Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Excursion to the DMZ border area and a scary overnight stay in Kaesong

PHIL: Day 27/13 March.

Mum’s birthday, but we can’t call due to time differences combined with an early start for Kaesong, a city famous for its ginseng and its proximity to South Korea. Ever since the Korean War Armistice was signed in June 1953 the north and south of the Korean Peninsular have been technically at war with each other, separated only by the famous 38th Parallel Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Both Koreas, the South supplemented by US forces, face off across this six km no-man’s-land, three on either side of a wire and concrete barrier. 

the views to the 'other side' 
We have an ‘appointment’ with a DPRK Army colonel who seems to make a living out of hosting of semi-official visits by tourists like us. We are told that we must be accompanied by two armed soldiers “for our safety”. 

Jumping into our already crowded jeep the three soldiers, fortified by Marlboro cigarettes we had been advised to bring, get us waved through an intimidating series of tank-traps, steel gates and areas clearly mined and bordered by electric fences. 

We stop en-route at a simple building in which the Armistice itself was initialed, displaying inter alia the original faded UN flag which the ‘Imperialist aggressors’ used as a front for their activities (the southern side in the Korean war was fighting under the auspices of a UN mandate).

Further on, after crossing the border itself, we arrive at the Panmunjom DMZ headquarters. It is an especially poignant visit for me as, in the mid 1970s I made my first visit to the same location but from Seoul in the company of the British Military Attache. 

View over the border between DPRK and South Korea
Since my visit the Americans have built several large modern buildings which are out of scale with the military-style wooden huts which were the scene of monthly armistice talks until 1991 when they were broken off by the Americans (?). As on my first visit in 1976 we were allowed to enter the conference hut, but of course this time from the opposite end.

Allie and I stepped ‘technically’ into South Korea in a brief walk around the baize-covered table. The exercise is, alas, less emotive now without the table-stand flags representing the combatants and a yellow-painted line marking the actual border which crossed the floor and bisected the table itself. These were presumably removed when regular meetings ceased.

Whilst we conducted our ‘international’ walk (it is presently the only point at which a crossing can legally be made from North to South or vice-versa) two armed DPRK soldiers blocked the exit door into South Korea. I recall two ROK soldiers doing the same at the North end exit when I visited before. A small shiver passed through me as I overheard a British soldier’s voice on the outside of the hut as a group from the south waited for us to vacate the building.

Surprisingly the DPRK Colonel encouraged us to take photographs at what I would have considered to be a sensitive location. The enormous flag-masts of ROK and DPRK respectively – probably 150m tall – waved lazily in the breeze on respective sides of the border as they did 30 years ago when each side regularly erected a still-taller pole to hang their flag on.

delicious traditional Korean style lunch
Back in the ‘safety’ of Kaesong we had lunch in a delightful traditional courtyard restaurant with tiled roof and water gardens. Sitting cross-legged on the floor in a paper-walled room we were served a generous and varied meal in brass bowls before joining another DPRK colonel for a visit to the Concrete Wall. This is a part of the demarcation line which seems most to offend the DPRK. Erected by the Americans in recent times this wall supplements the former wire division.

We drove eastward for nearly an hour, finally climbing the north slope of a hill which gave a broad view over the DMZ. Here the DPRK Army had built a concrete observation post where soldiers quickly set up powerful binoculars on tripods for us to view the border. A part of the concrete wall itself and two observation posts flying the UN flag were visible across a charred area where, according to our hosts, the ‘enemy’ had started fires by firing ordnance. It was certainly ‘front line’ stuff.

View over the old town of Kaesong
Later, during a visit to the Kaesong cultural museum, I spotted a line of hunch-backed old men carrying huge bundles of kindling piled on their backs. It was too good a photo-opportunity to miss, so I motioned to Allie to take a shot of me at the museum entrance whilst the burdened peasants passed in the background. 

