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Into North Korea

Tim and Tigon take time out in Bakhchisarai

The bus comes to a screeching halt and I adjust my sleep-ridden eyes after a seven hour bus journey. Outside a white sandy beach lines the soft curvature of a small bay, guarded on both ends by rocky points. It is the kind of place you imagine lying back in the sun, splashing about in the water, taking a leisurely stroll to the sounds of soft breaking waves and screeching sea-gulls. Only today the beach is vacant, seagulls have free reign. I stumble out with 19 others, mostly Australian journalists and travel writers, and make my way as close as possible to the shore. I am stopped by a high cyclone fence topped with an endless run of coiled barbed razor wire. This fence runs as far as the eye can see, every 100 metres or so punctuated by flood-lights. Nearby sits a luxury hotel plonked on a jutting point, a hot spot for honey-mooners and holiday-makers. Only the beach is off limits, and the view of the coast dominated by the diamond shapes of the fence-wire.

Our South Korean guide, James, is getting excited. "You know, five years ago, a Nth Korean Submarine ran aground here. 20 Nth Koreans attempted to escape into South Korea. But by the time we tracked them down, all but four were dead, they shot each-other. And you know who spotted the submarine? A taxi driver. We have a joke- we need more taxi drivers in this country and less army!" Flem flies and we squint to avoid the tirade and jot down his words feverishly. But as I stand, hands in the wire, I am confused. Who is it that is really being controlled? Are the Nth Koreans being locked out, or are we being locked in? This is just the beginning of an intriguing few days. We were on the north eastern coast of South Korea, en-route to Nth Korea. As part of a tourism group including over 300 South Koreans, we have been granted permission to travel into the Kamgung mountain region. In doing so we will become the first westerners (apart from South Koreans) to cross into Nth Korea by land, across the DMZ, from the south since the end of the Korean war in 1953. The land border itself, situated on National road seven, was first opened in February 2003 to facilitate limited South Korean tourism and the family reunification program. Two weeks later it was closed. Then from April to June it was open only to re-unifying families, then in June it was closed all together. Only now is it re-opening again to South.

As we prepare to head further north our tour leaders, part of the 'Hyundai' corporation which is facilitating the tour, demand that all phones, chargers, laptops, and compasses be handed in. Camera lenses of greater than 160mm are also prohibited. Soon later our bus departs, into the first buffer zone of the DMZ. Ranks of tanks and army trucks flash by, mingled with villages and rice-paddies cut into the valleys and lower slopes of surrounding mountains. The DMZ itself is the 4km wide demilitarized zone separating the south and north, stretching 155 miles from the west to east coast. The demarcation line was originally made at the 38th parallel after the armistace agreement between the Nth and Sth at the end of the Korean war. The start of the second buffer zone is the NLL (Northern Limitation Line), a place where civilians need special permission to enter. Here farming and village life go hand in hand with razor wire fences, soldiers, and heavy battle machinery. The farmers in this zone have the advantage of being exempt from taxes, but have to be out of the fields before dark every day. On the northern extreme of the NNL we come to a halt at the ironically named 'unification tower.'

Tacky music reverberates out from a clapped out old train carriage, military jeeps buzz about, and an old fighter jet sits on the tarmac, all part of the tourist attraction. Someone mentions that it looks a bit like a scene out of MASH. For a short while we all peer over the wire to the fortified mountains in the distance- the Nth Korean counterpart watchtowers. Then our 17 bus convoy cranks into life and follows an army jeep under a rising boom gate. All the headlights of the convoy are on, and we pass by some unsmiling soldiers. The road turns to dirt, and the forest appears as wild and thick as subtropical jungle. A slim wire fence on both sides of the road is hung with little yellow signs that say 'Mines!' James is happy to tell us that there are around 10 million mines in the DMZ buffer zone. The tension and excitement is palpable. Winding over the hills, we pass by enormous concrete structures on stilts; tank blocks that can be blasted into place within five minutes of an invasion.

