Sunday, July 18, 2010

please don't stand in front of the dear leader.

He may look like your fun hipster grandpa, but trust me, you do NOT want to mess with this man.*

At this point in my life, the closest thing I've come to experiencing Communism was drinking vodka with Russians in Prague almost exactly two decades after the end of the Cold War. I won't say it was really heavily focused on the relative merits of democracy, either, so in terms of a cultural experience it was more theoretical than anything. That changed on Friday, when Mom and I headed north-- but not too far north, because that would involve getting shot on sight.

"Nothing normal happens here. EVER."

To set even a pinky toe on the border of North Korea, here is what we had to do: wake up at 5 am, take the subway for an hour to the USO office, take a bus for another hour and arrive at the edge of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), switch buses and go through a kind of "indoctrination" into the UN-- "No pointing, no waving, no gestures that North Korea could interpret as hostile, no bags, no photos unless we are in specific zones." We signed waivers that declared if we got shot or kidnapped, the military wasn't responsible for whatever we did wrong. Then we took another bus through the Joint Security Area and became aware that we were suddenly in the weirdest place we'd ever encountered, and it was only 9:30 am.

"We're watching you, you Western capitalist pigs." (please note the man with a camera, trying to be sneaky in the lower left window)

As our baby-faced military guide recounted 60 years of Korean history in ten minutes, I was pretty much losing my head with excitement because how many times have I sat in a foreign policy class trying to figure out how to save the world and never actually pictured the front lines of where all the negotiation happens? I almost peed from excitement and nerves. The DMZ is the most heavily militarized border in the entire world, and one of the most fascinating stretches of land I have ever set foot on, as it's a line that divides two completely disparate worlds that share a name. It's the difference between a swiftly growing Asian economy that's connected with the rest of the world and a socialist, totalitarian police state with one of the world's strictest (ie. craziest) dictators. You heard it here first, people: Kim Jong-il is CRA. ZY.

Left foot in democratic South Korea, right foot in nuts-as-all-getout North Korea

The stare-down that is border patrol.

Let me expound. In brief, North Korea is absolutely batshit, and the people there think they are the only country in the world that has it all figured out. They are 100% utterly convinced that Kim Il-ung is God and that they are living the dream. I could fill a book with all the bizarre things we heard about the personality cult that keeps North Koreans in line, and how juvenile it is (in a super-deluded and dangerous playground bully kind of way), and how hell-bent the regime is on keeping North Korea isolated from just about everything that exists. Here's a sampling:

1. The negotiation room that sits on the border, evenly split between North and South, has to be cleared out by two armed soldiers before tourists can enter. They used to only have one, until two years ago, when the soldier securing the back entrance was ambushed from the north side of the building by NK military, who broke through and tried to drag him across the border. Now ROK soldiers have to hold onto each others holsters or link arms when securing the area. To this I say, "what the hell?"

2. In an effort to avoid the land-mine-ridden DMZ but still sneakily invade South Korea, North Korea dug a bunch of tunnels, one of which was later uncovered with the help of a North Korean defector who had helped build it. North Korea then denied having built the tunnel, like a dumb kid standing in front of a broken lamp holding a baseball bat, despite the fact that the dynamite blasts were pointing south and water was draining north. Finally, they admitted having built it, but claimed it was an old coal mine (in an area that's almost entirely made of granite). So, in the most believable cover-up in the history of mining, North Korea PAINTED THE WALLS BLACK. "Nothing to see down here but some old coal! Run along!"

3. Checkpoint Charlie: Shane from Vice Magazine said something about this spot being one of the most dangerous places in the world, since you're standing surrounded on 3 sides by a totalitarian dictatorship, but I found it just pretty eerie. I mean, technically we aren't looking at Kabul or Mogadishu here, but the possibility of massive war is, I suppose, what made the Cold War so quietly powerful in the first place. Here's a shot of the sham town Kijong-dong, with the tallest flag pole in the world to show everyone how awesome and powerful North Korea is and designed to lure South Koreans across the border to join this utopia. But it's a lonely town-- these buildings are all empty; a facade created to give the illusion of bustling prosperity. And you can't see it in this photo, but there are wave blockers lining the southern border to prevent any outside information from entering the country. Our guide told us that "recently, Chinese airwaves have been infiltrating, and that's a really good thing for North Koreans." How do you know your country is in huge trouble? When getting media from CHINA is a step up.

North Korea has a bad thing going. Development is stunted and the standard of living is, relatively speaking, quite low. This photo is a snapshot of the Korean peninsula by night-- there's China on the left, and Seoul glowing like a firefly, and an eerie void in between. That's North Korea, a state that allows its denizens zero control over just about everything (including their own thought processing capabilities) and recently demanded 65 TRILLION DOLLARS from the US as reparations for damages incurred since the Korean War. This is why I never would have succeeded in my original plan to be a diplomat: how do you not laugh when Dr. Evil asks you for a million dollars in all seriousness? It's too much!

Kim Jong-il is a character begging to be made fun of, but when it comes down to it, this is a huge tragedy. This man holding razor wire kind of says it all-- his family was split down the middle and the two paths they took could not have been more disparate. The scariest part about North Korea is that their citizens have no clue how bad it really is-- they think they're experiencing utopia when it's actually more like hell on earth.

Here is the Vice Guide to North Korea-- pretty much the most fascinating 45 minutes you could spend today, I recommend you getting involved so we can experience the mind warp together.

*Amy mentioned that if I post this entry, my blog may get blocked from her computer since South Korea is pretty into censorship when it comes to issues of the North. Everyone is sooo sensitive around here about brutal dictatorships! However, the free press shall conquer yet again when we land in Bangkok on Thursday!


Bobbi said...

Laura. ARE YOU THERE? AH MY GOD. Laura. Glad you and your family made it out alive and didn't get all Laura Linged.

BTW, you should watch The Brotherhood of War. Pretty crazy film about the Korean War.

Anonymous said...

hey chica, i just hear you are in Asia with your sis! Awesome! i hope you are having fun, remenber im a fun of your blogg, we need to get together when you come back, hubby its home and everything its perfecr around here!!! miss uuuuu

Emily said...

Thanks for sharing this, Laura! Quite fascinating. What a strange strange place. I'm surprised you were able to get there.

Gabriel said...

I actually watched that vice guide to North Korea holed up in a dungeon like hostel in Buenos Aires.


I can't wait to go to the DMZ

huysmantrophy said...

Luke, I love your homeland.
Gio and Em, I can't wait to see you!!
And Gabe... can we please connect somewhere in middle America this year to discuss our travels?!