Friday, April 13, 2007 Korea (North) North Korea

South to Kaesong and the DMZ

Glenn is standing in the middle of one of North Korea's busiest highways. [IMG_2126]
Reunification Highway rest stop [Enlarge]

This is going to be a long post, as it has been a long and busy day.

Breakfast at the Yanggakdo Hotel was fairly normal: two fried eggs, some crust-less toast, coffee and a very lively drinking yoghurt to line the stomach. Everyone was in the bus by 08:10 and we set off on the Reunification Highway to see the demilitarised zone (DMZ) at the border with South Korea. The highway is a long, straight expressway that may one day link Pyongyang in the north with Seoul in the south.

Pyongyang was shrouded in thick fog. Mrs Lee told us that it is often foggy in the mornings, especially at this time of year. It seemed like we were destined never to actually see the city. On the way out of town we passed long queues of commuters waiting for the buses and trams. Mrs Lee took the microphone again and talked about Pyongyang's transport system. A ticket on the subway, bus, trolley bus or tram costs five won (GBP 0.01 / USD 0.03 at the official rate, one twentieth of that at the more realistic black market rate). The public transport system is excellent, so there is no need for people to have their own private cars. And that is why the streets are so uncluttered by traffic.

Then, in preparation for our visit to the DMZ, the commentary turned to the North Korean version of the division of the Korean peninsula:

A little over a century ago the Korean peninsula was occupied by the Japanese, who systematically stripped the country of its wealth and abused the population. The young Kim Il-sung and his guerilla army bravely fought and defeated the Japanese and finally drove them out of Korea in 1945. But the US imperialist aggressors decided that they wanted Korea for themselves and, having conquered the south and established a puppet government there, they drew an artificial line across the country at the 38th Parallel. They immediately started planning to invade the north, and in June 1950 they crossed the line and "started an aggressive war to swallow Korea whole". However they had not counted on the strength of Kim Il-sung and all the North Korean people, and within a year the US was negotiating for a ceasefire. Eventually, in July 1953, they "knelt before the Korean people and signed the armistice agreement." The DPRK had squarely won the war, which would be known henceforth as the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War.

There was absolutely no mention of the Soviet Union or China—the victory was entirely down to the determination of the Great Leader. If all this is a different story from the one you've heard, you're not alone. There are many sources documenting the more generally accepted version of events—we suggest starting, as ever, at Wikipedia.

Mrs Lee was not 'just' spouting the party line at us. She absolutely believed what she was saying. This version of events is what the people of the DPRK are taught every day on the radio, on the TV, in the movies, in the newspapers, on posters all over the country, in schools, in workplaces, and in parades on every public holiday. It forms the very backbone of DPRK society. Why would anyone even consider a different version of reality?

One thing that both sides can agree on is that the war had a devastating consequence which is still ongoing. Families were split by the arbitrary drawing of the line dividing north and south. Over fifty years later they are still divided, with no idea if their brothers, sisters, sons, daughters and cousins are still alive. In the early 1990s, relations between the north and south improved. There were some exchange visits and joint sporting and cultural events. According to DPRK text books, the sides came within a whisker of reunion in 1994 when President Kim Il-sung signed the first page of a reunification agreement. Unfortunately, the signing took place on 7th July and the very next morning Kim was found dead of heart failure in his office. Since then, progress has fallen back again.

The North Koreans spend a lot of their time yearning to be one country with the south. They are fiercely proud of their national identity and in their eyes, all Koreans—North Koreans, South Koreans and overseas Koreans—share that identity. They also truly believe that the people in the south share their eagerness for reunification, but they are being held back by the continuing presence of the US occupying forces. People in our group who had been to the south told us (quietly) of a great fear of reunification there, lest the south's economy be destroyed. They fear that it would make what happened to the reunified German economy in the nineties seem like a minor hiccup.