All photography is prohibited from the bus. For a while our bus falls behind and we hold onto the seats as the driver rockets downhill, frantically trying to catch up. We catch up to the convoy at the border of the DMZ. Two high fences with coiled razor wire extend up a ridgeline and out of sight- stretching unbroken to the west coast. Army units with full battle kit crouch behind sandbags and wave proudly, as if they are sending us off into battle on the frontline. Just across the DMZ wire a column of workers take a break on some large earthworks. As part of the sunshine policy between Nth and South, a railway and road are being built from both sides, and are due to be ready by Christmas. Whether it will be functional is doubtful though, particularly since tensions have mounted in recent months between Nth Korea and America regards development of nuclear weapons. I sit keenly, waiting for the first sign of Nth Korea. For me I feel it is particularly interesting to have some insight into the reality of a totalitarian communist state, modeled on Soviet mentality. There are no other countries still ideologically split. It is perhaps one of the last live remnants of the cold war era.

We pass more guard posts, and here the soldiers crouch with their fingers on the trigger, unmoving. Then there is a 50 metre gap, and we come into the focus of two glaring soldiers in an old soviet UAZ army jeep. They have binoculars at hand keenly eyeing us and the gun barrels pointed in their direction. By the large, rounded, soviet style hats they wear alone, I know we are now in North Korea. At once the soldiers are different. They stand straight backed, eyes staring coldly, almost like wax figures. Their cheekbones look hard, large and round. In camoflauged bunkers other soldiers lie training their sights on the south. A large iron gate in the middle of this uninhabited no-mans land is opened, and we pass back out of the DMZ and into North Korea proper. A system of watch and control that is replicated throughout our stay becomes obvious. On every hilltop, on every track, sometimes even in the middle of a field, a soldier stands, stiffened, un-emotive, sincere, as if they are apparitions, the eyes of the rulers and guardians keeping watch. In one hand they have a red flag, in the other a whistle. Standing all alone with the backdrop of jagged mountains floating above rice and corn fields, it borders on the surreal.

The landscape itself is dramatically different to that of the south. Much of the forest has been stripped, and the mountains are more majestic, rising to the clouds with haunting spires and enormous slabs of granite. It appears comparable to the open rolling steppe of Mongolia with wide horizons and no sign of fences. To the east a white sandy beach arcs around to a sleepy granite point, and a lake teems with birdlife. Apart from a few artillery positions dug into the hillsides it also seems remarkably less fortified than South Korea. A couple of kilometres on we stop near a stockpile of concrete railway sleepers. Two soldiers clamber into the bus and take note of numbers. They are young, probably no more than 20. James tells us that the Nth Korean men have to serve five years in the army.

For a while it seems that we are making our way into a fenceless land, and will have the opportunity to explore a little of the local area. However as the bus nears a village we are struck by a different reality. A three-metre high fence topped with barbed wire lines each side of the road, which is now so narrow as to only allow one-way traffic. And what’s more we are told that the village that lies parallel to the road is actually a model village especially built for impressing foreigners. Even so I catch glimpses of an ox and cart, people squatting in rice paddies, an old man stopped behind a Nth Korean guard on an old bicycle. On a rise a toddler stares on in awe at the convoy as we rocket past in a cloud of dust. Past the village we follow parallel to a road for locals.

Men wander along with shovels and axes over their shoulders, school children dawdle along an unused train-line. This brief window into North Korea closes as the fence verges away to the left to encompass a large collection of shipping containers; the accommodation for all foreign workers. Most of the workers servicing this Hyundai tourism complex are Chinese Koreans from Manchuria- they are cheaper labor, speak Korean, and do not get in the way of Sth-Nth relations. Someone mentions that their living quarters look a bit like the hastily built refugee camps in Nauru. Beyond the cluster of ramshackle containers, Jang Jeon harbor comes into view. It is set in a striking bay with the Kumgang mountains rising as a dramatic backdrop. Patches of mist hover around some rocky outcrops and striking spires. Chiseled into a piece of granite the size of a large apartment block is a slogan in Korean; ‘Kim-Il-Sung, our greatest hero.’ It appears as permanent, and divine as the heavens themselves. At the end of this ‘foreigners road’ we arrive at the customs point and are all herded inside. It strikes us that the customs facility is a replica of the South Korean side. It is sparkling clean and modern, much like an airport. The immigration/customs officer shows very little interest or emotion as he stamps our visas, but the welcoming on the other side is more animated. I stroll out with my backpack through an avenue of officials all smiling and offering mini-bows. At the far end two men dressed in bear suits wave. I smile back. Welcome to Disneyland? Our accommodation, a stones throw from customs, is hardly traditional Nth Korean living.

