Liberation From Liberty

Day 5 (18 April 2016)

I was really looking forward to this day. It was the day reserved for Kaesong and no trip to Kaesong could be complete without a visit to Panmunjom. I had seen this place from the south and now seeing it from the north would finally complete my visit.

The Monument to the Three-Point Charter for National Reunification over the Reunification Highway which leads from Pyongyang to the DMZ

Before we arrived at Panmunjom, we were sharply reminded by A our female guide that we were going to be in a highly secured military area and so we had to behave ourselves. That tense feeling I had when I visited the area from the south came flooding back. But the fact that I was visiting from the north this time heightened that tension.

We all however became very bored after some time while waiting for the visit to start at the compound outside of the registration office. M, the ever curious and enthusiastic elderly American gentleman, decided to walk around the compound and test the boundaries of the area within which he was allowed to wander about. B our male guide, wisely I think, decided to follow him. But B misjudged the allowed boundary at one point and he and M were told off by one of the guards. According to M, B told him that he (as in B) was in big trouble.

After an impossibly long wait, in the midst of which I became so bored that I took it upon myself to advise a lady in the group to go to the men’s toilet and call out “I love you” in Korean (too bored could not think properly), we were finally called (or maybe ordered) to line up in pairs. We were finally going in!

It was quite a quick visit and I wish I could have had enough time to enjoy the scenery in the restricted area and take more pictures. But despite the rushed manner, I have to say that the whole experience here was a lot more relaxed than what I was put through in the southern portion. The area on this side was even a lot more bucolic. We saw a farmer tending to his rice field here although questions could be raised about whether he was a real farmer or was he persuaded to come here to farm.

North Korea Peace Museum where the Korean War Armistice Agreement was signed

Tables on which the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed

Our local guide here was an officer in the army who spoke exactly like an officer in the army but was otherwise rather cool and relaxed with us. It was quite surprising to me that officers on the other side of the border were in fact a lot more serious with visitors than their counterparts in the north.

The guide

We did not see any officers from the south during our visit. I remember during my first visit from the south we only saw one North Korean officer at the door to Panmungak, the big building facing the border. The guide sent by the tour office joked that the North Koreans were probably a bit lazy that day. I mentioned this to the representative of the tour company that had brought me to North Korea and she pointed out that actually there was an agreement between the two sides that each would pull back its officers when the other was taking visitors there.

Looking towards the south

But I suspect that the south was observing us very discreetly from some corner unseen.

The wire marks the border

South: My flag is bigger than yours!

North: No, my flag is way bigger!

Before we knew it, the whole visit was over. It was lunchtime though and since we were in Kaesong we were treated to a traditional Kaesong meal. What we had in fact looked exactly like a typical Korean meal to me (at least the ones I had) with a main dish and several smaller side dishes. The main dish we were offered was samgyetang or the famous  Korean ginseng chicken soup.

A royal feast

Samgyetang (Kaesong ginseng is apparently the best in the country)

A was very pleasantly surprised when she realised that I knew about the ginseng dish and even its Korean name. I almost wanted to but I just did not feel comfortable telling her that I knew a lot more about Korean culture than she could ever imagine all thanks to the decadent south. I wonder how she would have felt if I had told her that I could find Korean food almost anywhere in Singapore and the Korean ginseng chicken soup was nothing new at all to most Singaporeans because South Koreans had brought their culinary culture to us long ago.

What I did however was to get A to talk to me about Korean culture and she was most happy to do that. We had an enjoyable conversation about Korean history and culture and this was definitely a lot more interesting and relaxing than having to hear discussions on politics and ideology between A and M.

Our elderly American gentleman had at one stage engaged in a rather exciting debate about the Otto Warmbier case which had just happened at the time. A believed entirely in the official story as released by her government although the account apparently admitted to by Warmbier himself sounded absolutely incredible to almost anyone not living in North Korea. What was strangest to me especially was that anyone would believe that America would pay someone, was it about US$20k, to steal a propaganda poster just to cause harm to the country. M did ask A what and how she thought the harm might be caused. Even she did not know the answer although that did not stop her from believing in the official story.

The story might have been more believable if they had spinned it around an espionage attempt since the boy did purposely make his way into a place he was not supposed to be at. Maybe they wanted to avoid having to deal with what was really in that place. In any case they got an American hostage and that was all that mattered. The credibility of the story spinned after that was unimportant.

I only allowed myself a little quick discussion on international relations with A. It was  clear to me from this tour that the North Koreans were close in some ways to the Chinese. I could easily pay in renminbi here and I realised that many North Koreans could speak Mandarin pretty well. A salesperson at a souvenir shop actually turned to me for help when trying to communicate with an American member of my group. However A noted that ever since Xi Jinping came into power China seemed to have become less supportive of North Korea. Nevertheless, while the North Koreans would  probably prefer to have continued Chinese support, I sensed that they viewed the Chinese with as much regard as their southern counterparts did.

