Up early for a two hour drive south-east to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at the 38th Parallel. The roads were empty of cars, people, and snow. We stopped off en route at a service station, and managed to purchase a very welcome & much needed cup of coffee.
The scenery en route was breathtaking, and my first glimpse of how beautiful this country really was.
Below is a tiny bit of historical background on modern day Korea, but I leave this intentionally vague as I’m not a specialist on the subject, or even particularly knowledgeable and definitely don’t want to pretend to be.
Korea was occupied by Japan from 1910 until 1945. During the occupation Korea rapidly industrialized, the main beneficiaries of course being the colonial rulers exploiting Korean labour and resources for their gain. Most heavy industry was in the north due to it’s lack of arable land, and most agriculture was in the South. 1932 onwards brought stricter governance in which Koreans had to speak Japanese, adopt new Japanese names (1938), and change religions as well as having no political freedoms. The use of ‘Comfort Woman’ (Korean Sex Slaves used by the Japanese military) is still present day news as last year Japan apologised and agreed to pay compensation to the victims.
Korea legally gained independence at the Potsdam Declaration in 1945 but was split along the 38th Parallel between the USA & Soviets for administration purposes, with both forces occupying the North and South respectively. However, in 1948 when the Republic of Korea and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea were formed it became a de-facto international border.
According to the history given to us in the DPRK, in 1950 they were invaded by the US imperialist aggressors without warning, starting the Korean War. Most of the sources I have read state that the DPRK, with the backing of China and more specifically Kim Il Sung asking Stalin and the Soviets for their help, actually moved south to invade with the intention of unifying the two Koreas. Active war continued until July 1953 where an armistice (not the end of the war) was signed, and that is the position of the two countries today.
Currently, despite the DPRK being roughly 1/6th larger than South Korea it has a population of approximately 25 million in comparison to 50 million in the South. In 1948 there were 9 million in the North and 20 million in the South. The South Korean economy experienced rapid economic growth, and went from an incredibly poor country to having the 11th largest economy in the world. The DPRK economy stayed at the same level as the South until the 70’s and in 2014 was ranked 114 by the UN. Out of 211, that is a lot higher than I would have expected, but I assume (completely my assumptions only) this is because of the industry/factories along the Chinese border, and their trade/mining agreements with the Chinese.)
Upon arrival at the DMZ we were introduced to our guide, an Officer in the KPA (Korean People’s Army) who explained to us the map below. The DMZ is 250 km long, and 4 km wide. The hut he points to is on the Northern Side, and was our next destination.
After being given a slightly different take on the Korean War from what I previously thought, and that the DPRK had won (obviously) we were taken to the room in which the signing of the Armistice, which had a slightly different, unique North Korean name I had not heard before, that I sadly cannot remember, occurred.
Having only predominately seen photos and footage from the South Korean border I was surprised at how relaxed the atmosphere was on this side. We were able to walk about fairly freely, and there were relatively few guards and officers in comparison. The whole complex is a lot smaller, and felt a lot less armed, though perhaps not the case. Contrary to what we were told by the North Koreans, I do believe they pose much more of a threat of aggression or invasion than the South Koreans, and their main issue would be of people wanting to escape the country, rather than defect from the South, so to me it makes sense that their side seems a little less on constant high alert.
We were taken to the roof to look over the South Korean side, and took group photos, as well as making snow angels and having a large scale snowball fight with our KPA guide. Not exactly what I imagined when I signed up for a trip to visit one of the most militarized and heavily armed borders in the world.
Despite wearing seven layers, we were constantly freezing. Each time Katie & I stepped foot outside one of us would inevitably (hopefully?) remark, ‘oh it’s not as cold anymore’ and before finishing the sentence would be chilled to our bones. How cold can penetrate that many layers of clothes and skin in a split second is a mystery to me. However, in comparison to Pacman and Peso, who only brought dress suits we were probably pretty warm. Though, a couple of the Aussie guys just wore sweaters and seemed fine, so perhaps Katie and I just don’t (can’t?) do cold.
Su Young, one of the female guides, told us rather sarcastically, and unsympathetically, ‘It’s winter. Its cold. It’s snowing. Stop dilly dallying.’
This monument above was erected I believe in memory of the death of Kim Il-Sung. I had to google the date to try and trigger my memory, and as he died on the 8th July 1994 according to my sources, that’s probably it. I remember being stood by it, and being told about the height of it, the width of it, and the significance of these figures, but cannot remember, nor particularly wish to remember what they were, and why.
Over the four days we were told many fairly uninteresting and uninspiring (that I believe were meant to be inspiring) truths, ‘facts’, figures and explanations. This is hardly unique to the DPRK, but as we were given a speech at each new statue, monument, room, part of a museum, etc, it was pretty full on. I also have no general interest in whether something is the tallest, or biggest.
I will never forget however just how wise the Leaders all were, and how their expertise spanned a vast number of fields and disciplines and without their strict guidance many projects would have failed, and many factories would not have been built or running successfully. (A little sarcasm there perhaps, but I am paraphrasing what we were told, everywhere we went. I do believe they were all well educated.)
Remember on school trips when you had to listen, and really wanted to laugh but couldn’t. And what you wanted to laugh at wasn’t even that funny anyway, which made it funnier. And then your friend keeps looking at you with a funny eye movement, also trying not to laugh, and at one point someone cracks and not laughing is possibly the hardest, and most impressive thing you have ever done? Yeh. That happened. A lot.
We were of course also told interesting stories, ‘facts,’ and probably some actual facts too. Many of the speeches were obviously learnt word for word, but past that the guides were also incredibly friendly and open to questions and often interested in asking us questions.