Introduction, the DMZ & Daily Life
Meeting our minders
I must admit it was quite, lets say overwhelming looking around at the airport, military everywhere, dark grey and a weird feeling overcomes one. Then you walk into the building, I saw similar in Cuba, but this was in its own league. We had filled in the arrivals for and the questions were bad enough so we just made sure there was no chance that we had missed anything. People around us were having GPS watches confiscated, phones checked, literature looked at and the rest. Head down we walked on and then it was our turn. Andy again was pulled over, this time I don’t know why. I handed my phone in and walked through – on the other side it was returned and on we walked, sweaty palms and just feeling as if we were going to be pulled over again even through we knew we were ok, the next we knew we were out the building milling in a mass of military. 2 women walked over to us and greeted us –
“Are you from South Africa” they asked- what a relief , as we had no idea who was going to take us from here . “We will be looking after you until you leave, please follow”
and so the journey began
It was a 1 hour drive to where we were staying, this gave our minders the opportunity to explain the rules, (which took about and hour), as well as our schedule for the next few days leading up to the run. Basically you will remain within 5 meters of us all the time, ask permission for whatever you do and all will be cool – Oh yes, and we would be tested twice a day to see what our temperatures were as we were an Ebola risk.
The first stop was to pay respect to the eternal leader Kim il Sung , a massive 30 meter high bronze statue. I had to buy a bouquet of flowers and then we took a walk. It was not 5 minutes and the flowers were confiscated as I was holding them incorrectly. On arriving at the statue, Andy and the other minders waited 10 meters from the base of the statue, I advanced with Kim, our main guide, flowers now in my position and I had to place them at the foot of the statue, then return to Andy where we were all on the count of three had to bow, and quite low at that until all were happy – on we went, shown monument after monument until the sun began to sink and we were dropped off at our hotel. I must admit it was a weird site, on and island in the middle of a river, a 45 story building and we were sent up to floor 40, I presume out of harms way.
Trip to the De-militarised zone – DMZ
It was and early start , 270 KM down to the military line dividing north and south. The road was a massive 80 meter wide freeway, but there is not a vehicle in site. I think on the entire journey we saw about 20 vehicles. Everyone walks or is on a bicycle. As one leaves Pyongyang the utter poverty is very evident, it is sad to see, everyone seems to be just getting through the day with no direction drive or reason. Every inch of the land has been tilled waiting for the rains. The lack of food and abject poverty is evident in the way that every bit of land is tilled in towns villages, pavements, parks , wherever you can grow something you grow it. We stopped for a tea break half way where a special table was set up outside this massive restaurant/roadside stop, but not in use as there are no tourists. We stood drinking tea in the middle of this mega freeway with no chance of been run over. The further down we went the worse the road became, pot holes and crumbling surface. Every few km now there were ominous massive concrete along the road that looked like traps to block the road should and invasion happen, they would be blown up to block the road.
We arrived at the gateway to the zone and waited for our escort, two armed N-Korea soldiers and a captain. They all hopped into our vehicle and off we went. First we were taken to where the armistice was signed after the Korean war and it did not take long before we were informed that South Africans had fought in it as well – so what did we think we were asked – I can even remember my mumbled answer.
Then we arrived at the DM zone. I have never felt so uneasy; it’s the most bizarre situation I have ever been in. There is a cement line 5 inches high and 5 inches wide. 1 meter back on each side stands opposing armies. 1.2 million People in the army on the north and I am not sure about the South. Behind the hills on each side is hidden the biggest array of military hardware.
The Captain took us up their control building where we looked over to the – as he said “Puppets of the South”, he then turned to me and asked so what do I think. I told him that I felt that I found this situation as very uncomfortable and could not comprehend how and why this standoff has been going on for nearly 40 years. All the Captain kept talking about was reunification of Korea as 1 country, but as I stood there and listened, with two such opposing ideologies, I see no common ground for a discussion to progress into a meaningful document around re-unification can be time-lined.
It is now year 104 in N-Korea. Being totally shielded from any form of normal daily life that exists in N-Korea, its really difficult to make any assumptions. One can only comment on the glimpses of what you see in fleeting moments. There seems to be an over whelming feeling of despair. Work gangs are squad marched to building sites all day long for what looks like 12 hour shifts. All day there are masses of people walking aimlessly around to where and from where, no one knows. On trams, the underground to where the masses go I do not know. I never saw a shop nor did I see any local carrying any shopping. Its just a bleak backdrop of a very mysterious hermit society that an outsider has no access into.