A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
Before I left Australia last year, I binge-read and watched documentaries on North Korea. I’d heard that some websites about North Korea are censored on South Korean internet so I wanted to get that out of the way. (But don’t worry, you can read about North Korea in South Korea.)
North Korea has recently begun to open itself up to the rest of the world. A tour company in North Korea recently started operating tours for foreigners, some of whom have blogged and made films about their bizarre, interesting experiences.
Short film: DPRK: The Land of Whispers
There was recently a marathon where foreigners were welcome to participate, and there are even a handful Instagram accounts dedicated to showing the world what life is like in the DPRK.
I also found a fascinating North Korean news website produced by actual North Koreans who risk their lives by smuggling news reports and films out of the country: Rimjin-gang
There’s more to North Korea than silly haircuts and cringe-worthy propaganda. Most of the population is starving. Alleged enemies of the state and their entire families are imprisoned in horrifying concentration camps where they are abused and murdered. Education is focused entirely on North Korea and the Kim regime, and most people do not get to choose their career. Unlike many South Koreans I’ve met who have travelled and studied abroad, the majority of North Koreans must stay in North Korea.
I suppose I’m interested in North Korea because their people are as Korean as I am, yet our lives couldn’t be more different. North Koreans eat bibimbap, read Hangeul, wear hanboks and celebrate Chuseok too.
I haven’t gone on the Pyeongyang tour (yet!) so I woke up one morning and decided it was a nice day to head to the DMZ.
The tours I saw online looked expensive. So I settled on just visiting the Dorasan Observatory in Paju, where you can see North Korea from a viewing deck.
I caught the subway up to Munsan station, which is as far north as the Seoul subway goes. There was supposed to be a shuttle bus to Imjingak, and from there I had to catch another bus to Dorasan. I couldn’t find it so I took a short ride in a taxi. The driver pulled up right next to the tourist information booth.
As I slowly attempted to decipher a sign, a bus driver appeared out of nowhere and asked “where are you going?” in Korean.
“I want to go to the Dorasan Observatory,” I replied.
“This bus goes there,” he said. “Buy a ticket! It’s only W9,000.”
What a bargain! I paid for my ticket and the bus set off into the countryside. It turns out that I was on some kind of mini tour. The bus driver pointed out the sights of Paju… all in Korean. Oh dear.
The bus pulled up at a military checkpoint. A soldier walked onto the bus, told us not to take photos of the checkpoint and checked our passports. We were going to cross from the South Korean border into the DMZ.
The first stop was Dorasan Train Station, which is the closest train station to the North Korean border. Industrial freight used to travel between South and North Korea but was stopped in 2008 amidst political tensions. The next station after Dorasan is the North Korean village of Kaesong. It’s part of the proposed Trans-Korean Main Line project, which will hopefully connect to the huge Trans-Siberian and Trans-Asian railroads. Imagine that – a trip to Beijing from Seoul, via Pyeongyang! Unfortunately, there’s the rather large obstacle of political division to contend with.
My heart jolted; at that moment, it really sunk in for me that North Korea was a real place, not just a crazy story some bloggers made up about a dystopian nightmare. And it was so close that I could see it with my own eyes. I panned a little more to the right. Not too far away was another flagpole, but this one featured the South Korean flag.
A sadness I couldn’t explain caught my breath; but it was time to get on the bus again and go to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel.
We sat down in a small theatre to watch a short film about the tunnel. The film featured unsettling, violent footage from the Korean War; a child crying next to his fallen mother, women in hanboks fleeing explosions. It went on to explain that North Koreans built a series of tunnels to Seoul after the war for a surprise attack. They were discovered in the 70s, with one discovered as recently as 1990. Four have been discovered so far.
The tour leader pointed down a long, steep corridor which led to the tunnel at the far bottom. How would the soldiers get up to the surface quickly? I wondered. The tunnel was short and about as tall as I am. You had to bend forward slightly to walk comfortably.
After a long time, we abruptly reached a barbed wire barrier with garish red lights looped around them. Behind the barbed wire was a solid concrete barricade with a tiny window. Through the window was what looked like a tiny concrete room, eerily flooded with light. It obviously wasn’t sunlight, but I couldn’t help but think that someone could climb into view at any second.
“North Korea is over there!” gasped a Korean woman next to me, pointing through the window.
She was right – this barricade was placed exactly at the 38th parallel.
The shuttle bus drove back through the military checkpoint, where the soldier did a quick headcount, and back to Imjingak.
“Are you going to Seoul?” asked the woman.
“Would you like to come with us?”
She gestured to a couple sitting next to me too, and the three of us climbed into the car.
“Are you a foreigner?” asked the Korean boy in Korean.
“Oh. Where are you from?” he asked in English.
He was a Korean guy studying in Seoul, and his girlfriend was visiting from Germany. The couple drove along the DMZ border, a long barbed wire fence with the occasional military outpost overlooking the Imjingang River.
“My friend did that when he was in the military,” said the Korean boy. “He had to stand at the outpost. Sometimes he saw North Korean soldiers floating in the river.”
“That’s awful. Wasn’t he scared?”
“Not really. All he did was fix the fence and pull the weeds,” he laughed.
The older couple pointed out sights along the way – mountains, cities, fortresses. The five of us chatted in a mix of English and Korean.
I suddenly remembered my Korean Australian friend telling me that his mother was briefly kidnapped by a cult, and quietly made a possible escape plan. But the couple dropped us off in the outskirts of Seoul and cheerily bid me farewell.
As I made my way back into Seoul, I felt terribly sad about my encounter with North Korea. I’ve met so many different people while travelling – not just Koreans, but people from all over the world. Learning languages and learning about other cultures while exploring somewhere together is really good fun.
To look at a town from a distance and know its people don’t have the same life opportunities as you – and that you’re not allowed to meet each other – is heartbreaking.
I hope one day I can catch that train to Pyeongyang.