On North Korea tours delegations to the country are sometimes took to what is titled “The Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery”, located at Taesong-guyŏk just outside of Pyongyang, the cemetery sits on top of a gigantic hill. The complex consists of a perfectly aligned series of bronze busts representing the graves of the first generation of North Korean guerrilla fighters whom fought alongside leader Kim Il Sung in the 1930s and 40s. Each bust is remarkably tailored to reflect the individual appearance and facial features of that individual. At the backdrop of the cemetery sits a larger and more glorified memorial to Kim’s first wife, Kim Jong-suk, who is also purported to have featured in the revolutionary struggle. A book on North Korea, Kwon & Chung (2012) “North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics” discusses this cemetery and its political significance. Here, we elaborate on this topic.
First of all, Kwon & Chung’s book notes that North Korea really doesn’t have many cemeteries at all, not least concerning their own war dead. Two of particular note is the Cemetery for North Korean and Chinese Soldiers and of course, the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery. Given the overwhelming absence of others, they argue there is a significance in such. War Cemeteries hold a symbolic meaning in that they express mourning, grief and regret following a conflict. The war is over, it is to be remembered alongside the falling and in turn, there are hopes such will never happen again. For North Korea however, in the aspect of the Korean war, the war is not over in the political sense. The struggle against the United States is ongoing, Korea has not been reunified, therefore the conflict must not be depicted in the public memory as in the past. It’s ongoing. Hence it is no coincidence that the only formal “Korean war” cemetery in the country is in fact primarily built for the Chinese and really not the DPRK itself.
Thus, the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery is left as the noteworthy exception. Obviously, it isn’t about the Korean war as it is about the revolutionary struggle against Japan for Korean independence, but also it stands out for the fact it is not an ordinary or benign military cemetery. Instead, it exists as a political reaffirmation and glorification of North Korea’s leadership. Those within it are not random fighters or an indiscriminate collection of the fallen, but instead it consists of the early “core” of the DPRK regime. Such people did not actually die in the fighting, but were placed there after their natural deaths. In a nutshell, it is a cemetery for those of elevated status. Thus its subsequent message is different to the standard military cemetery. We are not there to mourn them because they died in a regrettable conflict, we are there to commemorate their legacy in the development of the Korean revolution and the country’s struggle for independence. War is not expressed via regret, but glorification.
Thus as a whole, the Revolutionary Martyr’s cemetery is not your typical graveyard, but another explicit representation of the DPRK’s own legacy politics. The country ultimately strives to avoid connotations of “Loss” and personalized grief as is typical of any cemetery throughout the world. Instead, memorials personify the wider cause of the nation and being completely disinterested in intimate family memorials, steers the public towards the constant memory of the alleged sacrifices of those who are said to have built the country. People are only to look back not in sorrow at what is lost, but in triumph as to what has been achieved and in the case of the non-recognition of the Korean War’s fallen, the ongoing struggle of what still must be fought and died for. In all instances, the Korean Revolution.