My current travelling in Asia isn’t just about radio. I’m also discovering new and interesting beers, as well as seeing how life is lived here – from the crazy-fantastic to the downright… crazy. This is a rather long blog about one of the craziest places I’ve ever been.
It’s 7.30am. I’m scurrying through the corridors of the Lotte Hotel in downtown Seoul, on the lookout for a tour company that I’d booked a trip with. A trip to a place that is a little, well, different.
A little history, before we continue. Korea is one of those places that keeps getting invaded. If it wasn’t the Mongols in the 13th century, it was the Japanese in the late 16th, and then the Japanese again in the late 19th century, and then the Japanese properly took over in the early 20th century.
Anyway, after the Japanese were defeated in WWII in 1945, the plan was that the US and the USSR would run the place. As if that was ever going to fly. In 1948, the USSR ran the North bit, and the South bit was left to the Americans, who promptly lost interest and pissed off, and so in 1950, North Korea (backed by the USSR and the Chinese) realised that the lack of US soldiers was quite handy, and decided to invade the South. The US decided it had better come back to support the South (aided by lots of other western countries); and there was a great big war and millions of people died – 2.5 million civilians, and another 1.5 million from the military. In 1953, both sides wanted a rest, and called a ceasefire. Not an end to the war – just a ceasefire. So, the countries are still technically at war, though the ceasefire still holds.
(Well, I say that. The tour guides didn’t tell us this, but North Korea withdrew from the ceasefire in May 2009. So, technically, they’re at war, with no ceasefire any more.)
As a result of all this, there’s still a big border between North Korea and South Korea. And, on this border, there’s a bit where South Korean soldiers and North Korean soldiers stare at each other every day.
This was where I’m going.
The tour bus microphone is taken by an amusing Japanese lady with excellent English and a hoarse voice, who welcomes us to the tour with wit and panache, and cracks a few jokes. Today’s going to be brilliant with her doing the tour. She then announces that she’s going to do the tour for the Japanese, and us English people would have our own tour guide called Kim. Oh.
Kim duly appears. Kim has considerably worse spoken English than Amusing Japanese Lady, and no discernable sense of humour; but quite interesting nonetheless. Kim – technically, it’s Mr Kim – is the most popular name in Korea; a quarter of the population is called Kim. It must be really annoying with nametags at school.
This particular Mr Kim (not the other 18 million of them) avoids telling us that the North Koreans rolled their sleeves up in May 2009 and are spoiling for a fight; and instead, tells us that his name means ‘gold’ and other slightly less important information. The bus rumbles up a four-lane highway which gets less and less busy as we go. The road’s this wide to make it easy for tanks, apparently. The South’s tanks, not the North’s tanks.
We arrive at a ‘peace park’. Kim has taken our passport details, and announces he will now defect to the North sell our details to Nigeria scammers register us for passage into the de-militarised zone, the DMZ. In the meantime, we’ve twenty minutes, chop chop, don’t be late. In the bitter cold, we look at the peace bell, a bullet-ridden locomotive, and our first soldier of the day, hiding behind some barbed wire watching over the DMZ.
We’re told later that the barbed-wire fences are covered with ‘sensors’ which spot any break instantly, and soldiers will come running. Here, though, is an informative display which show these ‘sensors’ are nothing more than white stones; designed to be spotted in patrols, rather than anyone coming running.
Walking past a set of ribbons with written hopes and prayers (the provenance of which we’re not privy to), we jump back onto the coach to warm up. So far, we’ve seen lots of conciliatory pro-unification exhibits. “We’re one Korea”, the thought appears to be, “let us be one”. Kim announces that the details of our passports have been sorted, and that we can now be kidnapped and horse-whipped until half-dead visit the DMZ.
Five minutes later, we’re at a checkpoint, run by soldiers who are just out of school. Conscription is mandatory in South Korea, and you’ve around two years wearing a uniform to look forward to. Kim points out – rather too late – that we’re not allowed to take photographs. One soldier comes onto the coach, and does a cursory inspection of our passports. He jumps back off the coach – probably to continue playing Final Fantasy VII or whatever young kids do these days – and we’re allowed to go on our way.
Our next stop is Dorasan Station, a brand new railway station that’s had the privilege of having George W Bush as a visitor, but virtually no actual travellers. It’s not the last station from the South, a poster says, but the first station towards the North. Except there’s never been any rail services from here into the North; the platform to Pyeongyang looks impressive but is locked. The station is large, impressive, and useless – Kim tells us that the station is only here for the tourists (that’s us). There was a daily freight train to a city in a free-trade area in the North for a while, but the North Koreans stopped that in December 2008. The station is a monument to hope of a unified Korea; or a big white elephant.
We get back on the bus, and get taken to the Dora Observatory. We stand at a row of binoculars, which would – if the fog would abate a little – allow us to look into North Korea. We’re forbidden from taking photos beyond a certain line, so all of us stand on the line, and hold our cameras above our heads to take a shot. Or, we could pump 100 won coins into the binoculars. The ‘photo line’ is unclear – earlier I thought you could only take photos in front of it, but a solider comes up and grabs my camera off me, deftly navigates the menu to remove the shot, and gives it back to me. From here, we can see the South Korean ‘freedom village’. Just. The only thing I can see is, just, the South Koreans’ flagpole.
On route to our next destination. Kim hasn’t told us that we can’t take photographs out of the window of the bus, so I innocently do – since I’m rather concerned at the fact that I appear to be right next to a heavily mined area. It turns out that the DMZ has lots of mines in it; the kind of mines that blow your ankle off (and therefore slows your colleagues down, since you’re not dead and must come with them). Cheery.
