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North Korea – Vacation in a Secret State (Part 3)
I would like you to spend a moment thinking about the scenario I found myself in at the end of the following day. It was 1am and I was in a hotel in Kaesong, a city 10km from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), probably the most tense place in the world. 3 hours before, I was eating dog for dinner and was now getting a massage from a North Korean waitress, with the two guides in the room looking on! I’ve been in a few weird situations before, but this one probably takes the cake.
The day was mostly about travel, as we traveled from the capital, Pyongyang, to Kaesong in the south of the country. The tour bus left Pyongyang and headed for one of the country’s many checkpoints. In the DPRK, the movement of citizens is restricted. Unless you have a very good reason and permission, you cannot travel outside of your home town or region. This fades a bit during public holidays, but the checks are still there. The verification of the papers was efficient, but thorough, and we were soon on our way.
We first traveled on a 10 lane highway, which was quite a sight. We must have driven over it for about 15-20 minutes, and no one saw another vehicle on the entire road the entire time. There were a few bikes and a few people walking along the road, but no other cars, trucks, or buses. The roads weren’t very well maintained and there were obvious signs of neglect, with huge potholes in some lanes. In others, there were sometimes mounds of earth, a little less than a meter high. They weren’t tall enough to be barricades of any kind, but no one could quite figure out what they were. I would have taken pictures, but we were politely asked not to while the bus was in motion. I’m sure it was because we could photograph some parts of the DPRK that weren’t meant to be seen outside the country.
After about an hour of travel, we reached the West Sea Dam. It is an 8 km tidal control wall, which can change the level of the Taedong River which flows through Pyongyang. It was built in 5 years (and, surprise, surprise, received “on-the-spot guidance” from 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 when they built this dam, but you can be sure they didn’t do it in an easy way.
After viewing the dam and watching an informative video dubbed in rather poor English, we set off for a very old Buddhist temple. It was really in the sticks, on dusty roads and on dirt roads. We got to see a lot of the real DPRK here. There were people cultivating with hand plows and pickaxes, and children working in the rice fields. One thing that struck me was the amount of land allocated to agriculture. There seems to be a lot of them, but the conditions are not good for farming here in the DPRK. Poor soils, inefficient farming methods, lack of pesticides and fertilizers, and food lost to corruption could all be partly responsible for the food shortages that engulf the DPRK almost every year. But people work the fields and hope for a good harvest every year. Maybe one of these years they will have one.
The bus parked and we had to climb a hill to get to the temple complex itself. One thing I was very interested in was a pair of statues on the way to the temple. I had to closely inspect their weathered old bodies, but they both had classic kanji (Chinese characters used in Japan) written on them. The kanji is very old and I only found one Japanese person who could read the characters. When we arrived at the temple, I also noticed kanji written above the entrance to one of the buildings. I wondered why there are kanji written here, when hangul is the character set used by Koreans. The temple was 130 years old and would have been the only temple to survive the Korean War. There was a monk there who had met Kim Jong Il when he visited the temple a few years ago. These people really wanted everyone to live in peace (yes, even Americans), regardless of religion, nationality or race. I kept wondering if these people I met on my trip would ever see peace and a unified Korea, or if they would end up being engulfed in the horrors of war on the Korean peninsula. For these monks more than all the others, it would be a tragedy. The more time I spent in the country, the more I felt for its people, both with the problem of starvation and the constant fear of future war with American forces stationed in South Korea. That’s not to say that I agree with some of the government’s policies (I don’t want to be arrested here as a sympathizer!), but you can’t blame the people for the actions of a government.
We had lunch next to a small stream near the temple. Then we had another hour drive to Sinchon town and the Sinchon War Crimes Museum. This museum is dedicated to showcasing and remembering the atrocities committed by the Americans during the Korean War. Not where I intentionally only said Americans and didn’t include South Koreans in there. In the DPRK, people say that they and South Koreans are the same people with the same blood running through their veins, and will not openly criticize them. While it’s obvious that atrocities were perpetrated by DPRK, US and South Korean forces, only the Americans are highlighted as the bad guys here. Again, it was a place where you listened to the stories, looked at the photos and paintings, and nodded, 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 brought her to tears. If I go back to the DPRK (which I would like to do), I would like to get my own group of people together, so I can have trustworthy people to say nothing stupid and play the game well. The paintings were very vivid, and while I can’t guarantee they’re all true, they’re certainly thought-provoking. The stories and alleged orders given by the US military officers in charge are also interesting to read. For example, Lt. Col. William A. Harrison reportedly issued the following order on December 3, 1950:
“Our unit is now forced to retreat from Sinchon…eliminate the inmate immediately. Capture and kill all the caped heads and shaved heads, all the female dogs and their bastards so that the commies will not breed again. Spread rumors according to which the deadly A-bombs will be dropped after our retreat to exterminate the Communist army and drive the civilians south.” Like I said before, it’s about hearing both sides of the story (which are likely both biased), then making up your mind and finding a middle ground that works for you.
After the museum, we took a long drive to Kaesong. Once again we passed through many remote villages and saw people in the fields. As we got closer to Kaesong, the landscape changed and hills rose above us, the land looking arid and unsuitable for farming. The road to Kaesong, and from there to Seoul is straight for some unknown reason (easier for tanks, or a reunification parade?). We randomly stopped at what could only be described as a makeshift roadside service about 30 minutes from Kaesong. Services included a structure above the traffic-free road and a teahouse. I bought a can of Pokka coffee (a Japanese company, made in Singapore and specially exported to the DPRK). It really is an international product! Another half hour drive brought us to Kaesong. It’s only 10km from the DMZ, and we had to stop at a checkpoint to enter the city. Security is obviously very high in this part of the DPRK. We walked through town past the obligatory Kim Il Sung mosaics and a big concrete Kalashnikov (sp?) gun. As we drove through town, we noticed that the buildings next to the street were immaculate in appearance. White walls, freshly painted and in perfect condition. On the other hand, when we passed a junction and could see a street set back from the main road, the other houses were in much worse condition and looked very run down. But the houses next to the street are what people see the most, so they have to make a good impression. On the way to our hotel we were asked if anyone wanted to eat dog soup for dinner! It was requested in advance as they had to “prepare” it (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, with everyone realizing they would have few other opportunities to do so in their lifetime.
Our hotel for tonight was in Kaesong, and was a mini-village. There were about 20 small clusters of rooms, all set around small courtyards and in traditional Korean style. The rooms had tatami (rice straw mat) flooring 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 heading out to dinner. Our evening meal was actually delicious. We were served an array of bowls with meat, vegetables and fish. Again, it was a little strange to know that most people in this country struggle to eat, and yet we dined like the proverbial kings. In the middle of the main course, the dog soup came to us. I admit that it is an acquired taste! It was quite spicy but it couldn’t be a very muscular dog because there wasn’t too much meat in there! But now I can say that I ate dog, which invariably causes everyone to gasp. Dinner was followed by the obligatory Korean karaoke, which was enjoyed by all. In full karaoke, we are asked if someone wants a massage by a waitress for 20 euros! It was completely out of the blue and we had to make sure that was what our guide meant! But I was on a roll after dog soup and said I would.
And so about an hour and a half later, we go back to the beginning of the story. It was a very good massage, although quite hard and painful at times compared to what I had been used to. Well, it was a day and a night of firsts and I fell asleep wondering if I was going to wake up to the sound of falling bombs or gunfire from the DMZ!
Again, thank you for taking the time to read this article. Hope you enjoyed it.
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