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North Korea – Vacation in a Secret State (Part 3)
I’d like you to just take a moment and think about the scenario I found myself in at the end of the next day. It was 1 am and I was in a hotel in Kaesong, a city 10 km from the demilitarized zone (DMZ), probably the most tense place on earth. 3 hours earlier I had eaten dog for dinner and now got a massage from a North Korean maid, with both guides in the room watching! I’ve found myself in some slightly bizarre situations before, but this one probably takes the biscuit.
The day was mainly traveling as we made our way from the capital, Pyongyang, to Kaesong in the south of the country. The tour bus left Pyongyang and headed for one of the many checkpoints in the country. In DPRK there is a restriction of movement for citizens. Unless you have a very good reason and permission, you cannot travel outside your hometown or area. This is slightly reduced during public festivals, but the checks are always there. The paperwork check was efficient, but thorough, and we were soon on our way.
We drove at first on a 10-lane highway, which was quite a sight. We must have been driving on it for about 15-20 minutes, and no one saw another vehicle on the entire road during that time. There were a few bicycles and a few people walking along the road, but no other cars, trucks or buses. The roads were not too well maintained, and there were obvious signs of neglect, with huge potholes in some lanes. In others there were sometimes piles of dirt, only less than a meter high. They weren’t high enough to be any kind of barricades, but no one could really make out what they were. I would have taken photos, but we were politely asked not to while the bus was moving. I’m sure it was because we could photograph certain parts of the DPRK that were not meant to be seen outside the country.
After about an hour of travel, we reached the West Sea Barrage. That’s an 8km tide control wall that can change the level of the Taedong River that flows through Pyongyang. It was built in 5 years (and, surprise, surprise, received “on-the-spot leadership” from both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il). It was an impressive feat – a true battle of manpower against the elements. I don’t know what the DPRK’s level of technology was at the time this barrage was built, but you can be pretty sure they didn’t do it the easy way.
After seeing the dam, and watching an informative video dubbed in rather poor English, we left for a very old Buddhist temple. This was really out in the sticks, down dirt roads and up dirt tracks. We got to see quite a bit of the real DPRK here. There were people farming with hand plows and hoes, and children working in the paddy fields. One thing that did strike me was the amount of land that was allocated to agriculture. It seems like a lot, but conditions are not good for agriculture here in DPRK. Soil quality, inefficient farming methods, lack of pesticides and fertilizers, and food being lost to corruption could all be partly to blame for the food shortages engulfing the DPRK almost every year. But the people work the fields, and hope for a good harvest every year. Maybe one of these years, they’ll get one.
The bus parked and we had to climb a hill to reach the temple itself. One thing that interested me a lot was a couple of statues on the path up to the temple. I had to carefully inspect their old weathered bodies, but they both had classic kanji (Chinese characters used in Japan) written on them. The kanji is very old, and I found only one Japanese who could still read the characters. When we went up to the temple, I also noticed kanji written above the entrance of one of the buildings. I was wondering why there is kanji written here when hangul is the character the Koreans use. The temple was 130 years old and was said to be the only temple to survive the Korean War. There was a monk there who met Kim Jong Il during his visit to the temple a few years ago. These people really wanted everyone to live in peace (yes, even Americans), regardless of their religion, nationality or race. I kept wondering if these people I met on my journey would ever see peace and a unified Korea, or if they would eventually be engulfed in the horrors of war on the Korean Peninsula. For these monks above all others, it would be a tragedy. The longer I spent in the country, the more I felt for its people, and for the hunger problem, and the constant fear of a future war with American forces stationed in South Korea. That doesn’t mean I agree with some of the government’s policies (don’t want to be arrested here as a sympathizer!), but you can’t blame the people for the government’s actions.
