North Korea ~ DMZ – 2014
It was horrendously cold on the winter day that I decided to visit the DMZ (demilitarized zone) of Korea – so cold that as I woke up (at 4pm or something crazy like that!) I very nearly thought fuck this I’m rolling back over, waking up after 12, and having a full on winter warmer duvet day…whilst that would have been wonderful, I am thankful I didn’t, as there is a lot of interesting and dare I say it funny stuff to see there – oh, for those who may not be aware or fully clear, the DMZ is the open land that separates the Korean peninsula, sort of a no man’s land between the north and the south. So, despite North Korea being famously difficult to get into, you can actually go up there in that restricted space, and have a look around!
Of course, as always, I had to make things more difficult than they ought to be…as soon as we got on the coach in Seoul, the tour guide announced:
“I hope you have your passports! We’ll need them for the border guards!”
“Oh shit…is that a joke? I don’t have it! Excu-“
“Anyone not have their passport?”
“haha, funny man – you’re just kidding, I know that!”
(Sits back down smiling, as I begin hyperventilating at the prospect of a North Korean firing squad.)
Thankfully this wasn’t much of an issue, the guards at various checkpoints always did headcounts (not sure what that was about) but didn’t ever check for identification or papers of any sort…phew, dodged yet another one! I am sure this all sounds rather intense, but most of the guards were young soldiers doing their mandatory military service – so as we passed by they were waving and taking photos…all with machine guns strapped to their side…little bit odd, but I waved back all the same. After all, they are literally in the middle of nowhere – when it comes to where you are placed for your service, I imagine that the DMZ is by far the shortest straw.
Every Korean male I have met has viewed military service as a major pain in the bum – actually I recall hearing two kindergarten kids debating whether boys or girls are better (typical!)…they were neck and neck, and asked me to decide which is worse: pushing out a baby from your belly – or forced military service. I honestly didn’t have a ready answer.
Anyway, I actually learned a lot on that day (not the answer to that question unfortunately), but this gem instead; did you know that North Korea were caught in the act digging a couple of tunnels that were headed straight for the South Korean capital, Seoul? Of course they intended to use these tunnels to launch a crippling surprise attack against their enemies – but when they were found out, they insisted that they were coal mines…except…there…well, there was no coal there! So what did they do? Well painted the walls of the tunnels black of course! Problem solved!
I mean, you couldn’t make it up! Imagine that conversation!
N. Korean Fella: “Oh…errr…yeah…hello.”
S. Korean Fella: “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?!”
N. Korean Fella: “I’m…mining…for, err…coal.”
S. Korean Fella: “There’s no coal here! You’re clearly-”
N. Korean Fella: “There is! Just turn around please…just for a moment…”
(N. Korean Fella gets out the black paint and a big roller brush)
There were also a lot of bizarre propaganda films that we were made to watch during the course of the day…they varied in their messages, but I remember one very vividly – it seemed to announce that it was a fantastic miracle that the DMZ existed, as it has made a lovely little area for nature and animals alike…hmm, yeah great! It has effectively torn families and communities apart, left one country under a crazed rule, with desperately atrocious standards of living…but hey, at least the trees look beautiful once autumn rolls around! Absurd.
Although with that said, I respected the South Korean tour guide, he was very balanced with his view towards his country’s troublesome neighbor. He always stressed that they are just people, like you and I, looking out for their best interests just like everyone else…it was refreshing to hear that rather than an uninformed and wholly ignorant “I hate North Korea!” With no real reason other than that their leader is a bit of a plonker. He made me think about it in a different way, which is always a good thing.
There is a viewing platform in one part of the DMZ, which has binoculars that you can use to look across at the desolate expanse…he must have realized he had piqued my interest, so he adjusted it and passed it over to me –
“Can you see?
“Oh, err – no it’s all just kind of blurry…”
“Ah, you must have adjusted it – you see you can look over and see the North Korean people, going about their business, riding bicycles, collecting mail…it really puts things into perspective and I wanted you to see it for yourself!”
“Oh! Well yeah, that would be great!”
He then spent ten minutes adjusting it as I stood awkwardly at his side…lots of almost theres and ahh, nearly had its! I felt obliged to stay standing there, after all he had now invested all of this time…I JUST HAD TO SEE SOMEONE RIDING A BICYCLE, I JUST HAD TO!
When he finally got it right, he passed it over to me…and of course, it was once again just a blurry blank image. However, call it typical English politeness, social awkwardness or whatever you want…but I couldn’t face breaking this news to him, so naturally I just had to pull out some of my most creative thespian skills…as I stared at absolutely fucking nothing.
“Ohhh…oh yeah…I…I can see! It’s amazing! They’re like…riding…bicycles…”
“Yes, did you notice the baskets on the front? They use those to carry their mail and other items!”
“Ohhh…wow! I hadn’t noticed that…but yeah, I have just noticed that…they’re like…carrying things…but in a basket…it’s wow…I didn’t know baskets could do that…”
This went on for ages, it could have been hours – it was probably just a few minutes, but you see I wasn’t sure how long to keep up the charade that I was in total awe…I had to think to myself, how long would I want to look at this if I was really looking at this? Thankfully he called someone else over to have a look too…I then slid off as fast as I could, so that I didn’t have to deal with that awkward conversation that would have started with:
“So you have just stood there pretending this whole time? Why?”
Oh and one more thing, I tried (and succeeded) in taking a photo of one of the North Korean guards…they didn’t like that, all started with a whole lot of NOE NOE NOE NOEs and hand shaking, and then ended with someone explaining that if we take photos of them they’ll confiscate our devices and/or remove the photos…maybe I have a future in the undercover photographer field, as I secured a quick snap with ease…albeit a blurry bigfoot style shot…but still.
Our secret though yeah?
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