A Small Stream That Flows Into A Major River North Korea – Vacation in a Secret State (Part 3)

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North Korea – Vacation in a Secret State (Part 3)

I’d like you to take just a moment and think about the situation I found myself at the end of the other day. It was 1 am and I was in a hotel in Kaesong, 10 km from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), perhaps the most tense place on earth. 3 hours ago I was eating dog for dinner and now getting a massage from a North Korean waitress, both guides in the room watching! I’ve found myself in some awkward situations before, but he probably takes the biscuit.

This day was mostly travel, as we headed from the capital, Pyongyang, to Kaesong, in the southern part of the country. The tour bus headed out of Pyongyang and into one of the country’s many checkpoints. There are restrictions on the movement of citizens in the DPRK. Unless you have a very good reason and permission, you cannot travel outside your hometown or region. It is slightly reduced during public celebrations, but checks are always there. The document check was efficient, but thorough, and we were soon on our way.

We initially traveled on a 10-lane motorway, which was quite scenic. We must have driven on it for about 15-20 minutes, and never saw another vehicle on the entire road. There were a few bicycles and a few people walking along the road, but no other cars, lorries or buses. The roads were also not very well maintained and some of the lanes showed clear signs of neglect with huge potholes. Others sometimes have mounds of mud, which are only less than a meter high. They weren’t tall enough to be any kind of barricades, but no one could really figure out what they were. I would have taken photos, but we were politely asked while the bus was moving. I’m sure it did because we could photograph parts of the DPRK that weren’t meant to be seen outside the country.

After about an hour’s journey, we reached the West Sea Barrage. It is an 8 km long tide-control wall, which can change the level of the Taedong River that flows through Pyongyang. It was built in 5 years (and, surprise, surprise, received “on-the-spot guidance” from both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il). It was an impressive feat – a true battle of manpower against the elements. I don’t know what the DPRK’s level of technology was when this barrage was built, but you can be sure they didn’t do it the easy way.

After seeing the barrage, and watching an informative video dubbed in rather poor English, we headed to a very old Buddhist temple. It was really steep, down dirt roads and up dirt tracks. A fair amount of the real DPRK was seen here. There were people who farmed with hand plows and there were children who worked in the paddy fields. One thing that struck me was the land designated for agriculture. It seems that there is a lot of it, but the conditions for agriculture in the DPRK are not good. Soil quality, inefficient farming practices, lack of pesticides and fertilizers, and food lost due to corruption can all be partially responsible for the food shortages that the DPRK faces every year. But people work in the fields and hope for a good harvest every year. Maybe one of these years they’ll get it.

The bus stopped and we had to climb a hill to reach the temple complex. One thing that I really liked was the pair of statues on the way to the temple. I had to look closely at their bodies in their old clothes, but both had classical kanji (Chinese characters used in Japan) written on them. The kanji is very old, and I have only found one Japanese person who is still able to read the characters. After going to the temple, I saw kanji written on the entrance of a building. I wonder why kanji is written here, when Hangul is the alphabet used by Koreans. The temple was 130 years old and was the only temple to survive the Korean War. There was a monk who met Kim Jong Il when he visited the temple a few years ago. These people sincerely wanted everyone (yes, even Americans) to live in peace, regardless of their religion, nationality, or race. I wondered if the people I met on my travels would ever see peace and a unified Korea, or if they would be engulfed in the horrors of war on the Korean Peninsula. It will be a tragedy for these monks above all others. The longer I spent in the country, the more I felt for the people there, the problem of drought and the constant fear of a future war with US troops stationed in South Korea. This does not mean that I agree with some of the government’s policies.

