After a very full day(s) of monument after monument, we were all quite excited to get to learn more about the history of North Korea. Our day began with a trip to see the birth place of leader Kim Il-Sung. Now, being someone who grew-up around Colonial Williamsburg, I’m very used to seeing well preserved historical locations. This was no different. As we walked through, our guide explained that Kim had lived here with his parents and grandparents before his immediate family escaped to the north and into Russia. His family always hoped for liberation and bestowed that mindset into him. Twenty years later he returned to his grandparent’s home (his parents were then deceased) and began his long journey towards becoming the leader of the North.
Inside we learned about how they cooked their meals and heated the home; we saw their farming tools and even a wonkie, old pot that his grandmother took a fancy to, for some reason. We only stayed for a bit and then made our way back to the bus, stopping to view a creepy/abandoned theme park along the road.It was then that we packed our bags and headed out of Pyongyang. We drove south for a few hours and arrived in the city of Kaeson. We drove up a large hill in order to get a birds-eye view of the city along with a mountain that looked like a pregnant woman lying down. No joke, it’s a thing. We also saw yet another large statue of Kim Il-Sung.We moved into our hotel for the night, a walled complex with individual cabin-type things. We were warned that we would be sleeping on mats on the floor, but for some reason the room I ended up in had two beds. Lucky, I guess. As we walked to get our dinner we discovered maybe the oddest thing in all of the DPRK, a random hallway leading to the dining building that was enveloped in trees, branches, bushes, and wooden renderings of wild animals like bears, monkeys, and tigers. We could never figure out the purpose of it, so it will remain one of the most mysterious aspects in all of North Korea.We got our first taste of community power being turned off that night as at 11pm our lights and heat (oh, the heat) all went black. I headed back from a late dinner by myself, basically at zombie level exhaustion, and just as I entered the room and switched on the light, it all went dark. I realized the heat would no longer work and dove into my bed. It was freezing. Oh, and I guess my body decided to revolt against the beer and kimchee and I was sick for most of the night.
The next morning we took a short stop at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Koryo History Museum. The museum was originally (1,000 years ago) a university for wealthy nobles but is now dedicated to local history and featured pottery and metal work created nearby. The ground was scattered with bright yellow leaves under 1,000 year old trees. To be totally honest, I was extremely exhausted from my night of sickness and I listened, but I guess I didn’t load much of the information into my long term memory and have forgotten much of what was explained to us. Shame on me. Here are pretty pictures to distract you!
It was then that we headed out to the DMZ, or the demilitarized zone. This is an area of about 5 kilometers where North and South Korea meet. There is high (high) tension between the two nations, but this is the area where they have negotiations and have a 24/7 armed guard face off. Literally. President Clinton once referred to this as the “scariest place on earth.” So, obviously, I was stoked. This is a very popular destination for South Korean tourists as this is the only place that they can step foot in the North (sometimes), if only for a few feet. It was very interesting to hear about the zone from the Northerners, however.
After about 100 military checkpoints and a briefing from our guides on how to act and what not to take photos of, we arrived and unloaded from the bus. As we entered the official start of the DMZ, we were assigned a guard (ahem) guide, who first briefed us on what we would be seeing. The entire area of the DMZ is 5 square kilometers and about 250 family live within this boarder. We got back on our bus and started on the 2.5k drive to the central compound.
We made a stop at the negotiations building (a building where the treaty between the US and Korea was negotiated) and the Korean Peace Museum where the said treaty was signed. We were told that all the original flags and tables were the ones before us, although the UN flag was faded and in tatters while the NK flag was pristine. Kinda fishy? I’m getting to the bottom of only the most important conspiracies, clearly.
We then made our way to the actual border between the two nations. This area consists of two larger buildings facing each other (one on each side of the line), three small blue buildings for negotiating between the two countries, and a whole lot of guys holding guns. You can sometimes enter the blue buildings unless there are meetings happening at the time of your visit which is what happened to us. This is exciting for South Korean visitors as that is the only place they can enter North Korea, if only for a few feet. We went to the second story to an observation deck and took in the view. It hit me, as I looked over into South Korea, that I’m in a very small club that has only been to the Northern of the two Koreas. Should I make a trip to the South? I don’t know, what do you think? At least I could check my Facebook there.
