One Surreal Day in North Korea (Part 2)

…from part 1… Bleak, dilapidated Soviet era apartment buildings line the streets of Kaesong, the tallest being twenty storeys. The roads are impressively wide, without lane markings because there’s no need. People walk listlessly or ride ancient bicycles, as if without purpose or destination. Kaesong is a city of supposedly 300,000 people, and it is silent.

There's not much happening in the main street. Photo: Peninsularity Ensues
Not much happening in the main street. The locals seemed curious, but were kept away from the tourists/enemies (foreground) at all times.  
Photo: Peninsularity Ensues

There was a traffic officer though, wearing quite the flashy uniform, who declared with a well-practiced flurry of important gestures that the right of way belonged to us, the only vehicles on the street. At least he got to have his moment. Perhaps the next day, at precisely the same time when the tour convoy would pass by once more, someone else would get to have a go.

The stressful life of a Kaesong traffic cop. Photo: Bill Adams
The stressful life of a Kaesong traffic cop.
Photo: Bill Adams

On the long list of bizarre things about this city, many involved things only conspicuous by their absence. It wasn’t just the traffic that was missing here. There were also no piles of garbage in the streets. There was no garbage anywhere! Remarkably, the depressed, dilapidated city of Kaesong is the second-cleanest place I have ever seen (nothing, to my knowledge is cleaner than Singapore). There was a logical reason for this though. There didn’t appear to be any stores here. The citizens of Kaesong were spared from exposure to anything that may become garbage. The lack of products didn’t seem of concern, as nobody appeared to have any money.

We became increasingly fascinated by the things we couldn’t see, or weren’t allowed to see, which included pretty much everything. Our guide explained that by strict adherence to the officially designated route, we would be spared from seeing the ‘humble’ residences comprising the majority of the city (and we would be spared from being detained and/or shot). I was trying to imagine what these so-called humble parts of town looked like because what we were being shown looked miserable. The fact that Kaesong is not only historic, but a comparatively wealthy and well maintained city (in addition to its proximity to the border), and thereby considered an ideal showpiece North Korean tourist destination, is a sobering thought. Life in most of North Korea must be truly fucking abysmal.

“Man, this place is a dump,” said some guy at the back of the bus, as though he had just woken up and accidentally found himself on the wrong tour.

We finally arrived at Kaesong’s most famous restaurant (there are two apparently), where we would enjoy a “traditional” lunch. For the second time in North Korea we were allowed off the bus.

There were no locals enjoying lunch in this restaurant, and I had a sneaking suspicion that lunch for the average Kaesong local doesn’t consist of rice, soup and 12 side dishes in brass bowls.

A “traditional” North Korean meal… for one.                                                                                             Photo: Peninsularity Ensues

It was a very good meal, though deliberately oversized. We tried to eat as much as we could, assuming that only the wealthier locals might see produce of this quality, and definitely not of these portions. Across the table sat a couple of young guys who were clearly missing the point of this rather sad, transparent display.

“I’m sick of Korean food,” said one, louder than was necessary. His friend also wasn’t impressed with yet more rice, and complained that this tour sucked because there was nothing to do. The table fell silent. Then a quiet murmuring of disapproval grew into tense debate. One mention of McDonalds and all hell would break loose. At the prescribed time we filed quietly out of the restaurant and not a single person in the room had managed to finish their meal. In a country barely able to feed itself this was an ugly display of waste.

Casual dining, North Korean style... perhaps. Photo: Peninsularity Ensues.
Casual dining, North Korean style… perhaps.
Photo: Peninsularity Ensues.

It was time to enjoy our scheduled fifteen-minute break, during which we were permitted to stand outside the restaurant and take photos. There were of course rules.

Authorised photos included Kaesong’s main street, taken from immediately outside the restaurant, and the exterior of the restaurant itself (though not the neighbouring building because “its unsightliness would not show North Korea in a favourable light”). We could also photograph the city’s only department store from across the street. It looked closed.

Down the main street stand the twin high-rise apartment buildings, and a few other surrounding buildings that serve as Kaesong’s CBD (Central Buildings District, I guess). Behind us, a massive bronze statue of the Great Leader himself, looking down over the city from the top of the hill. Taking photos of the statue was encouraged… though there were rules.