We had lunch near a small stream near the temple. Then we walked another hour to Sinchon town and the Sinchon War Crimes Museum. The museum is dedicated to exhibiting and remembering the atrocities committed by Americans during the Korean War. I didn’t intentionally just say American and didn’t include South Korea. People in the DPRK say that they and the people of South Korea have the same blood flowing through their veins and will not openly criticize them. Obviously the DPRK, American and South Korean forces committed atrocities, but here only the Americans are highlighted as the bad guys. Again this was a place where you heard stories, looked at photos and paintings and nodded, taking it all in. Unfortunately, some of the group chose to ask very difficult questions while we were here which really upset the guide and brought her to tears. Don’t say anything stupid and play the game well. The pictures were very vivid, and while I can’t guarantee they’re all true, they’re certainly thought-provoking. Anecdotes and purported orders given by American military officers in charge are also interesting to read. For example, Lt. Col. William A. Harrison allegedly gave the following order on December 3, 1950:

“The out unit is now forced back through Sinchon… The captured are immediately disposed of. Capture and kill all the hooded heads and skulls, all the dogs and their bastards so that the Commies cannot breed again. Spread the rumor that the deadly A- The bombs will be dropped after we withdraw to wipe out the communist forces and drive the civilians south.” As I said before, it’s a case of hearing both sides of the story (which may both be biased) and then making up your own mind and finding a middle ground that you’re happy with.

After the museum, we had a long drive to Kaesong. Once again we passed through many remote villages and saw people in the fields. As we approached Kaesong, the landscape changed and the hills rose above us, making the land seem barren and unsuitable for farming. The road to Kaesong and from there to Seoul is arrow straight for some unknown reason (easy for stitches, or a reunion parade?). About 30 minutes from Kaesong we randomly stopped at what can only be described as a makeshift roadside service. Services include low-traffic road structures and tea huts. I bought a can of Pokka coffee (a Japanese company, made in Singapore and exported specifically to the DPRK). This is a truly international product! Another half hour drive brought us to Kaesong. It is only 10km from the DMZ and we had to stop at a checkpoint to enter the city. Security is very high in this part of the DPRK. We walked through town passing the obligatory Kim Il Sung mosaic and a large concrete Kalashnikov (sp?) gun. As we walked through the city, we noticed that the buildings along the road were plain looking. White, freshly painted walls and top looks in condition. Conversely, when we crossed a junction and were able to see a road back from the main road, the other houses were in much worse shape and looked very run down. But the roadside houses are the most visible to the public and have to make a good impression. On the way to our hotel we were asked if anyone wanted dog soup for dinner! This was asked in advance because they needed to “prepare” it (ie find the dog, catch and kill it before we sit down to eat). I looked at the man sitting next to me and we both raised our hands. About half of the group said they had eaten it, each realizing they had more opportunities to do so in their lives.

Our hotel for tonight was in Kaesong and it was a mini-village. It consisted of about 20 small groups of rooms, all set in small courtyards and in traditional Korean style. Rooms had tatami (rice straw matting) floors, and offered underfloor heating as we slept on futons on the floor. But it was too warm and I think everyone refused. We had about 20 minutes to settle into our rooms before heading to dinner. Our evening meal was actually delicious. We were served several bowls of meat, vegetables and fish. Again, it was a little strange knowing that most people in this country were struggling to feed themselves, and yet we were eating like proverbial kings. Midway through the main course, the dog soup came to us. I have to admit it is an acquired taste! It was quite spicy but it must not have been a very meaty dog ​​as there wasn’t much meat in it! But now I can say that I have eaten dog, which everyone always breathes. Dinner was followed by the obligatory Korean karaoke, which was enjoyed by all. In the middle of karaoke, we were asked if anyone would like a massage by a waitress for 20 euros! It was completely out of the blue and we wanted to make sure our guide meant it! But I was on a roll after the dog soup and said I wanted to do it.

And so after about an hour and a half we come full circle back to the beginning of the story. It was a very nice massage, although it was very hard and painful compared to what I was used to. Alas, it was the first of the day and night and I fell asleep wondering if I would wake up to the sound of bombs falling or gunfire from the DMZ!

Once again, thank you for taking the time to read this article. Hope you enjoyed it.

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