Posted by Heliocentrism on August 26, 2009
February 14, 2009
Being briefed: The Un-nice Neighbors to the North
The DMZ is the closest to North Korea I will ever get, unless I manage to somehow raise Chinese-official-bribe money.* But I get the feeling that even if I were to cross the DPRK border I would still have no idea how the average North Korean lives. There is a huge cloud of mystery around this “communist” country because they have closed themselves off from the rest of the world.
* In May 2013, I actually visited North Korea. No Chinese officials were intentionally bribed.
North Korea: What I know…
1. They are not actually Communist.
What North Korea has is a dictatorship. You’ve all heard of Kim Jong Il, the dear leader and president of the DPRK. Well… actually the president is the dear leader’s father Kim Il Sung the Great Leader, the late Kim Il Sung. (There’s no rest for the wicked!) He is the only person to ever preside over a country from beyond the grave.
2. They’re starving over there, or at least they were.
Japan, China, the United States, the United Nation, many European aid organizations, and the Republic of Korea (the good one) regularly give aid to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. At least they did until North Korea kicked most of them out the country and pissed off the rest.
North Korea was quite prosperous back in the 60’s but the 80’s brought a recession, the 90’s brought the collapse of the USSR, and now their few decades of living high on the hog are long over.
They had a famine in the late 90’s in which as many as 3 million people may have starved to death. Even before the famine the DPRK was secretly receiving aid from the USSR. But, once the Soviet Union changed their political stance and started trading with South Korea, because unlike the north the south could and did pay their bills, North Korea shut them out too.
Then in 2006 there was a flood that destroyed a large percentage of their crops. It is still unknown how many people have died from starvation because of that flood or what the population of North Korea is now. It is very hard to get accurate information from North Korea.
3. The DPRK has the most Human-rights violations in the world.
In South Korea I’ve seen people protesting against China and its policy of returning North Korean defectors. North Koreans sneak into China for jobs. Their goals are to send money back home and sometimes to save up enough money to get to South Korea where they will be safer. North Koreans who are returned to their country are sent to concentration camps and stay there for a few months to a few years. Some are just shot, but that does not happen often.
The same is true for political prisoners, some abductees, some people who have known relatives in South Korea, and family members of anyone returned to North Korea. People in these categories are more like to never leave the camps. However those in the gulags for dissension are there for a few years or decades for “re-education” and have some sliver of hope of leaving one day. For more information about life in a DPRK prison camp, I recommend “Aquariums of Pyongyang” by Kang Chol-Hwan. The book shows what could be described as “a fate worse than death”.
4. They have Nukes.
When I lived in Japan the first time, North Korea launched 7 missiles into the Sea of Japan (or the East Sea as it is called in the Koreas). They also tested a nuclear device within their borders in October of that year. They wanted to get the world’s attention, like a little kid whom everyone has ignored.
You might wonder, “Who builds their nuclear weapons for them?”
The answer: Prisoners. This kills two birds with one stone. One, they have a never-ending supply of political prisoners that would better serve the state by dying. And two, there is no need for any expensive safety precautions with prison labor. Plus, the secrets of bomb building that any of the prisoners know don’t go far. Radiation poisoned prisoners tell no tales.
5. Most of them are in the military.
Both men and women in the DPRK are required to complete mandatory military service. From what I’ve read the country is crawling with military personnel. Well maybe “crawling” isn’t the right word, since there aren’t that many people, but a large percentage of their population is in the military. Most songs and movies from North Korea are about the military. The people, the ones not trying to get out and not the ones being tortured, are very patriotic, but it’s hard to tell how genuine that patriotism is. Oh… and joining the army means more food rations.
6. Electricity is sporadic.
At certain times of the year, when North Korea is closed to tourists and other foreigners, the electricity will go out. It’s usually turn off in the evenings. It can get very cold there in the winter at night.
7. They have propaganda galore.
TV and radio programs are filled with great news about crop production, glorification of the Dear Leader, information on how evil the West is, and how great it is to be North Korean. Movies are about how great the army is and how soldiers are so willing to give their lives for the country while singing praises to the Great and/or Dear Leader.
One of the many groups trying to help the North Korean people, sneak in videos of South Korean soap operas, to show the people how things really are in the south. North Koreans who watch the South Korean soaps are surprised that South Korea has so much and that they are not the lackeys of the Americans like the propaganda says.
Above is a picture of “Propaganda Village” which was erected to show South Korea how good the people of North Korea have it. They play speeches and music from loud speakers and mostly taunt the South Korean soldiers nearby. We’re not sure if anyone actually lives in Propaganda Village.
8. They have, from time to time, kidnapped people from South Korea, Japan, and other countries and lied about it.
In 2002 North Korea wanted more aid from Japan. Thinking that it had a great plan to convince Japan to give more generously, the Pyongyang government admitted to kidnapping 13 Japanese citizens between 1977 and 1983. Up until that point they had denied any accusations of kidnapping.
