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Back in China, Again

Posted by Heliocentrism on August 1, 2014

Saturday May 4, 2013 

All Pictures (North Korea)
All Pictures (China)

Last night in Pyongyang

Is this room bugged?

Our last night in North Korea Vera and I stayed up a little talking about the day’s events. We talked about the famine and the ludicrous government. I had just started naming many of the inadequacies of the DPRK when Vera said that maybe we should wait until we got to China before we took this conversation any further. “I mean,” she whispered, “what if this room is bugged?”

“Vera,” I said, “have you not noticed how nothing in this country works properly? First of all, if they are going to bug someone, why would they pick backpackers with a budget tour company? I don’t know any secrets. I don’t even know people who know people who know secrets. Besides, even if the room were bugged, the bugs probably stopped working like the lock to the door of our first hotel room.”

DPRK cleaned!

Let’s blow this popsicle stand!

By Saturday morning I was ready to leave North Korea. It was a timely departure; not too soon and not too late. I had spent just enough time in the DPRK. Some on our tour would stay and travel north to see other DPRK sights, but I was not jealous of any of them. My only regret was that I had to go back to China instead of going straight home to Japan.

I packed my bag with my freshly laundered clothes and Vera and I made our way to the basement for breakfast. It was the first calm breakfast I had in days. In the restaurant, were only the people from my tour. All other tourists were rushed out hours earlier being told that their schedules were changed and that they were now running late on their new itineraries.

After eating we slowly made our way to the buses. We were now split into 3 new groups; the train group which had no Americans, the plane group which had the Americans leaving the DPRK today, and the staying group made up mostly of an Australian couple, a Hong Kongese couple, and one American.

public transit bus in Pyongyang

I got on the bus and sat in my seat thinking over everything I had seen in the DPRK. Then I heard something strangely familiar, yet out of context. I sat there thinking about it. It was music, a song, a pop song… A K-POP SONG! It was Gangnam Style by Psy!

I stood up to look around the bus. Where was that coming from. I wasn’t the only one; five other people were asking each other where the music was coming from. Then we saw a guy in the back with his index finger over his lips asking us to keep this secret. Next to him was a North Korean guide. The guide was staring intently at the guys phone with wide eyes and making cooing noises in amazement. When he noticed that more people were looking his way, he put the phone in his pocket.

Ms. Lee entered the bus and gave everyone back their passports. I had forgotten that I had given it away. “What do you think they were doing with all the passports?” Phone guy asked. “Making copies to improve their spy program,” another guy answered.

Ms. Lee asked for our attention. “We are running late. There are two problems. One, there is a towel missing. If you have taken a towel from the hotel by accident, please return it.” She paused to see if anyone would admit to taking the towel. When no one responded she continued. “The second thing is… has anyone seen Steve?”

The Kims haven’t seen Steve.

Steve was not in Group A and I did not know what he looked like. Most of the people on the bus were from Group A and also didn’t know which guy from Group B Steve was. Phone guy took out his phone to show everyone a picture of Steve from the night before. There were about 6 photos of Steve. In all of them Steve was drinking heavily and as Phone guy scrolled through his pictures you could see Steve getting more and more drunk. The last photo of Steve was in the bowling alley. “That’s the last I saw of him,” Phone guy said, “around 2:00 this morning.”

The western guide for Group B ran onto the bus and asked if anyone knew who was Steve’s roommate. “Steve didn’t have a roommate,” Phone guy told him. “Crikey,” the guide said. “We’ve been calling his room and no one is answering.” “If we don’t find him soon we’ll be late for our flight,” one worried tourist said. “I’m sure they’ll hold the flight for us,” another person replied, “What else do they have to do today?”

To the airport posthaste!

The towel thing was never resolved. There were threats to search everyone’s bags, but it was never carried out. Someone suggested that maybe Steve stole it in a drunken rage and ran away in shame, but the Koreans were in no mood for jocularity.

Eventually a maid, in search of the missing towel, opened Steve’s room to find him passed out on the floor. The two western guides were called up to his room to get his stuff packed and deliver him to the door of the bus going to the airport. Steve walked down the aisle of the bus beet red, unshaven, unwashed, still smelling of booze, and still in the clothes from yesterday as shown by Phone guy’s phone photos.

Waiting to leave

We were taken to the airport. We all stood by the luggage carousel waiting for our plane to start boarding. It felt a little odd. Usually you check in, go through security check, and then wait for the plane to start boarding. But here, it did not happen in that order.

We walked through security check first; everyone did. Our Korean guides who were not leaving the country went in first. Our western guides were both taking the train back to Beijing, so we were on our own once we passed the gate.

a bus to the plane

Once our passports were checked and not stamped, we walked out the door and onto a bus. We stood on the bus and wondered which plane we would be taking. “As long as it’s not the plane that was smoking when we landed here,” someone said. Then the bus drove us right over to that very plane, or at least one that looked just like it and was parked in the very spot the smoking plane was a few days ago.

“Another photo for the Leader!”

There were these really tall and thin North Korean guys posing for photo after photo in front of the plane. I thought they were part of a DPRK basketball team at first since they wore running shoes with their suits. But, then I noticed one of them writing that he was a diplomat on his landing card. Their clothes were too big and too small for them at the same time. They were swimming in their suits, but ankles and wrists were inelegantly exposed.

Ready for freedom in China

I sat next to one of the lanky guys on the plane. His knees jotted out so far that he was practically wedged in between his seats and the guy’s in front of him. He squealed a little when the guy in front of him reclined his chair. I asked him if he spoken any English and he said, “Nu aye dun’t.” I think this was his first plane ride because he kept watching me and followed what I did, like when I pulled the tray table down for lunch.

When we were given landing cards I filled mine out. He pulled out a piece of  paper with the responses he was to give written in Roman script, but he did not have a pen. I asked him if he wanted to borrow my pen, but he didn’t understand me. I handed him the pen. It was a small pen I got when I signed up for internet service back home and it said “Yahoo BB Japan” in friendly letters. He thanked me in English and took one suspicious look at the pen before filling out his card and handed the pen back to me.

