North Korea – Vacation in a Secret State (Part 3)


I’d like you to just spend a moment and consider the scenario I found myself in at the end of the next day. It was 1am and I was in a hotel in Kaesong, a city 10km from the demilitarized zone (DMZ), probably the most tense place on earth. 3 hours previously I was eating dog for dinner and was now getting a massage from a North Korean waitress, with both the guides in the room watching on! I’ve found myself in a few slightly bizarre situations before, but that one probably takes the biscuit.

The day was mainly one of travelling, as we made our way from the capital, Pyongyang, to Kaesong in the south of the country. The tour bus headed out of Pyongyang and to one of the many checkpoints in the country. In DPRK there is restriction of movement for citizens. Unless you have a very good reason and permission, you cannot travel outside your home town or area. This is lessened a little during public festivals, but the checks are always there. The checking of papers was efficient, but thorough, and we were soon on our way.

We travelled initially on a 10-lane motorway, which was quite a sight. We must have driven on it for about 15-20 minutes, and nobody saw another vehicle on the entire road for the duration. There were a few bicycles and some people walking along the road, but no other cars, lorries or buses. The roads were not maintained too well, and there were obvious signs of neglect, with huge potholes in some lanes. In others there were sometimes mounds of dirt, just less than a metre high. They weren’t high enough to be barricades of any sort, but nobody could really work out what they were. I would have taken photos, but we were politely asked not to while the bus was in motion. I’m sure it was because we might photograph certain parts of DPRK that were not meant to be seen outside the country.

After about an hour of travelling, we reached the West Sea Barrage. This is an 8km tidal-controlling wall, which can alter the level of the Taedong River which flows through Pyongyang. It was built in 5 years (and, surprise, surprise, received “on-the-spot guidance” from both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il). It wa an impressive feat – a real battle of manpower against the elements. I don’t know what the level of technology of the DPRK was at the time this barrage was built, but you can be pretty sure they didn’t do this the easy way.

After viewing the barrage, and watching an informative video dubbed in rather poor English, we departed for a very old Buddhist temple. This was really out in the sticks, down dusty roads and up dirt tracks. We got to see a fair amount of the real DPRK here. There were people farming with hand ploughs & picks, and children working in the paddy fields. One thing that did strike me was the amount of land that was assigned to agriculture. There seems to be a hell of a lot of it, but conditions are not good for agriculture here in DPRK. Soil quality, inefficient farming methods, a lack of pesticides & fertilisers, and food getting lost through corruption could all be partly to blame for the food shortages engulfing DPRK almost every year. But the people work the fields, and hope for a good harvest each year. Maybe one of these years, they will get one.

The bus parked and we had to ascend a hill to get to the temple complex itself. One thing which interested me greatly was a pair of statues on the path up to the temple. I had to closely inspect the old weathered bodies of them, but they both had classical kanji (Chinese characters used in Japan) written on them. The kanji is very old, and I have only found one Japanese person who has been able to read the characters yet. When we got up to the temple, I also noticed kanji written above the entrance to one of the buildings. I wondered why there was kanji written here, when hangul is the character set the Koreans use. The temple was 130 years old and was reportedly the only temple to survive the Korean War. There was a monk there who had met Kim Jong Il during his visit to the temple a few years ago. These people really wanted everyone to live in peace (yes, even Americans), regardless of their religion, nationality or race. I kept wondering whether these people I encountered on my trip would ever see peace and a unified Korea, or whether they will eventually be engulfed in the horrors of war in the Korean Peninsula. For these monks above all others, it would be a tragedy. The longer I spent in the country, the more I felt for its people, both with the famine problem, and the constant fear of a future war with US forces stationed in South Korea. That’s not to say I agree with some of the government’s policies (don’t want to get arrested here as a sympathiser!), but you can’t blame the people for the actions of a government.

