This would be my last full day in North Korea. Unfortunately, due to the extortionate prices charged to visit this secluded republic, my meagre teaching wages couldn’t afford a longer stay.
Again leaving the hotel at the crack of dawn, with other buses and their armed escorts waiting for Workers Party members in the hotel car park, we were on our way to what many call the most guarded place on Earth: Panmunjom.
Panmunjom was once a village on the border between South and North Korea. This was the place where the 1953 Armistice Treaty was signed, which halted the Korean War. With the creation of the 250km long and 4km wide de-militarized zone (DMZ), inhabitants left Panmunjom. Falling in to ruin, the village eventually disappeared from view. Now it’s one of the safest places you can go to view neighbouring South Korea. Even so, with both countries officially still at war, the amount of soldiers stationed here gives the place a lot more of a Cold War feel.
Driving away from Pyongyang, it soon became obvious we were venturing somewhere more sinister. While antique tractors and donkeys huffed and puffed away at work in the adjacent fields, military road blocks came and went at regular frequency. It was whilst stopped at one of these checkpoints that the Chinese contingent of our tour decided it was the perfect opportunity for an impromptu karaoke show.
Taking the microphone from the bemused guide, one by one the Chinese tourists belted out songs in horrendous wailed voices. These sounded more like the mating call of a fox than a harmonious love story. North Korean guards peered through the windows with faces of pain.
With columns of concrete (reportedly full of explosives to be detonated in case of invasion) now appearing alongside the road, the Chinese group turned towards the back of the bus where I was seated and beckoned for me to join them in their karaoke fun. My polite refusals were vetoed by my wife, who, with the help of two overly excited Chinese grandmothers dragged me to the front of the bus. As soldiers and explosive-filled concrete columns raced by outside, a sea of expectant eyes met my gaze. Realising there was no escape, I closed my eyes before shrieking, "she’s just a small town girl, living in a lonely world, she took the midnight train going anywhere…"
As the sound of appreciative claps filled the bus, confidence overtook reality. By the time I opened my eyes again after singing the first verse and chorus, the only part of the song I could remember, the clapping had been replaced with silent stares of horror. I returned back to my seat and we continued onward in near silence.
For all the hype, Panmunjom and the DMZ comes as a slight anti-climax. Gone are the feelings of danger. Replacing them are the feelings of entering the country’s premiere tourist attraction. Even the warnings of being shot on sight if you dare to try and run across in to South Korea, don’t seem as real and potentially life threatening as they possibly are.
There is no doubting the ingrained, brainwashed hatred of America that most people in North Korea possess, but until this moment I had yet to witness it. This was all about to change. Given our own soldiers and a general for protection, we were guided around Panmunjom and the Joint Security Area (JSA) where, in the blue huts that straddle the border, ongoing peace and possible reunification meetings are held.
Being the only Westerners in Panmunjom, the North Korean general was soon singling us out for special treatment. After asking where we were from and realising my wife is American, the lecture began and the ‘enemy’ word was thrown around like confetti.
Standing in the room where the Korean War armistice agreement was signed, the general informed all those listening of the atrocities carried out by American forces on innocent North Korean civilians, atrocities that should never be forgotten, and all enemy American soldiers based in South Korea should be urged to leave immediately. Known in the west as ‘the forgotten war’ and in North Korea as ‘the victorious fatherland liberation war’, the Korean War was a result of the political division of Korea. In fact, North Korea, with air support from the Soviet Union, fought against fifteen countries emblazoned under the flag of the UN. But it’s only the ‘imperialist enemy’ of America that faces the hatred from North Korea. On a table in the room where the agreement was signed, the original flags from that day stand proud. Strangely the tattered, colour-drained UN flag, stands next to a brand new looking North Korean flag.
Walking onwards towards the actual border, our guide Ms. Lee informed us that whilst North Korea allows 240 families to live and farm on its side of the DMZ, South Korea uses their side to store its arsenal of nuclear weapons. Two huge national flagpoles stand opposite each other on each sides of the border. The North Korean flagpole, the tallest in the world proudly holds its 600lb flag. Next to it, another pristine, ‘model’ village looks out towards South Korea.
A little further on as we neared the Joint Security Area, the general stopped us again to inform us that they expected the war with America to be imminent, an attack that could start any day. For once, even Ms. Lee looked towards us with the look of, "even I don’t believe this."
The trip to Panmunjom was completed with a visit to one of the five huts that straddle the border, with half located in South Korea and half in North Korea. It was in one of these huts that visitors were able to legally cross in to the opposing country, watching the North Korean border guards standing on the border outside. Two North Korea border guards blocked the door leading out of the hut in to South Korea, in case anyone was stupid or brazen enough to attempt an escape.
With American military police visible across the border, I approached the general and offered him several packets of cigarettes to thank him for our protection whilst inside the DMZ. Handing them to him, he gave the look of disgust before scoffing, "these are Chinese cigarettes, why didn‘t you bring American cigarettes?" I was tempted to question his hypocritical love of the imperialist enemy’s products, but decided the humour might be lost in translation.
Returning to Pyongyang after stopping for a thirteen dish lunch in the rundown city of Kaesong, I asked our guide if such lavish meals were the normality in North Korea. As women washed their hair and clothes in a polluted river that ran through Kaesong, whilst other inhabitants sang and danced in traditional dress, Ms. Lee responded, "yes, of course," without a moment’s hesitation. Quickly realising I doubted her answer from witnessing these views out of the bus window, she retracted her original statement with a more honest answer.
Once back in Pyongyang, we were taken to see the infamous USS Pueblo, an American spy ship captured by North Korea in the Cold War era in 1968. Now the ship is one of Pyongyang’s prime tourist attractions and it’s biggest propaganda tool. Again, the words ‘American, imperialist and enemy’ were used in rapid succession.
Before dinner, there was still time to visit the Arch of Triumph (a replica of France’s monument of the same name) and enjoy a ride on Pyongyang’s subway. Now normally, a ride on a city’s subway system doesn’t constitute a tourist attraction, but this is one of the few times you are able to get close to regular North Korean inhabitants. Journeying deep underground to reach the platform full of communist-era mosaics, echoing those of Moscow’s subway, commuters failed to hold my friendly stare.
We were only able to ride the subway for one stop. Local commuters were banned from riding in the same carriage as the tourists. I asked Mr. Jang, our guard, why this was the case. After an awkward moment, where we both knew my question had been understood, while at the same time also knowing it was a question that could never receive an honest answer, he replied with an answer for a totally different question. The journey was over in a matter of minutes. Upon reaching the surface, we were quickly ushered in to our waiting bus and whisked off for dinner: a barbecued dog dinner.
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