A six-storey floating hotel sits idly in the harbor with a huge banner strung above the entrance proclaiming ‘Fantasy Land’ referring presumably to the casino on the third floor. To add to intrigue, inside one can find Australian power-points and familiar designs; this hotel was originally made for the Great Barrier reef and over time was moved to Saigon before arriving here. From the balcony near my room a Nth Korean town is visible as a blurry collection of apartment buildings on the far shore. It is too far away to see anything, even with the best of camera lenses. In any case there are signs all along the railings; “No Photo!” There is little time to catch our breaths before being whisked away to the next stop on our itinerary: the mineral spas. The complex is not unlike a five-star hotel with impeccably shiny golden finishings, and a floor in the lobby that you could eat off. Coca-Cola vending machines blink on outside as the sun sets. Inside we are handed pink wristbands with locker keys and a matching fluorescent pink towel, before shuffling on with the many South Koreans for a dip. With the mountain silhouettes hanging over us we spend an hour or so lazing in a variety of outdoor spas that to me ooze with luxury.

I can’t help but feeling a little bit indulgent. It is basically impossible to imagine how the locals are living a stones throw over the manufactured walls. Everything is beginning to appear %100 Hyundai sanitized. So craftily controlled that one could be mistaken for believing that we had never left South Korea. Later that night after a traditional meal and a few hefty rounds of Soju (Korean Rice Wine), I am sitting in the bar of a restaurant, suddenly stirred from my tiredness by the presence of a Nth Korean. His English is fluent and he talks off-handedly about trips to China. There is something about his nature that is gentle, patient, and passionate. He can rattle off anything about issues in the media; the Kelly trial in London, the refugee policy of Australia, anything to do with the Iraq war. He is from Pyong Yang and says he works for the Nth Korean tourism board. “So have you ever been to South Korea?” I ask. “I will return to Sth Korea when we are unified. I want unification, but we all have a right to do things our own way. No one has the right to tell us how to live” he replies, a twinkle of confidence and conviction in his eye. On the chest of the Nth Korean’s shirt I notice he is wearing a small badge of Kim Il Sung, and ask wryly whether I could somehow get one for myself. “If I have two I give, but I have one. If I give to you, you must wear honorably this badge, close to the heart. We wear him always close to the heart. Kim Il Sung liberated us. He is our God.”There is deeply entrenched sincerity in his words. Kenny, the South Korean Tourism representative joins in and explains to him that he understands; “In South Korea we also have our rituals and beliefs, just different. We understand you.” There seems to be no conflict between the two. Before the night is over we all lock arms for photos, and Kenny gives the man a hearty handshake on our way out.

This is a scenario repeated for the remainder of the trip; South Koreans giving a hi-five to north Korean guides, laughing, talking. Stumbling back to the Hotel I am confused. Where did the man appear from? Is it Nth Korea really in conflict with the south, or just with America? The following day we are once again herded out of the hotel, anticipating a day of trekking the Kumgang mountains. Visiting this spectacular range, which is considered the most beautiful place on the Korean peninsula, is the mainstay of the Hyundai tourism program. Known as the ‘Diamond Mountains’ they culminate in a myriad of twisted rocky peaks from which one can look out over the east coast. For the South Koreans it is somewhat of a pilgrimage, to see this legendary place once in their life. Although woken at 6.00am, there is an obligatory stop at the main Hyundai complex before heading to the mountains proper. The complex includes an enormous restaurant, souvenir shops, and cafes where you can buy cups of coffee for $4US a cup. More than anything it reminds me of an airport transit lounge. South Koreans sit in front of televisions and snooze in their droves. Outside in the car-park you can hire quad and mountain bikes, although where you can ride them is unclear. Opposite the complex is a new monument in memory of the late head of the Hyundai corporation; who jumped from his office in an unexplained act of suicide on August 4.