Shortly after we were airborne it was lunch time. This time when we were served “hamburgers” I ate the whole thing. It wasn’t so bad this time. My lanky row mate seemed completely indifferent to the food. He was more interested in the movements his chair could make and all the buttons around him.

What did you guys really think?

Once we were safely landed in China a bunch of us from both Group A and Group B sat at a Starbucks in one of the terminals and talked about the trip. There was a lot of, “Do you know what Mr. Park told me?” and “Do you know what Intern Kim asked me?”

It was cathartic. For the most part we all held back on expressing our opinions and views during the trip. Most of us never corrected anything we were told and went along with whatever crazy story with nothing more that a slight whisper to one or two other people. At the airport we let it all out. Then we all went our separate ways.

That’s not what the sky in Beijing looks like at all!

Let’s Eat!

I had reservations to return to the hostel we stayed in before we went to North Korea, but I did not want to go back there. Vera booked one night at a placed called Sitting on the City Walls. I thought that anything would be better than the dump we were in before so I followed her hoping to get a room for the night.

Vera would be leaving for South Korea the next day and I would head back to Japan. We had a whole afternoon in China and felt like we should do something interesting after we dropped off our stuff at the hostel.

my bed that sits on a city wall

After checking into Facebook and emailing family and friends to tell them that we were safely back in China, we searched the internet for something to do. There was nothing we could think of. I’m sure that Beijing has lots of things to do, but we wanted something hassle-free transportation-wise that we had not seen or done before.

The suggestion of just going to a nice restaurant somehow turned into going to Hooters. I had never been to Hooters before, mainly because of my lack of enthusiasm for either football or boobs, but a greasy and highly caloric American meal seemed the fitting end to my journey into the DPRK.

2 appetizers = 1 meal

The food was good. It was the best thing we had tasted in days! I don’t remember if I was able to finish all my food, but I do remember feeling a little sick afterwards. “And we were in North Korea for just 5 days; imagine being stuck there for months,” I told Vera as we dived into the buffalo wings.

“I just wish I could get Ms. Lee and Intern Kim out to show them China,” Vera said. “If they could only see China and how great it is over here compared to the DPRK. I’m not even talking about America or Japan; just China.” “I think they know, Vera. They must know that life is better almost anywhere other than North Korea coming into contact with so many tourists. But knowing the truth and being able to do anything about it are two different things.”

All Pictures (North Korea)
All Pictures (China)


North Korea
(조선민주주의인민공화국)
(Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk) 

How to get there:

The laws about who can get a visa to the DPRK change often. At the time of our trip, the Japanese were allowed in, but the Chinese were not. But, South Koreans are never allowed in. Korean-Americans, however, are welcomed, if they use their US passport for entry.

Phone:

You won’t get to use the phone. But if you need to know, the emergency numbers are 112 and 119.

Website:

Downloads:

Videos:

Books:

If you can read Korean: Kingdom of Kim (There is no English version of this book yet. I would love to find one.)

Notes:

NEVER NEVER NEVER bring a bible to North Korea!


The Yanggakdo International Hotel
(양각도국제호텔)
(Yanggakdo gookchea hotel)

How to get there:

  • 38°59’57.3″N 125°45’05.9″E

Don’t you worry about directions here or any other place in North Korea. Someone will also be around to show you where to go.

Address:

Yanggakdo International Hotel
Pyongyang, North Korea

Phone:

There are phones in the hotel, but I never used it. So, I don’t know whom you can call.

Website:

e-mail:

You can send emails from the lobby of the hotel. You can also mail letters.

Cost:

Your tour will take care of this.

Hours:

  • Breakfast starts at 7:00

Videos:

Notes:

  • The Yanggakdo Hotel is not the only hotel in town. Neither is it the only functioning hotel in town. But it is the one in which any tourist in Pyongyang will most likely be staying.
  • This hotel is where many American prisoners get to talk to the Swedish ambassador. Some have actually been held prisoner here.
  • You cannot go to the 5th floor!
  • You cannot go to any floor where the lights are turned off. If you try to, an official will escort you back to the elevator.
  • You can walk around the grounds but you cannot leave Yanggakdo (Yanggak island) on your own.
  • Be careful when using the elevators. The doors will slam shut even when you are in the way.

China 
(中国)

How to get there:

  • You can enter by plane, train, boat, or bus
  • Make sure to get a visa before going to China.
  • Visas to China are expensive for people of some nationalities.
  • Getting a Chinese visa is not a quick process. Apply as soon as you can.

Phone:

Website:

There is a long list of websites that cannot be accessed while in China. Facebook and parts of Wikipedia are just two of them. As with everything, there are ways around it. There are sites that will let you get to Facebook and other sites for free for about 15 minutes, then you will have to pay.

My advice is to find a few of them and use them for free. Then use them again on a different computer. If you are in China for a long time, then you might want to invest in paying for the service. Ask friends living in China for the best deals.

Videos:

Books:

*These books by Jung Chang are banned in China. But I highly recommend reading Mao: The Unknown Story before going to Beijing.

Notes:

  • If you want an internet cafe look for this (网吧) on a sign.

photo from their websiteSitting on the City Walls

How to get there:

Address:

城墙旅舍
57 Nianzi Hutong
Dongcheng, Beijing
China, 100009

Phone: +86 10 6402 7805

Websites:

e-mail: beijingcitywalls@163.com

Cost:

  • Website
  • 100 Yuan/ bed (dorm)
  • 260 Yuan for single en suite
  • 480 Yuan for double bed or 2 twin beds en suite

Notes:

  • You can book tours of Beijing through this hostel.
  • Remember that in China you pay a refundable cash deposit when you check into a hotel or hostel.

Hooters Beijing

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°55’58.9″N 116°27’02.4″E

Address:

201, China View Building No.1, East Worker’s Stadium Rd,Chaoyang District,Beijing

Phone: (86-010)65858787

Websites:

Cost:

a bit pricier than most Chinese restaurants

Hours:

  • 11:00-01:00 Sun-Sat

Map:

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Propaganda Day

Posted by Heliocentrism on July 18, 2014

Thursday, May 2, 2013

All Pictures

Poster across the street from the hotel

Better cold than dead

The Kaesong Folk Hotel was horrible, though some people did enjoyed their stay. I think it depended on which room you got. I already told you about our bathroom.

