped them, and then threw them into the hot springs and tossed in grenades to "cover up" their crimes.
Becoming animated, the museum guide bemoans "these American lunatics, who tortured women by cutting off their breasts and inserting sticks in their vaginas." She nearly spits on the floor. "And these Americans preach about 'human rights'! And boast that they enjoy the utmost of civilizations!"
When not busy raping and murdering women at the hot springs, the soldiers were occupied with the project of slaughtering an additional 1,200 locals. This they accomplished with the help of vicious attack dogs. Or by burning them to death. It is not specified whether these two methods were employed simultaneously or alternately; it is fruitless to ask, as rationality does not play much of a role in this type of narrative construction.
Twelve miles north of Sinchon, a bridge was barricaded by the U.S. army. Every civilian approaching that day hoping to cross was instead murdered.
At another bridge, the soldiers took sadistic pleasure in tying sacks filled with rocks to the feet of local peasants and tossing them off to drown in the deep river below. The few who were lucky enough to survive and managed to swim up to the surface didn't meet a happy end; they were shot at by the evil Yankees above to ensure not a single survivor was left.
These scenes are enacted by lifelike mannequins—ugly American soldiers with hooked noses (one can't help but think of the depiction of Jews in Nazi Germany propaganda) and malevolent grins. Others are illustrated in large, muralesque wall paintings. Over speakers, a soundtrack of screaming children and symphonic music. Piles of bodies forming mass graves in grainy photographs.
Every few years, a new mass grave will be discovered in the vicinity, necessitating the museum's constant expansion.
"Some of the skeletons unearthed were scratching the ground, trying to climb to the surface as they suffocated. In one of these mass graves, they found the remains of a nine-month-old fetus in one of the bodies," says the guide. "So you can tell these Americans even killed pregnant women!"
I wonder what's going through Min's mind as she's forced to interpret. Whether she believes all these things, whether she is sickened by them. What kind of detachment her flat, emotionless transcription is rooted in. Surely she has a different relationship to history, to the "history" that is so key in fomenting North Korean national identity, having grown up thousands of miles away.
Alek and Alexandre and I are careful to remain silent, even avoid glancing at one another, throughout the tour. In the past, it has not been unheard-of for tourists to react in anger, even argue with the museum guides, over the veracity of such outlandish claims. This is why tourists are rarely brought here. It is something that has to be requested.
Alek breaks protocol to point out a detail in a particularly gruesome, corpse-strewn photo and begins to whisper something in my ear. Min uncharacteristically reacts in anger, halting her hate-speech translation to remind us "It was you who wanted to come here" before huffing off to the next room. Later, when she notices me filming her on my phone as she is interpreting, she asks me to stop.
Understatement has never been considered a virtue in the North Korean propaganda machinery. Overwhelmed by disbelief, I ask the guide to clarify whether all of these crimes actually took place here in Sinchon or if this museum is meant to commemorate atrocities that had taken place throughout Korea during the war.
"The museum documents only the crimes that took place here," she responds, before quickly adding, "though more atrocities were committed all over Korea."
We are led into yet another room with the sound of screaming children at full blast.
"Are school children also brought to this museum?" I am inspired to ask.
"Yes," replies the guide proudly. "And after seeing the exhibition, the children say, 'The U.S. imperialists are not human. They are wolves.'"
Excerpted with permission from See You Again in Pyongyang: A Journey into Kim Jong Un's North Korea by Travis Jeppesen. Courtesy of Hachette Books.