It was he who set up these relations with Nth Korea, beginning with a gift of 500 cattle in 2001. Surrounding the complex are barbed-wire topped fences, and on most corners a security camera pans about. Where local roads cross the ‘Hyundai road” soldiers stand guard. There seems no escape; our time in Nth Korea is like sitting at the airport and never being let out into the real world. Eventually we file back onto the buses and wind our way up a specially built road, twisting forever upwards. On corners and staring out of caves are color-painted concrete figurines of bears, tigers, mice, pigs, and many other Disney-like characters. I am beginning to think that it is one giant theme park. At the top we disembark and are told how to recognize a Nth Korean; they have the badges of Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader, on their shirts. We are not to touch, take photos, or offer them any food. The rain is bucketing down and I am already swimming in the humidity. With umbrella’s popping up like mushrooms in the rain the procession begins. For the first hour we plod on in the rain and mist, unable to see more than a hundred metres. 60-70 year old South Koreans trudge on without complaint. The track is mostly a set of steps and metal stairs bolted onto the steep rock. I fall into step with a couple of Nth Koreans, a man and woman who walk calmly with neat shirts and squeaky clean gumboots. We smile at each-other, and they try to talk to me in Korean. Kenny, our South Korean friend explains to me that their job is to make sure that no one litters. Any intentional act of littering will be dealt with by a US$15 fine. I can’t help wondering what they think of us, an odd rag-tag collection of foreigners clambering up their local mountain in the rain. And what do they think about the buses, and flashy cameras, and the luxury hotels, quad bikes and coca-cola machines that are obvious on the far side of the fence? Are they curious at all? I wonder how they can interpret us, and where we come from. After all, Nth Korea is surrounded by jamming stations which prevent any radio, television, or mobile communication signals from entering the country. Internet is not accessible. Control seems complete. At some point I turn around, soaked to the skin, and discover that we have risen above the mist. Jagged peaks poke precariously above the clouds, and twisted pines like giant bonsai plants cling optimistically to the rocky ledges. Higher up, and the stairs coil around rock spires like something out of a Tolkein novel. More than once I skip a heartbeat as I look between my legs into the bowels of the misty valley below. Up here, out of sight of Disneyland it no longer seems to matter which country we are in.

I can hear a symphony of knees sighing with relief as we arrive back at the buses and roll back into the realm of Hyundai. Near to the complex we pass by a giant poster of Kim Il Sung sitting in a park with children, story-telling. For 20 frustrated journalists, it is an obvious photo opportunity; especially since it has dawned on us that mingling, seeing, or feeling the life of the locals will be impossible. A plan is hatched and on arrival at the transit lounge a group of us hire mountain bikes and pedal off with our cameras. Hyundai workers follow looking very stressed. A grin pops onto my face as a plump South-Korean kid zooms past on a quad bike and the soldiers halt local traffic from crossing our path. Everything is touched by a surreal flavour. It would not surprise me if the soldiers themselves are just actors, dressed up in costumes, all paid for by Hyundai! Below the painting of Kim Il Sung we snap away while the Hyundai staff and Nth Korean soldiers get very nervous. For them this is a sacred site, and we are not to get too close to the painting itself. It is fitting that we are next ushered back to the complex for the next show on the itinerary; a Nth Korean acrobatic circus. Inside yet another extravagant Hyundai-made building, a circus dome, we sit for two hours watching an incredible display of break-neck acrobatic feats. They perform to the mastery of an Orchestra, all imported from Pyong Yang for our visit. Meanwhile security cameras pan up, down, and across the crowd like something out of George Orwell’s 1984. Afterwards we douse our bodies and minds in the spas and are taken back to the comfort of “Fantasy Land.”

