A secretive trip to a secretive country (Part 3)
On the the 3rd day of the trip, we made our way to one of the most surreal tourist attractions in the world – the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which separates North and South Korea. We had to wake up earlier than expected and depart at 7:30am, because the tour guides received information that the DMZ would be closed in the afternoon due to an “event”. (Later I found out from the news that the “event” referred to the return of South Korean pastor Han Sang-Ryol from North Korea. Pastor Han arrived at North Korea in June and paid a two-month visit (which included a meeting with DPRK’s number two leader, Kim Yong-nam). After he returned to South Korea via the DMZ on 20 Aug, he was arrested because South Korea’s “security law” prohibited its citizens from entering North Korea without permission.)
On our way to the DMZ, our guide told us the history of the Korean War. I won’t go into all the fine details here… Basically, (according to our guide), North Korea was unhappy that the US was “brain-washing” South Korea and meddling with Korea’s affairs. Eager to reunite the country and get rid of the American “aggressors”, the North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel in 1950 and pushed the ill-prepared South Korean army all the way to Pusan (at the southern end of the peninsula). Reunification looked near, but the US intervened with a 16-nation coalition known as the United Nations Command (UNC) and pushed the North Korean army all the way back to the Chinese border. China, feeling threatened, joined the war on North Korea’s side and pushed the UNC back past the 38th parallel. The fighting continued and the boundary moved up and down around the 38th parallel but neither sides were having significant progresses. Finally in 1953, the Armistice Agreement was signed to stop all fighting (but not the war).
After 2 hours on the empty Reunification Highway (there’s no intercity traffic as permits are required to enter or leave a city/town), we reached the 38th parallel, the former border between North and South Korea from 1945 to 1950. (The 38th parallel was drawn by Allied officials at the end of WW2 to share the burden of rebuilding Korea between USA and USSR. What looked like a simple straight line at that time turned out to have grave consequences for Korea 5 years later.) Further down the highway, we saw the ancient city of Kaesong, which was once the capital of the Koryo dynasty. Unfortunately, the entire city was flattened during the Korean war, so we only saw rows and rows of Soviet-style concrete apartment blocks. 8km after Kaesong, we finally reached the entrance of the DMZ. The DMZ is actually a 4km thick belt and the the actual border lies right in the middle of the belt, so we still had to travel 2km more before we would reach the border.
At the entrance of the DMZ is the General Lecture Room, a small building housing a souvenir shop and a room with an impressive map of Panmunjom, a village that sits right on the border. The village, whose name means “board-frame shop”, was founded on the bank of River Sachon during the ancient times to provide lodging to travellers between Seoul and Kaesong. During the war, the village was wiped out. After the war, part of the village was turned into the Joint Security Area (JSA), the only portion of the DMZ where North and South Korean forces still face each other. In the General Lecture Room, our DMZ guide (a North Korean army officer) gave us an introduction of the area and a briefing of the DMZ rules – no wandering away, no photos without permission, etc etc…. After the briefing, we returned to our tour bus, accompanied by a North Korean soldier. The bus entered the DMZ and dropped us off 1km into the DMZ, outside the Armistice Talks Hall. The hall (which looks more like a hut) is where the Armistice Talks were held from 1951 to 1953. Nothing much were achieved during the talks as the fighting carried on and thousands of lives were lost everyday. We were brought into the hall and shown the table where the leaders from both side talked. After that, we were led to a large hall next-door, known as the Armistice Agreement Hall (also known as the North Korea Peace Museum). In this large hall, the Armistice Agreement was signed on 27 July 1953 to end all fighting (but not the war itself). On the walls were various panels portraying the development of the war and photos taken during the war.
We returned to our tour bus and travelled the final 1km to the most crucial portion of the DMZ – the Joint Security Area (JSA). From the car-park, we were brought to a monument signed by the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. The signature was dated on 7 July 1994, one day before Kim Il Sung suffered a heart attack and passed away. From the monument, it’s a short walk to the very heart of the action – the famous blue huts sitting right on the border. Despite the heavy military presence and our DMZ guide’s initial briefing on photographic restrictions, every tourist took out his/her camera and clicked non-stop as if he/she was standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, while the South Korean soldiers looked at us in amusement. The difference between North and South Korea is most evident in the appearance of the soldiers. North Korean soldiers stood still and showed a solemn face all the time, while South Korean soldiers were walking around wearing sunglasses and looking very casual. (Our DMZ guide referred the North Korean soldiers as “courageous soldiers” and the South Korean soldiers as “puppet soldiers”.)
