Monday 10 September, 2012 – Panmunjom
|We were all looking forward to our excursion down to Panmunjom and the North Korean side of the DMZ, particularly those of us who had, on Wednesday last week, visited the South Korean side of the DMZ. How many people, we wondered proudly, could claim to have visited both sides of the DMZ, and to have ‘gone the long way around’ to travel between the two sides!
Our journey down to Kaesong was on a very wide super-highway, perhaps eight lanes across. The good news was there was almost no traffic on this road at all. And when I say ‘almost no traffic’ that is exactly what I mean – we would sometimes drive a mile or more before encountering a vehicle coming in the other direction. We were told this was because we were on a restricted special road – normal people had to travel on an entirely different road. Lucky us.And now for the bad news. The road was, ahem, rather bumpy. Indeed, it was in parts very bumpy and some of the people on the coach felt a degree of discomfort and had to move further forward on the coach to combat incipient motion sickness. It seemed as though the road had unevenly settled over time, plus there were both lots of patches on the road and lots more places where patching was required. This limited the coach’s speed, and made for a close on 2.5 hour journey for the 90 or so miles between Pyongyang and Kaesong, (population of perhaps 300,000 in its central city area).
As an interesting aside, according to the CIA World Factbook, North Korea has 16,000 miles of roading, but only 450 miles are paved.
The freeway (it did indeed have very limited exits on/off) had no median and more or less had no lane markings either (sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t). In addition, drivers were fastidious about always and only overtaking on the left, and with the least damaged part of the freeway being close to the center – or indeed often-times, straddling the center itself, this meant that overtaking vehicles would stray over into the oncoming lanes. It was perhaps just as well that traffic was very light, and generally not very fast moving.
The road was also amazingly straight. Rather than going around hills – and also rather than cutting down the sides of the hills, the road would stay flat and level and simply tunnel through any hills that got in its way.
As we traveled down this road, we discovered an exception to the ‘take any pictures you like, except for soldiers and military installations’. One of the two guides called me down to the back of the coach and expressed concern that we were taking pictures of people by the side of the road as we drove past, or people on bicycles, or whatever. He feared that these pictures would be used to ridicule North Korea, and asked that we stop.
I tried to explain to him that North Korea was no different to dozens of other countries in terms of being a combination of a modern advanced society in the cities and a less modern society in the rural areas. What we saw out the window was no different to similar sights in China or many other Asian countries, and as such, North Korea need feel no embarrassment at all. Most of all, I tried to explain that people weren’t taking pictures to then sneer at and deprecate North Korea, but they were doing so because the sights they saw were different to what we see going along a typical interstate in the US.
But the guide remained unhappy, so I spread the word to be, ahem, more discreet at such things, after which the guide was careful not to see any further picture taking, and we were careful not to do so ‘in his face’. A fair compromise – but an unnecessary one. If China – the world’s second greatest super-power and probably soon to be the largest of all – has an abundance of underdeveloped rural scenes which it is totally unembarrassed about, why should North Korea feel at all defensive at villagers on bicycles?
We made a brief comfort stop halfway between the two cities where we could use bathrooms and also buy various food and drink items and some souvenirs too.
Arriving at the North Korean side of the DMZ was much less of a process than at the South side. While our group commented on how security obsessive the South Koreans seemed to be, and what a strange contrast it was to see the North Koreans apparently more relaxed and unconcerned, and we for sure noticed a lot less in the way of fortifications and defenses against an attack, there is a flipside to that as well. Perhaps North Korea realizes that the chance of a surprise attack on it by South Korea are close to zero, whereas perhaps South Korea perceived the risk of surprise attack by North Korea as being unlikely but not impossible.
After some ‘hurry up and wait’ time at a gift/souvenir shop (who said there was nothing for tourists to buy in North Korea?!), and a briefing on how the DMZ was laid out, but very little political polemic at all, we were taken down to the Joint Security Area and had our chance to approach the Military Demarcation Line and go into the same hut that we’d been in last Wednesday.
Whereas on our last visit, there were only South Korean soldiers posing for our cameras, and no North Koreans to be seen (apart from one brief sighting), this time there were no soldiers to be seen on the southern side at all, and just a group of hastily mustered North Koreans now posing for our cameras. There were some soldiers surveying us through binoculars from the top floor of the building on the other side, and plenty of video cameras and who knows what other sensors and devices festooned on that building and elsewhere too, but no live soldiers posing on the ground.
It was also interesting to note the different approach to how the soldiers positioned themselves for the tourists. When we were on the South Korean side, the soldiers were all facing towards the North in their martial arts poses. But on the North Korean side, the soldiers closest to the MDL were facing each other, side-on to the other side. It has been suggested this is for each soldier to watch the other soldier, in case one of them tries to do a runner and hop across to South Korea.
Although there was no obvious sign of soldiers on the other side, there was another indication of an active military presence. A helicopter came in from somewhere in the south to land in, or certainly very close to the DMZ, and subsequently took off again and landed again.
