Alone Though Not Alone

Day 6 (19 April 2016)

By the time I got to the breakfast room, my former tour group members had already left for the airport. I never thought that I would actually miss them but I did feel a little stressed by the fact that I would be on my own for the next few days in North Korea of all places.

I could not believe that no one else had signed up for the extension tour!

A my first female guide in North Korea had already introduced me to my new female guide D the night before. D was a young lady in her twenties. After breakfast I met E my new thirtysomething male guide.

Oh wow, two guides all to myself. Not to mention a driver too. How could I ever feel lonely on this tour?

I could tell that both guides were very well trained and they spoke English fluently. I felt comfortable with D. E on the other hand seemed somewhat stern. Although I would consider him to be friendly with me, he looked like someone I had better not cross.

The dynamics between D and E were somewhat different from that between A and B. A did practically all of the guiding while B was more like class monitor looking out for and correcting bad behaviour. Both D and E on the other hand shared the guiding work although D handled all the logistics. There was also no need for specialised monitoring since I was alone.

Just before we left the hotel that morning, I checked with D that she had my passport. I had not seen my passport since I arrived in the country. I had to surrender it to my guides first thing upon meeting them as per the country’s requirements for all tourists and it would only be returned to me just before I left the country. I honestly have no idea what they thought I could do with my passport. Even if they had wanted to be sure that they could prevent me from fleeing the country for whatever reason their physical layers of security in the country starting from the hotel main door would have been more than effective. The whole country was more secured than most places around the world.

My passport was of course already safely in D’s possession. I realised that my checking with her had been redundant. She like her compatriots were born to obey all the rules and in any case expected to do her best at work which she definitely did.

The first event of part two of my tour, and one which I had looked forward to, was a visit to the tomb of King Tongmyong. I know him better as Jumong. This man was the founder of Goguryeo, a kingdom that started in an area in modern day northeastern China near the current border with North Korea. And I would not have heard of him if not for an eighty-one episode South Korean epic drama serial. But of course I was not going to tell anyone in North Korea about it.

Jumong’s tomb complex includes a Buddhist temple originally built to pray for the king. I honestly have no idea why but the North Koreans seem to assume that everyone who looked Northeastern Asian were either Buddhist or had the habit of offering incense to deities. The resident monk at the temple gave me a few sticks of incense (which like those at Pohyon Temple were no more than 10 centimetres long unlike the ones I was used to seeing in Chinese temples which were at least twice that length). But I did not know what to do with them. I am Catholic and the only incense I had ever used in my life were those that were burnt in metal contraptions and swung around in church or burnt to make my bedroom smelt better. I was half afraid of offending the ever smiling monk although through E I was able to explain that I was not Buddhist. The monk was very cool about it.

Jongrung Temple near Jumong’s tomb

In the very much restored Jongrung Temple

As with most other places of interest, there was a local guide to take me through the tomb complex. This was another stern unsmiling ajuma in a dark blue jeogori and I was on my best behaviour around her. But I have to say that this ajuma spoke like a learned historian and I enjoyed my short time with her.

Besides the temple and the tomb itself, the complex also has a hall containing wall paintings about Jumong’s life. The paintings were of course recent and over blatantly idealised, but they were nonetheless interesting to me.

Hall of paintings

The great king himself

I have to say that the entire complex looked really new and in fact all the structures were either rebuilt or restored in the 20th century. According to a Russian scholar, in the  early 1970s, Kim Jong Il suggested that the failure to locate Jumong’s tomb was a blight on the North Korean archaeological field. And then very miraculously in 1974 the ancient king’s tomb was found.

The Russian scholar seemed to agree that this tomb was an authentic Goguryeo tomb but whether or not it is indeed Jumong’s is a different matter altogether.

Jumong’s tomb

Goguryeo is of special interest to the north. Not only did the kingdom eventually cover an area that included the northern half of the Korean peninsula, the north would have everyone know that Goguryeo was the strongest Korean kingdom to have ever existed.

I realised from my conversations with the ajuma, interpreted by E, the north and south each teaches a slightly different version of Goguryeo history. The north teaches that the kingdom had seventeen kings whereas the south, according to her, says that there had been twelve. Also, in the north, Jumong’s son and successor is called Yuriu (my own spelling based on the ajuma’s pronunciation), as opposed to Yuri in the south.

At one point I uttered the name of the second king, which I learnt from the South Korean drama serial, and the ajuma corrected me immediately. She obviously knew straightaway where I had learnt that name from. The ajuma told me that the version of history taught in the south is based on the Samguk Sagi. This is a history chronicle compiled about the Three Kingdoms Period of Korea (when three kingdoms Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje ruled the Korean peninsula) by a descendant of Silla royalty. Goguryeo’s long existence ended when Silla attacked with the help of Tang China. According to the ajuma, the writer of the Samguk Sagi recorded the history in a way that belittled the Goguryeo kingdom.

It definitely bears noting that Goguryeo was a northern kingdom while Silla was a southern kingdom.

I have no idea how merely listing fewer kings and using a slightly different version of a king’s name would diminish anything but I had no time to dig deeper with the ajuma. I said my goodbyes and told her, sincerely, how I wished I could stay longer to learn more about Goguryeo from her. She replied, never a smile for even a moment, that she hoped to see me again.

