July 7, 2008

Kaesong, North Korea

-There are no traffic lights in Kaesong City. If you're wondering about their technology... you're looking at it. Yep, that’s right, this man stands at attention all day and directs traffic.-

Arguably one of the oldest cities on the Korean peninsula, Kaesong, a closed city with so many stories to tell. With such recommendations as holding the title of capital city for over 500 years (from 910AD-1392AD), changing hands many times during the Korean War (being tossed back and forth between the two Koreas) and being the chosen place of the first talks between the North and the South in 1951, it would be crazy to pass up our opportunity to visit.

-What looks like an average village is most likely a scene created to warm the hearts of the on looking...us. Rehearsed, regimented and stiff are three words that come to mind.-

-This was the only convenient store we encountered in a city of 150,000 people. It was not open.-

Unlike our other adventures in North Korea this tour seemed to show a more realistic glimpse into the lives of urban DPRK citizens. On our previous visit to Geumgangsan (a mountainous region in the east of N.K.) we were enclosed by a 'tourist fence', a tall metal fence to keep tourists and cameras out and to ensure the citizens stay in. In Kaesong there was no such fence, only an invisible barrier that separated the Northerners from reality and the foreigners from the frightening truth.

Keep in mind that until the boarders are truly opened, we as outsiders may never know what is truly going on inside this impoverished and oppressed country. Like his father, Kim Il Sung, and his father’s mentor Stalin, Kim Jung Il is a mastermind, a true political genius. And, even when the now collapsing regime comes to an end the authorities will be rummaging through the bodies of the innocent and wrapping their minds around countless evils to make sense of the humanitarian mess we presently call North Korea.

-The only department store in the once capital city of Korea. Also, not open. We were not allowed any closer than what you see here. They claimed that it was open from 2pm-5pm on some odd day of the week. Convenient.-

-The Great Leader; Golden in all of his glory. We were not allowed to approach it as we as foreigners do not show utmost respect to Kim Jung Il; Unlike the North Korean citizens we do not see him as a god.-

Geumgangsan, the previously mentioned mountain resort on the eastern coast of North Korea was just that, a resort. This on the other hand allowed us into the once forbidden downtown of a large communist city. It allowed us to amass a small idea of the living conditions of our neighbors to the north.

As we stood on one end of the main downtown strip, we were overcome by the lonely, almost ghost like city. Four lanes across, there were no cars on the road. Only crumbling sidewalks decorated with stiff walking citizens. Their clothes looked new yet strangely old, like something you might find at the back of a thrift store. Something that had been forgotten for a decade to resurface as a DPRK costume. All of it a generation behind.

-Preschool children paraded by in a grand show for the foreigners. Notice the propaganda posters. They look like something straight out of my textbook on the Soviet Union. -

-Alicia and I trying to see downtown Kaesong from a Korean perspective.-

And, the people themselves looked lifeless and robotic. As our bus of foreigners meandered by, heading out of town, they barley glanced up from their duties and none seemed to even notice the solitary giant in the middle of their deserted downtown. Buildings were plain. No color. Nothing fancy. The color was reserved for the propaganda which was plastered here and there through out our route through town. One such poster stated, "We must destroy our prime enemy: America."

As we drove by some of the very few crumbling apartment complexes we could make out faces pressed against the torn window screens and peeking through tattered curtains. Even in the 'safety' of their apartments they dared not stare too long at us. Strangers. As I looked around for more faces, more people to connect with, I noticed that all of the balcony's and breezeways, although falling apart from natural time constraints, were very well kept. Everything was neat and tidy. Some of the windows had dull colored curtains blowing in the breeze and a few of the little balconies had, what seemed to be, little flower gardens growing in small clay pots. Perhaps, pots once used for food?

-A busy intersection far, far away from us. Notice the lack of cars. In the entirety of our four hour visit we could easily count the vehicles that we saw, on the highway and in the city, on one hand. I guess those oil embargoes are doing their job.-

-A shot down a side street. Keep in mind that what we were allowed to see was most likely the doctored-up part of town. And, with limited zoom, the camera can't tell the whole story.-

Our day was overshadowed by guards and regulations. We were constantly watched, from inside the bus and from outside. Soldiers in full attire were stationed every 100m. Eyes sharp. Guns ready. And, as I stood there I couldn't help but wonder, what must their real life be like?

-To me this photos seems to be a bit of a misrepresentation. The streets of Kaesong were barren in comparison with any other city that I have visited in any other country. This shot does not show that.-

Points of interest:
(1) We were the second group of foreigners to visit Kaesong after the gates were opened for tours late in 2007.

(2) The city is close to the Demilitarized Zone that divides North and South Korea. When Korea was partitioned at the 38th parallel after World War Two, Kaesong was on the southern side of the line (within the Republic of Korea). Thus Kaesong is (depending on perspective) either the only occupied South Korean City at the end of the 'Korean Police Action', or the only city liberated by the North Korean People's Army in the 'Great Fatherland Liberation War'. (Wikipedia)

1 comment:

Ryan said...

Wow - thank you for sharing.