In August 2003 I was invited to cross the DMZ and visit North Korea....here is my story:
AS introductions go, the Hyundai tour guide could hardly have been more direct. “Remember, you are about to enter a communist country,” he warned. “Many things will be inconvenient, so please be patient.”
North Korea, the world’s most secretive, hardline communist state and a member of President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil”, is just six miles from the car park at Goseong, a border post on Korea’s eastern seaboard.
For the last 50 years, ordinary South Koreans have been coming here to stare lovingly at the Diamond Mountains of Geumgangsan (“12,000 pinnacles with 12,000 miracles”) and the north’s storybook landscape of forests, wild rivers, rolling countryside, lakes and pristine coastline.
Families separated by the Korean War regularly visit the Reunification Observatory to pray for loved ones on the other side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – supplicants can choose between a giant statue of the Buddha or Virgin Mary; Koreans are a pragmatic race.
Every few months, in a moment of calculated but temporary goodwill, the hardline North Korean regime opens the border at Goseong – ostensibly to facilitate a small number of family reunions. [Of the seven million families separated by the DMZ, only 200 have so far been allowed to meet]. Some time later, the border is promptly closed, again for no apparent reason.
By chance my application to visit North Korea (more specifically the tourist enclave of Geumgangsan, funded to the tune of $US1 billion by the giant Hyundai Corporation) coincided with the temporary re-opening of the border.
Thanks to the Korea National Tourism Organization – a joint venture between the two Koreas – I would be one of the first Western journalists to cross the DMZ since the border was sealed on July 27, 1953. But, as I was soon to discover, Stalinism and tourism do not make comfortable bedfellows.
On the drive north, our South Korean guides (who seemed as nervous as us) confiscated a number of “contraband items”, including laptop computers, binoculars, cellular telephones and zoom lenses (anything over 160mm).
After a flurry of telephone calls to North Korean officials it was decided that mobile telephone re-chargers would also have to be surrendered. The restrictions were both quixotic and illogical.
The fiasco over lens and video cameras was repeated on the other side of the border. North Korean guards seized dozens of lenses, before sheepishly returning them the following morning – perhaps alarmed by the value of such equipment.
Although our visas had been approved and processed weeks beforehand, every document were re-examined with forensic exactitude; the smallest error (a name misspelt or a missing initial) could result in expulsion.
For the next three days we were required to carry our passports and North Korean papers in a plastic satchel worn around our necks. Queuing was according to the number shown on the visa: I was 23, a number which became tattooed onto my brain. “It reminds me of that old television show, The Prisoner,” muttered one of my companions. “They give you a number to rob you of your personality.”
The DMZ, a 155-mile corridor packed with razor wire, tank traps, observation posts and 10 million landmines, not only marks the geographical border between North and South Korea, it represents the last vestige of the Cold War.
Indeed, to cross the DMZ is travel back into a 1940s Orwellian vision of perpetual war, constant fear and physical depravation made flesh by Kim Il Sung – the “eternal president” of North Korea. At Goseong, our party joined a convoy of 17 coaches carrying middle-aged South Koreans making a three-day pilgrimage to Mt Geumgangsan; a place which Koreans believe has special healing powers.
Visiting North Korea has become strangely fashionable among those who still hold the Lonely Planet guidebooks in high regard. About 1500 Western tourists visit the impoverished nation each year – most go to the capital, Pyongyang, quaintly referred to as “Stalinist theme park.” The sheer isolation seems to be the main attraction. “It’s not Torremolinos yet,” says Nicholas Bonner from Koryo Travel, which specialises in trips to North Korea. ”But there’s no place like it.”
But crossing the DMZ requires than just curiosity, since the place is unutterably bleak. The DMZ is not so much a single frontier but a complicated series of redoubts, security fences and checkpoints woven together like a sinister piece of macramé – afterall, North and South Korea are still technically at war since no formal peach treaty has ever been signed.
With headlights blazing and flanked by army jeeps, front and rear, we proceeded in an erratic fashion – sometimes crawling along, sometimes careering down steep hills and sometimes becalmed, for no apparent reason, beside an innocent-looking stream or coppice.
On either side of the road ran a red perimeter wire with the legend “Danger Mines” stamped on little metal triangles. Towering concrete tank traps (each ready to fire at a moment’s notice) are a reminder of how the North Koreans (with Chinese assistance) swept through here in 1950.
An 18ft fence topped with razor wire marks the end of South Korea proper. The next two-and-a-half miles is officially no-man’s land, where soldiers apparently spend their entire careers staring at one another through powerful binoculars.
The actual border is marked by a nondescript metal peg, but for those who manage to miss this historic juncture there is a far easier way of telling where capitalism ends and communism begins: the smooth concrete road comes to an abrupt halt. North Korea is a land of rutted dirt tracks where asphalt is regarded as a dangerous bourgeoise indulgence.