Reunification Highway rest stop shop [Enlarge]

Half way to Kaesong we stopped at the Sugok Resting Place (or Sohung Tea House) for a break. While Mr Lee and Young Mr Lee played pool, Isla went to find the loo and Glenn went outside to take some guide-sanctioned photographs. The toilet was very dark. There was no electricity, and no running water either. The plumbing was all there, but there was no water supply to make it work. A big water barrel stood in the corner of the room, with a plastic jug floating in it to be used for transferring water to the toilet. Outside, there was no traffic on the expressway. Half the group wandered around in the middle of the four-lane road taking photographs of the misty landscape, and of each other. This is one of the country's main highways and you can stand in the middle of it with no fear at all of being run over.

The staff of the rest stop conjured up some tea for anyone who wanted it, after which we hit the road again, driving past rice fields where soon this year's seedlings will be planted out. Our DPRK education continued. Compulsory schooling in the DPRK is from 7 to 17. After senior middle school, people can go to university for five years, or into the army. Military service is compulsory for men who must serve a minimum of three years, either before or after university. Kim Il-sung University is the top educational establishment, but there are plenty more establishments for the less high-flying students to study. Once fully qualified, people make their first, second and third choices for a job. They take the necessary admission exams and if they pass and there is a vacancy for their first choice, this becomes their job. For example an English graduate might select 'tour guide', 'English language teacher' and 'translator' as their first, second and third choices. Housing is all government owned and people pay a small proportion of their salary, between three and five percent, to pay for their water, electricity and underfloor heating. North Koreans live with their parents until they marry—there are no homes for single people. Women usually marry between the ages of 23 and 25 while men are 28 to 30 years old. Although Mrs Lee is married, she, her husband and their two children live with her parents. These days most Koreans have only one or two children and both parents work. Childcare is offered by grandparents, mainly grandmothers who retire at age 55. Men continue working until they are 63. There is a very small pension (enough to cover rice, oil and salt), but children are expected to support their parents. People can save money in the bank and there is a 'premium bonds' style investment scheme. Individuals cannot borrow large sums of money.

As we got further south on the highway, the defensive measures against the feared invasion from the south grew more frequent. At regular intervals we passed large concrete pillars lining the road, with weakened wedge-shaped sections at their bases which presumably contain explosives. When the charges blow, the wedges will be shattered and the pillars will fall across the road to impede the enemy's progress. Presumably the bridges we crossed were rigged to blow too.

DPRK village near the DMZ [Enlarge]

During the 200 kilometre journey to the DMZ we passed a lot of villages. The people here clearly did not share the relative wealth and status of the people in Pyongyang, but they honestly did not look hungry. They looked tired, but not hungry. Presumably, since virtually every tourist who comes to the DPRK travels on this highway, the villagers who live near it have a much better time than their countrymen in the remoter provinces. Most of them walked around with their heads down, to avoid any possibility of getting themselves into trouble; but occasionally they would return a smile or a wave with enthusiasm.

We arrived at the entrance to the DMZ at 10:40. We had to wait a while because another group was down at the Joint Security Area (JSA) which straddles the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), and there are only so many army guides available. We browsed the souvenirs in the gift shop. The books on offer were all tomes such as "The US Imperialists Started the Korean War". We settled for a booklet about the Panmunjom JSA and the Fatherland Liberation War. After a while, a lieutenant turned up and we were given a briefing on what we would see at the JSA. Briefing over, we were told to stand in two lines and walk in an orderly fashion through the gate into the DMZ. Our bus had driven through ahead of us. We walked along the narrow road to the waiting bus, with high walls on either side. We're still not sure what that was all about—maybe there was something up high at the gate that we weren't supposed to see.

The bus drove to the building where the 1953 armistice was negotiated. We sat around the table and received another talk on the DPRK's stunning victory. Next door was a photographic exhibition showing various pieces of 'evidence' for what we'd been told. In one corner of a dark room in this building, we saw an axe in a glass cabinet. This is from the infamous 'axe incident' of 1976. This is another story with two sides. You can look up the south's side of the story if you want to. Basically, in the DPRK version all you really need to know is that the North Koreans asked nicely for the tree felling to stop, and were then attacked by the Americans. Two Americans were killed in the resulting fight.