As you can see in the photo above, it was close, and the DMZ is 2.5 miles wide.
No big deal, or so I thought. But in a subsequent discussion with one of the guides, he got very heated when referring to the helicopter, saying that this was an armed helicopter, and a deliberate act of provocation on the part of the forces in the South.
If you think about it (and you should) you can possibly see his point of view (and if you read the Armistice text, his point of view is further reinforced). It is true that feelings run high on both sides of the DMZ and the slightest things can sometimes lead to outbreaks of violence, as has happened regularly in the 60 years since the establishment of the DMZ. In such a case, it would seem prudent to avoid all risks of creating new incidents that could potentially spiral out of control and lead to a local or more widespread confrontation and military action.
What would happen if the helicopter lost power and came crashing down on the Northern side of the DMZ? What say it landed on a guard tower or even on their main Administration Building? What say the pilot simply became distracted or disoriented and strayed across the MDL that he was already perilously close to? All these things are far from impossible events that could occur. Does it really make sense to gratuitously risk major confrontations?
In some ways, the relationship between the North and South reminds me of the relationship I had as a young boy with my sister. She would tease me mercilessly until I’d lose my temper and hit her. She would then feign astonishment and burst into tears and run crying to our parents, who would ignore the provocation I experienced and punish me harshly for hitting her. There was an inevitability to these actions. She knew that if she teased/teased/teased me, I’d hit her, but she chose to do it, so that I’d then end up suffering worse consequences from our parents.
Now substitute ‘South Korea and the US’ for my sister, ‘North Korea’ for me, and the UN for our parents. It is a similar thing. The South does things it knows will enrage the North, and then runs crying to the UN when the North predictably responds to their gratuitous provocations. I say this not to excuse either my hitting my sister as a young boy, or the North’s various military responses to the tweaking it suffers from the South, but merely to point out that both I and the North are being played by our sister/South, who are every bit as culpable and often-times the deliberate instigators of the actions and outcomes they full well know will follow. But they (my sister/the South) are willing to accept a pinprick of response in return for the much greater negative sanction on (me/the North) by (my parents/the international community).
We then went to see where the armistice talks were held and the armistice document signed in 1953 (in buildings that ended up on the North Korean side of the MDL), and while we were told about the armistice signing process, we were again thankfully spared most of the political polemic, even though we’d been expecting plenty.
It was however interesting to be told that the South started the war, rather than the North, and also to see how the North Koreans viewed it as a war against the South and the US, rather than a war against the South and the United Nations, although it was surprising also, when we went into the building straddling the MDL, the guide volunteered that the sixteen flags painted on the South Korean side of the building represented the fifteen nations that helped the South Korean side.
We were told the US surrendered to the North and signed the Armistice with North Korea, and so one of our group enquired why there was a UN rather than US flag alongside the signed documents on display. The answer was that the US representatives ‘forgot’ their US flag and grabbed a UN one which just happened to be lying around.
I don’t know enough to comment on the origins and causes of the war, although based on the realities of North Korea’s apparent preparation/mobilization and its rapid early advances almost completely through South Korea, it would seem fair to say that – if nothing else – North Korea was better prepared for the conflict when it broke out.
As for the US’ role in the war, it is definitely true that the US contingent dwarfed all the other forces who joined with it and South Korea to fight and so unsurprisingly they effectively helmed the UN joint command. The US contributed 302,000 troops to the conflict, Britain was the next largest with 14,200 and the other 13 nations in total came to a only 25,400 (including 44 from Luxembourg, 70 from India and 72 from Italy).
Next was lunch. Yesterday in the coach we’d been offered an optional ‘upgrade’ to today’s lunch. Kaesong is apparently the center of the ginseng growing district, and so we were offered a chance to add a ginseng cooked chicken to our lunch. One chicken, we were told, would be enough for three diners, and each chicken would cost €30 – a huge sum for what was little more than boiled chicken, but ginseng is expensive.
Nine of our group decided to share three of these chickens between them, and all found it to be a very disappointing experience and definitely not worth €10 ($13) a piece.
I don’t think the guides were necessarily lying to us when they recommended the chicken. I think that on the one hand they really don’t understand our concept of what value-for-money is and is not; on the other hand, they also probably have little understanding of what we consider good food. And ginseng is expensive.
Talking about lies, we probably were lied to a lot, and about many things, but it was hard to know what was truth and what was not. On the other hand, our guides weren’t nearly as aggressive as we had expected at proclaiming the extraordinary godlike qualities of their dead leaders, and had nothing to say about their current leader at all, and in quieter moments, they all seemed interested in learning about us, our lives and lifestyles, and would sometimes even obliquely concede that they didn’t know about aspects of their own country and possibly even learned some things about their own country from us.
An alternative interpretation of that – a more cynical one – would be that the guides were simply being polite and engaging us in easy conversation. One has to believe that any guide who has been leading groups of western tourists, including tens or hundreds of Americans each year, for half a dozen years or more, would have surely already been told just about everything there is to know about American and western life.
