Pictures of North Korea, part 6: the Demilitarized Zone

October 22, 2011 by Joshua
in Freedom, NorthKorea

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

The Wikipedia page on the DMZ gives some background.

The North Korean Demilitarized Zone (22)

I believe this shot was at one of the tables over the border between North and South Korea. In any case, I know it was a table where negotiations took place because of the shot two below this one. The soldier is giving a history of what happened at those tables, with our guide translating it into English. You can rest assured of two things: his history will conflict with the one in Wikipedia and the U.S. will be called imperialist aggressors. Things work like that there.

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I think we were getting up here after having heard the story but now knowing we were sitting in historic locations, where the armistice was signed or something like that. Two people who took their time getting up were Neil and Ingrid, who were playing this crazy amazing card game one of Neil's former coaches created called "Skittykitts." Oh wait, I just looked them up and here there are still playing after everyone was supposed to have left. The guards got stern with them, so Neil was showing serious dedication to his friend. I mean, it is North Korea and they are the military. You better have a good reason to push their limits.

The picture of Neil and Ingrid pushing the limits to play Skittykitts. You can see Neil starting to sweat because a North Korean, probably an armed soldier, is telling him to get up or else.

More about Skittykitts here. What is Skittykitts? As Neil put it, the first time you play it makes no sense whatsoever. The next time it starts making sense. The third time the addiction kicks in. About the tenth time you start thinking multiple-card combination plays several moves ahead.

Ingrid, Neil, and I played on the flight from Beijing to Pyongyang. Then on the bus a few of us got into it. I won a few games, but never caught up to Neil and Ingrid, who had figured out how all the cards worked together. I can’t explain the game, but if you can buy a deck or join a game, do it.

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They told me I was sitting in the seat of some big general or negotiator so I figured I should take a picture of my historic location. That I would look like a dork didn't occur to me.

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I think the picture on top is of Kim Il Sung. I was delighted to see that my camera identified his face as a face when focusing. I'm sure many people noticed that. To me, I didn't feel like I was photographing a face, but a picture. Kind of a weird cognitive difference, maybe not so relevant to North Korea. Anyway, elsewhere in that room was the axe of the 1976 Ax Murder Incident. I don't remember the details of their history, I think they said the Americans just started chopping down a tree for no reason, then attacked the North Koreans. The Wikipedia version presents the North Koreans as gruesome. I wasn't there so I don't know. Understanding the North Korean version was hard too because "ax" sounded "eggs" and I thought they were describing an egg-throwing incident.

The Ax Murder Incident on Wikipedia.

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One of the iconic shots of the DMZ from the North Korean side, looking at the South side. The border goes horizontally through the low buildings in the middle. The two sets of three soldiers on the side of the middle building are right up against the border. I read somewhere that their positioning is designed to keep each other from defecting and to keep others from defecting, but I'm not sure.

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The buildings in the middle host negotiations rarely. At other times both sides seem to have agreed to allow the border to include the buildings entirely in the North or South, depending on who is in the building. I saw a video of South Korean soldiers in the building. When they near the door on the north, they hold hands to help prevent the closer one from being kidnapped. Apparently North Koreans will periodically kidnap people too close to the border. The Wikipedia page on the DMZ lists a few dozen incursions and incidents over the DMZ, nearly all instigated by the North. I haven't looked for independent confirmation.

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I liked the traditional East Asian design in the midst of the otherwise very functional buildings.

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A close up of the three soldier formation. The concrete raised line is the border. I don't know what would happen if one of them stepped over the border, or if soldiers from both sides ever end up near enough to touch across the border. They are acting like they aren't communicating, but they are clearly communicating as much as if they were talking out loud. Or maybe yelling.

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Everybody takes the same shot. So you realize everyone taking the shot is a cool shot. Then you realize everyone else realizes that too and you're just in a tourist zone.

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Neil, Dan, and Jordan in one of my favorite shots of the trip, although the next one tops it because of the reflection.