Kaesong is an old city. It was the capital of the Koryo kingdom, which lasted from AD 918 to 1392, except for three short periods. When the Korean peninsula was partitioned at the 38th parallel after World War II, Kaesong was a part of the south. During the Korean War it was captured by the north and then recaptured by UN forces before they abandoned it when they withdrew southward following Chinese intervention in the war. The Korean Armistice Agreement recognised North Korean control over Kaesong and this finally confirmed the city’s liberation from the evil imperialists.

The modern city was a small and somewhat worn out looking stalinist place although it is North Korea’s light industry centre. It is also close to the Kaesong Industrial Park, a collaboration with the south. Some remains from the Koryo era could still be seen around the city.

Sonjuk Bridge was a mere 100 metres or so from our lunch venue and we took a short walk there after our meal to have a look. This is a small and simple stone bridge but quite a famous one in Korea as a prominent Koryo era scholar and official Jung Mong Joo was assassinated there. Jung worked for the Koryo court at the end of its reign and was deeply loyal to the Koryo kingdom. When Koryo was overthrown and replaced by Joseon, one of the Joseon princes tried but was unable to sway Jung’s loyalty. The prince therefore got him killed.

Jung is regarded as practically a saint in both North and South Korea starting from the Joseon era. In the north he is a perfect role model for the people because of his loyalty to the very fatal end. A brown spot on the bridge is said to be remains of his blood. The bridge was closed to traffic in 1780 in order to preserve it as a monument to Jung. A replacement bridge was built right next to it.

Sonjuk Bridge (the one with the stone barricades on it)

The Koryo Museum was previously the songgyungwan or Confucian academy.  It housed the highest educational institution in Korea until the Joseon kingdom came about and a new songgyungwan was established in the new capital in present day Seoul. The building was converted into the present day museum in 1987. The museum is not a big one but keeps quite a few interesting exhibits.

Main hall of Kaesong songgyungwan

Life in Koryo

Reproduction of tomb art

Although it looked like it was going to start raining, we made it to the tomb of King Wang Gon. This is the tomb of the founder of the Koryo kingdom. It was already deteriorating from abandonment but the Japanese came along and looted the tomb and there was little left of it after that. The North Korean government extensively reconstructed the tomb in 1994. It is possible to enter the tomb to see some murals and it costs USD100 to do that.

Tomb of Wang Gon

We made a quick dash out of Kaesong back to Pyongyang after having seen the tomb. I wish I could have spent more time in the historic centre but I was resigned to the fact that group tours were like that and the rushing was something I had to live with if I was going to join one.

Old south gate of Kaesong

In Kaesong

In Kaesong

The tour continued at the childhood home of Kim Il Sung in Mangyongdae and we made it there before it got too dark. There is now an extensive and well groomed park surrounding the little humble thatched house located about 12 kilometres from the centre of Pyongyang.

Visiting the park felt like even more of a pilgrimage than visiting Bethlehem for me. We were expected to behave ourselves as soon as we entered the park which in North Korea meant among others no hands in pockets, no crossing of arms and no showing of teeth. I really did not feel the need to show my teeth to anyone but it was cold for me that late afternoon after the rain and I was finding it quite difficult not to hug myself.

On holy ground

I also need to point out that I thought the house looked quite new! Even the items in the house said to have been used by the Kim family looked sort of new. The restorers had perhaps been a little too enthusiastic.

The Eternal President’s childhood home

The well used by the Kim family

The young liberator with his parents

A took some of us to a souvenir shop near the hotel that night after dinner. It was really fun to look at the colourful and lively propaganda pictures and I bought five postcards to send home.

While at the shop, M made a final attempt on his neverending quest to discover the real exchange rate between the North Korean won and other currencies based on the prices of items there. I suppose this was going to be his last chance to make the earth shattering discovery since he was going home in the morning. Unfortunately it was just impossible to find out the real rate.

Shopkeepers would often not reveal prices in won although I suspect that this was not because they were forbidden to but because their goods were meant to be sold to tourists and therefore did not have prices in won. Sometimes however the shopkeeper might be able to help or there would be a price tag quoting in won. And then M would do his calculations in earnest. But there was never a real rate that could be discovered. Different rates could apply to different goods in the same shop on the same day.

M had earlier on the trip tried asking the cashier at the hotel supermarket about the lack of a proper exchange rate. He was answered wth a blank look. In any case, it signalled to us that the North Korean economy probably existed in two parallel universes, one for locals and one for foreigners, as reflected in the very different pricing systems for either group. Prices for foreigners were however always higher than those for locals.

M also made his final attempt to get some North Korean money but his request was again rejected. Foreigners were not allowed to have any. A friend of mine got her hands on a few notes during her trip a few years ago but not many could be lucky like her. And with a law-abiding citizen like A as our guide, we were just not going to be that lucky.

And thus part one of my journey in North Korea ended.

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