On July 21, 1969, a man walked on the Moon for the first time in human history. His name – Neil Armstrong – is probably known to most people. It was a historic breakthrough for the United States: the USSR had succeeded in launching the first satellite and getting the first man in space, but America had finally managed to take the lead in the space race.
For the Soviet Union, it was, of course, a major embarrassment, and the leadership had to decide how to react – both for USSR and international audiences. Finally, a message for the main state newspaper, Pravda, was approved.
My grandfather actually kept this issue of Pravda in his village house. When I was a kid, I found it and immediately started reading. I already knew from my grandfather that Pravda had reported the historic landing on only the third page, so that was not a major surprise. What was a surprise, however, was that the newspaper actually called the American astronauts “heroes” – unbelievably out of character for the Communist Party mouthpiece.
In the days to come, Pravda published numerous congratulations to the Americans: from Nikolai Podgornyi, the-then Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, as well as from Soviet cosmonauts and scientists. The USSR tried to present the landing as a triumph of all humanity – and this was the approach taken by the majority of Communist nations, too.
North Korea was a notable exception.
SILENCE IN PYONGYANG
The first page of the Rodong Sinmun on July 21 was dedicated to reactions of students and teachers of Aichi University in Japan to Kim Il Sung’s work: “On some theoretical questions of socialist economy.” As you can probably guess, they found it to be most brilliant.
The USSR tried to present the landing as a triumph of all humanity
The next day’s front page was dedicated to the same work being published in Japan and then discussed in Pakistan and Syria. On July 23, the newspaper finally reported some news on the Moon program: apparently, the unmanned Soviet spacecraft Luna-15 had successfully landed on the Moon. Still not a word about the American astronauts.
The next year the DPRK published its yearbook dedicated to the events of 1969. The part about America had lots about the economic crisis the United States was allegedly facing, but nothing about the Moon landing.
I checked some other sources. Historical dictionary? Nothing. A “General Encyclopedia” from the 1980s? Nothing. Astronomy textbooks? Still nothing.
32 YEARS LATER…
The only North Korean publication I found which mentioned the landing in any detail was the Big Korean Encyclopedia, but it was not easy to find. First, the article on the “Moon” had nothing on the landing. Second, there was piece on the Apollo project, but with a twist: it did not mention it was American.
Finally, one of the Encyclopedia’s volumes (published in 2001) had an article on Neil Armstrong:
Armstrong, Neil Alden (b. Aug 5, 1930) is the first astronaut to land on Moon. Born in Ohio, he received pilot qualification in 1946, after which served as a Navy pilot. Was chosen to be an astronaut in 1962 and in 1966 performed a space rendezvous while being of board of spacecraft Gemini-8. In 1969, as a captain of a spaceship Apollo-11, conducted the first landing on Moon in the history of humankind. He installed a science laboratory on Moon, took some photographs and collected 22 kg of Moon’s rocks and soil. After spending 21 hours and 36 minutes on the Moon’s surface he departed from Moon and after a rendezvous with the spaceship on lunar orbit returned to Earth.
Of course, Ohio is in the U.S., so any reader with a basic knowledge of geography would guess which country Armstrong is from, but the dreaded A-word, again, was omitted.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the minders who accompanied the BBC in 2011 did not have a clue about the landing. To learn about the Moon landing in North Korea, one would have to read the Big Korean Encyclopedia volume by volume, and, finally, stumble upon this Armstrong article.
The intonation with which North Korea talked about Neil Armstrong in the piece is also quite unexpected
I’m sure that such people exist – in North Korea you do not get much reading material, and the Encyclopedia is a far more interesting choice that another trashy speech by the Leader – but they are rare exceptions.
Apart from the Big Korean Encyclopedia the only other mention of the Moon landing I managed to find was in Kwangmyong Encyclopedia’s astronomy volume published in 2011. The fact that a landing took place is mentioned in passing, without clarifying which nation conducted the landing and when.
Apart from this remarkable story of censorship, the intonation with which North Korea talked about Neil Armstrong in the piece is also quite unexpected. Nothing bad is said about the man, and they openly state that Armstrong “conducted the first landing on Moon in the history of humankind.”
This is from North Korea, which uses language like “bastards”, “rats” and “monkeys” when talking about American politicians, the country which describes America as a state run by fanatical militarists consumed by a desire to enslave the planet.
North Korean encyclopedia speaks of the astronaut in a moderately positive way, acknowledging his remarkable achievement
They could have easily said that the Apollo project was a complete waste of money – money taken from the starving masses in a malevolent desire to satisfy American national pride.
They could have even invoked the idea of a “Lunar conspiracy”, which argues that Moon landing never happened – after all, we are talking about the country which deleted the entire period of Soviet administration (1945-1948) from its historiography, replacing it with stories about Kim Il Sung and his partisans defeating Imperial Japan.
Yet when it came to Neil Armstrong, instead of the usual barking-style hatred, the North Korean encyclopedia speaks of the astronaut in a moderately positive way, acknowledging his remarkable achievement – not that dissimilar from the USSR of the late 1960s.
SPACE, THE FINAL FRONTIER
Both concepts of liberal democracy and communism originate in the progressive discourse of the Enlightenment era and, as a result, both sides of the Cold War valued scientific progress. But it is not as though the USSR had a habit of congratulating the USA for their achievements in the Space Race, or that the U.S. ever did the same for the Soviet Union.
The actual cause is deeper. The sky has fascinated men since the first spark of sentience came to exist in the minds of our ancestors, and the mysteries of the heavens have called to innumerable generations of humans.
That is why even the harshest anti-Communists did not attack Yuri Gagarin – and even worst hardliners in the Soviet government lacked hatred when they talked about Apollo-11’s mission. And this why even North Korea dropped its rhetoric of loathing and talked about the first man to walk on the Moon with a token of respect, albeit a little late.
When we see man’s space achievements, for a moment we feel not like citizens of nation-states bounded by our prejudices and ideologies – but as human brothers and sisters.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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