Out of all the things to see in North Korea, some are fascinating, others are eye-opening, a few more a bit intimidating, yet none match up to the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities. This museum, built upon the apparent account of an American led massacre in the Korean War, is the most graphic and unsettling site tourists can see in North Korea. With no reservations made, this institution is not for the faint hearted as it plunges into graphic detail concerning the stories of those who allegedly perished. In both 2016 and 2017, we visited the museum, which had recently been rebuilt with the endorsement of Kim Jong Un. This is what we found on each occasion.
As the name states, the museum is located in a rural county known as Sinchon, part of Hwanghae Province a couple of hours south of Pyongyang. This was, as is claimed, the site of the massacre which took place in 1950. The new museum stands at the top of a hill looking down upon a series of very modest villages around it. Outside was situated two traditional Korean burial mounds, we were told these were memorials for children who had perished at the hands of American soldiers. We were made to bow for them accordingly.
Upon entering, we discovered that the museum was not an “ordinary museum”, (although which ones in North Korea are?) but it had an intimidating design, illuminated with blood red lights purposefully designed to incite feelings of horror and dread, as well as text itself designed to look like dripping blood. Unlike other museums in North Korea, you are allowed to take pictures in this one, which demonstrates the determination of the authorities to get this message out, rather than to hide or conceal it.
Yet that was only the beginning. As we went deeper into the museum’s galleries, the content became increasingly more graphic, explicit and disturbing. Scenes of torture had been crafted into gigantic paintings and wax dummy representations. We were told the stories of several heroes who chose to die as martyrs for the Worker’s Party, with the torture they endured portrayed as self-sacrifice to the revolutionary cause. In these paintings and scenes, American soldiers were depicted in a grotesque and sinister way, with purposefully exaggerated and malicious looking features, such as big noses, seedy eyes or crooked teeth.
Yet this was not all, the picture above represents a re-creation of an alleged scene where American soldiers threw children off a bridge into a river. For added effect, this came with a looped audio recording of children screaming, as well as a blood stained railing from the bridge.
The museum’s depictions came with live subjects too. We were introduced to an old man who claimed to be a survivor of the massacre, having been just five years old at the time. He told us his story about how he the survived American bombing of a barn he took refuge in, with other children perishing. Conveniently, the barn itself had also been reconstructed, complete with the depiction of a dummy bomb breaking through the ceiling. After this, we were led into an underground cellar with purposefully blackened walls. We were told that Koreans had fled here for safety and the Americans had poured petrol into it and started a fire.
In summary, the Sinchon Museum is graphic, intense and extreme in its portrayal of the alleged events. Most people who visit it are likely to dismiss the contents outright as propaganda, which is what most of the people in my groups did. Certainly, there are many legitimate questions that can be raised concerning the verification of these events and with the nature of North Korea, an independent analysis is impossible. Nevertheless, the museum serves as an important reminder of how the country feels about the actions of the United States and their history with them. As much as these events may be exaggerated, the suffering of North Koreans at the hands of American bombing and soldiers during the war was very much a reality, one which is often always overlooked in the assessment of North Korea’s behaviour. This considered, the Sinchon museum is not as much an orchestrated fraud as it is a representation, albeit a somewhat hysterical one, of the true fear American militarism strikes into that country. In this sense, Sinchon is core to North Korea’s ideology and identity.