The hotel is advertised as being a traditional Korean experience. I’ve stayed in a traditional Korean village, this was nothing like that. First off, the ondol was the main feature of the hotel room; the thing that gave the place its authenticity. This ondol ran on electricity! …and it was plugged into the wall. Every apartment and house in South Korea has an electric (or gas) ondol right now. This is not traditional or old-timey. I lived with one for 2 years. (In case you don’t know what an ondol is, it’s a heating system that runs under the floor. Instead of having a radiated heater, or a ventilation heater, you heat the floors.)

Real traditional Korean guesthouses would have wood burning ondols and little chimneys on the side. But, this was just a minor issue. I really didn’t care about the ondol running on electricity. What I had a problem with, was that the cord that ran from the ondol to the electrical socket was damaged. The rubber on the cord was torn and disintegrating and the wires were exposed.

It was a cold night and Vera and I thought through our options. We could plug it in, stay warm during the night, and risk waking up in a blaze of fire. Or we could freeze a bit and definitely wake up the next day un-electrocuted and un-barbequed. We put on extra socks and t-shirts and chose not the plug in the ondol.

I felt bad for Vera. The ondol is the most fabulous thing. In the winter in Seoul I would do a load of laundry, wash my floors, then lay all my clothes on the floor. The ondol would have my clothes dry in an hour’s time. Coming from Japan where there is no such thing as a good heating system, I wanted Vera to experience the wonder that is the ondol. It keeps the room so nicely warm and because the floor is where the heat comes from, there’s no need to wear socks.

The souvenir shop

맛있다?

The drive the day before from Pyongyang took a long time. We didn’t get to Kaesong until about 9:00pm so we didn’t eat dinner until late. We were very hungry on the bus, but hardly anyone had snacks with them. There was a pair of twins who had curry flavored beef jerky and fruit candy from China. They generously shared their treats and everyone loved the fruit things; the jerky, not so much.

So, in the morning I headed to the souvenir shop for snacks for the ride back to Pyongyang. I walked in and greeted the shop keeper in Korean. She was very friendly. She asked me where I was from and I replied, “미국입니다 (I’m American).” Then she asked me something else, but I had reached the limits of my Korean.

She didn’t seem to care. I had spoken a little Korean, so she continued talking to me in Korean. She asked where I had learned Korean and I told her, “서울. 이년. (Seoul. 2  years.)” “Seoul?” As she was thinking about Seoul I spotted a jar of gochujang. “Gochujang,” I exclaimed. “맛있다? (Is it delicious?)” This was all the Korean I knew.

“Yes, it’s delicious. Made in Kaesong.” She told me the price and I bought it. But I couldn’t eat gochujang as a snack. I asked her about what snacks she had. This took a while, because I did not have the vocabulary at all. Eventually she showed me some ginseng jelly candy. It didn’t sound like anything I wanted.

She opened the package and handed me one of the cubes. Then she gave one to Vera. Vera liked it and bought a pack. I didn’t think it tasted bad, so I bought some too. I got one pack for me and 2 packs as omiyage for my co-workers. (Once I was back in Japan the ginseng jelly candy didn’t taste as good as it did in Korea. My co-workers hardly touched the stuff, preferring instead to sample the fruit candy I got them from China.)

Next I asked the lady for water, a word I know in Korean. She pointed me to where it was. As I picked up a couple bottles, I noticed some chocolate bars. They had Russian writing on them. There were only 4 of them. I bought one and announced to everyone else that there were chocolate bars for sale. The rest of the bars were sold out shortly afterwards.

Everyday Citizens

We had breakfast at the hotel; rice, Korean omelets, vegetables, and… duck. Afterwards we packed up our stuff and put it on the bus. We were still waiting for everyone when I saw several guys from our group walking out the gates. I didn’t know we were allowed to leave the hotel gates, but since they were doing it I followed.

We didn’t go far. There wasn’t much to see other than the poster at the top of this post. We all snapped photos of that and a couple other shots of the area. Then Ms. Lee came running after us. “Stop! Stop! Stop!” We had taken photos of people and that was a big no-no.

I was a bit confused. We took many photos of random people on the streets of Pyongyang. How was this different? But, rather than say anything, I slinked back through the gates and boarded the bus. I put away my camera and sat there quietly waiting for the bus to start moving. One or two people deleted their photos, but they were not asked to.

You like propaganda? We got your propaganda right here!

You like that?

The first stop on today’s tour was at a propaganda poster and stamp shop. This place was amazing. This was where everyone in our group spent most of their money. Some bought posters, some bought books of posters, others bought stamps or stamp books. I bought postcards.

I wanted to get a postcard for all my friends and family back home, but I also wanted to mail the postcards from North Korea. That meant that I could only get postcards for people whose addresses I had memorized or written in the notebook I keep with me. If I had internet access I would have gotten so many more postcards.

I picked out 6 postcards. I would send one to my mom, one to my brother, one to my sister, and three to Mark. I went over to the counter and asked for stamps, but the lady there spoke no English. I called Ms. Lee over and asked her to translate.

Ms. Lee – “What do you want?”

me – “I would like to buy some stamps? Do they sell stamps for mailing here?”

Ms. Lee – “Yes they do. What are you going to mail?”

me – “These postcards.” I showed her my postcards.

Ms. Lee – “You want to mail these? Where will you send them?”

me – “These to the US and these to Japan.”

Ms. Lee looked at one of the postcards with a Japanese soldier being bayoneted.

Ms. Lee – “Are you sure you want to send this to Japan? Won’t you like one with Korean flowers instead?”

me – “No. These are better!”

Posters from North Korea sent to Mark

The sales lady opened a book filled with stamps. They had many propaganda stamps. Some had the same pictures as the postcards. I picked out my stamps. The lady at the counter asked where I was from. “미국입니다 (I’m American),” I said as I paid for my stuff. She looked at my purchase and shrugged as if to say, “Whatever, as long as you buy stuff.”

