A Pair Of 10-Year-Olds Were Charged With Murdering A Toddler North Korea – Vacation in a Secret State (Part 3)

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North Korea – Vacation in a Secret State (Part 3)

I want you to take a moment to consider the scenario I’m in at the end of day two. It’s 1am and I’m in a hotel in Kaesong, a city 10 kilometers from the demilitarized zone (DMZ), possibly the most tense place on earth. 3 hours ago, I was eating dog meat for dinner and now I am getting a massage from a North Korean waitress with both guides in the room watching! I’ve found myself in situations that were a bit odd before, but that one probably worked out fine.

The day was mostly travel as we traveled from the capital Pyongyang to Kaesong in the south of the country. The tour bus leaves Pyongyang, heading for one of the country’s many checkpoints. In North Korea, the movement of citizens is restricted. You cannot leave your home or region unless you have good reason and permission. This is reduced during public holidays, but the check is always there. The document check was efficient but thorough and we were on our way in no time.

We were initially on a 10-lane highway and it was a sight to behold. We must have been on it for about 15-20 minutes, during which time no one saw another car the entire way. There are a few bikes and some people walking on the road, but no other cars, trucks or buses. The roads are not well maintained with obvious signs of neglect and some driveways have huge potholes. In other places, there are sometimes mounds, less than a meter high. They’re not tall enough to be any kind of barricade, but no one can really figure out what they are. I would have taken pictures but we were politely asked not to take pictures while the bus was in motion. I’m sure it’s because we might be filming parts of North Korea that shouldn’t be seen abroad.

After about an hour’s drive, we arrived at the Xihai Dike. It is an 8 km tidal control wall that alters the water level of the Taedong River flowing through Pyongyang. It was built in 5 years (amazingly, it had “on-site guidance” from Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il). It’s an impressive feat – a true battle between man and nature. I don’t know what was the level of technology in North Korea when this barrage was built, but you can be pretty sure the way they did it was not simple.

After watching the barrage and watching an informational video dubbed in rather poor English, we set off for a very old Buddhist temple. This is really out in the wild, on dusty roads and dirt roads. We got to see a fair amount of real North Korea here. There were people plowing with hand plows and pickaxes, and children working in the rice fields. One thing that stands out to me is the amount of land allocated to farming. There seems to be a lot, but farming conditions in North Korea are not good. Soil quality, inefficient farming methods, lack of pesticides and fertilizers, and the loss of food through spoilage may all be part of the food shortages that North Korea faces almost every year. But people till the fields, hoping to have a good harvest every year. Maybe one of these years, they’ll get one.

The bus stopped and we had to climb a hill to reach the temple complex. One thing that really interested me was a pair of statues on the way to the temple. I had to scrutinize their old weather-beaten carcasses, but they were all written in classical kanji (the Chinese characters used in Japan). Chinese characters are very old, and I only found one Japanese person who could read them. When we arrived at the temple, I also noticed Chinese characters written above the entrance of one of the buildings. I wonder why it is written in Chinese characters here, and Hangul is the character set used by Koreans. The temple is 130 years old and is said to be the only one to survive the Korean War. There was a monk there, whom Kim Jong Il had met years ago when he visited the temple. These people really want everyone to live in peace (yes, even Americans) regardless of their religion, nationality or race. I kept wondering whether the people I met on my travels would see a peaceful and unified North Korea, or whether they would end up being drawn into the horrors of war on the Korean peninsula. For these monks, this would be a tragedy. The longer I spend in this country, the more I sympathize with its people, both with the famine problem and with the constant fear of a future war with US troops in Korea. That’s not to say I agree with some of the government’s policies (don’t want to get arrested here as a sympathizer!), but you can’t blame the people for the government’s actions.