As we all snapped photos and whispered in hushed tones, we watched as a small SUV stopped on the Southern side and some US soldiers got out. Now, I was a military kid and can recognize a US soldier from a mile away, but the excitement over this was palpable from more than just me. Even the guards from the DPRK got out their phones to take photos; apparently this is an exciting occurrence. I really wanted to yell across to them, “MY BROTHERS!” but I thought that may not have gone over well in my current situation. So, I refrained. After all of this, we were famished. We headed to a traditional Korean restaurant where our food came separated in individual gold bowls. The bowls were filled with egg, carrots, kimchee, a red bean dessert and more. Apparently, the more bowls you receive, the more important/respected you are. Royals of old would usually receive around twelve, which is about how many we got. We’re kinda a big deal, I guess. We were also given the opportunity to have a special soup. It was optional, as many people wouldn’t be comfortable eating dog. I will try anything once and I’ve already tried camel, kangaroo, and insects (among others) so this wasn’t really a stretch for me. I shared a bowl with one of the other gals on the trip and were both pleasantly surprised at how delicious. It tasted like spicy, shredded beef and turned out to be the yummiest thing I ate the whole time. Sorry, Mr. Bingley.
After lunch we headed to The International Friendship Exhibition, a large museum dedicated to over 100,000 gifts given to the leaders. We couldn’t take photos inside, which again surprised me. Inside this building, as well as the history museum and the mausoleum, were grand buildings that screamed “wealth,” although we were not able to take photos of them, where we could take photos of rotting buildings and areas of disarray. You’d think that these buildings would be what they would want us to show off, but there must be a reason.
Anyway, after one of our team opened the huge, mahogany doors, our cameras were turned off. The gifts inside ranged from a taxidermic crocodile holding a tray of drinks to a polar bear rug to a book from a random hiker from New Zealand. Being American, I noticed that the US had given three gifts: essentially a paper weight, a mixing bowl, and a bird statue from Billy Graham. I don’t really understand why this museum was even a thing, but I don’t think humility is a big thing with the leaders of the DPRK.
We then headed to a 1,000 year old Buddhist monastery. Now, there isn’t really religion in the DPRK, so there aren’t many people who practice Buddhism but the monastery is kept active for historical purposes. There are about 20 monks who reside there and not many more believers than that in the entire country. The grounds were beautiful, and the temples were filled with ornate and colorful sculptures of deities.
After wandering around this lovely bit of Korea, it was time to head back to Pyongyang. On the way into the city we stopped at the Arch of Reunification, a monument dedicated to the hope of reunifying the countries once more. We were told over and over that the North’s biggest desire is to again be Korea, without the North or South. The monument is composed of two women holding up a picture of Korea as one nation. At the feet of each women is a scene; no one knows for sure which woman is North and which is South but apparently the one with a more united group holding a torch is supposed to be the North. The South is filled with more confusion and uproar.
Our last stop was the Korean War Museum. I wasn’t able to take many photos, but the museum was quite grand indeed. This was one of the main times I felt a bit awkward being American in the DPRK. The hatred was palpable. I compared it in my mind to visiting the atomic bomb museum in Hiroshima, Japan. The Japanese had every right to make an angry, hateful museum but chose to state the facts as they were. I never felt unwelcome and I truly learned unbiased truths while visiting. The Korean War Museum, though very well done, didn’t seem to have all the facts straight.
They had a huge display of war vehicles and weapons along with the USS Pueblo. The USS Pueblo was a US spy ship that was captured off the coast of the DPRK. The Koreans kept the US soldiers captive for 11 months until an agreement for release was found. On board we watched a very, very one-sided video as well as saw memorabilia from the crew. One interesting bit was that they had the “admissions of guilt” letters from all sixty-something prisoners and yet they all seemed to be in the exact same handwriting. Odd.
We had a special tour guide for the museum who spoke English but it was very clear that she had only memorized a huge chunk and was not able to answer any of our questions, either that or she had never been taught anything about the war beyond what she had memorized. Visually, it was a great museum, but the information provided left me in the want.
After a very, very full couple of days we ended our trip back to the city with Korean bbq. I hadn’t had Korean bbq before but had heard a lot about it while in Hong Kong. Quite delish. We sat around and chatted over pork and veggies and said goodbye to one-half of our group who were leaving the next morning.
Stay tuned for the final DPRK post coming soon and check out Part 1 while you’re at it!