One Surreal Day in North Korea (part 1)

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

It was still early when we reached the border. Our tour guide stressed again that we were to adhere absolutely to all rules and proceedures. We deposited our phones into a cardboard box before stepping off the bus. A few people started looking nervous.

The drive from Seoul to the DMZ                                                                                                           Photo: Peninsularity Ensues

This was in 2008, when for a brief period of mutual agreement between the two Koreas, cross border day trips were permitted from the South.

The South Korean customs inspectors were slow and methodical, showing no apparent interest in drugs, weapons, bottles containing more than 100mls of fluids or other dangerous stuff. They were however extremely vigilant in their search for paper, writing implements or capitalist propaganda, defined as being written material of any kind. They assured us that this was for our own safety, and that an indeterminate length of detention with North Korean authorities for inadvertently strolling into the DPRK with yesterday’s newspaper in our backpack would be less than ideal for all concerned. Digital cameras were permitted. Telephoto lenses weren’t. We were sent back to the buses to wait.

Eventually the convoy (six identical white unmarked tour buses plus two SUVs carrying North Korean officials and a South Korean doctor) rolled forward for about twenty seconds, stopping again at the southern gates of the De-Militarised Zone dividing the peninsula. A young soldier entered our bus and just stood there, frozen. Fifty foreigners stared silently back. I wondered how many trillions of dollars might be spent each year by the world’s armies, training their people to stand really, really still. Then he screamed something in Korean at nobody in particular, marched purposefully to the back of the bus, and marched back to the front. Without explanation or translation our guide urged us to give the soldier a big round of applause, which we did. The soldier dropped his shoulders and transformed into a teenage South Korean kid, who waved a goofy wave, grinned a goofy grin, and jumped off the bus.

 

 

 

We arrived at the North Korean immigration control checkpoint, where everything looked surprisingly normal. I found myself wondering what I was thinking by thinking that. Loud nationalist music blared throughout the building, and though we were being closely watched, the immigration officials were courteous and efficient. One man asked in English if I would like to have my passport stamped (it was optional).

“Oh, yes please!” I replied like an excited child. He smiled and stamped my passport on the front page (a page not for stamping), adjacent to my photo. It was a very nondescript stamp. I’d hoped for something menacing like a huge iron fist. Months later though a South Korean immigration officer would notice that stamp immediately.

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

“You’ve been to North Korea!” she exclaimed sternly. I told her I had indeed. She leaned forward conspiratorially from behind her desk, and quietly whispered… “What’s it like?”

Anyway… just north of the border is the Kaesong Joint Industrial Complex, an estate of South Korean-built factories staffed by 50,000 North Korean workers, with new factories under construction and well paved roads. From our bus there wasn’t a single person or vehicle in sight. It was eerie.

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

Large billboards line the roadsides, projecting the nation’s profound love for its heroic heroic military and the three Kims. These Gods of men are depicted in various shades of wonderfulness. One depicts Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il standing in front of a simple farming couple, all knee-deep in a golden field of wheat.

The countryside didn't look a great deal like this.
The countryside didn’t look a great deal like this.

Unfortunately for the local peasant farmers, the surrounding countryside looked about as fertile as the surface of Mars.

It looked more like this. Photo: Ng Han Guan/Associated Press
It looked a lot more like this.
Photo: Ng Han Guan/Associated Press

There wasn’t a tree. Entire mountains had long been stripped of all vegetation. Our guide explained that the wood had been used as fuel. There was nothing left to burn. At the outskirts of the city people tended small cabbage patches.  A very thin old man ploughed a small barren plot, coaxing along his very thin old bullock. Our guide explained that this was a wealthy man. He owned a bullock. We were ordered not to photograph any of this.

The taking of ‘unauthorised photographs’ in North Korea is an issue taken very seriously. These were defined in the tour company’s website as being any photos taken from within the bus, photos of the cityscape or of peoples’ homes, or of people themselves, unless by consent, which was rather difficult because we weren’t allowed anywhere near them. Still, nobody was without a camera.

The restrictions on photographs seemed impossible to enforce, but they managed. If there’s one thing North Korea has an abundance of, it’s soldiers. As we approached the city, they were in their thousands. Standing by the roadside, in the fields, on hilltops… we were being watched constantly and from every conceivable angle. Only their eyes moved, following us as we passed. Their job was to ensure no photographs were taken from within the buses while travelling between ‘authorised’ tourist areas. Each held a small red flag. Our job was to ensure no North Korean soldier raised his flag above his head. In North Korea, when you are told that the men with the guns really, really don’t want you to take a photo, you don’t take a photo. No red flags were raised.

We proceeded through the city and north, into the barren featureless countryside. There was nothing see here except the thousands of soldiers all around us making sure we didn’t photograph the desolation. We encountered only one other vehicle during the 40 kilometer drive on this national highway. Along the roadside were also a number of civilians, walking or riding very old bicycles. We wondered where they were going.

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

More and more soldiers appeared around every bend, focused only on their mission to stop us documenting their abundance of nothing. Perhaps they were unaware that the outside world already has an inkling that North Korea is a poverty stricken third-world dictatorship with only one fat guy. Perhaps there was simply nothing else for these soldiers to do.

Suddenly we were driving through a forest and the protected area surrounding the beautiful Bakyon waterfall, a tourism showpiece about 120 kilometers south of Pyongyang. It was now 10.30am and for the first time we were allowed off the bus. The contrast between this oasis and the awfulness surrounding it was difficult to fathom.
This we were allowed to photograph. Photo: Peninsularity Ensues
This we were allowed to photograph.
Photo: Peninsularity Ensues

Unsurprisingly our guide told us to grab our cameras and go nuts. We did, even though there wasn’t a lot to take pictures of except the waterfall and the trees.

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

There were also a few young North Korean women dressed in black and white, working at two 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 my tea and pondering whether I’d just been had by a couple of people who were perhaps less naïve than they appeared. It was time to drive back to Kaesong for lunch.

Continue to part 2

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