To the South ~ in North Korea

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What lies beyond Pyongyang?  This was a question that I have been pondering for a few days.  The city, as any capital city in the world, has its moments of allure.  As I mentioned earlier, it is a place where I could spend a fair amount of time learning and enjoying a new culture.

The DPRK has already been a far cry from what I had expected, which led me to wonder what else was out there.  A glimmer of an answer was captured as we traveled down south to Kaesong.

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As expected, the landscape was very similar to farming villages seen throughout China (and Asia).  Was the countryside poor?  Yes, in the sense that the farmers lived a very rough life of working in the fields all day, and there is no question they get by on less compared to their countrymen who live in large cities.

While the DPRK government tries to hide this from the outside world, I can only shake my head.  Sure, you have your sensationalist reports such as the Panorama program on BBC (led by the infamous John Sweeney), who are an embarrassment to journalism, trying to play up the angle of “this is what the DPRK doesn’t want you to see…”  But it is irrelevant.

Poor people, and poor areas do not like to be exploited, and I would not care to be filmed or have photos taken for the sole purpose of being ogled by foreigners.  Why is this surprising?

However, if true travelers had access to the countryside of the DPRK, the number of beautiful photographs of farmers and the land they till would vastly out number negative reports.  Although the farmers are poor, they are proud and they are respected for the work they do.

It does not take much imagination to see what a great place this world could be if we had farmers as our leaders.  The respect of farmers is strong on both sides of the DMZ.

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The Unification Arch between Pyongyang and Seoul

The drive south to Kaesong did allow the time for us to exhale and take in the scenery.  A switching of gears to catch a glimpse of the agricultural side of the DPRK as well as to explore a little of Kaesong, a historic city as well as a neighbor to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

As the opening photo showed, on the drive down we had perhaps one of the most glorious sunsets I have ever seen.  It started off as simply a nice sunset, with different hues of yellows and orange that arrived as we stopped at the well-known “tea shop” rest area halfway between Pyongyang and Kaesong.  The capture of this sunset scene is below.

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As we got on the bus, and traveled perhaps 20 more kilometers, the skies switched from the typical yellow/orange to a pink & purple hue that is as rare as it is beautiful.  Fortunately the guides agreed to stop the bus so we could step out and take in the beautiful sight (the opening photo of this post).

The sunset and dusk made up for the late arrival into Kaesong and the disappointment of being restricted to stay on hotel grounds at all times.  After the drive, I had hoped to be able to walk around the town a bit but also realized such freedom was very unlikely.  The hotel we were staying in Kaesong, however did make up for that disappointment as it was a traditional Korean hotel (Minsok Hotel) located in the old town with houses from the Joseon Dynasty (1392 ~ 1897).

One thing I have been very grateful for is that there are a few North Koreans that speak Mandarin Chinese.  It has led to some pretty funny comments, and always their shock, surprise and wonderful smile that this ’round-eye’ can speak a language they understand.  What has been the fun part about this, is that they get the humor (my poor wit), and really have a good laugh.

At one shop, I ended up buying Kim Jong Il‘s book “On the Juche Idea (an incredible cure for insomnia), and I ask the lady helping me about the Kim Il Sung pin she was wearing and how I would love to trade the pin I was wearing (a Chinese & DPRK flag) for hers.  I added that such a trading of pins was “a common tradition where I am from when meeting new friends.”  She had a great giggle and one of the most mischievous grins I have seen, but without pause waved her finger “no” – enough said.

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The meaning I sensed is that these pins mean something deep to them, and it just is not possible to part with them.  Whether it is an attachment to a pin they treasured deeply (cultish in nature), or a fear of repercussions if they are seen without one (or worse yet, seen giving one to a foreigner).  I hope it is the first one, as the paranoia created by the second option seems a bit scary, and eerily possible.

The main reason to travel down to Kaesong, was to visit the DMZ from the view of the North.  It was going to be an intriguing experience, in part because we had two women from Sweden in our group who had visited the DMZ from the view of South Korea.  They said that it was a bit terrifying, as the soldiers were stern and they were warned many times of the risk (the potential to be shot by a North Korean soldier).

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These two gentlemen would quickly end my ’15-seconds of fame’ scampering to the South

Given this very bleak and macabre story of how the DMZ was managed in the South, we figured that visiting the DMZ in the North would be worse: the danger and seriousness was going to be “amped up” to the maximum.

We assumed wrong.  The DPRK soldiers were definitely all business (some minor restrictions on photography and movement outside of the group), but they also used common sense.  In the words of people who had visited both the sides of the DMZ, it was the North that seemed to have more rational heads about them.  That is a scary thought.

