One Surreal Day in North Korea (Part 2)

…from part 1… Bleak, dilapidated Soviet era apartment buildings line the streets of Kaesong. Impressively wide roads have no lane markings. There’s no need. People walk listlessly or ride ancient bicycles, seemingly without purpose or destination. This city of 300,000 is eerily silent.

A traffic officer declares with enigmatic flourish that the right of way is ours, the only vehicles in sight. This is his moment. I wonder how he might spend the rest of the day. Perhaps the locals get to take turns.

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

Not only lacking is traffic, or the sounds of a city… there is also no garbage, anywhere! Unlike nearby Seoul, the dilapidated city of Kaesong sits under blue skies, and is the second-cleanest place I have ever seen (almost Singapore clean). Kaesong citizens are spared from anything that may become garbage. The lack of stores seems of little concern, as nobody appears to have money. This is a tour of conspicuous absence.

Most fascinating are the things I’m not allowed to see, which includes pretty much everything. Our guide explains that the officially designated route shall spare us from witnessing the ‘humble’ residences comprising the majority of the city. The fact that Kaesong is not only historic, but a comparatively wealthy and well maintained city, thereby considered an ideal showpiece destination for the southern tourists, is a sobering thought. What we are being shown looks miserable. Life in most of North Korea must be truly fucking abysmal.

“Man, this place is a dump,” says some guy at the back of the bus, as though just waking up and finding himself on the wrong tour.

We arrive at Kaesong’s premiere restaurant, to enjoy a “traditional” North Korean lunch. I have a sneaking suspicion that lunch for the average Kaesong local doesn’t consist of soup, rice and 12 side dishes in brass bowls. No locals are present, aside from the wait staff.

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

It is a very good meal, and deliberately oversized. We try to eat as much as possible. Across the table a couple of young guys are missing the point of this transparent display of propaganda.

“I’m sick of Korean food,” says one, louder than necessary. His friend chimes in, complaining that this tour sucks because there is nothing to do. The table falls silent. One mention of McDonalds and all hell will break loose.

My old friend Manu, who tends to speak only when necessary, quietly reminds us that we are being watched, that we are officially the enemy, and that there are snipers on the rooftops outside. At exactly the prescribed time we file quietly out of the restaurant. Not a single person has managed to finish their meal. In a country barely able to feed itself it is an ugly display of waste.

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

We have a scheduled fifteen-minute break, to stand outside the restaurant and take photos. There are rules.

Authorised photos include Kaesong’s main street, taken from immediately outside the restaurant, and the exterior of the restaurant itself, though not the ‘humble’ neighbouring building to its right (no photo attached). We can photograph the city’s only department store from across the street, but may not enter. It looks closed.

Down the main street stand the city’s few high-rise apartment buildings. Looking back up the hill, a massive bronze statue of the Great Leader looms over the city. Taking photos of the statue is encouraged… and there are rules.

All photos of the dynastic Kims are to include their images in their entirety. Any artistically cropped depictions are deemed highly offensive. It isn’t a challenge fitting the enormous bronze statue into the frame however, because we’re not allowed anywhere near it. We are unprepared and unaware of the correct procedures for paying respect (there are rules). Once each year all citizens of Kaesong walk to the top of this 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

Our next journey takes literally one minute – a couple of hundred meters to the famous Seonjuk Bridge, and for the third time we are allowed off the bus. As famous bridges go, this is the smallest I’ve seen. This bridge is reputedly the site of a 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 are breathlessly informed that this stubborn, 620 year-old blood stain becomes a deeper shade of red when it rains. We line up to take a picture of the slightly stained rock. It’s a good story, though apparently 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’s quite pleasant, if containing more heavily armed guys than other little parks I usually relax in. Civilian locals are indeed quite close however, walking past just a few meters away, on the other side of a stone wall which offers a tantalising glimpse of the top of some taller heads. Standing on a tree stump I pretend to be taking a photo of something else, but a young soldier appears from nowhere and politely orders me to delete the photo of North Korean head-tops. He directs my attention back to the famous bridge to my left. It is time for another one-minute drive.

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

A couple of hundred meters away among the bleak apartments of the inner city we are led up a small hill to the grounds of Korea’s finest 11th Century university. It looks like a small palace with little temples dotted all around among large grassed courtyards. There are water features, lawns, trees and various pagodas, statues and the graves of important dead guys. It it very well maintained and looks like a relaxing place to study. We’re told not to look at the adjacent “humble dwellings”, which are… 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 is time for the advertised highlight of the tour… to ‘observe North Korean citizens!’ And that, from a safe distance, is exactly what we do. I feel empty. People walk along a street. Our instructions not to attempt communication with them by any means applies strictly to them also… more so, I guess. Most avoid eye contact. A few woman and children smile and wave to our group, though nobody from either side dares utter a word.  Military officers watch us through binoculars from windows above. An attractive young woman walks down the street for a second time. It’s a Truman Show. Photographs are forbidden.

The final destination is the souvenir store, where we are encouraged to spend our evil American money. Also, we can send postcards (to anywhere except South Korea), which, it turns out, are humourously redacted upon arrival.

It’s time to go. Cameras are inspected, as am I, in a polite search for the propaganda I was just sold at their gift shop. Nothing is found. We board the bus to head back across the DMZ.

They only take American dollars here.                                                                                                             Photo: Peninsularity Ensue

“When I tell you, stick those postcards and whatnot down your pants,” our guide tells us.

South Korean re-entry is again tedious. Our phones are returned. Papers are stamped. Frowns are frowned. After a lot of standing around we board the TARDIS, and travel hundreds of years to the future, to Seoul.

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