We had lunch by a stream near the temple. We then drove another hour to Sinchon Township and Sinchon War Crimes Museum. This museum is dedicated to displaying and commemorating the atrocities committed by Americans during the Korean War. Not that I mean only Americans on purpose, excluding Koreans. North Koreans say they are the same people and shed the same blood as South Koreans and will not criticize them publicly. While the atrocities are clearly perpetrated by North Korean, American, and South Korean troops, only the Americans are highlighted as the bad guys here. Again, here you can listen to stories, look at photos and drawings, and nod and accept it all. Unfortunately, while we were here, some people chose to ask very difficult questions, which upset the guide so much that she nearly burst into tears. If I go back to North Korea (which is what I want to do) I want to get my own group together so I have people I can trust who won’t say stupid things and play the game well . The paintings are very graphic, and while I can’t vouch for them all being real, they are certainly thought-provoking. The story of the American officer in charge and the orders allegedly given is also interesting. For example, Lieutenant Colonel William A. Harrison reportedly issued the following order on December 3, 1950:

“Our troops are now being forced to retreat from Xincun…immediately dispose of the detainees. Capture and kill everyone with hats and shaved heads, all bitches and their illegitimate children so that the communists won’t breed anymore. Spread rumors saying Deadly A – drop bombs after retreat, wipe out communists, drive civilians south.” As I said before, it’s a case of listening to both sides of the story (which may be biased) and then making your own decision and finding a middle ground you’re happy with .

After visiting the museum, we drove to Kaesong. Once again we traveled through many remote villages and saw people in the fields. As we approached Kaesong, the scenery changed, the hills towered above us, and the land appeared arid and unfit for farming. The road to Kaesong, and from there to Seoul is straight for unknown reasons (tanks are easier, or is it a uniform march?). We stopped randomly on the side of the road at what can only be described as a temporary service, about 30 minutes from Kaesong. These services include structures and teahouses on no-travel roads. I bought a can of Pokka Coffee (Japanese company, made in Singapore and exported exclusively to North Korea). It is a truly international product! After driving for another half an hour, we arrived in Kaesong. It’s only 10 kilometers from the demilitarized zone, and we had to stop at a checkpoint to enter the city. Law and order is clearly very high in this part of North Korea. We drove through the city, passing Kim Il Sung’s obligatory mosaics and a large concrete Kalashnikov (sp?) gun. As we drove through the city, we noticed the immaculate appearance of the buildings that lined the streets. White, freshly painted walls look at their best. In contrast, when we passed a junction and saw a street from the main road, the other houses were in much worse condition and looked dilapidated. But houses facing the street are what people see most, so they have to make a good impression. On the way to the hotel we were asked if anyone wanted dog soup for dinner! This was asked in advance as they needed to “prepare” it (i.e. find a dog, grab it and beat it to death before we sat down to eat). I looked at the guy sitting next to me and we both put our hands up. About half said they would eat it, and everyone realized they had few other opportunities to do so in their lives.

Our hotel tonight is in Kaesong, a mini village. It has about 20 small rooms arranged around a small courtyard in traditional Korean style. The room had a tatami (straw mat) floor and we slept on futons on the floor with underfloor heating. But it was warm and I think everyone said no. We had about 20 minutes to get settled in our room before we went to dinner. Our dinner was actually delicious. We got a row of bowls with meat, vegetables and fish. Again, it feels a little weird knowing that most people in this country are struggling to feed themselves while we dine like proverbial kings. Halfway through the main course, the dog soup was served. I have to admit it’s an acquired taste! It’s spicy, but it must not be a very muscular dog because there isn’t much meat in it! But now I can say I ate dog meat, which always makes other people gasp. After dinner is the must-order Korean karaoke, which is enjoyed by all. In the middle of karaoke, we were asked if anyone would like a 20 euro waitress massage! This was totally unexpected and we had to make sure that’s what our guide meant! But I was so excited after the dog soup and said I would make it.

After about an hour and a half, we are back at the beginning of the story. It was a really good massage, although sometimes very hard and painful compared to what I’m used to. Well, that was the first day and night I fell asleep wondering if I would be woken up by bombs dropping or gunfire from the DMZ!

Thanks again for taking the time to read this article. Hope you like it.

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