One of the most well-known landmarks in Pyongyang is the Liberation Monument, which commemorates soldiers from the Red Army who died in the Soviet-Japanese war of 1945.
This monument is something of an unofficial symbol for North Korean relations with Russia and is regularly visited by Russian officials and diplomats.
It is, however, not widely known that, originally, the monument looked different from what it is now – and this piece is dedicated to its history.
The Monument in a four-sided stela placed on a base. It was erected on May 1, 1947 on the Moran hill near Panwol island in Pyongyang, which has since been artificially merged with the neighboring Rungra island.
There are some claims on the Russian internet that the monument stands on the place of the colonial-era Shinto shrine Heijo-jinja, although this is incorrect. If one were to look at the 1946 map of Pyongyang, one could clearly see that the place where the monument stands is different from the former shrine, although quite close to it – on the hill marked “57.8” on the map. The place of Heijo-jinja is now occupied by the Moranbong theatre.
There are few photos of the original Monument left, but one can see that while its general structure was more or less the same as it is now, some details are different.
First, on the front side of the Monument, one can see the Soviet medal “Victory over Japan”. As shown below, this medal contained an image of Stalin.
Moreover, two inscriptions on the Monument were also different from what they are today. The first one read:
“The heroic exploit of the great Soviet Union which liberated the Korean people from Japan’s oppression will forever shine to the endless generations. August 15, 1945.”
And the second:
“Under the leadership of the Great Generalissimo Stalin, victory over Japanese imperialism has been achieved. With this victory and the blood spilled by the friendship of the Korean and Soviet people became even stronger. This monument is erected to show the gratitude of the entire nation. August 15, 1945”
Furthermore, pictures at the monument featured the traditional Korean flag, which is now the flag of South Korea.
Another picture featured a Korean woman waving the flag over the Heavenly lake at the Paektu mountain. Ironically, in just three years, during the war, the same imagery became a South Korean symbol for triumph over the North.
REMADE AFTER THE WAR
The monument survived the Korean War, and interestingly, was not demolished during the brief time Pyongyang was taken over by the UN forces. For nine more years, it stood in the North Korean capital, until it was redesigned.
In 1959, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was preparing to visit Pyongyang. Although the visit was ultimately canceled, the DPRK did a lot to prepare for it.
The first thing to be removed from the monument was the image of Joseph Stalin – Khrushchev certainly would have not appreciated seeing the face of the tyrant he had denounced in 1956.
The second one was the old Korean flag – from the late 1950s, the DPRK began to quietly remove it from history, pretending that it had never been used.
Officially the redesign was called “repair work” and archives show Soviet ambassador Alexander Puzanov was informed of this on September 24. Puzanov was probably the most cowardly man of all the Soviet ambassadors to the DPRK – he was essentially the person responsible for Moscow losing its control over the North – but, notably, he protested against the renovation:
“For my part, I expressed doubts about the expediency of replacing some of the inscriptions, although it really should be done on the eve of the arrival of our delegation.”
It is quite possible that Puzanov had favorable feelings towards Stalin – he was a rising star until the dictator died, being appointed an alternate member of Central Committee’s Presidium in 1952, and all he had received since Stalin’s death were demotions. In any case, his protest was dismissed.
The medal with Stalin’s portrait was replaced with an official symbol of the Soviet Army – the hammer and sickle superimposed on a five-pointed star – and so was the flag with Stalin’s face featured on one of the monument’s sides – it was changed to the flag of the USSR. Both inscriptions on the monument were changed. This is how the new – and current – version looked:
“Eternal glory to the great Soviet Army, which liberated the Korean people from the yoke of Japanese imperialism and opened the way to freedom and independence! August 15, 1945”
“The great Soviet people have smashed the Japanese imperialists and liberated the Korean people. The ties of friendship between the Korean and the Soviet people are further strengthened by blood spilled by Soviet soldiers in their liberation of the Korean people. This monument is erected as a token of gratitude of all the people. August 15, 1945”
The most dangerous event for the Monument was not de-Stalinization, but rather the introduction of the Monolithic ideological system in 1967. After that, the DPRK began to teach that Japan was crushed by the “Korean People’s Liberation Army” of Kim Il Sung – an organization which never existed. In the official lore, the Soviet Union was reduced to an assistance force to the great Kim and his unstoppable army.
And here, we come to the most improbable part of this story – despite the DPRK-Soviet relations being quite bad in the 1970s, and North Korea’s internal propaganda routinely condemning Soviet revisionism, the Soviet embassy has managed to preserve the Monument in its 1959 shape.
Until recently, Soviet documents on this period were classified. Thus, as of now, we do not know who was responsible for this, but judging from his tenure period, Nikolai Sudarikov, who was the Soviet Ambassador to the DPRK in 1967-74, must have had a role in it.
Yet, access to the monument was restricted until roughly 1982-83, when Pyongyang’s favor began to switch from Beijing back to Moscow. Normally Pyongyang dwellers could not visit it at the time and when, in 1982, a Soviet delegation requested visiting the monument, Pyongyang said that it would be allowed only on condition that the Soviets bring flowers to the monument to the Chinese volunteers as well.
The monument also disappeared from North Korean books and publications, and there were even rumors that for some time the monument was surrounded by barbed wire – although, as for now, there is no evidence to substantiate this.
However, since the 1980s, the monument stands in the center of Pyongyang – with every city dweller being able to read about the “great Soviet Army, which liberated the Korean people” – a statement which so sharply contradicts everything state propaganda has taught for the last half of the century.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Kremlin
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