I think most of us are now resigned to the saturation of Hyundai-land, and it is taking its toll. I am beginning to wonder if I will conclude anything from this visit. Although I want to break out and be rebellious- take a photo where I shouldn’t-, what after all is the point? What good will a pic of an um-remarkable village in the distance be anyway? I want to take a photo just because it is banned. But why is it banned? In the morning I stumble out to the sounds of Abba and Blondie songs being sung at high pitch by some Eastern European performers on the lower level of the ‘floating hotel.’ After breakfast the convoy starts all over again. After a visit to a lake, we drive out beyond the fences to the coast, where much to the dismay of the staff, myself and Mark, the London Telegraph correspondent, strip off and swim. Later we are told we are the first to swim in five years at this beach. Out at sea the silhouettes of long wooden fishing boats can be seen, the oarsmen working rhythmically from the stern. Kenny is astounded to discover that unlike in the South, Nth Koreans can go fishing at any time of day they please. It is assumed from the south that it is the north who lives under oppression without freedom, but the simple act of walking onto a beach is at least still possible here. Tired and attuned to the stare of Nth Korean soldiers it is time to go home. The trip back passes quickly and without the tension of arrival. Customs flash by, as does the DMZ and, soon we are greeted by smiling South Korean soldiers. Within a couple of hours I am standing at the re-unification tower looking back to the north under the gaze of a Buddha statue and the virgin Mary. A couple of boyish soldiers go potter about in the garden of their watch-tower, clipping the grass. It is as I turn to look the other way that a sick feeling hits my stomach. There are large slogans carved into billboards, advertising Samsung and Hyundai. Cut into the hillside are more slogans in Korean, and as we drive out I notice soldiers standing at every intersection for the next 60 kilometres. Only now do I begin to realize how much my preconceptions have interfered with my experience. Why is it that it was so easy to pass off the Kim Il Sung painting as Propoganda, or the soldiers as a paranoid representatives of a totalitarian state? Are these slogans and soldiers really any different? Why did I feel the tendency to feel sorry for the Nth Koreans when I had no idea of the reality of their lives? Why do the South Korean soldiers look more friendly to me? It strikes me that if I were a Nth Korean arriving here indoctrinated with a negative view of the west, then all of my convictions would now be realized; a people worshipping a material world. A terrible feeling seeps deeper into my thoughts; maybe the whole western world is a giant Hyundai-land, a theme park. Come to think of it, maybe the only reason it seemed odd in Nth Korea was because it was surrounded by a totally different world. It only seemed ludicrous because there was another way of life to compare it to! For hours on the bus I wrestle with these thoughts. It worries me that I found it so tempting to ridicule the north even in subtle ways. How patronizing it must be for any country to have westerners sigh and shake their head saying, ‘oh those poor people’ when they don’t have a clue. Who is to say that we set the benchmark for quality living? The Nth Korean man’s words drum on in my head- “We all have a right to do it our own way.” And the question remains; are the South Koreans locked in or out by the razor wire? As I gaze out at the ranks of tanks, and soldiers on every corner I am sure they are more paranoid than the North. A week later I am sitting in a park at midnight in Seoul with a couple of Korean women of my age. Casting an air of seriousness into the conversation I ask them what they think about Nth Korea. Like all South Koreans they start by laughing off any suggestion that Seoul maybe under threat by Nuclear weapons. “It is not something that we fear, but something America likes to say to the rest of the world” says Maya a graduate in Buddhism studies. “But you know, unlike the older generation, we in the south do not want reunification. We are two different countries now, and the economic drain of unifying would be too much. We just want to have a normal border with them, to treat each other as normal countries. We all know that neither the North or South would be happy with just one government chosen to look after the whole peninsula.” I have a sip of my beer, gaze up at the dazzling lights on a billboard (a ‘propaganda sign in the eyes of a Nth Korean) and conclude that it is the first words of common sense that I have heard in ages.

(Click here to view Tim's latest newsletter which features photos and a story about the whole Nth Korea journey.)