Our shiny purple tour bus hurtles up a South Korean highway at frenetic speed and as I stare across the rooftops of a small village where locals are busy drying seaweed in the hot springtime sun, I am full of anticipation and a pervading sense of mystery built on a frustrating lack of details received. “Wanna come to North Vietnam for my birthday?” my father had asked only a week before, showing his age. A few minutes later, another phone call; “Sorry, I meant North Korea.”
Suddenly, we stop and a small, Korean woman boards and begins blurting out instructions that we don’t understand and handing out photo IDs which we are to wear around our necks at all times. A list of banned objects is passed: mobile phones, chargers, newspapers, laptops, compasses and books related to North Korea. Herded downstairs a shiny glass transit office, we wait with hundreds of South Koran tourists for our United Nations-allocated time to cross the DMZ – Dad and I are the only ‘Europeans.’
Soon enough, we are back on the bus and passing South Korean guards for the last time. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting from the DMZ, perhaps a muddy quagmire of land mines and barbed wire. In reality, the new road cuts through a nature strip of sorts: birds, trees, flowers and even a pond in the distance. We move closer to the dry, boulder-faced hills of North Korea – their lack of vegetation in stark contrast to their Southern neighbours.
Suddenly, a soldier appears dressed in Soviet-style khakis, standing at attention as if on parade. The convoy of buses pull over at a large white tent where we are to officially enter the North. Loud, crackling music blares over the speakers and we line up and pass through security and Immigration one-by-one where the military officers, who ooze authority, pay particular attention to our Australian passports. I suddenly think of my grandmother cycling through Nazi Germany a few weeks prior to war being declared; this must be an emotional journey for Dad, following in his late mother’s adventurous footsteps.
We make the drive to our hotel on the bus, on which photography is forbidden for fear of snapping something defaming to the government. I spy farmers working the fields along side the road who suspiciously ignore the flotilla of buses, as if being directed not to. An ox pulls a plough through a rice field, while locals in the distance ride bicycles through the arid countryside on a separate road as if to keep them hidden. Menacing guards carrying red flags are interspersed throughout the landscape: on train tracks, hillsides and along the highway at every turn off.
At our ostentatious hotel, we unload bags and are told we can take photos. My father is almost immediately pulled aside by the hotel doormen for taking photos of a decaying shell of a building in the distance. A stern faced man in black appears form nowhere and begins scanning through Dad’s camera, accusing him of shooting propaganda. We assume he is some sort of agent and my father’s cheeky sense of humour disappears as the prospect of staying in a North Korea jail cell occurs to him. Suddenly, as if trapped in some B-grade espionage thriller, everything moves in slow motion. I urgently call for Dad’s friend who speaks so-so English and even our guide runs to our defence sensing urgency. At last, the Hotel Manager appears and takes control of the situation; Dad is forced to delete the offending pictures and we get off with a warning. The agent still writes down our room number and I feel sick as I picture him riffling through my underpants. At our dinner of spicy Korean noodles (which will be served again at breakfast), I covertly destroy the few notes I had been making, aware that journalists are about as welcome as George Bush. The next day, the manager informs our translator that he personally intervened and our room was not searched, but that moment of fear stays with me and as I casually look for bugging devices (not at all sure what one would look like) I urge Dad to stay on his best behaviour, but he will continue to complain about the “thought police.”
Our tour involves a series of bushwalks through the magnificent Kumgang Mountain range that are apparently known throughout Asia as the continent’s most beautiful. The mountains themselves seem almost surreal, as if painted on the skyline by the government. At all times of the day, they are never completely illuminated, whether due to glare or haze, but this adds to their sense of secrecy and intrigue. Our visit coincides with the end of spring and every hill seems to burst with glorious shades of green. The sunlight teams through the vein-like branches above us, lighting each leaf differently, creating an enchanting polka dot sky. At higher altitudes, the last cherry blossoms of the season delicately make themselves known. One doesn’t consider that such a sly and wayward country could hold such exquisite natural beauty – but here it is.
Aging South Korean ladies with walking sticks race ahead leaving me feeling inferior, while Dad, ever the ex-scout, is in his element. We move on paths along a rocky riverbed that overflows with massive boulders and climb ladders that carve up the hillside. Silhouettes of jagged mountains dominate the skyline while craggy peaks tower over us; Korean characters are carved into the cliffs to look like ancient inscriptions while in fact their date reveals they were written within the last thirty years to praise the country’s “Eternal Leader” Kim Il-Song and “Dearest Leader” Kim Jong-Il.
It’s certainly true that a moral decision must be reached in travelling here. We never visit any cities and as such we’re not forced to bow to any statues or pay false homage. Though simply being there, one is acutely aware of that all-pervading sense of history being forged that my grandmother must have felt or even my mother and those who crossed the Iron Curtain.
The North Koreans themselves were curious. Whether it was the young women wearing too much pale make-up who stood smiling in the hotel lobby or the men in black dotted along the mountain to police the crowds, Dad and I drew inquisitive looks wherever we went.
Hope seemed present. Many Koreans had discussed the idea of unification and believed that it may not be far off. A ‘Unification Flag’ flew outside our hotel and a banner unfurled during an evening circus show reading “Korea as one” drew the loudest applause of the night. It appeared Koreans were looking towards the future with optimism.
Peace will most certainly take time but a crucial part of the process will involve North Korea opening to the West. I think it important that people see inside this controversial nation but also that they begin see into us and slowly turn towards the rest of the world. If bushwalking can help achieve that, well, that’s enough to bring a wry smile to the face of my old scout of a father.
I have some photos on display that were taken in North Korea, and I thought it only fair that I include the story that goes along with them.
I entered this in a travel writing competition recently (it didn’t win) and I’m posting it here so at least some one might get some enjoyment out of it!
Not technically related to ‘Japanfluence’, but I thought it might be interesting to a few of you Japonophiles – here’s looking at you TBO!