I labeled the postcards to Mark, 1, 2, and 3. Postcards 1 and 3 got to Mark about 3 weeks after I got back to Japan. Post card 2 took 2 months to be delivered. All North Korean mail goes through China. Since #2 had a couple lines criticizing Beijing, my guess is that China held onto it for a little while. But, that’s only my guess.

A rack of amazingness, that’s what that is!

Did they just leave!?

After paying for my postcards I continued browsing. I was looking at some paintings when a girl from the group wearing flip-flops asked me if I knew where the bathroom was. I didn’t, but I thought that I would join her in finding one. We found a lady in a hanbok… (I mean chosonot) and she told us to go through some ominous-looking door and head to the back of the building. It seemed a bit sketchy, but a lady in a chosonot told us to go there and if anything happened that would be our defense.

Flip-flops and I went through the door and walked down a hall and up another and made a turn and solved a riddle and finally found a bathroom. We were going to take turns, first her then me, but the task of using this bathroom needed more strategy than that.

There were 2 doors, a main door and a door for the one bathroom stall. The door for the stall refused to stay closed and the main door refused to stay open. There was no light in the bathroom, so the main door needed to stay open. Which meant that other door needed to be closed. There was no way to use this bathroom on one’s own without a flash light. So we took turns using the facilities with the other holding one door shut and the other door open.

Once done we made our way back through the maze. By the time Flip-flops and I were back in the shop no one but the shopkeeper was there. She stood there smiling at us and waving goodbye. We thanked her and made our way through the front door.

As I opened the door I could see where our bus used to be parked. We looked down the road. There was a cloud of dirt being kicked up by our bus as it headed for the main road. “What!? They left us!” Flip-flops shouted in a thick Australian accent. “How could they leave us? Don’t they count heads?” Then she took off running after the bus.

I didn’t think they were actually leaving us behind, but if she ran I guess I should too… So, I ran after her.

The bus stopped and let us on. Everyone applauded as we walked to our seats. I looked at Vera. She told me, “I was wondering why we stopped. I didn’t know you weren’t on the bus.”

Me – “Wait, what!?”

The western guide sat in the seat next to mine. “I knew you guys weren’t on the bus. I was just messing with you. I knew. Really, I knew.” Something about his insistence made me doubt him just a little bit.

“Have you ever actually left someone behind?” I asked. He chuckled, “Yes, once. I only noticed after I got a ring on my mobile from another tour guide.” I looked shocked. “He was okay. He got a ride with the other group.” He said this, but I knew he was joking.

The tours are advertised as having no more  than 20 people in a group. So if 50 people sign up for a particular tour, they would be split into 3 groups. Our tour was split into 2 groups; group A, my group, and group B. Both groups see the same stuff each day, just in different order. While we were at the poster shop, group B was at the museum and visa-versa. So, if Flip-flops and I were really left behind we could have just waited for group B to show up.

(I’m not even going to think about what would have happened if we got left behind at the museum after both groups had already seen it. Hopefully, Flip-flops and I would have made new lives for ourselves in the workers’ paradise selling propaganda postcards.)

The twins and their friends trying to encircle a tree

This also brings up the topic of cell phones in the DPRK. Our western tour guides were in constant contact with each other and with their support team back in China. The Korean guides also had cell phones and received a few calls from the other Korean tour guides.

Our western guide told me, “Our phones come from China, but they work here in North Korea. I can call Beijing or I can call my guy (the western guide for group B) here in Korea. But I cannot call Mr. Park or Ms. Lee. They have DPRK phones. DPRK phones cannot call Chinese phones. So If I need to call Mr. Hyun (a Korean guide for group B) I have to call my guy and have him pass his phone to Mr. Hyun.”

Mr. Park translating what the museum guide says

Next we went to the museum to look at Korean relics. There was a museum tour guide who, along with Mr. Park, gave us lots of information. But I could never get close enough to either of them to really hear what was being said. So, I hung back and just took photos.

I started to lag behind. It was pretty much me, the camera man, and intern Kim at the back of the pack. I began to suspect that the camera man didn’t speak any English. Up to that point I had never heard him speak. He mostly kept to himself and smiled a lot. Intern Kim, however, struck up a conversation with me.

She knew I lived in Japan, so she asked me about the city I lived in. “Is it bigger than Pyongyang?”

Me – “No! I live in the boonies.”

Intern Kim – “The what?”

Me – “The countryside. It’s a small town.”

I tried to describe Oita for her by answering her, “Does it have a…” questions. “Yes. It has a several train stations, many buses, pools, shopping, a highway, but it’s still a very small town. I don’t know if it has more people than Pyongyang, but there is way more traffic.” (Pyongyang doesn’t have much traffic.)

Illegal photo

Delete your photos now!

We got back in the bus. Our next stop was the tomb of King Kongmin, the 31st king of one of the many dynasties of Korea. (I’m really bad at history. In school I was very thankful that my own country was just a little over 200 years old, because that’s about as far as my attention spans goes for history.)

On the drive there we passed many farmers working in the fields. Well actually, the day before we learned that they were not farmers, in that they do not own farms, but that they were soldiers working on farms. “Everyone works on the farm,” Ms. Lee told us, “even I do.” We looked at her aghast. “Yes, Mr. Park too!” she said. “It’s good exercise for me,” Mr. Park said flexing his muscles.

The western guide stood up and told everyone on the bus that city-dwelling Koreans take about 2 weeks out of each year and go to the countryside where they help plant or sow. Everyone does it. It’s like a community thing.

The bus continued along a windy path and everyone gazed out the window. People took photos here and there when something somewhat interesting came into view. There wasn’t much to photograph. It all looked like bare land right before planting. So when we found a relatively large group of people farming we all got our cameras out.

Then I heard Ms. Lee screaming. She was very angry. I had never seen her angry before. Even this morning when we took photos of “everyday people” she wasn’t angry. “I said no photos of military buildings!”

