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Stories from the North

NORTH Korea-a land of mystery. Under the leadership of Kim Il-sung the country lived in isolation from the world outside. In 2000, it slowly opened up under the Great Leader's son Kim Yong-il. What is the country like today? Tempo reporter Abdul Manan recently visited North Korea and filed this report.

THE 28-year-old woman is glad that she's not among about 10 million South Koreans separated from their families in the North after the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. Kris Shin has no family in the North to miss. "This is my first visit to the North," said Kris, a guide on our current tour of North Korea.
On March 14, we participants of a conference on peace and reconciliation which was jointly organized by the International Federation of Journalists Association, were visiting North Korea or the People's Democratic Republic of Korea as it's officially called. I was among 100 journalists from 70 countries who crossed the border in six buses into Kumgang, a mountain resort in North Korea.

Kumgang is located about 150 kilometers southeast of Pyongyang, capital of North Korea, and 250 kilometers north of Seoul, capital of South Korea. Development of Kumgang began as early as 1989. But the first tourists arrived there only 11 years later from a cruise ship anchored offshore. From Seoul the shortest overland route to Kumgang is through Daejin along the eastern coast of Korea on the Sea of Japan. Seoul is located about 200 kilometers from Daejin.

We stopped at Hwajinpo Asan Rest Place in Daejin. Chu Chang, an employee of Hyundai Asan, the South Korean company that built the Kumgang mountain resort, joined us for the rest of the journey. Yu Jin, a tour guide working for the company, distributed visas and entry passes before we entered North Korea.
At the North Korean border immigration officers not only required us to show our passports but also searched our personal effects. Certain goods were not allowed entry into North Korea. We had been forewarned in the South against carrying such goods as binoculars and telescopes with 10-times magnifying power, cameras with lens wider than 160 millimeters and video cameras with a 24-times zoom lens.

Also in the long list of banned articles were radios, tape recorders, MP3 players, global positioning systems, mobile phones, and books, newspapers, magazines and other printed matter from the South. And no less important was that no pictures may be taken of military objects.
All through our journey from Seoul to Daejin, Kris repeatedly warned us of the restrictions. "Why can't we take pictures?" one journalist asked. "You are just not allowed," said Kris. "Why?" Kris tried to explain but in the end she simply said it was for reasons of security. "Yes, this is North Korea," said Kris as a final word of reply.

After 15 minutes' drive from Hwajinpo we stopped at the Donghae Highway Transit Office, a modern steel and glass structure where South Korean immigration, customs and quarantine officers subject in- and outbound visitors to inspection. With six immigration counters in the building, it took no more than five minutes for us to pass through the inspection.

We resumed our journey and entered the demilitarized zone through Tongil Tower, a South Korean military observation post. The zone extends 2 kilometers south and 2 kilometers north of the border over an area stretching 248 kilometers from the western end to the eastern end of Korea. A military demarcation line cuts across the center of the zone.

The zone was built after the armistice on July 27, 1953. The war killed about 1 million people on each side of the border and separated 10 million families. An overland access across the zone was opened to tourism only four years ago.

I saw no houses, no vehicles, and no cattle farms all along the 4 kilometers of the demilitarized zone. Only an expanse of tall coarse grass wilting yellow in the dry season. Korea in the month of March is not as beautiful as pictured in the Korean television series Dejanggem and Winter Sonata popular with Indonesian viewers.

A concrete wall stood on both sides of the road along the demarcation line. We were told it served as the first obstruction an invading army has to break through either side of the border. It would take 15 minutes to clear the debris from a breach of the wall for tanks to get through.

Two kilometers on we arrived at Kusunbong in North Korea. The place looked more like a military camp than an immigration office. No immigration officers, only soldiers standing guard at the entry point. One each side of the road soldiers examined our passports before letting us pass.
In contrast with Donhae, no smiles, no words of welcome at Kusunbong. No cafe, no money changing counters either. The only public facility was a public toilet.