Several times we would tell the guides things we’d learned from our collective group studying prior to traveling (I sent out a total of ten newsletters during the months prior to our travel, each with a collation of news and information about North Korea), and sometimes when we’d tell them things they’d seem surprised and ask ‘How do you know this?’ – the answer often being ‘Because your leader announced it to the world’ – but apparently not to his own people.
We also guess that sometimes the guides would invent an answer rather than admit they don’t know, so not all lies were deliberate distortions. Do I need to add that this is an attribute shared by guides the world over?
I make these comments not as criticism of the guides, and also not as criticism of the country as a whole, but merely as a dispassionate observation, and as an observation that the North Korean government, particularly in the form of Kim Jong-un, the new leader, has to play a delicate role in managing and massaging expectations both on the domestic and world stages, as part of their/his plans to develop and improve the country. Good luck to him and his efforts – the more successful they are, the more the country will become a stable participant on the international stage, because the more North Korea will have to lose if it starts to act irrationally and risks being again shunned.
After lunch we went to a stop in the city of Kaesong where we could climb a lot of steps on a warm/hot afternoon up to a monument to (of course) Kim il Sung. Some of our group did so, others chose to stay at the bottom and conserve their energy. When we got to the top, there was a level square, and on the center of the square, raised up a few more steps, was the actual bronze monument. Some of our group instinctively climbed up the last few remaining steps to the monument plinth – whether as a desire to get to the ‘very top’ of the long climb, or as a desire to get up close to the statue. Big deal, nothing special about that, right?
Wrong! The next thing we know, our male guide, desperately out of breath from running up all the very many stairs from the ground level, arrived and urgently demanded the tour members who had climbed up to the plinth must immediately get down to the surrounding square level. Climbing the last open unblocked and unsignposted stairs was apparently an act of disrespect and forbidden.
Fair enough, but it isn’t something we could be expected to know in advance, and so we felt we were not really guilty of much at all, and felt secretly amused at our guide’s distress – both physical after rushing up the stairs at a rate that would surely have earned him a medal for something in the Olympics, and his mental distress at the sin we’d committed (and its potential blowback implications to himself for not having told us about it before, and allowing us to go up to the top unsupervised).
After we’d all returned back down, we then left the main road and joked that the coach must have four wheel drive as we headed up a winding hilly dirt road. This lead us to the tomb of King Kongmin in the middle of empty countryside, surrounded by farmland and nothing more. This was a lovely tranquil spot, rich with feng sui significance. The tombs of this ancient Koryo dynasty ruler date back to 1365.
It was in the form of two grassy mounds – one for the king and other for his queen. Alas, the tombs are empty – the Japanese blasted their way in and looted them in 1905.
Then it was back to the main road and a bouncy ride back up to Pyongyang, with another stop at the halfway refreshment place en route.
As we re-entered the city, we stopped at the Reunification Monument – two giant female figures spanning the road and clasping a map of Korea between them. This was built in 2001 and expresses the desire of North Korea to be re-unified with the south.
It is hard to know what the North Korean people actually feel about reuniting with their southern comrades, but if we had to guess, we’d probably guess they would be more enthusiastic about the concept than the south is becoming (see our discussion on this in the section on the pre-tour option to South Korea).
North Korea has established three principles for unification – independence, peaceful reunification, and national unity. But, as they say – ‘the devil is in the details’ and with two very dissimilar political and economic systems, neither wishing to surrender its values in favor of the other, about the best that is likely to happen any time soon might be some sort of loose federation, like the early days of the EU, with some shared approaches to international policy and defense and little else.
However, even if this is all that occurs, if a side-effect is the reduction in hostilities between the two nations, and an ability for North Korea to re-direct so much of its resource from its enormous military and towards food growing and civilian projects, it would be an enormously valuable development, and doubtless would presage the gradual ongoing growing together of the two nations – again analogous to the evolution of the EU.
Our dinner this evening was at a Korean barbeque restaurant. Inside the smoke-filled room were charcoal grills on each table, and a series of meat skewers with lamb on them and other slices of meat on trays for us to grill ourselves.
That was quite fun, and the meat quite tasty. As dinner progressed, the servers decided to put on a song and dance show for us, and one of the other groups – a group of teenage Korean girls from Japan – got up to dance, and roped in some of our group as well. A fun time was had by all, and we returned to the hotel after a long and full day, marveling at how a country generally considered to be dour and drab could actually be full of fun, music and laughter. It was another day full of very varied experiences, and bed was a welcome sight.
But, long as it was, my own day was far from finished. The ‘bush telegraph’ was starting to signal a problem with the second part of our group, and back at the hotel, I learned some more about what seemed to be an innocent and innocuous act, but which ended up keeping me fully occupied until midnight – please click on to read the next diary entry on ‘An International Incident – Narrowly Averted’.
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