A Birthday Trip to North Korea
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1: Entering Kaseong City 58 secs
2: North Korean Village 13 secs
Our coach tracked The Han River out of Seoul the forty odd kilometers up towards the North Korean border in the morning gloaming, and if you hadn’t known your destination beforehand, you’d still have felt The Sword of Damocles hanging over your head; as almost the entire length of the riverbank is fortified with razor wire fences and guard towers, lest the North Koreans attempt an attack on the heart of the nation.
Ominous sights which certainly instill a sense of foreboding. Until ironically, we cross The Bridge of Freedom, to Dorasan Railway Station, situated right on the North Korean border. Where newly built post modernist architecture adorns the fault line of the world’s longest running civil war.
Cameras with a half decent zoom were banned on the tour, lest you might spy something you’re not supposed to. So I’d borrowed two of those point-and-shoot things that fit neatly into your back pocket and gave one to Conor, before we passed through North Korean immigration, so as not to raise suspicion.
Out in the car park we breathed in our first view of North Korea. Sighting the world’s highest flag tower and the infamous propaganda village, Kijŏng-dong, built in sight of the DMZ, to give South Koreans the impression of northern prosperity. Photographs were forbidden from here on in, except at designated tourist spots (but we’d try out best), and we quickly got an idea of the lack of freedom we were about to experience on this tour, when we stepped a few metres away from our bus, and a soldier began angrily blowing his whistle, and gesturing us to get back.
Back on the coach we got going. The streets were wide and deserted, as we entered what appeared to be an industrial park. Block upon block of brand new factories, and a bus park stacked with freshly minted blue Hyundai buses – indistinguishable from those seen south of the border -apparently used for ferrying in North Korean workers from the nearby towns and villages. Then lo and behold, a FamilyMart; the cornerstone of any Seoul street right here in the Axis of Evil… What is this place?
Kaesŏng Industrial Park is run by the South Korea company, Hyundai Asan. Seventy-two South Korean firms are currently operating in Kaesong, employing over 30,000 North Korean workers, projected to reach some 700,000 people when the park is finally completed in 2012. North Korean workers earn an average of $57 per month at the park — which is half of what Chinese labour costs, and less than 5 percent the salaries of their South Korean counterparts.
After leaving this “special economic zone” we entered Kaesŏng itself. The only city to change hands during the Korean War, and so depending on your perspective, the only South Korean city currently occupied by North Korea, or, the only North Korean city liberated from the US imperialists and their South Korean lackeys.
It was like a Lowry painting had come to life. People walked the streets, seemingly without aim, amongst Soviet-style apartment blocks – more prominent perhaps due to the lack of civilian cars and doubtless more prominent due to our fascination. Streets lacking commercial activity seemed to lack a pulse, a purpose. No advertising, neon flashing lights or hype. It seemed surreal, incomprehensible and totally alien. It unnerved me how much it unnerved me, but at the same time I was totally fascinated. All at once I wanted to know where they had come from, where they were going, what they were thinking and where they’d belong.
Exiting Kaseŏng we began our drive into the hills toward our first tour destination. The morning light was now sharp, but still flattering, as small hamlets and villages came into view. White single-tiered houses, with Asian roofs shimmered silver in the sunlight – a traditional type not now seen in South Korea’s onslaught toward modernization – accentuated against the olive green backdrop of the hills. The coach chatter quickly fell away, the passengers no doubt seduced by this unexpected pastoral scenery.
If the word drab accurately describes Kaseŏng, then the word for this was idyllic. The further we wound into the hills, the more villages we passed; only really distinguishable by their size. Yet once the mind had emerged from its romantic interlude with nature, one began noticing a very orderly and sinister pattern.
As we passed each village the first thing one would notice was a North Korean soldier standing between 10 and 50 metres back from the main road, on the path toward the village. He’d be facing toward the main road, and stood to attention, saluting the head vehicle of our convoy, as it drove on by.
Yet the starkest observation to be made was the very absence of people in those villages. After we’d passed the first couple, one could well have believed that these villagers too, were false. Yet as we continued onwards, people did start appearing, working away in distant fields.
Our first scheduled stop on the tourist docket was Barkyeon waterfall. And we quickly surmised we should probably forego the kiosks selling all matter of curious North Korean tidbits and climb the few hundred metres to the falls before everyone else arrived.
Certainly not the reason any of us came to North Korea if truth be told. However it didn’t fail to impress, and was unique in my experience for the engravings adorning the surrounding rocks and the face of the falls. Apparently this, is a mortality of sorts, granted to loyal party members. Not as destructive and tacky as it sounds really; but then, us Anglos do think Chinese characters are cool, and doubtless if the graffiti were carved in English commemorating the life of Janet or Steve, perhaps it wouldn’t have seemed so quaint.
Above the falls is an old Buddhist Temple complete with ‘monk’. Perhaps this was the manner in which North Korea’s monks acted, after all I hadn’t much experience in that area. But I have met many monks down the years from various countries and this guy’s behavior was just a little off. Still the poor guy probably spent a decade in the army, and perhaps even a stint in the Gulag, so I wasn’t about to ask him for ID. Still, we got into filling the cameras with cheesy tourist shots to test his resolve. Which did have the added benefit of labeling our group apolitical tourists, taking some of the heat off our later actions.
