A measured glimpse of North Korea

The Baltimore Sun

KAESONG, North Korea -- Looking out the window of our tour bus, I'm not sure what to make of this trip.

On the 50-minute ride from a North Korean customs and immigration center, near the DMZ, to the first stop of our so-called tour of this city, I feel eerie emptiness.

Bare streets with very few people, empty roads except for our tour buses being led by military escorts, a countryside devoid of trees and foliage. And North Korean soldiers - wearing old Soviet-style uniforms - standing guard on empty roads along our route. When a colleague asks our North Korean guide about it, he says the soldiers are there for our safety.

Yet, I am moved by just being there because of a personal connection to North Korea. When the guide sings Korean folk songs, I think of my dad, whose family was split during the Korean War. He was 8 when North Korean forces attacked South Korea in June 1950. His family, living in Pyongyang, managed to escape to the south. One of his brothers, studying in Seoul, traveled north to be with his family, but they never united. His whereabouts are unknown.

The trip to Kaesong on Wednesday is part of a packed two-week cultural exchange program in Korea for U.S. journalists sponsored by the East-West Center and the Korea Press Foundation. That day, we join several hundred South Korean tourists and other visitors on this so-called tour. Many are senior citizens; others are school-aged children. We are the few Westerners.

Since December, Hyundai Asan has been operating its tour business to Kaesong, once the capital of the Goryeo Dynasty. For about $190, you see historical sites representing the dynasty as well as Pakyon Falls, a scenic hiking area. At least two North Korean tour guides, who are government employees, accompany each bus.

The visit comes with strict ground rules: No cell phones, laptops, cell phone batteries or other communication devices. Before we leave South Korea, our tour bus driver instructs us to throw away our English-language newspaper. Such printed material would be inappropriate.

Our cameras are allowed only after the tour operator and North Korean officials examine the devices to make sure they do not have long lenses. There are limits on where we can take pictures and what types: no photos of North Korean soldiers, guides or scenery outside the designated tour spots.

In fact, one colleague is reprimanded and forced to delete a photo of ordinary North Koreans gathered underneath a gate, which read in essence "We don't envy anybody."

We find out later that North Korean customs security officers go through each photo taken on the visit when we leave. (A tour organizer with Hyundai Asan strongly recommends that I delete 10 potentially offensive photographs of ordinary North Koreans before I get to customs. Even capturing their houses are off-limits, apparently. I comply.)

The tour itself is nothing special. After a while, beautiful artifacts look the same. It's the small contradictory glimpses of North Korea that make the trip intriguing - and disturbing.

For lunch, they provide a feast: rice with 11 side dishes, served on brass wares. This is in a country where food is scarce and recent famines have killed millions.

We see well-maintained historic houses. Yet many buildings and homes outside these designated spots look worn and decrepit, void of life and spirit.

It is a stark contrast from the modern buildings and infrastructure found at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint development between Hyundai Asan and North Korea that began in 2002. So far, 67 South Korean companies have established businesses there.

Even the city's downtown appears stuck in the past: plain-clothed North Koreans either walking or riding bikes. I don't see a single person, except the tour groups, inside a moving vehicle. Some women wear hanbok, the traditional Korean costume. Many do not look at us, although a few school-age children wave.

For me, the best part of the trip is interacting with our North Korea guides, and even security officers, at the customs office. They are sort of charming. They seem genuinely interested and curious about us. They ask me questions about my life; they are particularly puzzled that I, an ethnic Korean, am living in the United States.

Do you eat Korean food? Where do your parents live? Are you married to an American?

They want to know about the U.S. presidential elections and the South Korean congressional elections that were taking place the day of our tour. They inquire about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton by name, asking us to handicap their chances.

I wonder if these friendly conversations are a propaganda stunt or whether they want to learn more about outsiders.

They seem so normal. One tour guide, only two years younger than I am, could fit in with any university student in Seoul if, instead of his black suit, he wore jeans and a T-shirt.

The interpreter hired for our Korea program, Eunyoung Lee, who at 27 is the same age as the tour guide, chats with him about her work, friends and family.

But then you're quickly brought back to reality. You see propaganda posters with pictures of the late Kim Il Sung. They say things like "We are winning."

Our tour guides wear lapels with pictures of the late Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jung Il. They take offense when one of us asks whether the pins are available for sale.

"It represents our loyalty and commitment," one guide says. We are, after all, in North Korea.


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