North Korea by Google Earth: Kim Jong Il’s Largest Palace
[Updated; The Mystery of the Tangun Tomb] Remember my March 28th post, a stream of consciousness that washed against the subject of EU sanctions against North Korea? Among the items sanctioned were pure-bred horses, which are the kind not even North Koreans would dare eat — because of who owns them. That led me to the one location in North Korea where I suspected that such horses might be kept. I had recently found that location on Google Earth while spying on an area a few miles east-by-northeast of Pyongyang. Because of the extraordinary security surrounding this complex, I had speculated that it was probably the pleasure dome of none other than His Porcine Majesty:
It’s not marked, “Kim Jong Il, the Lodestar of the Universe, lives here,” but the extraordinary security and luxury of the place suggest as much (did I mention the anti-aircraft missile sites and the airfield?). I hope to do a more complete GE tour of this place some time, along with some of the other high-end real estate on this highway, north and east of Pyongyang.
Today, some North Korean defectors are confirming my amateur photo-interpretation, and Yahoo Korea (in Korean only) is publishing satellite photos of what it believes to be Kim Jong Il’s house and palace. (Translation note: the caption says jip-mu-shil, which I take it means “home office.”) There are at least two different locations shown here. I’ve only identified two of these locations; the one you see above (see, e.g., the distinctive oval track in Images 5 and 6 below) and one other, which I’m pretty sure I’ve placemarked, and which is about five miles or so from the other. The headlines say, “This is how Kim Jong Il lives!” I put together a Google Earth tour of the palace below. First, here are the published pictures verified by the defectors:
Supposedly, Kim Jong Il has a whopping 17 palaces, and I’ve found other candidate locations, including another large complex near Paektu-San and suspect locations in Wonsan and near his plutonium reactor at Yongbyon. Those will wait for another day.
Update: For those who know how to use Google Earth or Google maps, if you click the images and enlarge them to full size, you can see the coordinates printed along the bottom of each screen. Let’s start our tour about 18 miles northeast of Pyongyang.
Here’a an overview of the area around the palace. Note the surface-to-air missile sites, the airfield, and the mysterious political monument. We’ll zoom in on those in a moment.
Taking obsessive security to a new level, the road leading from the main Pyongyang highway to the palace is not just gated, it’s completely fenced off. Locals can’t get near it.
The SAM sites have a characteristic floral shape, making them easy to recognize from above. Many of North Korea’s SAM sites are inactive, but not these. They’re fresh and well-maintained.
Here’s the palace complex. As you can see, there are a quite a few other buildings in the periphery of the complex. The “fl” placemarks show the triple fencing around the place, and the “G” placemarks are gates.
You can see two of the fencelines and the bunkers along them here. So is Kim Jong Il really that worried about our Special Forces? Well, maybe. Another theory is that he’s worried about his own special forces.
The large oval object appears to be a horse track.
I’m watching you, Fat Boy.
Suppose they have those big goldfish in the ponds?
This complex is right next to the palace, and inside the outer layer of fencing. That leads me to think that it’s associated with the palace, but I can’t even venture a guess as to what it is.
Two and a half miles past the palace exit on the highway is an airfield. Off to the right, you can see some aircraft, possibly AN-2 Colts, parked.
Almost exactly one mile further is this bizarre monument.
It’s just over 50 yards across at the base. By any chance, does anyone know what on earth this thing is?
How about the rest of the North Korean people, you may ask? Do they know that their leader lives this way while they starve, and while their kids are stunted from malnutrition? In most cases, probably not. For those who raise such questions, you can learn more about their living arrangements here.
Update 2: Another mystery solved, and Bruce Klingner wins the cookie. According to official North Korean historical interpretation, this is the tomb of Tangun. Another reader who wishes to remain anonymous even e-mails to say he’s even been there, and was surprised to learn how close he got to Kim Jong Il’s main palace without knowing it (I hope he’ll let me publish a part of his e-mail). There are ground-level pictures of the tomb here and here, but this one (ROK blocked) is my favorite:
My, but he simply projects charisma, doesn’t he? If Tangun were actually buried here, he’d be thinking, “There goes the neighborhood.” But he never was.
Once again archaeologists were ordered to make a discovery by the Great Leader himself (this time, it was Kim Il-sung). Once again, the discovery was made immediately — I just wonder how great life would become had the North Korean scientists been able to produce, say, a high-temperature superconductor upon receiving the proper order from some Dear or Great Leader. The aging Kim Il-sung instructed them to find the tomb of legendary Tangun, the son of the she-bear and alleged founder of Ancient Choson. The tomb was found — near Pyongyang, of course. This once again proved the city’s credentials as the nation’s capital for five thousand years. [Korea Times, Prof. Andrei Lankov]
Internet writings about the Tomb of Tangun are dominated by North Korean inspired propaganda about the tomb and its fictitious historical significance. One can sift through these and find the accounts of more skeptical visitors, too.
How much more interesting a story is when you discover it by accident.
Update: A reader who has visited the “Tomb of Tangun” has graciously given me permission to print his description of the place.
“The Tomb of Tangun” is indeed a very strange place to visit. I’m a trained archaeologist, which is why I had a particular interest in this monument. My professor at University has specialised in ancient Korean history and it was through him I first got to hear about the place. He attended a conference in England in the early 1990:s where North Korean scientists presented their findings. According to him, everyone, including the North Koreans, were “embarrassed” by the claims. Scientists as they were, they fully understood the “improbability” of their discovery, and naturally everyone else felt the same way. But they had be ordered from home to present this “amazing discovery” to the world, and there was nothing they could do about it.
Anyway, knowing this background story, I wanted to visit the tomb for myself. I do not believe it is a major tourist attraction. My travel agent said the place was just “too boring” and, well, a fake too…so why go there? All the same, I went with two guides and a driver. I clearly remember crossing the bridge with the hydroelectric plant and locks, seen on the Google Earth photos, and then continuing for a little bit longer, passing the “hidden road” to the palace complex.I had to pay 10 Euros extra to enter the pyramid, which was opened up by a young lady in military uniform.
Inside there was almost a small labyrinth, leading to the cold burial chamber where two coffins, one for Tangun and one for his wife, stood side by side. On the wall was a mural painting of Tangun himself. Surprisingly, my guide suggested that the black wooden covers be removed so we could take a look into the glass coffins. The lady almost panicked and quickly responded that it was impossible! Only scientists were allowed to look inside and would also have to pay 100 Euros for the privilege. I clearly noticed that this explanation did not impress my guide, who might not have believed the story and/or just felt embarrassed I’d travelled all this way for nothing. Personally I think it’s likely that the coffins might have been empty. Although I did have a 100 Euros on me, I didn’t feel compelled to spend them all there and then…
Outside I looked at the monumental statues and the engraved stones. The statues were all newly made, which was no secret, however the supposedly ancient, engraved stones did look suspiciously new as well. Although I didn’t get to see a lot, I don’t regret going there. I concluded that the Tomb of Tangun wasn’t a memorial over the person Tangun (fictional or not), it was constructed for the “idea” of Tangun. The idea that the founder of Korea came from the north and was buried close to Pyongyang even. Like so many things in North Korea, it was an entirely political monument.
In retrospect one can wonder if the location of the tomb was chosen for its proximity to the palace? It would certainly have a strong, symbolic meaning in that case.” (END)
I’ve agreed to keep the reader’s identity to myself, as he may want to go back to North Korea. Yes, I’m ambivalent about travel to the North, but at least this reader will at least be honestly skeptical about what he observes there. Thanks much for writing in.
~ ~ ~