She took one shot of just the men, then one of me in the foreground. Mr Kim and the Army colonel were having a smoke nearby, and immediately must have seen through our ruse. 
Allie quickly interjected that she needed a toilet urgently and, with great presence of mind, deleted the digital shot of the old peasants whilst inside. On emerging Mr Kim insisted on reviewing her shots and even ordered her to delete the one with me in the foreground. No reason was given, but it indicated the extreme sensitivity of the DPRK to the portrayal of anything ‘backward’ about their country.

entrance to our courtyard hotel in Kaesong
More ‘James Bond’ was to come. Back at our overnight lodging, a series of traditional Korean town houses restored as tourist accommodation, we were informed that the only heat would be a fire under the bedroom floor and that electricity would cease at 9 p.m. 
Fortified by Kaesong’s ginseng schnapps we lay down on the tatami mats in paper-walled rooms only to find the floor was too hot to touch. One of the mats was already scorched, yet outside it was probably minus 5C. Open the door and we froze, close it and we fried. 

Sleeping fitfully we were woken just before midnight by a hammering on the great outer wooden door of our courtyard. I grabbed some protective clothing and found Mr Kim, apologetic, saying we must admit a telephone engineer to the compound as some high-ranking officer on his way to meet Mohammed el Baradei, the UN Atomic Energy chief, needed to make a call.

street life in Kaesong
Although el Baradei was indeed due in Pyongyang that day it seemed an unlikely request in a mediocre tourist hostel. I watched the engineer fiddle with some wires by torchlight and then, after he vanished, checked where the wires disappeared – into our bedroom, where there was of course no telephone. 

From that moment on we whispered and avoided any comment on the ‘Great Leader’, the ‘Dear Leader’ or their beleaguered nation.

ALLIE: DAY 27: Tuesday, 13th of March

Towards the border to South Korea and overnight in traditional Kaesong

with 'our' general at the border
It’s another beautiful morning, hardly any wind. How about the first balloon flight in the DPRK? We are quite keen to somehow do it, but that’s a long long way. Anyway, we try and sow the ideas of ballooning into Kim’s head and he is quite interested. We leave at 8.30 for the 160km drive down to the border of South Korea, Panmunjom.

Again, it’s motorway nearly all the way down with hardly any traffic on it. But alongside it we see people walking and walking and walking. God knows how far and where to. We pass a few control posts and our guides and the driver have to show their passports, but not we funnily enough. After 2 ½ hrs we arrive at the border.

Another three man join our car, one officer and two soldiers – for our protection – we are told. We drive into the demilitarized zone and stop at the houses where the peace treaty was signed in 1953. The Korean officer is a quite relaxed man and doesn’t seem to mind me taking pictures, in fact, he later even requests being on it!

stepping across the border at Panmunjom
Another few kilometres through farm land (north Korean peasants are farming this land) and we arrive at Panmunjom the border. This is one or even THE most safe-guarded borders in the world. But everything looks quite peaceful here and we are even allowed to set foot into South Korean territory by walking across the border line in the conference hall.

South Korea seems to show off with two brand new buildings whilst North Korea tries to impress with a huge flag. Whatever suits you. It definitely suits me to take pictures. How strange is that? By death not of a farmer, but no problem with highly secured military zones!

The officer asks me what I feel. Well, it reminds me of the days when Germany was a split nation and when travelling to Berlin was a major exercise. It’s a bit like standing in front of the Berlin Wall, I tell him. Later on we have a discussion with Kim and Ong Min, both being convinced that there will be a reunification and one nation and one government, but that of course will be the Dear Leader!

We say good-bye to the soldiers and drive to Kaesong town, famous for it’s ginseng schnapps and historic old city. Right in the middle of these beautiful old wooden houses is our hotel, the Kaesong Folk Hotel. We eat just across the road. This traditional Restaurant called ‘Tongil’ is the most famous and popular restaurant in Southern Korea.