When we arrived at the JSA a group of tourists from South Korea was in one of the blue huts. We had to wait for the group to leave the hut, the South Korean soldiers to close and lock the door (in South Korea), and the North Korean soldiers to unlock and open the door (in North Korea), before we could enter the hut. The hut sits right on the border, so technically we could cross the border in the hut and visit a tiny portion of South Korea. In the hut is a long table used for negotiations between the leaders of the 2 countries. Interestingly, the table sits on the border, and a series of microphones in the middle of the table marks the “border”. After an introduction of the hut by our DMZ guide, we went around the hut to take photos. However, it was rather claustrophobic as there were several other tour groups in the same hut.
After we left the hut we were led to the viewing terrace on the top floor of the Panmungak building (a building facing the blue huts), where we could have a clearer view of the blue huts and the Freedom House in South Korea. We could also see a peace pagoda, a guard-house and several military vehicles in the South Korean portion of the JSA. In the far distance, we could see a very tall flag-mast bearing the North Korean flag, and facing the North Korean flag-mast is an equally tall flag-mast bearing the South Korean flag. On the viewing terrace we also took the opportunity to take photos with our DMZ guide and several North Korean soldiers who had been escorting us around JSA.
Koryo Museum, Kaesong
After the DMZ tour, we headed to Kaesong where we paid a visit to the Koryo Museum – housed in a former Confucian academy. The exhibits include artworks, handicrafts and relics from the Koryo dynasty and are supplemented by numerous diagrams, maps and captions (unfortunately all written in Korean only). After a heavy dose of serious history during the DMZ tour, my mind went numb when we were shown rooms and rooms of Koryo-era artifacts. What seemed to interest me more are the giant gingko trees (which our guide claimed to be at least 5 centuries old) near the museum entrance, and the souvenir shops outside the museum where I bought 200+ CNY worth of stamps and 200+ CNY worth of handicrafts and ginseng products… Our long morning finally ended with a sumptuous lunch in a restaurant in downtown Kaesong, where food was placed in little bronze bowls. Our lunch was supplemented by ice-cream sticks from a kiosk outside the restaurant. (What a nice way to spend a hot afternoon… The weather in Kaesong was a hot 32ºC that day.)
We took a 2-hour bus ride back to Pyongyang. Upon returning to Pyongyang, our guides brought us for a ride on the Pyongyang Metro, which has some of the deepest and most extravagant stations in the world. We entered Puhung station, where we bypassed the ticket gates and went down to the platform via a very long escalator. (We were told that during war-time, the stations can act as air-raid shelters due to the depth – more than 200 metres.) Once we arrived at the platform, we were awed by the opulent interior decorated with stunning chandeliers, marble floors and huge murals. The trains, formerly serving in the Berlin U-Bahn, were painted in a red and white livery and the interior was adorned with portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. The frequency of the trains was amazingly short. After a train left, the next train came within 5 minutes… Our guide told us that during peak hours, the frequency is 2-3 minutes. (Such frequency was very impressive in a country with regular power cuts.) The metro trip only lasted for one stop and we alighted at the next station – Yonggwang station, which is even more spectacular than Puhung station thanks to its marble pillars and colourful chandeliers. We made our way back to the surface via a very long escalator, with our fingers snapping on our camera trigger along the way. Our guide told us that the Pyongyang metro has the lowest fare in the world, with an one-way ticket (regardless of distance) costing only 5 wons (about $0.04 USD).
Back at street-level, we took turns to pose in front of the metro station entrance with the distinct metro logo (featuring the korean word “ji”, meaning underground). Near the metro station entrance, we also spotted a number of trams and trolley-buses, and we happily took pictures of the photogenic vehicles (to the amusement of the passing locals).
Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum
Next, we were brought to what is probably North Korea’s most interesting museum – the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. Once we entered the museum, we were greeted by a huge mural portraying Kim Il Sung leading a large crowd (towards a glorious future?). While some tour group members went to the washroom, our museum guide, a friendly old lady dressed in military uniform, came and gave us a warm welcome. While waiting for those in the washroom, the others took photos with our museum guide in front of the huge mural. After everyone returned, our museum guide led us to a gallery showing the events before the Korean War. According to our museum guide, the museum is too big to be visited entirely in one day, so she would only focus on the galleries showing China’s involvement in the Korean War (since almost everyone in our tour group came from China). We were shown a huge photo featuring North Korea’s Leader Kim and China’s Chairman Mao, a collection of items (e.g. weapons, measurement tools, clothes, toiletries) used by the Chinese army, numerous maps and scale models showing major battles involving the Chinese army, a collection of stories featuring Chinese heroes sacrificing for the Korean people, gifts from the North Koreans to the Chinese army, etc etc.
Afterwards, our museum guide brought us through a gallery dedicated to USSR and a gallery dedicated to former and current communist nations (e.g. East Germany, Poland, Albania, Vietnam, etc) and then to the basement, where an impressive collection of military vehicles, boats and aircraft (from both sides in the war) is displayed. The dilapidated and rusty machines from USA and South Korea contrasted interestingly with the gleaming and polished machines from North Korea. While the museum guide was talking away to the older members of the tour group, some of us (the younger members) climbed onto the vehicles for quick photo shoots. (The place is a paradise for fans of military vehicles.) According to my guide book, the vehicles, boats and aircraft were put in place in the basement before the building was built on top, making the exhibits more or less permanent.
The finale of the museum trip was a visit to a large 360º panoramic painting (the largest in North Korea according to our guide) showing the battle of Taejon. When Seoul was captured by the North Korean army, the South Korean government retreated to the southern city of Taejon. Soon, the North Korean army pushed their way to Taejon, and a fierce battle broke out. The painting showed the most climactic moment of the battle, when the North Korean army arrived and attacked the South-occupied Taejon. The panoramic painting reminded me of the one I saw in Dandong’s Museum Commemorating US Aggression (which is the largest panoramic painting in China). As for which one is larger (the North Korean one or the Chinese one), I’m not sure though. But certainly, both paintings are equally impressive.
Shopping in a North Korean department store
Next, we were brought to a department store where we could buy North Korean produces and souvenirs. The “department store” actually looked more like a shop measuring 100 square metres. In the store, I bought a wide assortment of North Korean candies and confectionery, knowing that most of my family members, friends and colleagues have a sweet tooth. (Hahaha. How thoughtful I was!) Other tour group members bought handicrafts, ginseng products, bronze bowls (like the one we saw in the Kaesong restaurant), bottles of wine, cigarettes, etc. All payments were made in Chinese yuan, since foreigners are not allowed to hold any North Korean Won (the local currency).
After a satisfying shopping spree, we were brought to a restaurant where we had an unique dinner of Korean hot-pot. Each of us were given a small pot on a stove. The pot was filled with soup, the stove was lighted up, and we were given a plate of raw meat and vegetables and a bowl of raw egg to cook in the boiling soup. Some tour group members were not full after the dinner, so they ordered additional bowls of Korean cold noodles – another specialty of North Korea.
