I read about it in books, I saw it in numerous documentaries, I noted its countless appearances in the news – North Korea. It is painted as the miserable yet mysterious land north of the line. It remains one of only two countries in the world without Coca Cola. It provokes the world with potential nuclear power. It sustains the dark distance that keeps families of the Korean Peninsula separated. When I decided to go to South Korea, I knew I wanted to see North Korea. I realized even if I had the chance to “see” North Korea, I would only be viewing the same picture that is used for the books, movies, and news I’d already seen. North Korea has only provided a limited number of censored locations to be used as marketing material. But, in some way, seeing it with my own eyes made it tangible and confirmed its existence. So, I booked a tour to the Joint Security Area (JSA) within the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at Panmunjom.
I’d spent the previous day reminding myself of the ins and outs of the Korean War and the general history of the Korean Peninsula at the National War Museum in Seoul. A retired high school principal from South Korea was my volunteer guide. In broken English and a strong accent he reviewed the details of the unpredicted Saturday attack that sparked the Korean War. In the conventional style of a man whose career was educating the younger generation, he would pause at regular intervals to quiz me – both on how well I was listening and how much my American education had prepared me for a visit to Korea. A few times I surprised him with my correct answers and myself with lucky guesses. But on too many details I was embarrassed to not know the correct answers. By the time the tour concluded, I did feel like I had a much better idea of the history of Korea and the war, yet there were still a few pieces I knew I wouldn’t be able to piece together until I saw North Korea.
DMZ tours must be booked in advance and my Korean friend, Doh, had helped me do that on my first day in town. Unfortunately, Doh wasn’t allowed to join us. Foreigners and flowing foreign currency are eagerly welcomed (and as I would later learn, on both sides of the border) but apparently, actual Korean citizens must apply months in advance and pass a background check to ensure they aren’t spies for the North or any other country who is friendly with the North. Doh and I met during high school in Missouri. It seemed like a long way and a random place for a boy from Korea. Looking back, I had no idea at the time that I’d be visiting his homeland a few years later. He was smart, quick, and funny and I enjoyed our Video Production classes together. Quickly after high school graduation, Doh had to return to South Korea for his two years of mandatory military service. Eventually, Doh and I pulled a Trading Places, as he returned to America for university and I headed to Asia for work. We got back in touch then and he was at the top of my list of things/places/people to see in Korea. I took advantage of his knowledge and experience in the military and dug for his opinion on everything from a united peninsula to people from the South sending DVDs and food across the border via balloons. Predictably, Doh had little tolerance for the North Korean government and their propaganda.
On the day of the tour, I joined a few dozen other curious foreigners and boarded a bus. We headed north out of Seoul, passports and cameras in hand. The land outside of the city became more deserted the further north we drove. Isolated as it was, it remained green and productive and I learned that farmers who live near the border receive large incentives for making their homes so close to the threatening line. We were given specific instructions about when we could and could not take pictures and even write down notes. In reality, it is a legitimate war threat zone. But it seemed nothing more and nothing less than the most censored tourist attraction. Still, I didn’t want to tempt my fate by snapping an untimely picture. The highlight of the drive was passing the North Korea Propaganda Village. Unfortunately, this was at time where no pictures were allowed. I’d seen the village in documentaries and was surprised to see it in real life. From afar, the first thing we could see from the South was the record breaking gigantic flag of the North. The strategic flag seems to be flying in the face of the few borderline dwellers. However, the flag is actually so large, unless wind is substantial, it is usually too heavy to actually fly. So, we passed the flag that hung folded over itself and lifeless from the tallest flagpole in the world. The flag marked supposedly the homes of average North Koreans in an average village near the border. In reality, this village was anything but average - an authentic propaganda village, completely vacant, without windows or electricity, not a resident in sight, no a single piece of furniture to be seen inside the bare rooms. We could only see the propaganda village from afar and in passing but even a glance quickly brought to mind the concrete style so favored by the Soviets who, for so long, remained the North’s only lifeline (and ironically so, as the North was supposedly established on an ideology absent of any outside influence or interference…) Popular belief suggests the village was built by the North to show their alleged wealth and progress to the families just across the border. But the tables have drastically turned in the last two decades and the village looks like little more than a bad joke.