They thought that Japan would be so moved by North Korea’s honestly that Japan would shower them with gifts. It actually had the opposite effect. Japan not only stop any aid that was headed to North Korea, it also stopped trade and eventually shut down its borders by way of the one and only ferry between the two countries.
When Japan asked why North Korea kidnapped ordinary Japanese citizens, North Korea said that they needed someone to teach them Japanese. They would abduct people who were walking by themselves along beaches and streets in Japan.
Though many of these victims were Japanese, they have also kidnapped Europeans. There is speculation that some of the abductions were done so that the non-Korean defectors could have wives.
South Korean fishermen get taken by the DPRK all the time. But the most famous of the abductees are Shin, Sang Ok, the director, and his movie star ex-wife, Choi, Eun Hee. This kidnapping was done by order of the Dear Leader himself, a man who LOVES movies and who is credited as executive producer in many North Korean films.
Mr. Shin worked in a Gulag for about 4 years before being called on by Kim Jong Il to make some films. Mr. Shin and his wife later escaped to an embassy of the United States while at a film festival in Vienna. Years later they returned to South Korea and wrote a book about the experience called Kingdom of Kim. The book has yet to be translated into English and is out of print in Korean. You can read A Kim Jong-Il Production if you are interested in the story.
9. North and South Korea are still technically at war
They may have stopped the bombing and the shooting but the war is still not officially over. I have no idea what they’re waiting for. It might be something as silly as “You haven’t lost the war if the war isn’t officially over. So whatever you do DON’T sign a peace treaty!”
The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
This Year for Valentine’s Day a couple of friends and I signed up for a USO tour of the DMZ. It cost $44. Don’t ask what that is in KRW because I cry myself to sleep at night when I think about how badly the won is doing. At the USO you can pay in good old US dollars or in sinking Korean won.
There are some rules for going to the DMZ on the South Korean side:
- You can wear jeans, but they have to be nice jeans lacking holes or visible English writing.
- You must wear something with a collar, either a shirt or jacket.
- You cannot wear anything that has English letters on it. (I assume French and German letters are banned too. I only wish I had a nonsense Japanese t-shirt to wear, something that says “I ‘Heart’ pachinko”.
- You can’t wear open toed shoes.
- They recommend wearing sneakers, though they must be clean, in which to walk around the tunnel.
- You cannot point at, wave, gesture, or in any way communicate with any North Korean soldier or person standing in North Korea. They weren’t too clear on what would happen if you did. I got the impression that nothing would really happen but that they want you to think all hell would break loose and that you would personally be responsible for the fall of democracy in South Korea and the western world if you say… winked at someone on the other side.
- You may only take pictures when the military escort says it is okay to do so.
- You are not allowed to bring any bags near the North Korean border. North Koreans assume that bags carry bombs or worse, capitalism.
To go to the DMZ with the USO you have to be at Camp Casey by 7:00 am. That way you can stand around for an hour and a half to complain about how horrible it is to be up this early on a Saturday morning just to stand around and complain. The bus actually leaves the Yongsan area at 8:30 am. The journey to the DMZ takes about 2 hours. You have to go with a tour to see the DMZ. You cannot go on your own. The USO is just one of the many companies that offer DMZ tours.
We stopped for a bathroom break when we were almost there. Then there was a passport check before entering Camp Bonifas. Bonifas was one of the guys who was axed to death while trying to trim a tree that was blocking the US and ROK army’s view of the DPRK army’s building. Because of this incident they rename the camp after him.
Once at Camp Bonifas we left our bags on our USO bus, actually it was a Hanna* Bus, and boarded one of the Republic of Korea army’s “secure” buses, constantly referred to as a “ROK secure bus”. We were then deposited to the building where we were briefed.
* Hanna is one of the major companies in Korea. They own banks and other things.
Tae Kwon Do Rock Ready
We were told the mini-history of the ending of the Korean War, or the ending of the fighting, and how the DMZ came to be. There were some problems like the axing of US and ROK soldiers, the North Koreans who kept moving their buildings closer and closer to the South Korean border, and the one DPRK soldier/defector who ran into South Korea and was shot at by the North Koreans. Then we all signed a paper that said that neither the US, UN, nor ROK are responsible if we got shot and, or captured by the DPRK.
Then we got back on our secure ROK army bus and were taken to a building that was constructed for families who were split apart by the war to be reunited in. It was never used for its intended purpose because North Korea did… something evil; who knows?
I don’t remember the exact details now. But there was a lot of tension towards North Korea on the tour.
Then we stood outside in the cold and peered into North Korea. There really wasn’t much to see, just one building. I only saw one North Korean. He looked well fed. The South Koreans on the other hand were pimply faced scrawny teenagers, but they were are really tall. (Only soldiers 2 meters or taller are allowed to patrol the DMZ.)