Everyone looked around. “What military buildings?” we asked each other. She pointed to the building in the photo above. “We had an agreement!” she yelled. She went on lecturing us for several minutes. “I know you don’t understand, but it is very important that you follow the rules,” she said as she walk down the aisle of the bus. This time she did make some people delete their photos, but she didn’t see me.

I wasn’t even taking a photo of the building. I wanted a photo of the people. If she hadn’t said anything, I would never have guessed that that was a military building. In fact, I think she might have been mistaken. Why would anyone put a military building out in the open like that; no guards, no fence. I still think it was just a place for the farmers/soldiers to keep their equipment — unless that is what makes it a military building…

Walking to the tombs

So… Tell me about Seoul.

When we got to the tombs the bus parked at the bottom of the hill and we had to walk the rest of the way. Ms. Lee apologized for us having to do such an arduous task. “Oh, don’t worry about it,” I told her, “When I lived in Korea I knew that everything worth seeing was up some mountain or another.”

She smiled at me and asked, “Did you live in Pyongyang or Kaesong?” “Nampo,” I replied, “I prefer living by the beach.” She laughed. “How long did you live in South Korea?” she asked, emphasizing the word “south”. “Two years,” I said, “but my Korean is still very limited.” Intern Kim joined the conversation by asking, “Where did you live in South Korea?”

Me – “Seoul.”

Intern Kim – “Did you like living in Seoul.”

Me – “Yes. Seoul is one of the best places I’ve ever lived!”

Ms. Lee – “Do you like Korean food?”

Me – “Yes. I love it. I was in Seoul for winter vacation and I visited all my favorite restaurants again.”

Intern Kim – “What Korean food do you like?”

Me – “Oh, the best by far is gamjatang, then jjimdak, then maybe chapchae.”

They looked at me like they had never even heard of these dishes. I tried describing them, but I don’t think it helped.

Ms. Lee – “Have you had raengmyeon; cold noodles?”

Me – “I’ve tried it, but. I don’t really like cold food.”

Intern Kim – “They have raengmyeon in South Korea?”

Me – “Yes. They eat it mostly in the summer.”

They asked about other dishes, “Do they have _____ in South Korea too?” I answered all their questions as best as I could. Then one of them asked, “Do they have western food in the south?” “Yes,” I replied, almost giggling, “they have just about anything you can think of; American food, Japanese food, Chinese food, Thai food, Moroccan food….”

“They have Japanese food!?” They seemed almost scandalized. Then one of them asked, as if she had a most ridiculous thought, “Do they have Korean food in Japan?” “Yes,” I said, “There are at least 3 Korean restaurants I can think of in my town alone.” “The town in the countryside?” asked Intern Kim seriously. “…Yes.”

Oh, those foolish Japanese!

Another Story about the Tombs

When we got to the top where the tombs were, Ms. Lee told us a story.

“As you know, the Japanese invaded Korea. When they found these tombs they knew there was treasure inside. They walked around the tombs, but they could not figure out how to get in. They grabbed a farmer and demanded to know where the opening was. The farmer would not tell them, so the Japanese killed him.

Then they got some children. They asked the children where the opening was, but the children refused to say anything to the Japanese even after they were tortured. They grabbed many more people, but no one would tell the Japanese where the opening was. No one wanted to Japanese to steal the treasure inside. It was for Korean people only!”

Then she asked us if we could figure out where the opening was.

Is that the opening?

Everyone walked around and around the mounds looking for the opening. I began to wonder why the Japanese needed to look for an opening. The top is made of grass and dirt. The rest is made of stone. One could simply disassemble it with a good pick-ax and a shovel.

After we had all given up or given our incorrect guesses, Ms. Lee showed us where the opening was. It was not a puzzle. You either knew where it was or you didn’t, so there was no way to have figured it out.

“So the Japanese could not get the treasure then?” someone asked, “It’s still inside after all these years?” “No. The Japanese used dynamite and blew it up.” Ms. Lee said. “And the treasure?” we asked. Ms. Lee sighed, “…in Japan somewhere I suppose. All this was rebuilt after the Japanese left.”

“So the Japanese weren’t so stupid after all,” I whispered to Vera, “they got what they came for.” “Yes, but if you’re used to repeating propaganda,” Vera whispered back, “you don’t realize what you’re really telling people when you repeat a story.”

We’ll show you how to end a war!

The Other Side of the DMZ

Here is what I know about the Korean war. Just keep in mind that I am not a historian. I’m just a woman who reads a lot of books about China, North Korea, and their leaders.

According to Mao: The Unknown Story, the Korean war was started by Kim Il-Sung. He first went to Stalin for help in invading the south. Stalin didn’t really want to get into a war with the US, which is pretty much what this would turn into, so he just ignored Kim.

Kim then went to Mao and asked Mao for help with his invasion. Mao was all about that! He couldn’t care less about reuniting the Koreans. He just loved conflict. Besides, he had some ex-Kuomintang soldiers he wanted to put on the front line as cannon fodder.

He also wanted people to see China as a threat and hopefully, if things went his way, he could somehow work this into him becoming the leader of international communism taking Stalin’s place. But most of all, he thought that with this war, Russia would finally give him the secrets to making nuclear bombs.

(According to Only Beautiful, Please there is a museum in Dandong, China that has the actual letter that Kim Il-Sung wrote to Mao asking for help to start the war. When North Korea tested nuclear weapons against China’s wishes it really pissed the Chinese off. China being the only one to ever side with the DPRK in the who-started-the-Korean-war debate put the letter on display as proof that North Korea started the war to get back at their little communist brothers.)

Stalin was excited when he heard that Mao would get involved. He would not have to do anything. China would provide all the manpower and support. With China’s complete disregard to their own soldiers’ lives, they would end up killing tons of Americans by any means necessary. Stalin, however, never gave Mao any nuclear secrets. Mao would have to wait for Kruschev.

On our way to the DMZ

In the end no one won. Nobody got what they wanted and all countries involved were worst off for the war, or police action as the US called it. About a year and a half into the war Kim Il-Sung wanted to call it quits. He had not counted on the US carpet bombing his country. All the factories, mines, roads, and other things needed for industry the country had were blown to bits.