We’ve arrived at our next stop – the ‘third tunnel of agression’. We put on some hard hats and are taken down by train to see the tunnel the naughty North Koreans built. The tunnel is small, and I have to stoop to walk along it. It’s coated with coal dust (apparently the North Koreans claimed it was a coal mine, even though there’s no coal in the area); and photography is not allowed. The conciliatory, pro-unification tone of the surface turns aggressive below – with an exhibit describing the ‘deception’ of the coal dust, commenting “this shows the two-faced attitude of the North”, or similar. Two, large, tunnels lead down to the North Korean one, to allow the South Koreans to ferry tourists down there.
Back out of the DMZ, and to a remote restaurant for lunch, where, in the snow, we enjoy a typical Korean lunch: lots of small vegetarian tapas dishes, and the curious thin fatty beef favoured by most Asian countries. A coffee machine serves hot, sweet, white coffee – situated next to the automated door; so a blast of icy air accompanies every trip to the coffee machine. It doesn’t deter us. A Korean singer starts singing. We’re told we can stay if we like and hear the song. We all decide we want to go back to the coach.
We then meet Kim, our tour guide for the second half. I didn’t catch her name, but I’m assuming she’s called Kim. She has an unnerving habit of explaining something and then explaining it again in a slightly different way. She repeats herself by double-explaining everything rather often, and I suspect it’s a habit – rather an unnerving one.
She’s taking us to the Joint Security Area; and she first ensures we’re not wearing ripped jeans. This is apparently because the North Koreans like taking photographs of tourists with ripped jeans and telling the North Korean population that westerners are so poor, we can’t even afford new trousers. She tells us we can’t take any photographs anywhere unless she says so, and then she tells us that, unless she says so, we can’t take any photographs anywhere. We go back to the DMZ checkpoint, and a different young soldier takes a break from posting rabid nonsense on Digital Spy and checks our passports, as well as checking our clothing. We’ve all passed the clothing test. We’re allowed to continue.
Our coach stops. We’re told that we must leave all bags, and only take a camera. We leave the warm coach, and get onto a slightly colder one, driven by a rather more impressive-looking soldier. Another one constantly stands up, looking at us. Kim stands up to tell us that she’s not allowed to stand up, so she sits down and tells us, via the microphone, that we’re going for a UN briefing. We get off the bus, and get given visitor badges each, and get told to sign a declaration which basically says that if we get shot dead, it’s nobody’s fault but your own for wanting to come here in the first place. Our briefing consists of Kim reading a script softly into our ears via a headset, while the Japanese, whos numbers have swelled considerably, get the benefit of someone standing in front of them. This script is accompanied by Powerpoint. It’s moderately informative, and shows a bit of the history of the Korean War. And it finishes, and we then troop back onto the bus, where Impressive Soldier watches over us, while Kim stands up to tell us that we must all follow her orders because it’s a bit dangerous, this next bit. We get told to walk in two lines, to always stick together, and not to take any photographs, and to walk in two lines, and to always stick together, and photographs are only allowed when she says and not before.
We walk into, and out of, an impressively empty building; and into a small blue hut. There’s a table here – and we’re told that this table marks the border. This is where the North and the South come to chat. Two large and very impressive soldiers stand by, wearing dark glasses (to hide the hatred in their eyes – no, really). We’re allowed to take photographs from here, so I take one standing on the border, and one of the concrete post outside the window which is also the border. I stand in North Korea to do so. I pose for a goofy picture, mistakenly taking my hat off, next to the other guard (we’re under instructions to stand a step in front of him at all times.) We’re told that everything we’re saying in this room is being recorded, and will be available for the next 24 hours. And then we walk, in two lines, to an observation post that I’d take a photo of if I could, but I couldn’t, so I won’t.
This is the oddest bit. We stand on this observation post, looking into North Korea. A North Korea soldier looks back from a large building. The North Koreans have a number of large buildings on their side as well. One of them was earlier explained to us as a tourist observation post. We notice them watching us for a bit using binoculars, before they disappear inside to warm up. We’ve no doubt that they’re listening to us talking.
We look behind us. That’s the ‘propaganda village‘, hard to see through the fog, but you can see the huge flagpole (the biggest in the world, so they say); and a few glimpses of the large buildings that are, apparently, empty shells and just there for show.
We look back at the blue buildings where we were earlier. They’re being guarded. The soldiers stand half-covered by the building, to make it easier to duck for cover if the North Koreans start firing. They have a taekwondo pose. They’re all wearing the dark glasses.
This is a very, very odd place. People have died here; there have been irregular shootouts. It’s with considerable relief when we’re led back to our coach.
We’re driven (still with More Impressive Soldier checking on us) to the… gift shop. But of course.
I buy some (now discontinued) North Korean money as a keepsake. 63p of North Korean won costs me £2.50. This is the sort of mark-up RyanAir would be pleased with. The More Impressive Soliders come into the gift shop and pose with tourists for photos, thus becoming, in my eyes, much less impressive. They wish us goodbye, presumably aching to get on with World of Warcraft. We hand our visitors passes back, and get back onto our own coach. Kim thanks us all for behaving, and then thanks us all for not misbehaving.
As we drive off, Kim points out a new building that’s being built. That, she says, is the new briefing centre.
We come back to Seoul.
It would be easy to cynically point to the gift shop and the new briefing centre; to the white elephant railway station and the peace park; and claim that the entire thing is just a way of extracting money out of tourists.
Of course – it’s not. It’s deadly, deadly serious. Millions of lives already lost in this pointless war. The North Koreans appear to be under considerable hardship. Families have been completely separated – no communication allowed. This is a futile, hateful, agressive place. And I’ve just been allowed inside to have a look.
Which makes it all the more… crazy.