I noticed that the ROK soldiers had very noisy shoes. When I asked about it, I was told that it wasn’t their shoes that were noisy, it was their pants. In the cuffs of their pants they have ball-bearings and springs to make noise. This was used in the Korean War to make the army sound like they had more soldiers than they really did. At one point I asked Mark, one of the guys with me, if he thought the soldier would let me see the stuff in his pants if I asked nicely. But he told me that I’d better not ask that kind of pervy question here.
We then walked to the blue building of tension where North and South Korea meet. Half the room, the building is just one room, is safely in South Korea and the other half is dangerously in North Korea. This is where we met tae kwon do Joe, whose tae kwon do “rock ready” stance protects us all from the Red Menace. Here, I got to wander around the packed room and stroll in and out of North Korea as I pleased.
After this, the tour got a bit boring. We boarded and de-boarded the bus countless times to look at parts of North Korea. We saw Propaganda Village, the bridge of no return, and North Korea’s giant flag that is so big that it would take hurricane force winds to make it flap.
Evil Beneath our Feet
We then went to one of the tunnels after being forced to watch a quite forgettable South Korean propaganda video about mines… or unification… I don’t remember. But it had a crying Korean 3-year-old wandering in a mine field.
We entered the 3rd tunnel which was dug by North Korea in an effort to spy on South Korea by getting under Seoul. If only those North Koreans knew how much money that silly tunnel they were digging would rake in for the South Korean government. I’m sure they’re all spinning in their graves now.
I assume since they were caught that they were shot by either the South Korean government or the North Korean government. There’s really no safe place for a caught spy, especially if you are a mere digger.
Its Dangerous, no really… Why are you giggling?
I would describe the whole DMZ experience as comically serious. Everything is secure, like the “secure” ROK army bus we rode in. Everything is done for your protection, like the ROK soldier’s rock ready tae kwon do stance. They say not to point at anyone or “Don’t take any pictures here” but when we looked around there was nothing but bushes to be seen and no one at which to point. Nothing felt really serious. Maybe I would have gotten shot if I had waved to that one North Korean guard… but I feel that it was a tour and the ROK and US armies put on a good show and played up the dangerousness and childishness.
There were lots of stories about how the ROK put up a flag and the next day the DPRK put up an even bigger flag. The DPRK would trash the blue building of tension and the ROK would have to clean it up. The DPRK used the US and UN flag to clean their shoes and the ROK replaced them with plastic flags so that could not happen again. I felt like I was listening to a 5 year-old talking about how bad his little brother was. “And you know what else he did…?” And I don’t for one second believe that the ROK and US armies have not done anything to taunt the DPRK soldiers… especially since I know that most of the ROK soldiers are about 19-26 years old.
When I visited the DMZ from the other side, I was hoping to once again see the Blue Building of Tension. But alas, I could not. The North Korean soldier showing us around the DMZ told us that South Korea locked the building and well, North Korea doesn’t have a key of their own.
But I do know, in all seriousness, that the North Korean government is quite brutal to its own people. I would not want to live there or be trapped there at all. But, I still want to visit. I hear that the North Korean people themselves, like people everywhere, are actually very nice.
How to get there:
- You can enter by plane, boat, or train, though entry by train is rare if not damn impossible for most non-presidents of North or South Korea.
- Most citizens from many countries do not need to get a visa before going to South Korea.
- People of most nationalities will get a 90-day visa at the airport or ferry port.
- To be completely sure, check with the Korean embassy in your country.
- Useful Phone Numbers when in South Korea
- Tourist Complaint Center 02-735-0101
- Police 112
- Ambulance and Fire 119
- Eat Your Kim Chi – Life in Korea as lived by 2 Canadians
- Korea is a generally safe country. You don’t really have to watch out for pickpockets,muggers, or scam artists.
- You should watch out when crossing the streets, beware of scooters on the sidewalk, and the little old ladies that will push you to get that last seat on the bus or subway.
- Use common sense and you will be okay.
- Things are generally inexpensive and there are many wonderful things to buy.
Enjoy Korea! I live there for 2 years and had a fantastic time.
There are many tour groups that you can take to see the DMZ. This is the one that I recommend. At the time of this blog entry it was the cheapest.
- 37°32’27.7″N 126°58’21.4″E
Go to camp Camp Casey by way of Samgakji or Namyeong station. Before you exit the station look at the subway map. You will walk towards Samgakji if you go to Namyeong station and visa versa. The camp is halfway between the two station. You can’t miss it.
45USD (at the time of this blog entry). This can be paid in US dollars or Korean won; South Korean won!
- Welcome to North Korea
- Born and Raised in a Concentration Camp
- North Korea Human Rights Crisis
- BBC: 20th Century Battlefields
- You need to bring your passport to go on the tour.
- You must wear clothes that have no rips, tears, or holes.
- Your clothes must not have any English writing on them.
- Wear comfortable shoes.
- ROK = Republic of Korea, South Korea, (the Korea I live in)
- DPRK = The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea, (The one to stay out of)
- USO = United Service Organizations
- UN = United Nations