But Mao wanted to continue. Even though he had lost his own son, Mao Anying, in the war he still kept things going by asking for more and more concessions. Mao dragged the war out for another year and a half. In 1953 they agreed to an armistice, so the fighting stopped, but the war never ended.

A lot of propaganda for such a tiny room

Once at the DMZ we were given many lectures on the “real” history of the war. Up until this point, the tour had only a minimum amount of propaganda. On the bus ride from King Kongmin’s tomb to the DMZ, Ms. Lee told us that she knew no one believes North Korea’s side of the story, so she wasn’t going to bring it up now.

Instead, she wanted to focus on things that we all agreed were true. She talked about the people who lived in the area and their farms. Then she talked about the DMZ tour from the South Korean side and how restrictive it is. She talked about how in the past, North and South Korea had little squabbles at the DMZ. All of this is true.

Kijong-dong as seen from South Korea

However there was no mention of Propaganda City. It was built to be easily seen from South Korea and is part of the ROK DMZ tour, along with one of the many tunnels that the DPRK has dug trying to get to Seoul. If only North Korea knew how much money South Korea was making off their failed espionage attempts!

I tried asking Ms. Lee about Kijong-dong as indirectly as possible. “What about the people who live in Panmunjom within the DMZ? I hear the farming there is really good…”

I know that on the South Korean side, there are farmers who live within the DMZ . They are tax exempt and make about $80,000 a year, but they must follow several strict rules to keep their farms. I wanted to know about Propaganda Village or if North Korea had a similar farming community.

But, Ms. Lee evaded my question, by pointing to the farms we could see from the bus. We were not yet near the DMZ at the time. I did not push the matter further.

Finally, a photo of our whole group, with some of group B in the background.

But at the DMZ the propaganda was laid on so thick that I lost interest. Instead of listening to the DMZ tour guide, I wandered off on my own to take photos. After a while I was joined by Mr. Park.

Mr. Park – “Don’t you want to listen?”

Me – “I know it all already.”

Mr. Park noticed my ring.

Mr. Park – “You are married.”

Me – “Yes.”

Mr. Park – “Why didn’t your husband come with you on this trip?”

Me – “He was scared. He was born in South Korea.”

Mr. Park – “He is Korean?”

Me – “Korean-American.”

Mr. Park – “If he is American he can come here. Next time, bring him.”

Mr. Park and I vaguely talked about family, friends, and life without saying much. All I remember about him now, is that he had a wife and he was a party member.

The little blue room of tension (the one in the middle)

I was looking forward to going back to the little blue room of tension. I had been in it before on a South Korean tour of the DMZ. But, we were told that we could not see it today. According to the DMZ soldier showing us around, there was some quarrel between the two Koreas at the time. Because of that South Korea locked the door to the building and North Korea didn’t have a copy of the key and couldn’t get in.

So many little bowls

Where do I begin?

The trip offered an opportunity to try dog. I’ve turned down many chances at eating bosintang when I lived in Seoul and I’ve never regretted it. I declined the dog soup. We were also given an option to have samgyetang, a dish that I think is okay at best. The cost for it here was 30 euros. I didn’t think it was worth it. I opted for no add-ons to my meal.

We were given an assortment of banchan in small metal bowls along with a hot bowl of noodles in a light broth. After I had eaten everything, even the stuff I didn’t like, I still felt hungry. Just when I was regretting not getting an extra dish, they brought out a simple chicken stew. It did the trick.

my soup and banchan

Top row: ??, kim, sweet sticky rice with beans

Middle row: fried tofu, ojingeochae bokkeum, some sort of egg concoction,  …duck

Bottom row: spinach, soybean sprouts,  muk, watery kimchi

I didn’t really like many of the dishes. I found most of them to be either bland, like the noodle soup, or too sweet like the rice, egg thing, duck, and ojingeochae. But, I didn’t come to North Korea for the food, so I wasn’t too bothered.

Vera dressed up for Kim Il-Sung.

How many statues does this guy need?

After lunch both groups A and B, walked up the hill to see yet another statue of the Great Leader. We came just in time to catch a newly married couple paying homage to the metal lord and taking photos. At first we tried to respect their privacy and move around them to take photos, but the guides kept pointing them out. It was like they wanted us to take photos of the couple. So, I guess they weren’t “everyday Koreans”.

Then we were led along a path towards a shady area. From there we could look down at Kaesong Old City. We took a few photos of our view, but something grabbed our attention.

“Who are these dancing people?” “Why are they here?” “Don’t they have jobs?” The groups had become very suspicious of our guides and the people around us. “Who told them to come here?” “Do they get paid to act happy?” We all whispered these questions among ourselves.

We were encouraged to dance with them, but we did not want to. Finally group B’s western guide walked to the middle of the group and started a little jig. He was so tall and lanky at about 7 feet some inches and he could not dance. That alone was enjoyable to watch. His dance kind of mellowed out everyone. We were still not buying that everyone around us just happened to be here, but at least now everyone was willing to act like this was normal.

Photo taking from the bus

Oh, just take a little bite…

We got back on the bus. As we pulled away the dancers and the wedding couple stood on the side of the road and waved to us. “Why was the couple still here?” It was a bit bizarre.

We drove on the wrong side of the road and then on the correct side of the road. We past checkpoints and people walking in the road. Some people rode motorbikes; most rode bicycles. A few people pulled large farm animals behind them as they walked. Every now and then we would overtake an old rusty bus jam-packed with people. They looked at us with expressionless faces.

Russian Chocolate

“Hey! Hey!” boomed a voice from the back of the bus. “Has anyone tried that Russian chocolate?” “Not yet,” I said. “Open it and try it now,” the person giggled.

I took out my chocolate bar. It looked promising. Once the wrapping was open, things didn’t look right. The chocolate was brown, but the wrong shade of brown. Still I broke off a piece and tasted it. “Oh no! This is horrible.” It didn’t taste like chocolate should. If there was such a thing as imitation chocolate, this is what it would taste like.

Someone looked at their bar’s wrapper. “What do you think the 2002 means?” “Do you think that’s the year the chocolate was made?” “No”, answered someone, “that’s the year the chocolate factory was closed down by the Russian health inspectors.”