Gone, too, are the body armour and Armalite rifles of the South Korean army. Diminutive North Korean soldiers (most no bigger than teenage boys), carry vintage rifles topped with bayonets. Their drab green uniforms and preposterous peaked caps are unchanged from the Korean War.
Despite the bellicose noises coming out of the North Korean regime (and their occasional threats to test a nuclear weapon), this part of the DMZ is in a frenzy of activity.
Army work gangs are busy building culverts and embankments for a new road. The beginnings of a new rail line – run up to the border to embarrass the South Koreans – is also to be seen.
Unlike South Korea, which spends $US15.5 billion a year safeguarding its border with the north, Pyongyang’s security measures seem almost laughable.
Instead of surveillance towers, electrified fences and landmines, North Korea’s major deterrent consists of a few badly fed soldiers equipped with whistles and little red flags; these little chocolate soldiers are a ubiquitous sight, standing forlornly in muddy lanes or guarding distant villages.
Propaganda slogans are carved into every available mountainside. Giant billboards depict a beaming Kim Il Sung (“the greatest genius the world has ever seen”) laughing with well-fed children, or leading his people into the sunny uplands of a communist utopia.
Once across the border there are two impressions which immediately strike the visitor: first, the sheer beauty of North Korea (a land of wide rivers, neatly planted fields and romantic mountains); and second, a growing sense of claustrophobia and discomfort.
Visitors are advised not to photograph government buildings, military installations, villages, soldiers, guards or indeed any North Korean people; even pointing a camera may be construed as a violation of the rules – the punishment would be a hefty fine or expulsion from North Korea.
Tourists themselves are kept under constant supervision. During a performance of the Pyongyang Moranbong Circus the audience was monitored by closed circuit television. Fences and guards ensure that there is no chance to wander away from Hyundai-land; one afternoon I was pursued by a whistle-blowing guard who rightly suspected I was trying to photograph of his command post.
Even remote mountain trails are under surveillance. At the summit of Manmulsang Rocks, an 1100m mountain, I was surprised to discover a well-groomed female cadre member on duty. Her unsmiling colleagues manned every lookout.
The tourist brochure describes the Geumgangsan enclave as “a torch shedding hopeful light on national reconciliation – as well as the most-desired destination for South Koreans”. Neither claim is entirely convincing.
It is true that since 1998, some 50,000 wealthy South Koreans have made the effort to visit the north (the majority by cruise ship), but their contact with the people of North Korea is strictly proscribed. Specially constructed tourist facilities (such as a duty free shopping emporium, floating hotel and a circus auditorium) remain out of bounds to locals.
In fact, there are surprisingly few North Koreans employed within the enclave. Most of the hotel staff came from China or South Korea, while the cabaret band, which specialised in Bony M covers, was from Manchuria.
Despite the laborious procedures designed to keep North Korea hidden from prying eyes, there is much for the inquisitive tourist to see – not least, the grinding poverty of the countryside, with its stunted crops, emaciated people and almost total lack of machinery. While South Korea produces a new car every 13 seconds, North Korea remains entirely dependent on the bullock cart. In three days I saw just two bicycles and one tractor.
Occasionally, there were glimpses into the world of the high-ranking communist party officials. At Samilpo Lake, for instance, we were allowed to inspect a party dacha; its dining room tables neatly arranged for a banquet. On the sideboard were bottles of Korean whiskies and brandies.
Indeed, one soon begins to wonder whether the idea of North Korea being a “hermit kingdom” is just an elaborate joke on the part of Kim Jong Il and his cohorts in Pyongyang.
On a rare excursion from the tourist enclave, I met an engaging young North Korean bureaucrat at the bar of a gloomy Soviet-style restaurant. Rather than spouting communist propaganda, Park Myong Nain seemed unusually well informed about the latest scandals sweeping Washington and London. His comments were laden with a cynicism that had nothing to do with communist dogma – just the world-weariness of a well-informed citizen of the world.
“Why has America invaded Iraq?” he asked. “I think this is a grave error.” Mr Park, a father of two, said he followed world affairs on state-run television – but his favourite pastime was watching English Premier League soccer. His only overtly political comment was to condemn the events of September 11, 2001, and the rise of global terror. Hardly the rantings of a one-eyed party apparatchik.
For a people divided by 50 years of ideological enmity, I couldn’t help noticing that South Koreans seemed to mix fairly easily with their counterparts from the north. Back across the border, I asked one of my South Korean guides what they had found to talk about. Did the North Koreans want consumer goods? Money? Escape? “The only thing they talk about is re-unification,” said James Kim, a keen student of Korean history. “They say we are one people and should be together.”
But even if it had the political will, South Korea does not have the economic clout to bring about reunification – estimated to cost around $US3 trillion; only the Americans have deep enough pockets. “Sadly, it is only the old people who are still interested in North Korea,” said Mr Kim. “No-one under 30 really gives a damn. They have too many other things to worry about.”