The South's Freedom House viewed from the North [Enlarge]

We were inside the DMZ, but still well away from the MDL. The DMZ extends two kilometres back from the MDL on both sides, forming a four-kilometre strip across the entire peninsula. So we got back on the bus again and drove down to the MDL. We parked at the back of Reunification House, the imposing building which faces South Korea's Freedom House on the other side of the MDL. We understand that in the past, tour groups on the south side were told that the north's building is just a facade a few feet thick. They have stopped saying this now, but in case there is any doubt, we can confirm that it is a real building.

We walked around Reunification House and down the hill towards the row of seven blue and silver huts which straddle the border. On the way we passed a statue engraved with the last signature of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung, dated 7th July 1994 (the day before he died). On the MDL there are three blue huts belonging to the UN and four silver North Korean ones. Cameras and microphones are everywhere.

The area was peaceful but tense. We were walked down to the huts. As far as we could see, there were no South Korean or American soldiers on the other side of the line, which was disappointing as we had expected the two sides to be facing each other off all the time. It seems they only come out if they have a tour group. The actual MDL is a thin concrete strip running through the centre of the row of huts. The ground surrounding the huts is covered with gravel, and on the North Korean side, a white line is painted where the gravel ends and the tarmac begins. Only the solders are allowed on the gravel and up to the MDL itself. We were politely but seriously warned not to cross the white line. If we did, we would be restrained. Or shot.

We went into the second blue hut from the left. Tour groups from both sides come into this hut, to see the table where the ceasefire was agreed. Inside it looks like an ordinary room, built fairly hastily out of ply-wood and plasterboard, but this is a pretty special room because it is the only place where you can walk freely between North Korea and South Korea. A door at the southern end of the room would allow us to walk into the South Korean side of the Joint Security Area, were it not for the two DPRK soldiers standing in front of it to make sure that we didn't accidentally defect. We were encouraged to sit down on both sides of the table and to gather round while we were told more about how the US aggressors were beaten by the brave North Korean soldiers.

Glenn with DPRK border guard [Enlarge]

We walked back outside and up the steps into Reunification House, and up to a balcony facing the MDL. From here we could look across at the South with their shiny new building and their complete lack of visible soldiers. Our KPA guides were happy to pose with us for photographs (see right). It was almost possible to forget that we were in the most heavily militarised area on the planet, standing on the front line between two nations who are technically at war. With smiles and handshakes, we left the building and walked back up to our waiting bus. Our next stop was to be the ancient city of Kaesong for lunch.

Thongil Restaurant, on a corner of the impressively wide and traffic-free Thongil Street in Kaesong, was cold, like every public building we've been into so far in the DPRK. Perhaps it's psychological, but the cold buildings in the DPRK feel different to cold buildings in the rest of the world. They feel not just cold, but like they have never been warm. They suck the energy out of you when you walk in. It is as if the cold has persisted for so many years that it has become part of the fabric of the building. We kept our coats firmly zipped up as we sat down at the long tables in the restaurant.

"For holidays and special guests" [IMG_2165]
Thongil Restaurant Royal Lunch [Enlarge]

In front of each of us were a dozen small brass lidded bowls and a larger bowl on a kind of trivet. We sneaked a look under a few of the lids. In the big bowl was a kind of watery soup with bits floating in it. The smaller bowls had vegetables, hard boiled eggs, meat and tofu. Oh, and some kimchi. Mrs Lee came round and told us that this was 'pan san gi' or 'royal lunch'. A waitress lit a flame under our soup bowls. Using the traditional Korean brass chopsticks we manoeuvred pieces from the bowls into our now warm soup and then ate them and some soup with the traditional Korean brass soup spoon. It was a bit fiddly, especially the glass noodles at the bottom of the soup. Those slimy little buggers are hard enough to pick up with regular wooden chopsticks, but with metal ones, well, let's just say it's impossible to rush dinner. Still, with about forty-five little cooking stoves going in the restaurant, we had all thawed out completely by the end of lunch.