Phil in our car - still smiling at that time!
And the food is indeed a feast. At least 12 different small plates with tofu, fish, soybeans, vegetables, meat, rice etc are placed in front of us on a long table. 

We sit on straw mats on the ground, but the system here in Korea allows the hot cooking steam from the kitchen to flow underneath the rooms, so it’s indeed rather nice warm. This is real traditional Korea. And the weather is so beautiful, I want to go outside now and stroll around this lovely old town. But no. Kim has a different programme for us.

We drive out to the tomb of emperor Kongmin, the 3rd King of the Koryo dynasty.

tomb of Emperor Kongmin
The tomb lies embedded by hills and pine forest. It’s structure is similar to the Chinese graves: a alleyway with stone figures, warriors, officials, tigers and goats (no elephants or camels or horses here tough) leads the way to a round overgrown hill underneath the tomb lies.

A bunch of soldiers are enjoying their time out here taking pictures of each other – but we are warned not to take pictures when they could see us. Any logic in this??

We drive back to town and pick up another officer. Now we drive 40min out of town towards the ‘concrete wall’, again a ‘must’ in the programme. But I don’t really want to see that, I would so much rather like to walk around the old town. No chance.

When we finally get there, it’s nothing to see, really. The officer puts up 3 binoculars on a stand and points out to look for the military posts. They are at least 5 km away. The land here is all burnt and barren. 

view to the demilitarized  border zone
This is the DMZ, no man’s land. We listen to some more stories about the Korean war, yes the South Koreans have trespassed into DPRK territory and possibly even dug tunnels to sneak equipment into this country. But the other side tells the story the other way round. Indeed we see a lot of tunnels and the question is: who started digging from what side?

Finally a bit of culture and a walk: we visit the Koryo history museum. These lovely old buildings with traditional roofs and set in a peaceful garden used to be the confusion university in 11th century, a centre of learning and studies. It now houses displays excavations from tombs, Buddhist figures, the remains of pagodas, clay figures and books.

For sunset we drive up a little hill – of course marked by a huge Kim Jong Il statue – and finally get a view over the old town. Small houses with ceramic roofs surrounded by stone walls nestle in a disorganized looking way in the middle of the town.

And, we are allowed to take pictures! To my utter surprise Kim even suggests walking back to our hotel. But as it is, not through the little lanes of the old city but only along the main street.
a lovely view across Kaesong

Our hotel is a real experience: a few traditional houses run along a little creek alongside cobble stoned paths. We have a whole house to ourselves. The floors are laid with tatami mats, the windows and walls set with paper and wood frame. 

Like in traditional Japanese houses we have to take our shoes off. It’s freezing cold! There is no hot water for a shower or wash. Only one room – our bedroom – will be a bit warmer (that’s the one with the floor heating). We are discouraged to use the restaurant, since that is also freezing below tolerance. So we sit there waiting for our dinner. It finally arrives, cold, but still quite tasty.

We start talking about our experiences here, the funny rules about photography and the adoration the Kim’s receive by their people. Just as we are about to toast to Phil’s mums 86th birthday with a glass of schnapps, there is suddenly a knock at the door. It’s Kim. “Please open the door, we have to check the telephone lines!” What? At 9pm? And by the way, where is the telephone? We haven’t seen one here at all. Then Kim and some house staff fiddle around something in the courtyard and disappear. Weird!

dinner on tatamis in our room
Thinking about it, we start to believe that they have just checked the little spy microphone attached to our ceiling or other parts of the room. Oh dear, if they really spy on us and listen to whatever we say, we may be in trouble. VERY uncomfortable  feelings arise.

Not that we have said or done anything wrong or forbidden, but of course you do joke about things and say this or that. So the rest of this long evening we spend whispering and thinking about reasons for this strange late night visit of Kim and the staff.

Later in the morning he explains, that an important delegation was supposed to visit the hotel and that’s why they needed to check these wires! We still didn’t believe that.

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