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An easy entry into North Korea


For more than half a century the communist state of North Korea has existed inside a bubble of Orwellian dream logic.  The Kim Il Sung-and-son cult of personality may have surpassed even the excesses of Mao Tse Tung. 

Amazingly, the DPRK has outlived the cold war that spawned it.  And yet over the past few years this perfectly preserved totalitarian fossil has started changing by tiny increments.  A series of famines and North Korea’s utter economic despair have forced it to cautiously open the door — just a crack — to the outside world.  Though technically still at war with the South, the two Koreas are cooperating on several economic projects.  These include the Kaesong Industrial Park and the Geumgang mountain resort, both in North Korea. 

Geumgangsan was once an exclusive holiday spot for members of the Kim dynasty.  Since 1998 though, Hyundai Asan corporation has paid staggering sums to the North Korean government for the rights to develop the mountain range into a resort.  For a few years the tourist trips were made by boat.  Since 2003, though, a bus route has been open to Geumgangsan from South Korea’s northeast corner. 

After a couple failed attempts I found a cooperative travel agent in Seoul and bought a $300 (US) ticket for the three day trip.  At the time, I was suffering through a dehumanizing contract with an English institute.  I knew they would never give me the Monday I needed off.  Calling in sick was out of the question too, since cell phones are banned in North Korea.  In the end, my coworker Simon agreed to pass on a prefabricated excuse for me on the glorious Monday morning in question.

And so it happened that I was on a bus early one bright Saturday, rolling towards the most heavily defended strip of land in existence.  The coast was thick with razor wire and every kilometer or so there were two large concrete blocks on each side of the road.  I learned that these were packed with explosives.  In the event of a North Korean invasion they’d explode at the push of a button and the road would be littered with massive debris. 

We got off at the Southern side of the demilitarized zone at a make-shift immigration office.  A North Korean visa would “spoil” a passport by limiting one’s travel options, so we were given extra travel documents to be stamped.  Near the immigration an entire hillside was filled by hedges trimmed into characters representing “Tong Il.”  Later I learned the English translation: unification.

The dozens of elderly South Korean tourists and I boarded a fleet of buses and entered the twilight zone of the DMZ.  The bus driver was driving like he was on thin, brittle ice.  Everyone sat mystified in their seats; a mood of solemnity settled on the bus.

A week before my trip I had had a vivid dream: I was on a boat sailing to the North.  From the deck I could see the demilitarized zone, completely overgrown with vegetation, like some primeval landscape.  But on this actual bus ride I saw that these four kilometers are mostly a barren waste. 

It became clear when we had reached North Korea.  Along the road were telephone poles made of old logs.  The few vehicles around here were bicycles.  North Korean soldiers were stationed in all sorts of strange places — on a train track, in a rice field, on the path to a house near the road.  A man with ragged hair squatted on a wind-swept grassy hill, grinning and waving.

The bus stopped for an inspection by North Koreans soldiers.  While we waited the tour guide issued instructions: don’t talk to the soldiers, don’t take any pictures, don’t open the windows.  Then he announced my presence on this tour, for those who hadn’t yet noticed.  Everyone turned and stared.  Finally, an old woman broke the silence by posing a tricky question to the guide: Why was this foreigner here?  I was the only “weguk saram” (foreign person) on this tour of old folks who had lived through war, a divided homeland, and 50 years of paranoia and fear, but who had survived long enough to make this nationalistic pilgrimage.

The North Korean immigration was on a wide, windy bay.  The immigration officer couldn’t comprehend my Canadian passport.  He looked at it from every angle with a desperate expression of concentration, finally stamped my documents, then waved me through.

I was staying in the cheapest lodgings available, the cluster of huts that was the On Chung Village.  Instead of sharing a room with ten other people, I was given one all to myself, because of my awkward status as a foreigner.

That night, while the South Korean oldsters in my area were drinking and singing nostalgic songs, I went on a walk to the main hub of the resort — the cafeteria, duty free store, and bus parking lot.  A shuttle bus left every ten minutes but there was no rule against walking.  While crossing a bridge before the main road I was shocked to notice a human shape in the forest to my left — a North Korean soldier at his hidden sentry post.

Further down the road was crossed by a path to the nearby North Korean village.  Military checkpoints guarded both sides of the road at this pedestrian intersection.  As I approached some civilians were waiting to cross, and stared gapingly.  In the darkness these North Koreans looked like peasants or serfs from some Dostoyevsky novel.  They were dressed shabbily, in nondescript greys.  There was an aged man of stunted height and a stick for a cane. Others were walking antique-looking bicycles — it was too dark to ride without artificial light.

When I got to the main area of the resort there was no one around.  Fascinated by the view of the North Korean town, which was illuminated by a smattering of lights, I took out my camera and was about to take a picture when a tour guide came out of nowhere to stop me.

The next morning — day two of the tour, we hiked the Guryongyeon course up to a series of emerald colored pools that emptied out into each other, fed by a waterfall that plummeted down like a long string of tape.  All the broadest, most tremendous cliffs had been etched with massive calligraphy.  This turned out to be poetry exalting Kim Il Sung.  Seeing a dozen or more of the most scenic rock faces permanently defaced with this propaganda caused me to wince. 

During this hike the older South Korean tourists began warming up to me a bit.  I was offered hiking snacks quite generously.  One very popular snack on this trip was raw cucumbers.  It was strange to see groups of old women holding these huge, grotesque cucumbers up to their faces, and gnawing. 

I began to notice that all the park workers and the waitresses at the restaurant were wearing Kim Il Sung pins on their lapels.  I managed to strike up a conversation with a North Korean park official and he told me these pins were mandatory fashion accessories here.  His English was good, and he turned the conversation to my country of origin.  I remember him asking, in an offhand manner, “How far is it to Canada from here, by boat?”  I couldn’t tell him the exact distance but I wished him luck and gave him a Snicker’s bar.  Regrettably, I wasn’t allowed to pose for a picture with him.

On the third and last day we hiked the Manmulsang course, which boasted some spiky rock formations and a long, jagged ridge.  At the base I met another park official, but this one — sporting Kim Il Jung style sunglasses — was a drone, and ignored my controversial questions. 

That afternoon we crossed back into South Korea.  I entertained myself during the ride by remembering scraps and hints of North Korea that had been revealed in spite of the tight restrictions of this tour.  My interactions with the North Korean people had been extremely minimal.  From our limited contact, these people had struck me as completely innocent and living with pure, lofty ideals, although of course, completely programmed and indoctrinated.

Some words of the South Korean hotel manager in Geumgangsan have stayed with me — that after the separation of the last 50 years, a split between a totalitarian communist regime and capitalism, the people in the North and South now have “different minds.”

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