Thongil Street, Kaesong [Enlarge]

We had some spare time so our guides took us for a walk up Thongil Street, Kaesong's main thoroughfare, to the top of the hill where a huge statue of the Great Leader stands, surveying the city. We were not allowed to walk right up to the statue as we had not brought any flowers with which to pay our respects and that prohibited us going any closer. Instead we walked around to a viewpoint over the city. It was still very grey and cloudy, but all the fog had gone and we could see the whole city—not that Kaesong is a very big place. Like everything we had seen before, the place was drab and grey: grey streets, grey apartment blocks, people in dark grey, black and khaki clothing, army vehicles and bicycles. Life in Kaesong looked hard and bleak.

The first half day of our tour had been different from what we were expecting. The guides had given us more leeway and more freedom to ask questions and take photos than we thought they would. We were grateful to them. However some people in the group seemed to be interpreting the increased freedom as an invitation to do as they would in other countries. They started wandering off, exploring round the back of things, looking round corners and taking lots of photos. The guides were clearly stressed by this. The mood suddenly changed and Mr Lee shouted to everyone to get back on the bus because it was time to go. Remembering what Simon had told us ("It's the guides that get into trouble, not you"), most people quickly complied, but a few of the group seemed less inclined to follow orders. We had to wait at least ten minutes for the strays to be rounded up, and Mr Lee's nerves seemed very frayed by that time. He reminded us on the bus that we were on a group tour and that meant staying together as a group. We hoped that the few inconsiderate people had not just destroyed our chances of being shown a bit more than the itinerary stipulates for the rest of the week.

Trying to see the South Korean wall [Enlarge]

The next stop on our tour was a lookout point on the DMZ, about 26 kilometres east of town. We were going to see the concrete wall built by the US imperialist aggressors to divide Korea permanently. To the DPRK, it has the same significance as the Berlin Wall. As we headed further into the countryside, the road became narrow and much more rural. But it was quite busy with people walking and cycling into and out of the city. Every few miles we passed an army patrol going one way or the other. They were mostly young men. Some of them looked much younger than seventeen, all very serious and smart in their uniforms. Mrs Lee told us that the army doesn't just do military work, they work on the land, farming rice and wheat, on building projects, and road maintenance. In the fields we saw several plough teams using oxen to plough the fields. There were no signs of the modern world anywhere. No electricity pylons, mobile phone masts, or billboards. It really was like something from a different century.

The lookout point was at the top of a steep, narrow and twisting stairway between walls covered by forsythia. At the top of the hill we met a Colonel from the Korean People's Army. He took us up to a balcony facing south and giving a fine view across the DMZ. Several sets of binoculars were mounted conveniently on this balcony so that we would be able to see for ourselves the crime committed by the Americans. Through the binoculars, we could see the South's border guard towers, some roads and flagpoles. But we couldn't see the wall. We tried, we really did. The Colonel even focused the binoculars on it for us, but still we failed. Some people in the group thought they might have seen something, but nobody was really sure.

Isla with the KPA Colonel [Enlarge]

Luckily the Colonel had a solution to low visibility or poor eyesight. Inside his lookout building he had a large and detailed painting of the scene outside, with the wall visible in all its divisive concrete glory. He also had a diagram of the cross section profile of the wall, showing how it is vertical on the DPRK side, and gently sloping on the south side, grass covered and camouflaged. He seemed to be claiming that it was disguised so that the South Korean people did not know that their government had allowed the Americans to build a wall to divide their country. He also claimed that the wall had been built within the two kilometre exclusion zone (i.e. within two kilometres of the MDL).