We had lunch by a small stream near the temple. Then we had another one hour drive to the city of Sinchon and the Sinchon War Crimes Museum. This museum is dedicated to showing and remembering the atrocities committed by Americans during the Korean War. Not there, that I purposely said only Americans, and didn’t include South Koreans there. In DPRK the people say that they and the South Koreans are the same people with the same blood running through their veins, and will not openly criticize them. Although it is obvious that atrocities were committed by the DPRK, American, and South Korean forces, only the Americans are singled out as the bad guys here. Again this was a place where you listened to the stories, looked at the photos and paintings and nodded your head, taking it all in. Unfortunately, some of the group chose to ask very difficult questions while we were here, which really upset the guide and almost had her in tears. If I go back to DPRK (which I would like to do), I would like to get my own group of people together, so I would have people I can trust not to say something stupid and play the game well. The paintings were very vivid, and although I cannot guarantee that all of them are true, they are certainly thought-provoking. The stories and alleged orders given by US military officers in charge are also interesting to read. For example, Lieutenant Colonel William A. Harrison is alleged to have given the following order on December 3, 1950:
“External unit is now forced to retreat from Sinchon…remove the detainees immediately. Capture and kill all heads and shaved heads, all bitches and their bastards so commies don’t breed. Spread rumors that the deadly A-bombs will be dropped after our retreat to wipe out the communist army, and move the civilians south.” Like I said before, it’s about hearing both sides of the story (which are probably both biased) and then deciding and finding a middle ground that you’re happy with.
Following the museum, we had a long drive to Kaesong. Again we passed through many remote villages and saw people in the fields. As we approached Kaesong, the landscape changed, and hills rose above us, the land seemed to be arid and unsuitable for farming. The road to Kaesong, and from there to Seoul, is arrow straight for some unknown reason (easier for tanks, or a reunion parade?). We happened to stop at what could only be described as temporary roadside services, about 30 minutes from Kaesong. The services consisted of a structure above the traffic-free road, and a teahouse. I bought a can of Pokka coffee (a Japanese company, made in Singapore and exported specially to the DPRK). It is a truly international product! Another half hour drive took us to Kaesong. This is only 10 km from the DMZ, and we had to stop at a checkpoint to enter the city. The security is obviously very high in this part of DPRK. We drove through the city, passing the obligatory Kim Il Sung mosaics, and a large concrete Kalashnikov (sp?) gun. As we drove through town, we noticed that the buildings along the street were immaculate in appearance. White, freshly painted walls and looked in top condition. In contrast, when we passed a junction and could see a street behind the main road, the other houses were in a much worse condition, and looked very run down. But the houses along the street are what people see the most, and so they have to make a good impression. On the way to our hotel, we were asked if anyone wanted to have dog soup for dinner! It was requested in advance because it needed to be “prepared” (ie find a dog, catch it and beat it to death before we sat down for the meal). I looked at the guy sitting next to me and we both raised our hands. About half the group said they would eat it, all realizing they would have few other opportunities to do so in their lives.
Our hotel for this night was in Kaesong, and was a mini-village. It had approximately 20 small groups of rooms, all placed around small courtyards and in traditional Korean style. The rooms had a tatami (rice straw mat) floor, and underfloor heating was offered as we slept on futons on the floor. But it was quite hot and I think everyone refused. We had about 20 minutes to settle into our rooms before we left for dinner. Our dinner was actually delicious. We were served an array of bowls with meats, vegetables and fish. Again, it felt a little strange to know that most people in this country struggle to feed themselves, and yet we ate like the proverbial kings. In the middle of the main course, the dog soup came to us. I have to admit it is an acquired taste! It was quite spicy but it didn’t have to be a very muscular dog because there wasn’t too much meat in there! But now I can say I’ve eaten a dog that invariably gets gasps from everyone else. Dinner was followed by the obligatory Korean karaoke, which everyone enjoyed. In the middle of karaoke, we asked if anyone would like a massage from a waitress for 20 Euros! This was completely out of the ordinary and we had to make sure what our guide was going to say! But I was on a roll after the dog soup and said I would do it.
And so about an hour and a half later we come full circle back to the beginning of the story. It was a very nice massage, although quite difficult and painful at times compared to what I was used to. Ah well, it was a day and night of firsts and I fell asleep, wondering if I would wake up to the sound of bombs falling or gunfire from the DMZ!
Again, thank you for taking the time to read this article. Hope you enjoyed it.
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