life travel

North Korea, July 2013: Day 4

Our plan for the day is to go to the DMZ and Kaesong.

We leave early, because it is a long drive and they are strict about when you can come to the DMZ. We are warned about missing our time – I later think this is nonsense, as we change our schedule to go to the DMZ later rather than first. But what else is new? Every day the schedule we take bears little resemblance to the schedule we are told the night before and in the morning.

We drive past a monument built in 2011, the Arch of Reunification, two women hold up a sphere with an image of Korea on it, symbolising reunification. The last time I saw so many monuments, I was in Washington DC. And so many of them are so new – is this a consequence of full employment?

We pause at the rest stop, where there is a stand of things to buy, and some tea, and some unappealing bathrooms. I had hoped to sleep on the bus, but the – mostly deserted – road is very bumpy and this isn’t possible. I bought my iPad to watch, but don’t think that will combine well with the jolting!

Eventually we arrive in Kaesong. 300,000 People live in Kaesong, half in the city and half outside it. It used to have the #1 university for Confucianism, during the dynasty. The buildings for which were built 400 years ago. Now it is a state university.

There are trees (Ginko trees) in the courtyard, 31m high, 6.5m circumference – 4 people hug it. The guide tells us a joke about how all the trees in the courtyard are male, but that they have started to add female trees outside, which doesn’t really make sense to me. I think it is something to do with the university only admitting men. There are two boarding houses and a lecture room, and a small library.

During the dynasty, 700k people lived in Kaesong. The founder of the Koryo dynastyTaejo of Goryeo started the dynasty in 918 with the capital and unified 3 kingdoms in 936. Whenever he would expand he married the daughter of the richest family, and as a result he had 29 wives.

In 1361 the main building burnt down so only the sides remain. Behind the palace is a mountain called “mommy mountain” because it looks like a pregnant woman lying on the ground.

There was lots of foreign trade, rapidly developed. Many things were produced including porcelain, ginseng, and exported to other countries (China, Japan, even some “Arabian” countries). Koryo was mispronounced by the Italians, which is how Koryo became Korea.

We learn about the price of slaves – young lady slaves fetched a higher price than men, because they could have more baby slaves (delightful).

The Korean people were very brave and patriotic (a recurring theme throughout this tour) against foreign invaders. We are told about a “renowned military general” who was very famous and respected by many people, although he was actually very small and thin – but very smart. Learned Korean at the age of 3, and military strategy at the age of 7.

There’s a iron helmet, weighing 4kg.

Factoid: The Chinese invented gunpowder, but the Koreans were the first to use it.

We’re told the story of a Korean Mulan, women were not allowed to fight but one girl put on a man’s costume and fought. At the end of the battle she was dead. I don’t think there will be a Disney movie about this story!

There’s a wooden block that was used for printing. You print one page at a time, and in this way people printed the whole collection of Buddhist scriptures in the 13th century. This required 80,000 blocks. This was done in Kanghwa island, where the originals still live.

First metal type in the world was created here between the 11-12 century, and is 300 years older than the Gutenberg. This was proved in 1972.

There are lots of Korean ceramics on display, the colour is “very unique – not blue, not green”. Mixed, like Jade colour. Ceramics are divided into 60 kinds, according to the amount or iron in them. Patterns are not drawn, but filled up with another material. Some of the ceramics on display were buried for over 1000 years, but retain colour and shade.

A sculpture of a dragon is there, moved from the palace. It’s a dragon heading towards the sky, and the male dragon has a “miracle bead”. I’m not sure what this does, or means.

We arrive at the DMZ, and are carefully counted in. There are so many military people (men) there. Apparently there are a lot of landmines in this area – this isn’t peace, it’s a standoff. We have to walk in two lines, over the boundary line and then we get into the bus again. There are high walls either side of us, and you can see the barricades – held by wooden blocks, and if they are removed the stones will fall.

The boundary lines are 2km each side of the military demarkation line.

We are told that the white buildings belong to the DPRK, and the blue the US. It is the tensest station in the world, with both sides aiming at each other with their guns. We are told that we “will see who is the aggressor and who is blocking unification”, and that the army accompanies us “for safety”. We are allowed to take photos where the guide allows, but not of the military for the most part (we ask permission, sometimes yes, sometimes no).

240 families work on farms in the north part of the DMZ.

We get to go into the building where they had the armistice talks with the US during the war. The middle seat was taken by the chief of staff, and senior delegate of the Korean People’s army, General Nam Il. Vice Admiral William K Harrison, as chief delegate for the US, was in the middle on the US side. The story of the war is told as follows: it was provoked by the US in 1950, and after severe blows from the Korean People’s Army, the US asked for talks. The first talks took place July 10th, 1951 in Kaesong. Later, there was the agreement to move to the DMZ and talks resumed October 25th, 1951. During the talks, issues were discussed including the military demarkation line, the DMZ, and the exchange of prisoners. With the debate and argument, coming to agreement on 5 issues took 2 years.