On the way back into Kaesŏng, fate would have it, we were on board the lead coach, and thus in a very favorable vantage point. The villages suddenly appeared to contain a lot more life than we had initially believed. I saw distant figures dashing into houses, a soldier jogging into position, and people peeking from behind the curtains.
On one occasion, a woman alongside the road ran frantically, as a clearly agitated soldier waved his hands at her. Just as we reached them she dived under a little bridge, in an apparent attempt to hide from us, before the soldier made his salute, as if nothing untoward had happened.
Despite their being two North Korean security personnel on our bus, making sure we weren’t taking inappropriate pictures through the window, I couldn’t help but pull out the camera and begin illegally filming all this quirky activity.
Next up was another temple stop inside Kaseŏng itself. With the coaches parked on one side of the street, North Koreans, seemingly indifferent to our presence strolled along on the other. Suffice to say, there were quite a few soldiers in attendance, positioned intermittently along the middle of the road lest anyone might stray, from either side.
As we hung back, soaking up this surreal scene, a young boy of about 5 or 6 crossed over towards us from the North Korean side. He was quite scruffy and had that reddish tint to his skin common of many North Koreans we saw, who’ve yet it seems, to have adopted the contemporary Asian obsession with ivory skin.
This created a bit of a stir amongst the soldiers, yet they clearly didn’t want to appear to be overly aggressive or paranoid. He reached our side of the street but was head off by a plain-clothed security office from one of the buses. The South Korean’s seemed totally indifferent to this scene and the ones who were subtly looking over their shoulders seemed a little afraid of him.
We stuck close out of curiosity; as he sat down by a tree, fiddling with pebbles, and looking rather frustrated as the guard crouched down to speak to him. The guard then shooed away a soldier who came over to help out, causing him to retreat rather embarrassedly back to the middle of the road.
Yet despite the guard’s efforts at cajoling the boy he refused to budge, and a soldier did finally step in, scooping the boy up, and carrying him off around the corner never to be seen again, as the boy kicked his legs defiantly.
Next stop for us were more cultural sites, including, Sonjuk Bridge; a famous little bridge dating back to 1216. Unfortunately it appeared a section of town had been closed off for our visit, denying us more of what we’d come here to see. Then onto another temple, where we delighted in discovering not just more architecture, or ancient Buddha’s; but a North Korean beer …or two! And when our time was up, we grabbed one for the road, and drove back through the “special economic zone” to the border.
There were about half a dozen separate lines going through immigration. Worryingly, there were a couple of soldiers at each, checking people’s cameras as they passed through the metal detector. We had initially believed they would only check the cameras of people they considered suspicious. Now it was obvious they were leaving no stone unturned. I had the two cameras we came in with, and so gave one back to Conor, minus the memory card which I had slipped into my sock.
He quite rightly pointed out that a camera minus a memory card was bound to raise a whole load of suspicion, so back in the slot it went. A diversionary tactic would have to be used, and as I got to the immigration officer I claimed to have lost my immigration card, which was effectively our visa to North Korea. I began pulling stuff out my bag and pockets, and generally causing a scene as the others passed on by. When they stopped Conor, and he took out the camera for inspection, I knew we were in a bit of a pickle. At this moment I ‘found’ my card, waving it jubilantly at the soldier who now searched through the photos. Unfortunately he was a cold-blooded professional and totally unperturbed by my antics.
Tom passed through unmolested having claimed he didn’t have a camera. I got through next and waited expectantly for Conor to appear… When he didn’t, I reentered the building. Most of the people had left by now, as we were towards the end of our queue. There were now about three soldiers around the camera with Conor standing aside somewhat nervously.
I gave it a further minute or so and even briefly restarted my smoking career, with a little drag on Conor’s girlfriend’s dirty dregs. Then we watched them usher him over to a control centre, with more soldiers; and it was at this point I stepped back into the fray. I asked him rather innocently what was going on, and after a shrug of the shoulders, we stepped aside and he said rather confidently “The only way they can hurt me is in my pocket”. They’re hardly going to create an international crisis by holding him, besides, he’s Irish, and can hardly be branded an imperialist spy…or so we hoped.
It was at this point I decided I’d claim ownership of the camera. I walked over to where the soldiers had gathered and asked them what the problem was. “Is this your camera?” They asked “Yes” I said with a confident frown of mock confusion. “What is this?” He asked, showing me a still shot of a distant soldier standing on the path toward a village. “urm?”, “It’s a soldier!” he lambasted, “You must not take picture of soldier!” Okay, it WAS a soldier, but a very distant one at that, and clearly not the object of the picture.
I looked at the picture as if I were seeing the soldier for the first time. “You must delete this picture!” “Okay”, I said coolly, taking the camera from him, and as I deleted it, realizing it wasn’t a picture at all, but the last frame of a video. He double checked it wasn’t there anymore, gave me the camera back, nodded and waved me to go…
As I walked away I realized they hadn’t even viewed the videos, all of which were highly incriminating and couldn’t possibly be passed off as anything but an attempt to film that which is forbidden. The only reason they had stopped on that one, was the distant soldier’s presence in the last frame!
Never on an organized tour have I lacked so much freedom, yet never on a tour have I learned so very much.
Not a bad birthday present either…I hope you appreciate the videos;-)