I just want to add here that Goguryeo is the subject of a tug of war between China and Korea. Both the Koreas believe the kingdom to have been Korean whereas China says that it was one of its many satellite kingdoms and not Korean. Both sides claim Goguryeo history as its own. Since a large chunk of Goguryeo territory lies in China today, it is in line with modern China’s policy to regard Goguryeo’s history as part of its own. It seems to me that more people agree with the Koreas. But somehow I am more inclined to believe, as with so many things in Asia, that the truth lies somewhere between the two opposing beliefs. Unfortunately we can forget about the countries involved to be objective on the subject.

We were heading towards the east coast of the country. The destination was Wonsan. This is a port city and a major centre of trade with Japan until trade ties were cut by Tokyo. Wonsan was also the point of entry for Japanese residents of Korean descent who had wanted to visit relatives in the country until Japan banned all North Korean ships from its waters.

Our first port of call upon arriving at Wonsan was the Songdowon International Children’s Camp. This is a summer camp built to attract not only North Korean kids but kids all over the world. I was rather curious about which nationalities had been here and if I remember correctly they were mostly from current or previous socialist countries such as China and Russia. I think I heard Tanzania too.

Songdowon International Children’s Camp

I had a young lady working at the camp to show me around. I did feel like some important diplomat on some research mission being brought around the facilities by someone trying to sell me the idea of sending kids from my country to the camp. However I am more than certain that it would be futile to try to convince any Singaporean parent to send his/her kid here.

Songdowon International Children’s Camp

One of the first things the guide showed me was a list of all the dates on which the three Kims had visited the camp. I was quite surprised to see that the current Kim had visited here on more occasions than his father and grandfather combined. I guess some people just have this ability to remember how to be a child.

The current Kim’s many visits gave the camp many opportunities to receive the great honour of his guidance. And as one might expect, the camp hangs on to every single word he utters. There is a diorama at the camp set up to teach kids about local flora and fauna. The benches were initially placed in straight rows. Then the current Kim advised that the rows ought to follow the wavy boundary of the diorama. The camp followed his advice. I wonder if they could not have thought of a better example of his “guidance” to impress visitors.

Diorama of local flora and fauna

Actually I have to say that the camp was amazingly well-equipped and I was quite impressed with it. While there kids could learn to play different kinds of sports, go on hikes, go camping, learn to cook, make friends (yes even with North Korean kids although I am not sure if they could keep in touch) and just enjoy themselves as kids would and should at summer camp. The camp has a stadium, an aquarium, a cute concert hall and amusing things one finds at an amusement park. Even I wished that I could have been here when I was a kid, until I remembered how I had to bow to a statue of one of the Kims and then I totally changed my mind. But I have to admit that I enjoyed my short time there thoroughly.

Kitchen for cooking classes

Concert hall

Maze of mirrors where I bumped my head countless times on the glass

At the aquarium

They even have a simulator ride

After the bit of fun it was time for some sombreness. I found that the atmosphere around me would always turn sombre whenever one of the Kims came into the picture. I was driven back into the city centre and to the rebuilt old train station which today houses the Wonsan Revolutionary Museum. The first Kim entered the country at Wonsan when he returned from Russia at the end of World War II (or as the country would have everyone know, upon his return after he had defeated the Japanese). From here he took a train back to Pyongyang. The original train station was destroyed during the Korean War but rebuilt in 1975 to tell a part of the story of Kim’s revolutionary journey.

Old Wonsan Station

Old Wonsan Station

The train he had apparently taken was restored and preserved for posterity. Kim, in all his great humility, had taken a third class coach. I was told that a journey to Pyongyang in those days would have taken about 12 hours.

Train that the first Kim had taken

The guesthouse where Kim had stayed the night before his train journey was also rebuilt and is part of the museum.

Guesthouse where the first Kim had stayed a night

Room where the first Kim had stayed a night

Throughout my time in North Korea, the same themes kept coming up in just about every historical tale I was told. One, Korea is always getting bullied, although on this count it may be a general Korean sentiment since South Korean historical dramas always carried this theme too. Two, North Korea always defeats its enemies on its own. The extremely crucial role of the Chinese army in the Korean War for example was almost never mentioned and that bit of history was always told as if the righteous North Koreans had to face the US and its cronies all on their own. Three, North Korea would never have made it without the most excellent leadership of its god-like leaders. In fact it sometimes felt to me as if their leaders had defeated the enemies with their bare hands singlehandedly!

My visit to Wonsan ended at the pier leading to Jangdok Islet. I had to pay 1 euro before I could get on it. Fortunately I had come to North Korea prepared with euro coins and was able to pay with one. The ajuma who collected my coin took some time to examine it before deciding that I had made the correct payment. No payment was expected from my two guides.

Wonsan waterfront

The pristine looking Man Gyong Bong 92 that used to ferry passengers and cargo between North Korea and Japan

On the pier

From the pier

I was treated to some barbecued clams and soju. The clams were caught in the area and some ajumas were making good business selling them on the pier. I was not too sure about eating wild clams caught just off the coast of a port city and D had in fact warned me that my stomach might not be able to handle them. I was nevertheless determined to be agreeable and adventurous. I comforted myself that at least these clams were caught on the east coast. E told me that the clams from the west coast were more delicious but I was reminded that many of China’s rivers flowed into the sea that washed the west coast.

Clam barbecue

The clams were not half bad though as with almost all alcoholic beverages I did not enjoy the soju one bit. What I liked most however was the experience of sitting on tiny stools that were probably more suitable for use as footstools and enjoying the cool sea breeze and the company of my guides. I felt a lot less alone now than in the morning.

All ready to eat

North Korean soju

I stayed the night at the Masikryong Ski Resort some 20 kilometres outside Wonsan.


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