Two seats were for delegates from the Chinese People’s Volunteers, and the same desk and chairs are there as were used for the original talks.

We move on to the place where the armistice agreement was signed, again with the original desks and chairs. The agreement is described by the military guide as the “surrender document”. There is a UN flag, that was brought by the US (apparently they were ashamed and did not want to take it home), and this prompts my favourite quote of the trip: “The flag has faded, but the aggressive nature of the US has not changed.” They do not acknowledge the oppression of the DPRK, and they still blame [the DPRK] for the war. Yesterday marks the completion of the Korean War, in NK the victory day, and they opened a museum – the US cannot hide anything of their doing in the past.

I’m checking my quotes, but the guide is nervous, she asks me, “why are you taking notes? Are you going to put it in the Google?” – there is an understanding here that Google is important in the West, but not a clear idea of what that is. I am wearing branded clothing (I wonder if the security cameras picked it up).

We go to see a monument (another!) with the signature of Kim Il Sung. In order to provide prosperity, he (this maybe refers to his son? Kim Jong-il) told them to erect a monument with his signature on it. Kim Jong-il passed away December 17th, 2011, which was heartbreaking news for all the Korean People as he was everything for the country’s reunification. On March 3rd, 2012, Kim Jong-un visited the monument and memorised it. It is 9.4 metres long, which symbolises 1994. The monument is apparently balance, to encourage people on the road to the country’s reunification.

There is a concrete line between the buildings, this is the military demarcation line. The South buildings – blue ones, built and managed by the US – have lots of cameras. There is a third building which is where conferences happen That building is a place where people from the North and South can go freely, but currently the South has shut it. Military line has more landlines per sq m than anywhere else in the world. The south has a wall.

On the way back out, we have to stop so our guides can pick up their ID, which they are required to leave when they go into the DMZ.

It starts to rain, and soon it is really pouring. It is quite pretty around the DMZ, park and farmland, doesn’t look like I expected (not that I’m really clear on what I did expect). I had hoped to get some brief internet, but sadly not – I miss Twitter, and wish I could check into all these crazy places I’m visiting on Foursquare!

We have lunch that is apparently how the kings ate in the Koryo dynasty. It’s all cold, and comes in 12 tiny golden bowls with lids. I’m not keen to eat cold food here, but this is supposed to be a fancy place so I eat a little. The rice comes, and the woman serving it has filthy fingernails… I don’t eat any more after that.

The roads are terrible here, and the bridge is full of potholes, which makes me nervous.

We stop at a “big, local city”, of 300K people. Main industries are cement, tractors, and electricity. It is the capital of the Northern Hanyo province. The street we walk on was built in 2008, and is like a “pleasure ground” where people go on holidays and on Sundays. Most rice is produced from these provinces. We take a walk up a small hill, and then stop for a fermented rice and barley drink, something that is between beer and wine. I don’t drink it, but another person tells me “it tastes like acid”.

The popular Korean girl band, Moranbong Band, is on the TV again.

By the time we get back on the bus, I’m experiencing complete social overload. We were supposed to go back to the hotel, but stayed too long drinking (a common theme, with our western guide). There have been no clean bathrooms all day, so I am thirsty, and grumpy, and frankly desperate for some alone time. The hours of jolting about on the bus have not helped.

In all, at this point, I’m feeling very negative about bring in North Korea. Cold food served by people with dirty hands, gross bathrooms lacking toilet paper and soap… I cannot wait to get to clean Japan. Part of me wants to leave the following day (we opted for the longer tour), but I know I am mostly having an interesting time. I do hate being part of a tour though, no control in where you go or when, and there is just too much emphasis on drinking (this is our western guide, not the tour in general). The schedule is brutal enough, I can’t imagine doing it hungover.

I crack, and decide to plead sickness and skip dinner (I hate to miss anything, and dinner sounds appealing and safer than lunch – BBQ) and insist they drop me at the hotel. I am so reluctant to ask – what if they say no? But I do, and it’s fine, although our Korean guide is anxious about why I’m sick (“is it the food?”) and I plead jolting from the bus. We arrive at the hotel, and I run in, making it to the room just in time to get really sick.

Ah, vacation.

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3 replies on “North Korea, July 2013: Day 4”

I remember you said you went with YPT Tours. Who was your western guide? I had Troy and he was a raving alcholoic..

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