All photographic depictions of the Great, Dear and Fat Leaders respectively are to be included in their entirety. Any artistically cropped photos of anything to do with the Kim dynasty are deemed highly offensive. It wasn’t a challenge fitting the enormous bronze statue into the frame however, because the North Korean officials wouldn’t let us anywhere near it. Apparently we were unprepared and unaware of the correct procedures for paying respect (for which there are… rules). On an official day each year all citizens of Kaesong walk to the top of the hill (this is not optional) to pay respect to the eternal ruler, Kim Il Sung. Each visitor must place flowers at the base of the statue, and it is considered good form to cry a bit while you’re up there.

As close as we would get. Photo: Peninsularity Ensues
As close as we would get.
Photo: Peninsularity Ensues

The next bus ride was literally one minute – a couple of hundred meters to the famous Seonjuk Bridge. As famous bridges go, this was the smallest I’ve seen. It’s very old though and reputedly the location of a very significant murder in 1392, which ended the Goryeo Dynasty and began Korea’s final, Choson Dynasty. A slightly brown looking stain on the small rock bridge is said to be the blood of the slain Jeong Mong Ju, and we were informed that this stubborn, 620 year-old blood stain becomes a deeper shade of red when it rains. We all lined up to take a picture of the slightly stained rock. It was a pretty good story, though complete bullshit.

Across the seven-meter Seonjuk Bridge is a small park, described by the tour company website as a relaxing place where you can see the citizens of Kaesong going about their day. It was quite pleasant, if containing more heavily armed guys than other little parks I usually relax in. Local civilians were indeed quite close however, walking and riding their bicycles past just a few meters away, on the other side of a very convenient stone wall that offered us a view of some of their heads. I stood on a tree stump and pretended to take a photo of a small nearby building but a young soldier politely ordered me to delete the photo of North Korean head-tops. He directed my attention back to the famous bridge behind me, where it should have been. I managed to sneak a couple of photos though. I find them interesting for the fact that they’re not very interesting. It was time for another one-minute drive.

“Unauthorised photo”, Ha! There are North Korean heads behind that wall!!                                 Photo: Peninsularity Ensues

Pulling up a couple of hundred meters away among the bleak apartments of the inner city we were led up a small hill to the grounds of Korea’s finest 11th Century university. It looks kind of like a small palace with little temples dotted all around among large grassed courtyards. There are water features, lawns and trees everywhere and various pagodas, statues and the graves of important dead guys. It looks like a relaxing place to study actually. We were told not to look at the adjacent “humble dwellings”, which were… well, very humble.

Quite tranquil here actually in the university grounds. Photo: Peninsularity Ensues
Quite tranquil here actually in the university grounds.
Photo: Peninsularity Ensues

It was time for the highlight of the tour and the most surreal part of a very surreal day. We were about to actually ‘observe North Korean citizens!’ And that, from a safe distance, is exactly what we did. The significance of being in such close proximity to the world’s most isolated nationals wasn’t lost, but we didn’t feel anything. They were just people walking along a residential street, and it was clear that our specific instructions not to attempt communication with them by any means strictly applied to them also. Most ignored us very deliberately as they walked past. Some of the woman and children smiled and waved to our group, but nobody from either side of the street dared utter a word. Even the small, carefully vetted children knew this. Military officers watched us through binoculars from the windows above, in a Truman Show-esque fashion.

The irony wasn’t lost though. I thought back to my former job in a weird, English-language theme park only twenty kilometers from where we stood. My colleagues and I used to joke that we were exhibits in a human zoo, paid to be stared at and photographed with South Korean tourists in their own country. I was now the tourist, staring at the locals in their country, staring, smiling and waving in silence from across the street.

Our final destination was of course the souvenir store, where we were encouraged to spend our evil American money on cheap North Korean crap, which we did.

They only take American dollars here.                                                                                                             Photo: Peninsularity Ensues

It was time to leave. Cameras were inspected and we were subjected to a very polite, perfunctory search for the illegal propaganda our North Korean hosts had just sold us in their gift shop. The search was not thorough. Everyone was in on the game and our guide had already instructed us on appropriate propaganda-smuggling protocol (the alcohol and cigarettes were no problem).

“When I tell you, stick those postcards and whatnot down your pants,” he’d said.

South Korean re-entry was again tedious. Our phones and gadgets were returned. Papers were stamped. Frowns were frowned. After a lot of final standing around we boarded our TARDIS, to wait a while before returning to the distant future, and Seoul.

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