So, shortly before leaving my job in South Korea and heading back to the States, I had the oppotunity to make a trip up north of the border. I had to apply for a special visa, of course, and it had to be displayed at all times while I was there. That's the white card hanging around my neck in the picture. Armed soldiers were posted everywhere. Driving past in the bus, I could see them spread out all over the fields and hills near the road. Sometimes they'd be standing in seemingly random places, like next to an empty ditch or on a barren hillside. Occasionally a small, round hole would be visible on one of those hillsides, which is apparently where they're still stockpiling weapons "secretly." Military bunkers were built into the base of some mountains, and on the tops of hills.
Passing by a few, I could see what looked like tanks poking out of the front of them. At one point, we passed a huge mural depicting a Korean woman in a hanbok (traditional dress). She looked pissed off and slightly insane, and the caption "Destroy our prime enemy, America," was written across the top and bottom. (The tour guide translated for me). We weren't allowed to take photos while the bus was moving...so if a soldier saw someone using their camera on the bus, he'd raise a red flag and the bus would have to stop. Then soldiers would board it and confiscate the camera. It happened to a tour bus on the road ahead of us, but not on mine.
The place we stayed was weird. It was basically a compound with two hotels, a spa-type place, and a glorified strip mall with restaurants and tourist shops.
It felt like a desert rest stop or something...the area around it was stripped of all its trees (for military purposes), and it had a derelict, isolated feeling to it. There was a village nearby, but we were separated from it by a high wall.
All of the villages we passed by looked small and shabby...we saw trucks being run on wood smoke somehow...there was shitloads of smoke coming out of the beds of them, and the guide explained that gas is hard to come by, so they've found other ways of running their vehicles. There were telephone poles everywhere, both along the road and out in the middle of fields. Most of them didn't have wires attaching them to anything, so I guess that's what passes for creative landscaping in N.
K. There were parallel roads through a lot of the countryside. Out walking, I could see North Koreans through the trees walking in the same direction on a separate road. The powers at be want them totally separated from any foreigners (thus the secluded tourist compound).
The government doesn't want visitors to come away knowing anything real about the people and their circumstances. The whole experience felt staged, like being shown a nicely arranged fishbowl and being told it's the whole ocean. Nevertheless, it was a fascinating place to visit. After I'd left Korea, I heard that more of N. Korea had opened up to tourists. I most definitely intend to go back, check out Pyongyang maybe. Anyone else interested?
Thanks for reading!