Once we were within the DZM, a low ranking member of the American military boarded our bus. He checked our passports again and assumed the camera censorship role. We were allowed to ask him questions. I had lots of them, none of which were controversial and all with available factual answers. I was extremely discouraged to find he couldn’t answer the most basic of my inquiries. He didn’t even know why America signed the armistice agreement on behalf of South Korea or why they wanted to stop active war. I sincerely hope this young man was an exception in the American military and his limited international education did not represent the majority of U.S. military. I do hope that his inability to answer my simple questions embarrassed him and prompted him to go read a book or two about the border he was protecting and the war his fellow countrymen helped fight.
As the bus continued to drive us closer to North Korean territory, the propaganda increased. This time, the propaganda was from the South side. The overplayed script from our guide was transparent. She wanted to make sure none of us doubted the darkness that lurked to the north of the line. Catering to a Western audience, she sung the praises of the American intervention and the evils of communism. She really could have taken it down a notch, seeing as our entire bus was filled with middle-class Westerns who were highly unlikely to trade in our comfortable and free lifestyles by defecting to the North.
Finally, we arrived. We had to file out two-by-two. We walked into the front of a building and when we stepped out the back of it, we were staring at North Korea. We took our places on the stairs and simply looked across the line. Behind the scenes, clocks were ticking and the choreographed tour was careful to stay on schedule to fit in all groups in a timely and orderly fashion. But at the time, all I could see from those stairs was us versus them. The daily scene, absent of tourists, is entertaining enough. South Korean soldiers stand facing the North, watching for any hint of invasion. North Korean soldiers (all of whom look fed and healthy, as I’d heard they want to portray the best image) have their backs to the South, watching inside their domain to ensure no one defects. We were given strict instructions regarding appearance. No shorts, no flip-flops, and if we were going to wear jeans, they must be dark and without holes. We could not gesture to any one on the other side, nor could we point to anything. Basically, mind our manners, we were told, because anything unflattering we do or say could be used as North Korean propaganda. On this particular day, we were pleasantly surprised to be joined by another group of tourists. Albeit, we weren’t actually joined, as the tourists on the North Korean side remained in their allotted area. Bearing our rules in mind, I was immediately taken back considering the appearance of the tourists opposite us: Many well-fed Asian men, well-dressed Asian woman, and a variety of Caucasian tourists, a few who sported flip-flops and were readily pointing at us and other people or things on the South side.
I had never thought there would be tourists on the North side and I certainly didn’t consider the prospect of white tourists! I assumed the men must be wealthy Chinese businessmen and the white women had to be from Russia. I presented this hypothesis to Doh, who had his own theory: The plump Asian men could have been North Korean “actors,” paid to eat, tour the North side of the DMZ, and present a welcoming and favorable imagine and simply, the white people were likely anyone with money from Europe. Doh didn’t hesitate to say the North was desperate for income and more than happy to give repetitive, propaganda-filled, tours to anyone with a checkbook. I didn’t doubt this, and minus the “desperate” for income factor, the repetitive, propaganda-filled tour sounded familiar… oh ya! I was on one. Just on the other side of the line.
When our time was up, we filed out two-by-two again, and boarded the bus out of the DMZ. On our way out, we passed the Bridge of No Return. This bridge has been used to trade prisoners over the years. I can hardly imagine walking across that bridge, either way, to or from the unknown. Too often, I hear, those who walk across that bridge were walking both to and from family, as so many families remain divided across the peninsula. We carried on and again passed the Propaganda Village and the strangely large flagpole. The lush but empty fields gave way to the busy city of Seoul again. When we arrived in Seoul, I could go anywhere I pleased. Indeed, I did, as I caught a train south to Gyeongju, South Korea. I was freely moving about this democratic country, a luxury unknown in the North. And for whatever it was worth, I was grateful to be taking the propaganda tour on this side of the line.