(read the previous post explaining this entry)
I had the chance to visit North Korea for the first time a couple of days ago. My mind is still full of impressions so I would like to get them on paper before they fade away. My trip was to Kaesong, where the industrial complex is; it’s also the capital of the old Koryo Dynasty, so it is home to some important historical sites.
From the minute that I crossed the DMZ, I had my eyes wide open trying to observe and analyze everything that came into view through my bus window. I had read so many books, and watched so many films; this was the opportunity to see for myself what I could find that measured up, and what I could find that was different. I was anxious to gain my own impression, my own experience, and while I only saw just one small corner of North Korea, the knowledge that I gained is so valuable to me.
I think the first thing that I noticed was the North Korean soldiers standing serious and at attention on the side of the road at random posts, and sometimes at what didn’t seem like posts at all. They would be at all the dirt road entrances to all the villages, no matter how small. Sometimes there were only two or three houses, but there was a soldier standing there, dressed in a dark green uniform, holding a red flag, and completely motionless. I would also see a soldier here and there as the bus passed by lurking out from the trees. Later, when we got into the city of Kaesong, the number of soldiers dramatically increased. There was one on almost every street corner and walkway. However, the North Korean citizens walked or rode past them on their bikes as if this were perfectly natural; I assumed that to them it was. In fact I believe I assimilated to the new condition somewhat myself, as I found myself noticing the military presence less after a while. I still, however, could not ignore the stark contrast between the world that I had just come from, and the one I was experiencing.
The second thing that I noticed was a large picture of a smiling Kim Il-sung above a building in the distance. I saw it as I was waiting to get back on the bus after having gone through entry formalities at Dorasan. While waiting, I also heard North Korean music in a beautiful woman’s voice, coming from a distance: “pan-gap—-sum-ni-da, pan-gap-sum-ni-da (nice to meet you, nice to meet you).” Later, as we traveled, there were large monuments, posters, and plaques at the entrances of many of the villages and throughout the city of Kaesong, lauding Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. In the west we have public art (some might say propaganda) in remembrance of people, but it’s not all dedicated to two overarching figures. In particular, I noted a painting of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, smiling with arms outstretched at the top of mount Baekdu; it was outside on the road, but it was so clean and bright. I think it must have been brand new. I also noted a poster of North Korean citizens with fists in the air; the lettering read, “as long as we have our great general, we are winning.”
Another thing that I noticed was the surrounding countryside. I saw that the hills had much less vegetation, particularly trees, than the hills just a few miles south. I knew that in natural circumstances the hills and mountains would still be covered with trees and shrubs, but somehow most of this had been removed. I figured that this was likely due to agricultural practices or a need for firewood among the people. I also pondered whether the land may have been cleared so that no one—from either north or south—could slip around unnoticed close to the DMZ, but I couldn’t give that notion much weight. I saw the remains of old underground bunkers and lookouts in the hills; they were almost imperceptible—just a thin line in the grass from which soldiers could look out and shoot their weapons. Oh, and they were all facing south and usually near the tops of the hills. I saw quite a few of them in one area, but they were either better hidden, or absent in other areas, because I didn’t notice them anywhere else.
The lack of vegetation was met by what seemed an overabundance of cultivation. Many hills were cultivated right up the side and over the top. There were rows of what I thought looked like wheat, barley, and rice growing up, sideways, and even in gullies. Around the houses and villages on just about every piece of land, no matter how small or sloped, there were crops being tended. I would have thought they had an abundance of food had I not understood the aggregate situation, with the dire need that the country is actually facing. The farther we got away from these small communities, of course, the less cultivation I saw, and the mountain slopes gradually began to have more trees on them. One other thing that I should mention is that the cultivation and lack of trees had lead to very visible signs of erosion on the mountainsides.
As we traveled on the tour bus, I began to see more and more people. I would see much more in Kaesong later, but my first glimpses were just of small groups of people, probably not ever more than five or six, working in the fields or resting. Keep in mind that this was a Sunday, but North Koreans don’t practice religion other than Juche, which is a sort of faith in the nation-state. However, I surmised that the Kaesong Industrial Complex, where many of these people worked, would not be running on Sunday since its South Korean managers were at home. I also saw a lot of people alone tending to a field, pulling a cart, or just walking. None of them seemed overly stressed or in a hurry; in fact many of them seemed quite slow. Of course I made my own guesses about them: they were bored of doing the same thing every day, they weren’t being personally compensated for their labor so why would they feel compelled to sweat hard, or perhaps they were weak from not having eaten well—maybe it was a combination, maybe it was something entirely different. Some of them were hunched over and very small, particularly the old, but most of the people looked entirely healthy and they didn’t look to be experiencing hunger. But I was also aware that if anyone in the world knew how to bear hunger, and even start to die without admitting or otherwise showing signs of their predicament, it would be the North Koreans. Concerning the older North Koreans, I have seen old South Koreans, very weathered and hunched over in the same manner in Seoul, so I wasn’t greatly alarmed by their presence in the north.
