One Surreal Day in North Korea (part 1)

There's not much happening in the main street. Photo: Peninsularity Ensues

We reach the border at daybreak. Our guide stresses, again, that we are to adhere absolutely to all rules and procedures. We deposit our phones into a cardboard box before stepping off the bus. The mood is suddenly nervous.

The drive from Seoul to the DMZ                                                                                                           Photo: Peninsularity Ensues

The South Korean customs inspectors are slow and methodical. They show no apparent interest in drugs, bottles containing more than 100ml of fluid, or other weapons of mass destruction. They are vigilant however in the search of any paper, pens, pencils or capitalist propaganda, defined as being written material of any kind. They assure us that this is for our own safety, and that indefinite detention by North Korean authorities for inadvertently strolling into the DPRK with yesterday’s newspaper might be less than ideal for all concerned. Digital cameras are permitted. Telephoto lenses are not. We go back to the bus, and wait.

The convoy (six identical white unmarked tour buses flanked by two military vehicles carrying North Korean officials and a South Korean doctor) rolls forward, stopping again less than a minute later at the southern gates of the DMZ. We wait. A young soldier enters the bus and stands there, frozen. Fifty foreigners stare silently back. I’m wondering how many trillions of dollars might be spent each year by the world’s armies, training their people to stand really, really still. Eventually he screams something in Korean at nobody in particular, marches purposefully to the back of the bus, swivels, and marches to the front. Our guide prompts us to give the soldier a round of applause, at which he drops his shoulders and transforms into a teenage kid. He waves shyly, grins a goofy grin, and jumps off the bus.

The gates are ceremoniously opened and the convoy slowly crosses the DMZ, which is not the wasteland I’d expected. We are forbidden to take photographs.

We’re herded off the bus, into North Korean Immigration. Loud North Korean music echoes through the new shiny building. We’re closely watched. The immigration officials are efficient however, and courteous. I’m asked if I would like to have my passport stamped (this is optional).

“Oh, yes please!” …I’m like an excited child. He smiles and stamps my passport on the front page (a page not for stamping), adjacent to my photo. It’s a disappointingly nondescript stamp. I’d hoped for something menacing like a huge iron fist.

North Korean passport stamp. Disappointingly normal. Photo: Peninsularity Ensues
North Korean passport stamp. Disappointingly normal.
Photo: Peninsularity Ensues

Months later a South Korean immigration official will notice this stamp immediately.

“You’ve been to North Korea!” she barks.

I will tell her I have indeed been to North Korea, at which she’ll lean menacingly forward over her desk, before glancing conspiratorially to her right, and left, before quietly whispering… “What’s it like?”

“It’s… different”.

Kaesong Joint Industrial Complex, taken from South Korean observation tower. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-Je
Photo of Kaesong Joint Industrial Complex, taken from South Korean observation tower.
Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-Je

 

 

It looked more like this. Photo: Ng Han Guan/Associated Press
The Northern side looks more like this.
Photo: Ng Han Guan/Associated Press

There isn’t a tree. Entire mountains are stripped of all life, burnt for fuel long ago. People listlessly tend cabbages by the roadside. A thin old man ploughs a barren plot, coaxing his thin old bullock. Our guide says that this is a wealthy man. He owns a bullock. We are not to take photographs.

The taking of ‘unauthorised photographs’ is a serious issue. These include photos taken from within the bus, photos of the city or of peoples’ homes, or of people themselves, unless by consent, which is rather difficult as we’re not allowed anywhere near them. We all clutch cameras.

I don’t don’t know where they came from, or how they got there, but literally thousands of soldiers are just… watching.  They ensure no photographs are taken from within the buses between ‘authorised’ tourist areas. Each holds a small red flag. Our job is to ensure no flags are raised.

We proceed north, into the barren countryside. We encounter a single vehicle during the 40 kilometer drive on the national highway, north toward Pyongyang. Then, there are trees.

 

A section of the ludicrously wide Reunification Highway Photo: Bill Adams
A section of the ludicrously wide Reunification Highway
Photo: Bill Adams

The convoy diverts from the highway, into a forest toward the beautiful Bakyon waterfall, about 120 kilometers south of Pyongyang. It is now 10.30am and for the first time we are allowed off the bus. The contrast between this oasis and the surrounding awfulness is difficult to describe. Our guide says we may now take photographs.

This we were allowed to photograph. Photo: Peninsularity Ensues
This we were allowed to photograph.
Photo: Peninsularity Ensues

 

Very much authorised for photographic purposes. Photo: Peninsularity Ensues
Very much authorised for photographic purposes.
Photo: Peninsularity Ensues

A few young North Korean women stood smiling at small souvenir/refreshment stands. “Copy? Copy? Copy?” they said cheerfully, smiling and holding up small paper cups with ‘Coffee’ printed on them. One bowed slightly while pouring me a cup, happily repeating what appeared to be the only English word she knew. “Copy!” she said again brightly, with a slightly flirtatious smile.

This young woman was quite pleased to sell me a coffee. Photo: Peninsularity Ensues
This young woman was quite pleased to sell me a coffee.
Photo: Peninsularity Ensues
I stood at the base of the cliff, admiring the view, sipping from my weak cup of tea and pondering whether I’d just been had by a young woman who was perhaps less naïve than she appeared. It was time to go back to Kaesong for lunch.

Continue to part 2

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