Exploring the Yanggakdo hotel + a swim in the hotel pool
After dinner, our tour guides decided to send us back to our hotel to have an early rest, since we left very early in the morning and had a very long day outdoors. In the evening, some of us decided to explore our hotel. We went to the top floor, where the revolving restaurant is located. From the windows of the revolving restaurant, we had a good view of the brilliant sunset. We then went to the basement, where the hotel health centre is located. The health centre contains a billiard room, a table-tennis room, a bowling alley and a swimming pool. A few of us decided to go for a swim, and the entry to the swimming pool costs 30 Chinese yuan (and includes towels and swimming wear). I had 2 surprises during the visit to the pool. The first surprise came from the changing/washing room, where everyone was walking around naked. (I wasn’t really expecting this, as most changing rooms in Singapore have private cubicles – Yes, Singaporeans treasure their privacy…) The second surprise came when I jumped into the pool. The water is icy COLD! (This is quite unexpected for a “Deluxe” hotel… In other countries, an indoor pool in a 5-star hotel would be heated. But I shouldn’t complain, considering that North Korea has a shortage of fuel…)
We swam several laps (which is around 15-20m) in the cold water, before we decided to head to the sauna to chill out (or I should say “warm out”). After spending 20 minutes chatting in the sauna, we went to shower (in the open washing room, in the presence of dozens of naked men). (I haven’t bathed in the presence of so many naked men, ever since my visit to an Icelandic geothermal pool in Reykjavik in 2008. Back in my hometown Singapore, my last encounter with so many naked men was when I was in the army 9 years ago. Well, just like North and South Korea, my hometown Singapore also has a compulsory national service for all male citizens… Okay, I’m getting out of point…)
After the swim we went back to our hotel rooms, and some of us (me and a few tour group members) exchanged contact information. Next time, if I visit Beijing or Xi’an, I would be able to meet these new friends (vice versa if my new friends wants to come to Singapore).
The 4th and last day in North Korea
On the last day of the tour, we had a quick breakfast in the hotel banquet hall before we returned our hotel keys and loaded our luggage onto the tour bus. We took a group photo (featuring all 16 members of our tour group, as well as our 2 tour guides), before our tour guides brought us to Kim Il Sung Square for some more photo-taking. When we arrived at the square, a mass games rehearsal was taking place and the whole square was covered with mass games performers. It was an amazing sight to see thousands of youths dressed in white marching around in a synchronized fashion. On the square we also had a good view of the Juche Tower across the river.
Finally, we made our way to Pyongyang Railway Station to catch our train to Sinuiju (a North Korean city on the China-North Korea border), thus ending 3 days of memorable moments in Pyongyang, one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Our train departed Pyongyang at 10am. Once again, it was a long and slow 5-hour journey from Pyongyang to Sinuiju. As usual, I slept through a large part of the journey and I spent the remaining time bombarding myself with Korean-pop on my iPod. (Like what I’ve said in my previous post “A secretive trip to a secretive country (Part 1)”, I found it intriguing to listen to pop songs from South Korea while I’m staring out of the train window at North Korea’s barren landscape, poorly-dressed people and ubiquitous political slogans…)
The train reached Sinuiju at 3pm. We had to disembark and change to another train which would bring us to Dandong, China. On the smaller train, our passports and our luggage were checked by North Korean custom officers. Then, we had to wait until 4pm, before the train finally departed Sinuiju and made its way across the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge back to Dandong, China…
This trip to North Korea is really an eye-opener for me. After the trip, I gained a much deeper understanding of the tragic history of the Korean peninsula and I had a profound insight of North Korean arts, culture, and lifestyle. Of course, there are many things that I still didn’t know about North Korea. (In my previous post “A secretive trip to a secretive country (Part 1)”, I said that the country gave me more questions than answers.) And of course there are also many “facts” which are distorted to show North Korea in a more positive light. Nevertheless, I was truly awed by North Korea’s great spectacles (be it the numerous gigantic monuments in Pyongyang or the Arirang Mass Games), and I was deeply humbled by the sense of pride and discipline shown by the people even though they are materially poor and are living in a repressive environment. To me, North Korea is like a gigantic living museum showing what life is like in 1970s’ China, when communism is king and capitalism is almost unheard of… I can’t help but wonder, what will North Korea look like 30-40 years from today? Will the country embrace capitalism and achieve what China has achieved today? Or will the country continue to stick to its communist ways and isolate itself from the outside world? Or will the country collapse just like East Germany or USSR and be taken over by South Korea? Only time will know the answer.
If I have an opportunity, I will definitely visit North Korea again. And if I do so, I will definitely spend a longer time there. (Seriously, I found this trip a bit too short. Out of the 4 days, we spent 2 days “rotting” on the train, and only had 2 days of sightseeing.) Hopefully, when I return again, North Korea will have some economic and political progresses, and stop being so “secretive”, so that I won’t need to visit the country “secretively”… 😀