Abandoned Kansai wrote an excellent article describing this area:  http://abandonedkansai.wordpress.com/2013/07/10/north-korea-panmunjom-joint-security-area/

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  • Above: DPRK Soldier Instructing us as to the layout
  • Below: A DPRK can of Coca-Cola looking to the West (Sander Goldthwait’s great photo-op idea!)

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In short, at the DMZ, we saw the best of the DPRK military troops I suppose.  Guys who had strong personalities, but who could not help cracking a smile and showing us a side that seemed to say “we take this situation seriously, but we also understand that neither side is going to step out of line.”

While the soldiers on duty were pure seriousness, the ones who had to interact with us were respectful and approachable (via a translator).  They received respect because of their demeanor and attitude…never were they condescending.  While I have never been to the South side of the DMZ, the Americans, Swedes and Belgians who had all visited the Southern DMZ (both ROK and US military), felt more at ease and secure in the North.  That blew me away.  Still does.  I want to check out the Southern side of the DMZ to form my own opinion.

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  • Above: Mileage sign saying 70km to Seoul…the most treacherous 70km ever…
  • Below: The DPRK soldier was a good sport, kept wanting to leave, but got dragged smiling into photos

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The city of Kaesong itself was quite nice…  The air was fresh and scenery quite beautiful, and the historical significance only added to the allure.  The prize of Kaesong was the Koryo museum, which was incredible, and I am not a museum person.  Again, I will let Abandon Kansai do the honors with his great write-up: http://abandonedkansai.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/north-korea-kaesong-koryo-museum/

During the tour, one of the guides was very polite, and while initially not too keen on being photographed, once she was relatively confident that she was not going to be the center of attention, she nodded enthusiastically.  She was very excited to see how the photos turned out.

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  • Above: Koryo Museum at the Songgyungwan Academy
  • Below: Tour Guide doing her best ‘Vogue’ pose in traditional Korean dress

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The final thought, as we drove out of Kaesong was that for being so close to the South – the differences between the ultra-developed society of Seoul, starkly contrasted the bare-basics of the DPRK.

This led me to wonder what the DPRK has to offer.  To many, the answer is clear: a more “authentic” Korean culture.  There seems to be a strong pulse of Koryo that moves throughout this country, and I can see why the Korean people yearn for reunification.  Both sides have so much to gain.

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15 Comments on “To the South ~ in North Korea

  1. A wonderful post with *amazing* photos, and I love the way you take your readers through your thought journey… I too have a lot of respect for farmers. If more visitors were allowed, and more photos were taken, I wonder what the world’s view of the DPRK would be… And it’s really neat how you show the native’s personality and character, such as the woman wagging her finger, “no.” It *is* surprising that people would feel safer on the northern border than on the south. I would not have expected that!

    • Very nice comments Jessica, thank you. Growing up in the countryside, it is always nice to get out into the open space no matter where you are…even though we really couldn’t go anywhere except where they wanted us to go 🙂 One day I hope to have the freedom to roam the DPRK, I think that would be a very fulfilling journey. Cheers.

      • That *does* sound nice. I hope so, too. Hope you’re having a wonderful day! 🙂

  2. The pictures are beautiful! Your passion pours right through your word, it’s almost impossible not to smile as you describe what would ordinarily have been a “you needed to have been there comment” with fluid perception.
    The north and south thing is a surprise, hmm!

    • Thanks Dotta. Sometimes when you go somewhere with few expectations, you get caught off-guard by all the positives around you and then it is just fun to absorb it all in. It is impossible not to become passionate. Cheers!

  3. The last picture reminds me a bit of gates in The Never Ending story.. beautiful though! Love all the photo’s (and feel a leetle jealous too) 😀

  4. Your photos are amazing. Especially of the landscape! And it’s great to hear someone stand back and look at things from a bigger perspective than what many have been taught (especially in western nations) about NK. Thanks for your insight!

    • Wow, that would be a great trip for you… I think you would feel an eerie comfort there, for the DPRK is stuck in Communist thought of the 50’s. Fascinating place. I have not had the opportunity to visit much of what was East Germany, but hope to one day. Cheers!

  5. It’s so interesting to follow your trip to DPRK, although you did this some time ago – and I am going backwards the wrong way. But I learn so much in each of these post about a country the rest of the world hardly know anything about. Thanks for sharing – and for the gorgeous images.

    • Thanks Otto, perhaps the most intrigued I have ever been regarding political dogma and the people.

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