Our first official stop on the tour was Pakyon (박연폭포) waterfall, reputed as among the three most beautiful in Korea. The mountains close to the waterfall had much fewer people and quite a few more trees; it was very beautiful and serene. The tour buses got to a place where they could park and I, and the hordes of tourists I had come with, unloaded and hiked the short distance to the waterfall. There were vendor stands here and there with young North Korean women selling North Korean snacks. I bought a small sweat gelatinous candy flavored with ginseng. I was impressed by the polite and soft manners of the two women at the stand. They were eager to explain the different products, be of service, and, no doubt, make foreign currency; but the biggest impression I got was that they were simple, refined, and helpful. I can’t help but note the stark contrast between them and the vendors at Emart in Seoul who are impatient, loud, and aggressive. Perhaps the comparison is unjustified since the customer bases, and even the market bases, are different. I thought that at least some of what I was seeing was a cultural difference though, which would be significant considering that both North and South consider themselves to be one-and-the-same Korean nation.
At first I just saw people far away from the bus, then I saw those who had been selected to interact with the foreigners on the tour, and then the people in the city of Keasong. I noted that the North Koreans at the tour sites seemed to keep to themselves; often, they formed small groups to the side and chatted with each other. I saw one foreign woman who seemed to know Korean well approach two North Korean men at one of the tour sites and try to have a conversation with them. She looked to be having a nice conversation that lasted more than a couple of sentences; what was surprising to me was that this occurrence seemed to be a lone outlier. I did not see any South Koreans conversing casually with the North Koreans. I think the most I saw was a question here or there about an explanation given by a North Korean toting a loud speaker, but it was followed by a short answer and nothing more. I guessed that the main function of the North Koreans that were allowed to have contact with us was to watch us or sell something to us, rather than to converse with us. I thought that this was quite different from the videos of the North Korean guides in Pyongyang that I have seen, where the guides enthusiastically interact, and they tell as many details as they can about North Korea, its leaders, and its culture.
At some of the sites on the tour, I was able to see over the walls or out the gates, where lots of Kaesong citizens were passing by on foot or bicycle. They were all dressed very plainly and modestly, almost never departing from three or four regular colors: military green, dark blue, black, and beige. Their clothes were not new, but usually not tattered either. Many of the women wore pants, and they usually had long straight hair clasped with a pin in the back. Many of the North Koreans looked over to get a glimpse of the foreigners on the other side. I was surprised that many of them openly stared. None of them stopped walking as the stared, but it seemed clear to me that they were not getting in trouble for looking. I was further surprised on the bus when some people in the city would wave and smile at us. For some of them, it even appeared to have developed into a routine.
I was able to get glimpses of some North Korean social interaction, which helped me to see more of the human element there. I saw North Koreans greeting each other on the street and also engaged in what appeared to be cordial conversation. I saw energy and genuineness in their faces, which was not what I saw in the faces of the field workers, tour guides, or soldiers, especially not the soldiers. Those short glimpses were valuable to me because they gave me something more than the robotic brainwashed communist image that was all too easy to see. Those glimpses showed something beyond the façade—a real human flame, with sparks of individuality and genuine character; I imagined and hoped that it burned just the same in many North Koreans, though it might remain largely covered and hidden in public.
Our tour guides, or rather, those chosen to interact with the foreigners, are worth noting a bit more. Both men and women were dressed well. The men had button-up shirts with a simple overcoat, and a small Kim Il-sung pin over the heart. The women were beautiful in their full and colorful hanbok dresses. None of the guides were what you would call gregarious or sophisticated. They impressed me as being simple, perhaps a bit naïve and a bit cautious; for the most part they were reserved. Perhaps the only departure from this was in the souvenir shops. There, a beautiful young woman explained to me the appeal of a handmade cell-phone trinket, along with other small memorabilia. She was so polite, but still forward. I’ve never seen anyone so dedicated (and so polite at the same time) to selling a small trinket. I imagined her saying more: “please sir, our country is poor. My family needs me to have this job; if I don’t sell well I may lose it.”
I guess lastly, I should say a few more words about the city of Kaesong. For the most part it looked well organized, but the buildings, especially the larger ones, looked in serious need of repair. Almost everywhere the tour bus traveled, the road had been newly paved. In fact, I could usually tell which way the bus was going next based on the newly paved one-lane path ahead; it felt like a big black carpet had been rolled out just for the tourists. Something tells me it was probably paid for and constructed by Hyundai Asan and Kaesong Tour, but I could be wrong. I noticed a number of factories in Kaesong. Some of them were clearly abandoned, but others looked still in use. There were small stores along the streets, although much fewer than in a capitalist country, and there was one big department store. There were virtually no advertisements anywhere, a touch that I appreciated; in fact, it was like a big breath of fresh air for someone living in thick pollution for so long. I had not anticipated this feeling. In Seoul, it seems that the minute I walk outside my apartment the world is screaming; bright lights flash and scantily clad women smile out of ads from every direction saying remember me, and buy this product. In Kaesong, there was nothing of the sort, just simple store names. I felt relaxed and focused; I could look anywhere and develop my own thoughts, rather than having ideas shoved at me by billions of companies. Oh, and since I mentioned ad “pollution,” I should note the difference in real pollution. Breathing was nice in Kaesong, something that I cannot say about Seoul.