One of the first things that becomes apparent when you enter North Korea is that the people (at least the officially appointed guides towing the government line) feel aggrieved about the division of their country following the Second World War by the hated Americans. And they do rather go on about it – it crops up in most conversations.
Of course, according to the international community Stalin set Kim Il-Sung up to rule over the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, which had been divided, much like Germany, into a Russian zone and a US zone at the end of the war once the Japanese occupiers had been driven out. Then, in 1950, civil war broke out. Western history books state that the Korean War was started by the North; the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) faced a US-led United Nations coalition comprising some 20 nations, including Turkey, Canada, Thailand and Australia. After three years of war, the line between the two sides remained pretty much where it had been at the start of the conflict.
Our guides emphasised that the people of the DPRK see Koreans as one people but they see the government and state of South Korea as a puppet of the US and consequently their enemy. Ironically, their Southern brothers are the only people not allowed to visit the DPRK (with one exception, see below). Even Americans are allowed in.
A visit to the Demilitarized Zone (the DMZ) is included in the itinerary of every tourist who visits the DPRK. We were taken there on our first full day in North Korea. The DMZ forms the border between North and South – and was the ceasefire line on the 38th parallel at the end of the Korean War. The term ‘DMZ’ is, in fact, a misnomer: it is actually the most heavily militarised zone in the world, with North Korean missiles, presumably some of them nuclear, facing US missiles. (South Korea has no nuclear weapons of its own.)
As we neared the DMZ, there was an increasing number of checkpoints on the road. But when we reached the edge of the zone, a two-hour drive on the bone-shaking so-called Unification Highway from Pyongyang, we found a souvenir shop filled with militaristic, anti-imperialist posters and postcards, T-shirts… and ginseng jelly. Next, we passed tank traps – massive blocks of concrete poised above the road, ready to drop to make the route impassable. No missile silos were apparent – presumably, they are underground.
Despite minefields, some of the gently rolling land of the 4km wide DMZ is farmed on the North Korean side. There are also buildings we visited where talks between the two sides were held at the end of the Fatherland Liberation War, as they call the Korean War, in 1953. There was a table with a North Korean flag on it and another holding the light blue UN flag.
At the centre, where the two sides facing each other were close enough to see the whites of each other’s eyes, is the so-called blue hut, where the armistice was signed, right on the Military Demarkation Line marking the actual border. The hut is part of the Joint Security Area.
We entered the blue hut from the North, obviously, with our guides and three North Korean soldiers. Two of the soldiers were posted to the door to the South to prevent anyone entering or leaving that way. Through the middle of the room, and the table where the signing took place, is the border itself. Here we could stand with one foot in North Korea and one in South Korea. Alternating tours from North and South use this same room. Tours from the South enter the same hut, through the South door, with their soldiers guarding the North door.
Outside, on a viewing platform, we could peer into South Korea and observe SK soldiers moving around beneath a large South Korean flag. Behind us, atop a massive mast, the North Korean flag faced it.
Another oddity about the DMZ is that it is the only place in the DPRK where photographing the military is not forbidden. In fact, it is positively encouraged. The reason is that it makes a powerful point about their divided land. I had my photo taken with a young soldier, who spoke good English and who had a wide, warm smile, belying my preconceptions.
Of course, Koreans, North and South, may be one people, ethnically and culturally, but there are huge differences politically, economically, socially and physically (due to a poorer diet in the North).
About 10 years ago, there was a brief thaw in relations between North and South. During this time, the South Korean company Hyundai, the CEO of which had been born in the North before the division, funded the Kaesong Economic Zone in the North, pumping a fortune into industries outside Kaesong, which we passed, just off the Reunification Highway. The Zone has since closed, as relations turned sour again.
Another Hyundai-funded project was the Kumsangan Tourist Resort, towards the eastern end of the border. The final part of the private tour took me there and we stayed overnight. The idea of the Resort was to bring South Korean tourists in (a special road and railway were constructed from the South, with South Korean money) to this beautiful mountain region with its waterfalls and lakes.
The hotel was unlike anything else I had seen in the DPRK. It was a 4- or 5-star, western-standard hotel. After only six days in this country, it came as a shock to walk into the plush reception area, bar and up to a well-appointed luxury bedroom via the high-tech lift. (Note: there was still only one TV channel.)
In 2008, a South Korean woman wandered away from her guides on the beach here and was shot and killed by soldiers (after repeated warnings, according to the North’s version of the story). Hyundai pulled out and the hotel and resort, staffed by North Koreans, are now virtually deserted.
On my last morning, I was taken on a two-hour walk into the mountains by the young male guide. We went up a stony track to a waterfall, accompanied by Chinese tourists. It was the only walk I did during my week in North Korea. It was a relief. Later, we drove along the South Korean-built road (the only smooth road I encountered in the country) with its unique, green-painted fence running the full length to stop the two sides mixing, and crossed the railway line, now abandoned.
Twenty-four hours later I flew to Beijing, before going to Seoul, South Korea. It was necessary to go via Beijing because there are no flights between the two countries (even though Seoul is not much more than 40km from the DMZ).
Although there are no major, world-class sights in the DPRK, travelling there is an experience like no other. I would recommend it to anyone. I’m glad I went. Would I go back? Maybe not, unless there is radical change – which I don’t see happening anytime soon.
I expected South Korea to be a contrast. I was only there one day but that was sufficient for me to see that Seoul and Pyongyang – the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the DPRK – are about as different as it’s possible to be. They could be on different planets! (The difference is supposed to be five or six times the difference that existed between the former East and West Germany.)
From the moment I stepped off the plane, I could see that South Korea was clean, modern, hi-tech, glitzy and prosperous. They had the most modern and sophisticated communications available. There was a bright, modern subway system, heavy traffic and the Seoul nightlife pulsates. The drab greyness, Stalinist monoliths, ox carts and weather-beaten people walking like robots gave way to bright, neon advertising hoardings. I was able to walk at will wherever I wanted. And there were no Kims!