Jun 20, 2007

abandon all hype, ye who enter here (North Korea post #5)

I was searching for North Korea.

I tucked the chintzy bus window curtain up into the overhead luggage rack to get a better look at the DMZ, hoping for my first clue.

What does anyone really know about life inside? There are rumors that the governmental assessment of the country's population, something like 22 million people, is grossly exaggerated and it's a pretty well accepted truth that the mostly in-the-dark society's condition is censured heavily in other ways too.

So are the North Koreans, in fact, starving like I've heard? Are they tortured? Are they brainwashed? What is happening to them?

Mostly, who are they? More importantly, can I find out?

Our tour bus out of Seoul lumbered at a reserved and respectful pace along the isolated road across the 38th.

'Adventure Korea' was taking us to Kumgangsan, North Korea, specifically, the little tourist village at the foot of the beautiful Diamond Mountain range for sightseeing (I would discover that this tiny 'village' comes complete with every amenity and friendly staff, as well as omnipresent military guards and miles of barbed wired-topped fence. Yin and Yang).

The Demilitarized Zone is hollow. A footstep would echo there. Weeds have overrun it and there is a sense of breathlessness. Or maybe I was just holding my breath as we crossed.

It's a border in name only, not upkeep - it doesn't truly exist.

Less than five minutes from one side to the other, I left the always-smiling South Korea soldiers manning posts behind and watched the small forms of the North Korean army slowly creeping forward in my field of vision, the stiffness of their movement-less advance giving away the rigorously disciplined background propping them up.

Red flags are at every 100 feet, downcast in the hands of military at-attention. Be the cause of a raised one, and everyone goes home. Everyone. Everyone in locale North Korea who isn't North Korean. How many visitors were there that weekend? Over 2000? They said, no pictures, they meant it. Thankfully, we obeyed. No one incurred the red-flag wrath. No one went home.

But really, I thought, how would they know? If I took a picture, no flash, sneakily from the corner of my backpack.. I thought the better of it when I scanned the scenery and figured a million places I probably wouldn't think to look for a stiffly hidden soldier.

The trees are gone on the north side. Cut down ages ago. What's left is muddy crags, dusty granite monoliths and ugly grass. Nothing to keep movement a secret. All the better to track you, my dear. But is the cleared landscape to keep spies out, or keep civilians in?

We rolled past tank traps, five in a row, at a couple hundred-meter intervals, their canons aimed at us but unmanned. Soldiers with red flags passing for telephone poles.

And then there were peasants, squatting in the rice fields adjacent to the road sometimes two fields deep, or bicycling two-by-two in even pace, and whitewashed villages far off behind sight-obscuring railway embankments left over from the long-over era of actual cross-Korean transportation. The rails are unused now, but hopeful-looking in that way only an empty converging-on-the-horizon train track can look.

And everyone on the bus was curious, pressing noses to windows, looking hard at the hunched-over rice planters as they moved slowly. I knew to quit asking myself not what details I could frame in my memory, but what details were missing. Like, why weren't they looking at us? Weren't they curious too?

Let's say you're a totalitarian government systematically abusing and brainwashing your people, and you get the chance to set up a little in-house tour. Which of your faces would you show the world? A functioning pastoral public, diligent and self-reliant is what I would choose too.

My mind turned the possibility of a decoy over and over as I stared at the little microcosm of seeming rice-picking townies just outside the bus window. I wondered, maybe they're not allowed to look at us. If not, how can not one of them be looking at us while every one of them is facing the road? And why does it seem like there's so much rice and infostructure in a country that's supposed to be repressed, confined and starving? Are they doing this for our benefit? Are they on a schedule to coincide with our passing? Is this even real?

Another whole paragraph of questions set off a disharmony of doubt in my head without hope of a coda.

Since 1998, when South Korean mega-moguls, Hyundai, reached a deal with the North to own and operate the land around Kumgangsan as a 'separately administered' tourist area inside the forbidden country. So technically speaking, the mountains are in North Korea but the area is owned and run by Southies. But that doesn't impede North Korea's right to impose a presence in its own territory. From the money down to the solitary road leading in and out without a single branch-off. The resort area is thought of [probably rightly] as an outlet for the influx of international funds into the country, since the only currency accepted at the North-Korean run hotel and the South-Korean run facilities is the US dollar. And the road that winds almost idyllically through perfectly-timed peasants and perfectly-coiffed rice fields is fiercely watched over [or is that, fiercely appears to be watched over?] by the North. Independent travel is strictly prohibited, even inside the South zone. Red flags are everywhere.

For the next day and a half, I went through the motions; hiking, sightseeing, taking in all the spectaculars North Korean Mother Nature had hidden up her communist sleeve, but I kept returning to the question plaguing me - am I seeing what they see - is this really North Korea?

I wasn't there in the bar on the top deck of the Korean hotel when a friend of mine on the same tour made a discovery I dissected in detail on the way home. He talked to a North Korean girl lucky enough to be a barmaid at the hotel about doing laundry. She asked him in so many words about how often he does his, and he answered, oh, about once a week or so. She was revulsed. "Why, how often do you do yours?" he asked her. "Three or four times a day," she answered.

Laundry is such a simple concept: whatever's dirty goes in with soap and the machine makes it clean. But what if there's no machine... wait, no, what if you don't even know there is a machine? What if a diverted river stream is your 'machine', and your entire wardrobe consists of no more than three or four standard interchangeables? Then 'laundry' isn't laundry. It's life.

And when life is so different in such profoundly small and incommunicable ways, no one can begin to reach out to it without turning circles, meeting North Korean programed ignorance at every turn.

I could not peel back the layers of authoritative camouflage and see what I wanted to see in Kumgangsan - they layers ran too deep. North Korea shows itself cautiously, uncovering only isolated swaths that insinuate an arcadian big picture, but revealing nothing concrete. I made it back to South Korea through the check-points and stop-and-gos, my pockets a few US dollars lighter, followed home by a mystery I couldn't solve.

Somewhere beyond the barbed-wire the real North Korea is hiding with red flags at the ready.

3 comments:

fatrobot said...

hey
its your cousin mike
using my alter ego
thats alot of writing so i'll just skip to the pictures
have fun

fatrobot said...

oh and i fixed one of your photos
http://img50.imageshack.us/img50/6245/sarahwatchoutta1.jpg

tania said...

Look out behind you!!!! xoxo