Creative non-fiction / May 2008 (Issue 3)

North Korea

by John Bernard Bourne

North Korea has always intrigued me. News of the isolated country has always been scarce, and when it does attract mainstream attention it is usually for hysterical purposes. It has been governed by a family dynasty dictatorship for over sixty years, and its policies and practices have rarely made sense, even to its communist allies. More intriguing (at least to a curious outsider like myself) is the dominant cult of personality awarded to the late Kim Il-sung and his son, and current leader, Kim Jong-il.

North Korea is a challenging destination to the average traveller. Although not inaccessible, the red tape and prohibitive costs (not to mention the controlled itinerary) have traditionally narrowed the potential tourist trade to the little known niche market of wealthy Stalinists. This changed (somewhat) in June of 2000 when South Korean President Kim Dae-jung made his historic visit to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong-il. One of the things agreed upon was to open the door (slightly) to tourism from South Korea in an effort to bridge the cultural and ideological gaps between the two nations.

And that is how, in July of 2007, I found myself on a bus crossing the DMZ and heading to Geumgangsan (Geumgang Mountain) in North Korea.

The only way to get into the country at any time is with an organized group, and this one was no exception. All tours to this area are specifically designed for South Koreans, so a westerner like me was an anomaly. The logical thing would have been to go with my South Korean wife in order to overcome the linguistic barriers, since no English was spoken on these trips, but she had no interest in going. So I called up my sister, who was teaching at a university near Seoul, and we quickly signed on as the only two non-Koreans heading north. As well as being a fun travel companion, my sister has a basic understanding of the language which significantly augmented the thirty words of Korean I had at my disposal.

When this tour was introduced a few years ago, crossing by land was forbidden, so the journey had to be made by boat. Recently, this has changed to allow buses to cross the DMZ (demilitarized zone) into North Korea. As can be expected, crossing over was a long ordeal due to security concerns and procedures. After passing several checkpoints on the South Korean side, we had to wait for two hours in a customs building while all the details were organized. The modern convenience and amenities found in this area went unnoticed until we compared it to the North Korean crossing just a few kilometers down the road.

In stark contrast, the customs checkpoint entering North Korea was a makeshift tent area staffed entirely by military personnel who did not have the convenience of computers or any other electronic devices. Whereas our passports and visas had been swiped through state of the art equipment on the South side, the North Koreans had to do everything by hand, cross-referencing our passport numbers with ones they had written down on pieces of paper.

Being surrounded and handled by an imposing military presence was intimidating and intriguing at the same time. The look of the soldiers seemed 1950's retro, dressed in cold war Soviet-style uniforms and driving in vehicles that looked to be left over from the Japanese occupation.

As our bus crept into North Korea, we were immediately exposed to images of people supposedly going about their everyday business. This seemed to consist of plowing fields with an ox and tending to the harvest with sickles and physical labour. Add to that image dozens of uniformed schoolchildren walking home together over and through streams and dirt paths. The whole pre-industrial cabaret appeared idyllic in a happy proletariat sort of way, but was in stark contrast to the massive development which was being provided by the South Korean Hyundai Corporation going up just a stones throw away.

The free trade zone/tourist village established by Hyundai in cooperation with the North Korean government hovers over the area with its imposing high rise buildings and industrial architecture. The conscripted workers generally come from China or South Korea, but some North Koreans work in the government sanctioned service industries. Within this context, I kept wondering what message the North Koreans wanted to send to us outsiders, since I was well aware of the fact that we were not going to see anything that they did not want us to see. Did they want us to see how resilient and resourceful the people were in the face of adversity? Did they want us to see a nation sneering at the spectre of capitalist encroachment, not allowing it to affect their perfect lives despite its close proximity? They were questions that I was never able to answer.