We had lunch next to a small stream near the temple. Then we had another hour-long drive to the town of Sinchon and the Sinchon War Crimes Museum. This museum is dedicated to showcasing and remembering the atrocities committed by Americans during the Korean War. Not there that I intentionally only said Americans, and did not include South Koreans in there. In DPRK the people say that they and the South Koreans are the same people with the same blood running through their veins, and will not openly criticise them. While it is obvious that atrocities were carried out by the DPRK, American, and South Korean forces, only the Americans are highlighted as the bad guys here. Again this was a place where you listened to the stories, looked at the photos and paintings and nodded, taking it all in. Unfortunately, some of the group elected to ask very difficult questions while we were here which really upset the guide and almost had her in tears. If I return to DPRK (which I’d like to do), I would like to get my own group of people together, so I would have people I can trust to not say anything stupid and play the game well. The paintings were very vivid, and while I can’t guarantee that all of them are true, they are certainly thought-provoking. The stories and alleged orders given from American military officers in charged are also interesting to read. For example, by Lt Col. William A. Harrison is alleged to have given the following order on December 3rd, 1950:

“Out unit is now forced to roll back from Sinchon… dispose the detained right away. Capture and kill all capped heads and shaved heads, all bitches and their bastards so commies won’t breed again. Spread rumors that the deadly A-bombs will be dropped after our retreat to exterminate the communist army, and drive the civilians southward.” As I said before, it’s a case of hearing both sides of the story (which are probably both biased) and then making your own mind up and finding a middle ground that you are happy with.

Following the museum, we had a long drive to Kaesong. Once again we went through many remote villages and saw people in the fields. As we got closer to Kaesong, the landscape changed, and hills rose above us, the land appearing to be arid and unfit for farming. The road to Kaesong, and from there to Seoul is arrow straight for some unknown reason (easier for tanks, or a reunification parade?). We randomly stopped at what could only be described as a makeshift services at the side of the road, around 30 minutes from Kaesong. The services comprised of a structure over the traffic-less road, and a tea hut. I bought a can of Pokka coffee (a Japanese company, made in Singapore and exported specially to the DPRK). It is a truly international product! Another half hour of driving got us to Kaesong. This is only 10km from the DMZ, and we had to stop at a checkpoint to enter the city. The security is obviously very high in this part of the DPRK. We drove through the city, passing the obligatory Kim Il Sung mosaics, and a large concrete Kalashnikov (sp?) gun. As we drove through the city, we noticed that the buildings next to the street were immaculate in appearance. White, freshly painted walls and looked in top condition. In contrast, when we passed a junction and were able to see a street back from the main road, the other houses were in a much worse condition, and looked very run down. But the houses next to the street are what people see most, and so they have to make a good impression. On the way to our hotel, we were asked if anyone wanted to eat dog soup for dinner! It was asked in advance because they needed to “prepare” it (i.e. find a dog, catch it and beat it to death before we sat down for the meal). I looked at the guy sitting next to me and we both raised our hand. About half of the group said they’d eat it, everyone realising they would have few other chances to do this in their lives.

Our hotel for tonight was in Kaesong, and was a mini-village. It had about 20 small groups of rooms, all placed around small courtyards and in a traditional Korean style. The rooms had a tatami (rice straw matting) floor, and underfloor heating was offered as we were sleeping on futons on the floor. But it was pretty warm and I think everyone declined. We had about 20 minutes to settle into our rooms before we headed off to dinner. Our evening meal was delicious actually. We were served an array of bowls with meats, vegetables and fish in. Again, it felt a little strange to know that most people in this country are struggling to feed themselves, and yet we were dining like the proverbial kings. In the middle of the main course, the dog soup came to us. I have to admit it is an acquired taste! It was pretty spicy but it mustn’t have been a very muscular dog as there wasn’t too much meat in there! But now I can say I have eaten dog, which invariably gets gasps from everyone else. Dinner was followed by the obligatory Korean karaoke, which was enjoyed by all. In the middle of karaoke, we were asked if anyone would like a massage by a waitress for 20 Euros! This was completely out of the blue and we had to make sure that was what our guide had meant to say! But I was on a roll after the dog soup and said I’d do it.

And so about an hour and half later we get back full circle to the start of the story. It was a very nice massage, although pretty hard and painful at times compared to what I’d been used to. Ah well, it was a day and night of firsts and I went to sleep wondering if I’d wake up to the sound of bombs dropping or gunfire from the DMZ!

Once again, thank you for taking the time to read this article. Hope you enjoyed it.

Leave a Reply