I didn’t want to just throw away food, even bad chocolate, so I wrapped my bar back up and put it in my backpack. I dumped it as soon as I got to China.

Anything to get off the bus!

So underwhelming

The next stop was a the Reunification Arch. I had been looking forward to seeing it since I lived in South Korea. We all got out the bus and took a few photos. After about 4 photos I was done. That’s it.

After a short 10 minutes, it was time to go. There was nothing more to do at the sight, but I didn’t want to get back on the bus.

Who’s the builder here?

About Pyongyang

There were a few things I noticed about Pyongyang. First, the buildings didn’t look like buildings anywhere else. They all had a homemade quality about them. You know how you can tell when a dress was sewn by hand. No matter how good the stitching is there is just something a little off. That’s kind of how the buildings looked. Even the nicer buildings downtown looked homemade.

Second, was that only the front of the front row of the downtown buildings on the main street were painted. All the other sides and the buildings behind the main street builds were cement gray. This gave the area a very unfinished look.

The third odd thing was the people planting everywhere. On the sidewalks there would be people swinging hoes to till the soil. I’m not sure what they were planting; I’m guessing grass since there were many grassless patches throughout the city.

Remember that time when North Korea went into space?

The Kids

The next thing was the kid’s show at Mangyongdae Children’s Palace. It was a far cry from the circus. There were very few if any mistakes made by the performers. Mind you, that the kids didn’t really do any acrobatics.  But with all the near misses I saw during my first show in Pyongyang, I was expecting someone to drop something or mess up in some way. But, nope!

I could tell that the kids practice day and night. Everything was perfect. There wasn’t even a hair out of place! Everyone hit their marks. Everyone played or sang with intensity. The kids were scary-good and it made a good show. I just hope the kids are happy…

Hey kids!

The kids in the audience seemed to enjoy the show. Other than our groups A and B and a few other tours, the place was filled with children; no parents. I’m not sure if they were just here to watch the show or if they were also performers, maybe with the night off. They all wore uniforms and kept themselves in little herds.

They seemed shy but curious about us. I went over to a chandelier to get a closer look at it. I heard giggles and whispers above my head. I looked up and saw a bunch of kids. They quickly ducked. I stood there waving at them. Most of them came back and returned my wave. I snapped a picture and more came.

Is that supposed to be food?

Who knows where we’ll go next!?

Next we went to a bar. We started out with an itinerary but that was tossed out days ago. Sometimes we went to places on the itinerary, sometimes we went to places not on the itinerary. This was one that was not on the itinerary.

There was a bar section and an area for hermits who don’t really want to mingle with others. We went to the hermitty booths area. We were given a fish and some people ordered beer. I hate beer so I focus more on the fish.

We weren’t sure if it was food or not. It was dried fish, but it had more of a cardboard texture rather than a dried fish texture. We asked someone on the wait staff, “Are we meant to eat this?” We were assured that it was in fact food.

Like this, maybe?

We tried to eat it. One person tried to bite it, but could not. Several of us ripped strips of the fish off and put it into our mouths. It was almost impossible to chew.

Like this.

One of the waitresses saw us and came over to help. She gave us a small bowl of sauce and placed a strip of fish in it. She waited for a moment then indicated that someone should eat it.

oh…

Once it was rehydrated it had more of a fish-like texture. This made it easier to eat.

Nope. Don’t like it.

It still tasted bad…

grillin’ time!

You’ve never heard of it?

For dinner we went to the KITC Restaurant. We were to eat Korean barbecue. Each table had almost everything one needs for Korean barbeque. There were lettuce leaves. There was gochujang, dipping sauces, soup, and raw meat; pork and… duck. The only thing missing was ssamjang.

Vera and I sat at a table with some French guys who lived in Hong Kong. As we were talking Ms. Lee walked around to each table to make sure everything was going smoothly with the grills. When she got to my table she asked me if I needed anything. “Do they have ssamjang?” I asked. Ms. Lee looked puzzled and asked, “What is that?”

“It’s a type of paste like gochujang, but it’s not made with red peppers,” I told her. “Is it like ketchup?” She seemed to really not know what it was. “It’s a Korean thing. You eat vegetables with it.” “Oh,” she said, “You want gochujang.” “No,” I insisted, “ssamjang is different; it’s salty. You eat it with samgyeopsal or galbi, but it’s really great with hot peppers.” “Are you sure you’re not thinking of gochujang?”

“Yes,” I conceded, “I must have been thinking of gochujang.”

All Pictures


 

North Korea
(조선민주주의인민공화국)
(Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk) 

How to get there:

The laws about who can get a visa to the DPRK change often. At the time of our trip, the Japanese were allowed in, but the Chinese were not. But, South Koreans are never allowed in. Korean-Americans, however, are welcomed, if they use their US passport for entry.

Phone:

You won’t get to use the phone. But if you need to know, the emergency numbers are 112 and 119.

Website:

Videos:

Books:

If you can read Korean: Kingdom of Kim (There is no English version of this book yet. I would love to find one.)

Notes:

NEVER NEVER NEVER bring a bible to North Korea!


The Kaesong Folk Hotel
Kaesong Folk Custom Hotel
(개성민속여관)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 37°58’36.0″N 126°33’11.1″E

Website:

Notes:

  • Forget about getting a decent shower here. There are neither showers nor hot water. If you get a functioning sink, consider yourself lucky.
  • There is a souvenir shop at the entrance to this hotel.
  • You will be sleeping the traditional, old-timey Korean way, on the floor with heating provided by an ondol.

Koryo Museum
Propaganda Shop 
Koryo Songgyungwan University
(고려 성균관 대학교)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 37°58’52.0″N 126°33’58.2″E (maybe, or somewhere near here)

Websites:

Video:

Notes:

  • This museum is either near or part of a university which was founded in 992 AD.
  • The propaganda shop is near the museum. 

Tomb of King Kongmin
(공민왕릉)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 37°58’55.5″N 126°28’22.5″E

Website:

Video:

Notes:

  • There are 2 mounds here.
  • One mound used to have the remains of Kongmin, 31st king of the Koryo Dynasty. There other used to contain his wife’s remains.