As we made our way toward the tourist area, it was inevitable that we had to pass through the North Korean community. It was then that I noticed that the entire village was surrounded by an electrified, barbed-wire fence. At various points the fence opened to allow people to cross the street. At such points, soldiers stood guard at their checkpoints on both sides. Dressed in the brown military uniform of the North, they actually gave the appearance of being a reliable (if not a little somber) crossing guard or neighbourhood policeman walking his beat. Some people on our bus tried to wave, but never got a response from them.

What made this tour somewhat distinct from previous ones was the fact that they had just opened Inner Geumgang to tourists. Why it had taken so long is anybody’s guess. I assume that it is because building a road that would allow buses and other vehicles to go up the mountain was a lengthy process. Others would argue that it took that long to move the prison camps somewhere else, since Geumgangsan has long been reputed to have some of the more notorious gulags in the country. Nevertheless, the trip up was quite intriguing for me.

Before embarking on this excursion, everybody is given a rather extensive list of things that are forbidden, the most significant of which is takeing any pictures while on the tour bus. The reason for this is obvious—on the tour bus you will pass military checkpoints and hidden villages not accessible to the outside world. And what we saw was fascinating: small, rural villages high in the mountains where people seemed to live a subsistence existence; soldiers standing guard at the oddest places (although on closer inspection you could see tanks and snipers hidden in the hills behind them); and propaganda signs espousing the greatness of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. And while this was passing by, our North Korean tour guide was singing songs about reunification and the pain of the nation and family being torn apart.

For some unknown reason, I thought it would be perfectly reasonable to ignore the no-taking pictures rule. I took about seventy-five images of North Korea that few have ever seen on my digital camera as we wound our way up the steep mountain. Apparently, some of the North Korean soldiers must have seen the flashes coming from the grinning Canadian inside the tour bus because once we disembarked at the Buddhist Temple high atop Geumgangsan, I was instantly accosted by our guide and instructed to hand over my camera.

Although she did not speak English and I did not speak Korean there was absolutely no miscommunication about what she wanted from me. I handed it over, trying to plead ignorance. Luck was with me, however, as she did not know how to work my camera to find the incriminating photos, so she handed it back to me while she went to get the authorities. I decided this was a good time to run away, but I realized that running away from an all Korean tour group, in North Korea, in an area famous for its gulags was not the wisest move.

So, with trembling hands and a pounding heart I deleted all the images I had taken. I stumbled back in time to show everyone that my camera was free of any clandestine photos and tried to appear shocked that I would be accused of such a thing. But I fooled nobody.

Luckily, they seemed just as relieved to have found nothing, thus avoiding an incident. As happy as I was to be let off the hook, I was overwhelmed by an unshakeable sense of paranoia that would stay with me the rest of the time I was in North Korea. Back at our hotel later, I could see the soldiers moving in the hills around the tourist village, keeping an eye on things. In my state, I felt like they were keeping an eye on me. When I went out for dinner that evening I stopped to take a picture of a huge sign featuring the two Kim’s (only pictures out of the tour bus were forbidden). Out of nowhere, the authorities appeared again to take my camera and check the pictures to make sure that I had not disrespected the Dear Leader and his beloved son. The photos were deemed okay, and my camera was returned, but in light of the incident earlier in the day it was difficult for me to ignore the genuine fear that was starting to ruin my good time.

As we were riding back to our hotel after dark, I peered hard through the windows at the crossing guard soldiers we had witnessed earlier in the morning. They no longer seemed as benevolent and harmless as they had before. They were now brandishing machine guns and groups of them were marching on patrol into the village. Since I knew it was absurd to think that anyone would be sneaking into the village, I could only imagine that they were spreading fear throughout the community for anybody who was considering sneaking out.

Back in my hotel room, in a neurotic panic I checked to see if the room was bugged (not that I would actually recognize a bug if I saw it). It occurred to me that I was experiencing fear and paranoia after only a couple of days in the part of North Korea which they deem worthy of showing to the outside world. What kind of neurotic existence does one find in the areas of the country that the outside world never sees? With those thought dancing in my head, I tried to catch a few hours of restless sleep, preparing myself for whatever they next day brought me.

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