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North Korea – Chapter 3 ‘Road Trip!’

Guest Post: Ryan Layton

We were excited about the itinerary for Wednesday because we would be driving two-and-a-half hours south to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), which would mean we would get to see what life outside of the privileged city of Pyongyang was like. The highway we took was lined with trees on both sides and had hedges for a median. The pavement was in fairly poor condition and was not marked in any way. There was no need for lanes as we could count on two hands how many vehicles we passed on our journey. One of the upsides to living in an impoverished communist regime is the delightful lack of traffic. The road is eerily straight, without a degree of bend for twenty and thirty kilometre stretches at a time. We stopped halfway at a rest area where I shot a game of pool by myself. I invited Han to play with me, but she said it was a game only for men.

It was strange driving along this road. We would seemingly be in the middle of nowhere and yet there would be people walking alongside the highway and even the occasional worker clearing the road of debris with a besom. The earth walls separating rice fields were frequently used as paths for villagers travelling; from where to where I wasn’t sure. As we headed further south into the mountains we travelled through a number of tunnels. Better to cut a hole through the mountain than to put a curve in the road, I suppose. The tunnels were not lit at all, which was fine if you could see the other end but was a bit unsettling in the longer ones where you could not.

We went through four military checkpoints on our way to the border, each one more thorough than the last. The first one we barely slowed down for and the driver just held up a blue piece of paper as we rolled by. Controlling the movement of your people is a key component to running a successful dictatorship. By the third checkpoint we had to stop and our guide was required to go into the guard station for a couple minutes to get clearance. At the final checkpoint before entering the DMZ we were assigned a military escort of one officer and two soldiers. We were told this was for our protection, which I found rather amusing as it was the U.S. military they were to protect us from.

The Demilitarised Zone is a strip of land two hundred and fifty kilometres long and four kilometres wide that separates North and South Korea. Despite what the name implies, there is in fact a very large military presence here. Soldiers are allowed in the DMZ, but are only permitted to take a sidearm with them. Our military detail was quick to claim that the U.S. and South Korea violate this rule all the time. We headed into the Joint Security Area (JSA), the only connection between the two countries. We first stopped at the buildings where the Korean Armistice Agreement was negotiated and signed, and then made our way to the border.

The actual point where the two countries meet was much different than I had expected, or rather what the James Bond film Die Another Day led me to believe. There are two main buildings, Panmon Hall on the DPRK side and Freedom House only about one hundred metres away on the South Korean side. In between them is a row of seven buildings called Conference Row where both sides can meet face to face. Bisecting the row is a concrete slab about six inches tall and eighteen inches wide marking the border. No fence. No wall. Just a step separating the two. Also surprising was the complete lack of U.S. or South Korean soldiers. There was nothing stopping any of the North Korean soldiers from jumping to the other side, except of course the other North Korean soldiers. What’s more, the DPRK soldiers left their post as soon as we left the area. The whole thing was just a show for us tourists.

The officer with us had been asking us a lot of questions as he rarely gets to talk to Americans and was curious to hear about our opinions on a number of matters. For the most part I stayed out of it, I didn’t want my opinions getting us into trouble, but by now Tim had built up a good rapport with him. He commented on how surprised he was that we were such nice guys and asked if he could be in a picture with us. This was really exciting for us because we had been told that we were not supposed to take pictures of soldiers or military installations, and we got both in this pic. This was a turning point for me on the trip. I had been on edge ever since we arrived in the country, but now I was finally starting to relax. You had a sense that things were not as strict as they may have been just a couple years ago. I actually felt safe.

We left the DMZ and headed into Kaesong City, which was for the most part spared from bombing during the Korean War. This meant we were finally able to see some traditional Korean architecture instead of the utilitarian communist style building we had seen up until that point. We explored the grounds of an old Buddhist temple and school for Confucianism, whose courtyards housed centuries-old trees. Kaesong City is also home to the Korean ginseng trade. I picked up a box of ginseng tea and the finest bottle of ginseng liquor they had, with a six-year old root in the bottle.

Our last stop of the day before heading back to Pyongyang was the 14th-century Tomb of King Kongmin, the 31st king of the Koryo Dynasty. The guides told us the story of how the mountain that sits opposite the tomb which got its name, but I won’t recount it here as it’s available onWikipedia.

After a two and a half hour drive back to Pyongyang we ate at another nondescript restaurant on the south side of the Taedong River. The only other people dining there were a large group of rather drunk and boisterous Chinese tourists. I had learned a few things about the Chinese by then. You see all the rules that Tim and I worked so hard to follow as to not offend our hosts, well they don’t really apply to the Chinese. China is one of only a very few allies of North Korea, and North Korea relies on them heavily for economic support. The Chinese know this, and view it as their passport to shirk the rules and act like complete assholes.

As it was our last night at the Yanggakdo hotel we decided to try our luck down at the casino. It was located in the basement, and outside the entrance there is a member of staff posted. He’s not there to check ID’s, though. His job is to keep North Koreans out. The casino is run by a Hong Kong based company and staffed with Chinese, which was appropriate given everyone gambling down there was Chinese. I normally have a pretty good handle on table games, but things were a little different here and I lost my $100 quicker than I could catch on. Tim fared a little better, but when he cashed out instead of the crisp new currency we graciously brought down he was given old, ripped bills. The same kind of currency they would refuse to take if you tried to use. So I’m pretty sure the sole purpose of the casino is to remove old currency from the system and replace it with new bills. There really isn’t any other way for them to do it.

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