There’s an interesting story that goes with the mounds. When King Kongmin’s wife died he wanted to bury her in the perfect spot. The king offered to honor anything requested by anyone who could find this ideal burial place for him. People kept suggesting spots, but none satisfied the king. The king became very annoyed by so many bad suggestions.

Then one guy told the king that he had found the perfect spot. “It’s just up this mountain.” So the king went up the mountain while the guy stayed below with the king’s guards. The king, tired of being jerked around, gave the order to have the guy killed if the burial spot was not to his liking. To signal his displeasure the king would wave his hanky.

The king climb the mountain and he loved the spot. It was perfect! But it was such a long climb and such a hot day that the king’s forehead became quite sweaty. So he took out his hanky and wiped his forehead.

The guards below saw the king wiping his forehead and mistook it for a wave. They killed the guy immediately.

When the king came back down and found out what had happened he exclaimed, “Oh my!” So now the mountain is called the Korean equivalent of  The “Oh my!” Mountain.


The DMZ
(한반도 비무장지대)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 37°57’22.0″N 126°40’36.9″E

Website:

Videos:

Notes:

  • Although there a many rules for dress and behavior when visiting the DMZ on the South Korean side, there are no such rules on the North Korean side.
  • You will only see ROK or US soldiers on the South Korean side if there are tours being conducted there at the time.
  • There is a gift shop nearby incase you want your propaganda in t-shirt or candy form.

The Tongil Restaurant

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 37°58’21.1″N 126°33’26.7″E

Website:

Video:

Notes:

  • This is where you can try dog soup for an extra 5 euros.
  • You can also try samgyetang for an extra 30 euros.
  • You can also have neither. The basic meal is still quite a lot of food.
  • Or you can split an extra option with someone.
  • I think you have to order the extra dishes ahead of time.
  • The meal is mostly made up of many side dishes, noodles, and soup.
    • The side dishes will be different for different tours. It depends what’s in season.

Kim Il Sung Monument

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 37°58’36.9″N 126°33’31.8″E
  • You can walk here from the Tongil Restaurant.

Notes:

  • You can see Kaesong Old town form a nearby look-out.
  • I heard that at night this is the only thing in town that has light.
  • You might see newlyweds out for a photo-op here.
  • I’m going to guess that you will also see groups of dancing picnickers.
  • This statue was made in 1968.
  • The statue is on Janam Mountain.
  • Not too far from the statue you will find the Kwando Pavilion.

At the bottom of the hill, you may have an opportunity to see a traffic boy. In Pyongyang, you see traffic girls all the time. But, only outside of the capitol will you ever see a traffic boy. The key is to find a place outside of Pyongyang that has traffic…


Monument to the Three Charters
Arch of Reunification
(조국통일3대헌장기념탑)
(Joguk Tongil Samdae Heonjang Ginyeomtap)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 38°57’52.1″N 125°42’56.4″E

Websites:

Notes:

  • It opened in August 2001
  • One woman represents North Korea, the other South Korea.
  • It takes but a few minutes to see this. Snap some photos then you’ll be on your way.

Mangyongdae Children’s Palace
Mangyongdae School Children’s Palace
(만경대학생소년궁전)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°00’50.0″N 125°39’32.0″E

Websites:

Video:

Notes:

  •  Kids sing and dance, play instruments, to a little acrobatics, and show you how much they love Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un.
  • They ask for 2 volunteers during the show to come up on stage.
  • You can buy a video of the show in the lobby, but it might not be a video of the show you just watched.

Taedonggang No.3 Bar
(대동강제3술집)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 38°59’38.7″N 125°48’34.1″E

Website:

Notes:

  • This bar was recently remodeled.
  • They serve 7 types of beer.

There were no bars on our original itinerary. So, I’m not completely sure that this is where we went. I know we went to a bar that was close to the factory that made the beer it served. And, that the bar we visited had many types of locally made beer. That sounds a lot like Taedonggang #3 Bar, so that’s my guess.


 KITC Restaurant in Mangyongdae

How to get there:

  • Coordinates ???
  • Sorry. I just can’t find any information on this place.

When I went there it was night, so I can’t even tell you what the area around it looks like.

Notes:

  • KITC stands for Korean International Travel Company.
  • If the lights go out, you will be given a flashlight.

Finding information about the places we visited in North Korea is so hard. There were some things I knew already, because I’ve read a lot of books about North Korea. But some things I don’t know, like the exact location of things… If google can’t find it, it can’t be found.

Map:

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Korea’s DMZ

Posted by Heliocentrism on August 26, 2009

February 14, 2009

All  Pictures

Getting our official passes

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.

North Korean Building (A few years after this photo is taken, I would stand at that same door.)

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”.

The Bridge of No Return

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.

North Korean soldier

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.

North Korea: Propaganda Village

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.

The Pre-DMZ tour Video

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.

Shin Sang Ok’s book along with other personal items on display at a South Korean film studio

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!”

He’s ready for anything!

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.
From what I hear, there are no rules like this when visiting the DMZ from the North Korean side. In fact, you are encouraged to wave to the South Koreans and even yell at them. This is supposed to be proof that North Korea is freer than South Korea.

The border of the two Koreas

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.

on the ROK secure bus

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.

The blue building of tension. The ROK soldiers are having an intense stare down with the DPRK.

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.

Tae Kwon Do Joe

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.

Me in North Korea

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.

heading off to the tunnel where no photos are allowed

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.

Even the mannequins in South Korea have guns.

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.

***UPDATE***

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.

All  Pictures


 

South Korea
(대한민국)

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.

Phone:

Website:

Videos:

Books:

Notes:

  • 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.


DMZ Tour 

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.

USO (Seoul)

How to get there:

  • 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.

Website

Cost:

45USD (at the time of this blog entry). This can be paid in US dollars or Korean won; South Korean won!

Videos:

Books:

Notes:

  • 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

Maps:

Click here for Google maps

Posted in DMZ, North Korea, Panmunjeom, Panmunjeom, South Korea, Yongsan | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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