The Grand People’s Study House is one of North Korea’s most recognizable buildings. Built to celebrate Kim il-sun’s 70th birthday in 1982, the complex is best known for its traditional Korean style which stands as a showpiece in the background to the many parades which take place below. But it’s not just an empty shell, for as its name suggests, the building purportedly serves as a major source of knowledge and study in Pyongyang. Locals claim it houses thousands upon thousands of books brought from all around the world, as well as hosting various courses and classes in many subjects. On several occasions I was able to visit the study house whilst leading North Korea tours, the experience turned out to be much more fascinating, and of course bizarre, than a trip to any old library. Here is a recount of one of the trips.
On entering the house we witnessed a gigantic sculpture of Kim il-Sung in the main hallway, which was decorated with elegant marble. To begin, we were to make our way upstairs to the reception. The elevator up was operated by an old fashioned lift lady who sat on the inside, presumably all day. Inside, our guide pointed to a small power box and told us “if this box falls beyond this limit, then the lift becomes unsafe to operate!” not of course reassuring, but a reality of North Korea’s energy problems. Eventually, we got to the reception, here, the local guides told us the facility held every foreign language book in the world. One of the visitors in our group decided to test their luck, “do you have harry potter?” they asked innocently. The librarian replied by saying “you’ll have to check our computer records!“. Perhaps by no coincidence, we were never given that opportunity. Then, as a demonstration of the study houses’s prowess in being a hub of foreign literature, the librarian presented us enthusiastically with a book entitled “the complete encyclopedia of chickens“. Seeing this, we had to restrain ourselves from laughing. On several counts of having visited the study house we were presented with this book as “evidence” of its academic rigor, it was not by chance. On this particular occasion, they did additionally provide us with a glimpse of some copies of Shakespeare’s works, but by this point the damage had already been done…
The Chicken fiasco was not the end of the unfortunate hilarity. A trip to the Study House always involves a trip to the “Music Room”, where again, the staff attempt to prove the facility’s international worth. The music room was filled with gigantic 1980s style CD and cassette players, far a cry from what a modern studio would possess. The house guide presented us with “Music from the UK”, putting a CD into one of the players. However, the CD in question happened to be from the Swedish band Abba. In the resulting awkwardness, one of our group was brave enough to point this out, it was withdrawn quickly in the subsequent embarrassment with a haste apology, a mistake which they seemed to take very seriously. The next time I came, they had the Beatles ready.
Apart from the book and music blunders, the house did have a lot of fascinating and serious things going on. We discovered that they were running language classes in English, German, Chinese and Russian, with many locals attending. Alongside the language courses, we also saw some courses in computing. We were able to sit in on both classes for a bit, even talking to the students in the process whom, despite being in class seemed quite happy to receive our interest. We even noticed that the study house happened to have its own WiFi network, the only one I had ever witnessed in the DPRK… upon connecting to it, nothing worked of course.
In sum, the Grand People’s Study House proved more fascinating, bizarre and unfortunately amusing than any other library I had witnessed. It acclaims itself as a top center of learning and scholarship, that isn’t completely misleading, but the full extent is of course up for debate. Although North Korea’s connections and access to knowledge from the outside world are slowly improving, the study house nevertheless serves as a revelation to just how disconnected the DPRK is from the world we live in. In this age, we take i-phones, laptops, google and mass communications for granted, a routine habit of life, yet in this building, an encyclopedia of chickens is being heralded as serious proof of world class access to information. If it did not reveal the more tragic element of North Korea, then I might not feel so guilty finding it amusing.