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One of my favorite shots of the trip. We're sitting at a table straddling the line dividing North and South Korea. Soldiers are walking around outside and in this blue building. The local guide, a soldier, is describing the importance of the location. Neil, Dan, and Jordan watch and listen with the thoughtful attention and focused determination diplomats would have at this table were they negotiating. They might do a better job too. In case you wondered, they're on the table's North Korean side. I took the picture from the South Korean side. I got the table reflection by holding the camera just above it.

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I just finished building Jordan Harbinger up in the picture of him overlooking the Juche Tower from the top of the library building so it’s good that I have a picture of him looking like a total dork. Jim, in red, remarked that one of the most remarkable moments of the trip for him was making eye contact with the South Korean soldiers at the border here. He said their emotion was palpable. I don’t remember how he described the emotion, but I think it was something like enraged. Our group had fun most of the trip so we joked around a lot, but that emotion brought him back to the gravity of the location. Millions of people died in the Korean War, which is still declared. Families were separated. People considered attacking with nuclear weapons. He may have been looking at them at the moment I took this picture. He’s looking south.

WordPress doesn’t always show links in captions, so here’s the picture with Jordan in overlooking the Juche Tower.

Jordan responded

Haha, I love this pic because, as dorky as it was, this was the chair that General Kim Jong Il sat in during the armistice negotiations with the United States (I think). Or maybe it was the chair next to mine. I can’t remember. 🙂

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Want some irony? One of the best maintained buildings with the best manicured lawns in North Korea is for use by almost nobody, mostly for show to foreigners they are at war with.

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Look how many cameras the other building has. This building appears to be the South Korean counterpart to the building in the above picture. I don't know what goes on inside it. The pair of buildings look like rooks on a DMZ chessboard.

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Another group. I lent my camera to someone to take a picture of our group with that soldier and she took pictures of these other people, unfortunately not as cool as the people in my group. Still you get to see the crazy mix of milatarism and tourism in the world's most heavily fortified border.

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More of the same.

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Alex and I with the soldier. My guess is he gets a lot of pictures taken of him like this because he didn't bat an eye about having all these pictures taken of him with what I would have thought he would have thought of as silly tourists. How North Korea reconciles admonishing America with embracing American tourists and using American dollars, I haven't figured out. Partly there have only been under three thousand American citizens in North Korea since the fighting ended in 1953. Partly they do like nearly everyone and recognize the difference between the government and the people of a nation.

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Most of my group. I don't see John or Gabriel in it. I think we gave the soldier some cigarettes. We tipped well as a group, I think. A couple guys bought a lot of duty free alcohol, tobacco, and chocolate in Beijing to help show our appreciation and ensure friendly relations. If you go to North Korea, I recommend doing the same. Why risk unfriendly relations with your guides?

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Someone posted below this picture when I posted it on a social networking site " they seem very open to Ameican tourists these days.." I responded "If you are cool with them, they are cool with you. If you watch the lamentable Vice Guide to North Korea, the guy acts like the guides are intolerant or mean. I think that's because that guy acted condescending to them. We were respectful and tipped well and what do you know, they treated us well."

North Korean Demilitarized Zone

She was one of the guides for a different group. You can tell she's North Korean by the lapel pin. For some reason our guides and another group's switched for a day. Since the mood of the country we saw was so somber, I asked her if they had fun, like did they have parties in college. She said yes, of course. On the bus ride to the DMZ, I tried suggesting getting her friends together with ours for a party in Pyongyang, mostly jokingly, but also curious if it could happen. She didn't go for it and other members of my group said she was uncomfortable talking about it. I didn't read her reaction as uncomfortable, but I took their hint to drop the subject, even though I thought they were oversensitive.

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1 response to “Pictures of North Korea, part 6: the Demilitarized Zone

  1. Pingback: The Art of Charm Interview with Jordan Harbinger | Joshua Spodek

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