Pictures of North Korea, part 5: approaching the DMZ

October 21, 2011 by Joshua
in Freedom, NorthKorea

Continuing writing about my North Korea trip… More pictures. Click on them for larger views.

I copied most of my blurbs from when I posted these pictures on a social network site a month ago. Sorry about any repetition between what I wrote then for these pictures and what I wrote recently for other pictures.

The Wikipedia page on the DMZ gives good background.

The road to the demilitarized zone

This divided highway from Pyongyang to the DMZ illustrates driving in North Korea. The whole way the road runs mostly straight. Instead of using both sides of the divided road, everyone uses one. When we asked why not use both, the guides said it was for construction on the other side, but we saw very little construction. I suspect they found maintaining only one side cheaper than maintaining both. In our whole time in North Korea we barely stopped at any traffic lights. We never spent time in traffic, even leaving from the largest stadium immediately after a performance. There aren't many cars in North Korea. Many cars are old -- for example, we saw an army guy starting a car with a crank, something I've never seen outside of old movies. Of the cars there, many are Mercedes and other expensive cars, mostly in Pyongyang. The land we passed was abundantly green. I thought the landscape was beautiful. The land is mostly flat, but has many rocky outcrops and rocky hills.

The road to the demilitarized zone

Many small towns dotted the countryside. Many of the homes were concrete slab-like buildings, many incomplete or poorly constructed. I saw no old buildings. I presume they were destroyed in the Korean War, though there may have been few after the Japanese occupation. Near one town we passed a couple bridges unfinished across the river to the side of the road like this one. They had the feel of ancient Roman ruins, but they were recent. I think one was for trains, the other for cars. But the buildings were incomplete and were falling into the river. I couldn't guess the age of the bridges. The road had almost no shoulder. Many people listlessly walked along the road or sat by the side. i don't remember ever seeing anyone in North Korea hurrying. Often we'd see kids just by the side of the road with no sign of parents.

The road to the demilitarized zone

A modest-sized community in North Korea between Pyongyang and the DMZ. The country was more sparsely populated than I expected and with smaller cities. Having visited Seoul, I expected something remotely similar, but I can't say they were. I saw almost no billboards the entire trip, certainly none on the highways. The clear views made two main impressions on me. The first was to reinforce the beauty of the land. While they had built industrial areas, I remember mostly farmland and un-farmed land, especially the hills. The other was to realize how much we've destroyed our land back home. Across the Hudson from Manhattan, over the cliffs is what used to be a swamp, likely once filled with wildlife. Now it's an industrial wasteland. Possibly cleaner than a couple decades ago, it's overrun with highways, pollution, garbage, billboards, and such. Occasionally you see an egret and realize how beautiful the terrain must have been and what we've done to it. People consistently ask me what North Korea was like. An equally meaningful question would be what did experiencing such a different environment teach you about your own. The propaganda and clear spaces there taught me about the advertising we have here. They probably see so many images of Kim Jung Il they tune them out as part of the environment, like fish in water. We see those things as propaganda to control their thinking and keep the culture in line. What does that say about our commercials, billboards, signs, and such? Do we just tune them out as part of our environments? Do they control our thinking and keep us in line? Do they separate us from the beauty of our land?

The road to the demilitarized zone

Much of the landscape reminded me of the tv show M*A*S*H, which I long considered the best show ever. I can almost hear the theme song, "Suicide is painless," and see the choppers coming over the hill. Many of the crop fields by the road had huts, which we assumed were for farmers to sleep in if they worked late. After all, we saw no large farm equipment so we assumed they farmed by hand. When I returned I read a New Yorker article about an American on tour in North Korea who thought they like bird blinds and said he wanted to hunt too. His guides told him the stands were to hold soldiers with orders to shoot people stealing crops.

Links don’t seem to show up in captions, so here’s the M*A*S*H theme on YouTube and here’s the New Yorker article on that American who learned the huts were for soldiers to protect the crops from hungry people.

North Korea's demilitarized zone

The guides show you the layout of the demilitarized zone -- what's where, what we'll see, some history. I don't remember the details, but you can be sure they included the words "U.S. imperialist aggressors."

North Korea's demilitarized zone

We waited for a long time at the building with this map while all the buses queued to enter the very thin, high-walled road to enter the DMZ. That road had large cement blocks on the side designed to be knocked down to block the road, I guess in case of attack. Besides this map the building had a gift shop. The DMZ probably had more tourists at it than any other site, many of them Chinese. Americans worry about visiting North Korea, but Chinese bring whole families with kids.

North Korea's demilitarized zone

Should I even include these out-of-focus lame pictures of myself? When you're there it seems like fun and everyone else poses there too. Then you look at it and realize how silly you will look to future generations. Still, it's part of the trip, I guess.

North Korea's demilitarized zone

Showing the DMZ in the greater geographical context. It's a four-kilometer wide path running the width of the peninsula, heavily fortified. The two sides signed an armistice but not a peace treaty, so they remain at war. It's hard for me to see the South invading the North militarily, though I could easily see them starting trade with the North, which would open the North to information from the rest of the world that contradicts their stories and history. I think the decision-makers in the North more fear that information, which I believe would hurt them but help the people they govern.

North Korea's demilitarized zone

While our guide showed us the layout of the DMZ we were about to visit, the guy on the right videotaped her and us fairly closely and intrusively. They told us he was with another group, providing video they could buy so they didn't have to video so much themselves. He showed up at various places. He probably was doing just that, but who knows? At the ostrich farm toward the end of the trip some guy also videoed us in one of the funnier moments of the trip (everyone who was on the trip just laughed on reading that but don't ask me to explain why). Our hotel was rumored to be bugged. Another group's camera's contents were reviewed and images deleted. Despite what I just wrote, I didn't feel like we were being monitored or surveilled on the trip, although they severely restricted our movement. The number of cameras recording you in New York City far surpasses the number on you in Pyongyang and I don't think New York City has that high a number of cameras per capita than many places. For all I know the rumors of cameras in the hotel were false and this guy and the guy at the ostrich farm were taping things for innocuous reasons.

The rumor of the hotel being bugged is on Wikipedia, which includes sources.

North Korea's demilitarized zone

Entering the thin, high-walled road into the DMZ. We noticed the preponderance of military in the demilitarized zone, as well as their telling us of the mine fields, which didn't sound that demilitarized to us. They explained it meant no military action.

North Korea's demilitarized zone

I missed photographing the large concrete blocks that could be dropped in to block this road. On the other side of the barbed wire were large green fields. People live, work, and farm in the DMZ. I can't imagine farming in what Wikipedia calls "the most heavily militarized border in the world" (citing a couple sources). Both sides display various kinds of propaganda to the other. Occasionally they fight. Both sides' history villainizes the other.

North Korea's demilitarized zone

The road entering the DMZ just fit two buses.

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