For now we were leaving behind Korea's recent history to take a look at Kaesong's past as capital city of the Koryo empire. Back in town at the Kaesong Koryo Museum, we were shown 2,600 year old artefacts such as ancient ceramic celadons. We would have been able to see a lot more had there been power for the lights at the museum, but the electricity was off. The museum occupies an old temple complex. At the far end of one of the buildings we went into a reconstruction of the inside to the tombs of King Kongmin and his Queen who died in childbirth. A few of our group had brought small torches with them, which was lucky as the inside of the reconstructions was pitch dark during the power cut. Mrs Lee said we were going to see the actual tombs next, but that we needed to see this reconstruction because we could not go inside the real ones.

Practising for the Great Leader's birthday parade [Enlarge]

We were told in advance that this was going to be a 'full' week. So far the people at the Korea International Tourist Company are not failing to keep their promise! After only about fifteen minutes in the museum, we were back on the coach heading out of Kaesong city once again, and up to the hillside tombs of King Kongmin. On the way, we were briefly held up by a mass parade in a square. The square was full of children practising their celebrations for the Great Leader's birthday in two days' time. In a land where fun is a rare commodity, these children were certainly making the most of this time. It was a frenzy of excitement. As always, the proceedings were being watched over by a giant, beaming picture of Kim Il-sung. The parade was spilling out onto the road and the bus had to stop for a few moments, which gave us a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse of real North Korean life.

Up at the tombs, several kilometres north-west of town, at a beautiful and tranquil location, Mrs Lee told us the story of how King Kongmin, distraught at the loss of his beloved Queen had set his finest geomancers the task of finding the most auspicious place for her tomb. Each location they selected failed to reach his exacting standards and he grew very fed up. His patience was so exhausted that when a young geomancer came to say that he had found the perfect place the King informed his guards that if this turned out to be another disappointment, the unfortunate geomancer should be killed instantly.

Statues at King Kongmin's tomb [Enlarge]

The King chose a signal that he could make from up at the site, that could be seen by his guards further down the hill. If he wanted the geomancer to be put to death he would wave his handkerchief. It was a hot day and the climb was steep. At the top of the hill the King got out his handkerchief to mop his brow. Then he turned to look at the site. It was perfect. He hurried down the hill to greet and congratulate the geomancer who had discovered it. Of course he was informed that the poor chap had been executed on the King's own orders. On realising what he had done, King Gong Min exclaimed "Oh, my God!" or the ancient Korean equivalent, and from that point onward the hill in front of the tombs was known as 'Oh My God Hill'.

Room 1, Kaesong Folk Hotel [Enlarge]

After an amazing day, it was finally time to check into our hotel in Kaesong. The Kaesong Folk Hotel offers traditional Korean hospitality in wooden yangbans. Instead of beds, you sleep on mattresses on an ondol heated floor with rice-filled pillows. The power was still off, but fortunately the hotel has a mini-generator and so the bedrooms would have light until 22:00 or so, but no hot water. The floor is powered by an old-fashioned wood burning stove somewhere, and our bedroom was super warm, despite the rest of the hotel being ice cold. At 20:00 we all met for dinner. There was the usual array of North Korean fare, centred around eggs (eggs for breakfast, lunch and dinner!) and kimchi. After the meal, Simon stood up and announced that Mr Lee has brilliantly and successfully managed to secure tickets for us at the opening night of the Arirang Mass Games tomorrow night! We were and are very excited.

Then Mrs Lee told us the schedule for tomorrow morning. We will have hot water between 07:00 and 07:30, and breakfast will be available at 07:45. We walked back to our room and found that the door was padlocked. We hadn't been given a key. After a while we managed to find a member of staff, who ran back for the key and then unlocked our room for us. It was locked again behind us. Not only is the large gate to the hotel's courtyard barred and locked, but we are going to spend the night padlocked inside our room. Just in case we try to escape.

All our photos from today are here. You can see everywhere we go in Google Earth by going to our progress map, then clicking the Google Earth tab.

Map of Day 140

Day 140
Pyongyang to Kaesong

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

1 Comment:

Jimmy K. said...

JK in Texas