Back on the road we were again warned against taking pictures. Now I understood why. After 15 minutes out of Kusunbong, we saw what we were not supposed to take pictures of. "You see that? That's a rocket launcher," said Michael Yu, a companion, as he pointed to his left.
Although we were 1.5 kilometers away, I could make out three rocket launchers parked at the mouth of a tunnel. "Those rockets have a range out over the hills," said Yu pointing to the hills on both sides of the road. Yu was familiar with such sights as he was drafted for 14 months of military service with the Taiwanese Air Force.

That was not the only military installation I saw. About 1 kilometer from the rocket-launching sites, I saw camouflaged tanks hidden at the foot of the hills. Six guns pointed out from the tank turrets toward the road as if to intimidate anyone coming nearer. I also saw solders standing guard every 500 meters of the way from Kusunbong. Some on the roadside, others out in the middle of a field.

Just before noon we arrived at Onjeonggak from where we could go in all directions to other tourist destinations in Kumgang, including Samilpo Lake, Mamulsang Rockies, and Dongseokdong Valley. At Onjeonggak we went to the Cultural Center after paying a US$30 ticket per person to watch a one-hour performance by the Pyongyang Moranbong Acrobatic troupe.

Other than the Cultural Center, Onjeonggak also boasted three hotels, pavilions, restaurants and shopping centers. But you can't buy things as you like although you have the money to do so. The government sets a limit to the amount you may spend on purchases to take home.

You may buy one bottle of foreign-produced drink, and two bottles of local drink. You may not buy more than five kilograms of agricultural produce. The amount you spend is also limited. You may not spend and take more than US$30 worth of souvenirs. Transactions are done in dollars, not in won, the North Korean currency.

The government not only sets limitation to purchases, but also imposes penalties on errant tourists. A tourist is fined US$5 for losing his entrance card to Hyundai and between US$5 and US$100 for losing his visa. "That's why they call this country a country of penalties," said Kris.
The day's program at Onjeonggak closed with a dinner at Okryukwan, a typical North Korean restaurant, and coffee time later at the bar of the Oekumgang Hotel where we relaxed to the accompaniment of soft melodies provided by two singers.

Inday Espina, a Philippine journalist, instantly knew from the singers' accents where they came from. "They're Filipinos," he told me. Soon he was engrossed in a conversation with the two singers.

* * *

In the morning we went to Samilpo Lake. On the way I saw a seven-story building, the Family Reunion Center, which was still under construction. A similar center was built at Panmunjeom right at the western part of the demarcation line where families separated by the war were reunited.
On the way to Samilpo we passed through several villages. In Yangji Village, for instance, I saw a military post. Soldiers stopped everyone on foot and on bicycle to give way to our six buses as we headed toward Samilpo Lake.

An access road had been built to the lake. One or two soldiers stood guard at every crossing of the road, except on the route we passed through. We stayed only for 30 minutes. But we couldn't leave at once because of a minor incident.

It began when a North Korean offered paintings for sale. I took a picture of him and returned to the bus. But when Pio Demilia, an Italian journalist,
tried to interview the man, soldiers barred him from doing so. Demilia protested as Israeli journalist Menachem Hadar took a picture of the quarrel. Both Demilia and Hadar were taken to the military post.

The soldiers erased Hadar's three-minute recording of the quarrel. But when they tried to do the same with Damelia's camera, they couldn't do it because of battery failure. They went from bus to bus asking if anyone had a good Panasonic battery, to no avail. We were delayed for an hour as the two journalists were interrogated by the soldiers.

Another little incident involved myself and Chung Il-yong, head of the Korean Journalists Association. At one corner of the road I asked Yong to take a short cut. On the way we were stopped by a solider with a whistle and a red flag which he flapped from side to side like a linesman finding a soccer player breaking the rules of the game.

This was not the last incident we had with the soldiers during our two days' stay in North Korea. On our way back to Seoul, Bertold Jercy Kittel, a Polish journalist, was herded and interrogated at the immigration office at Kusunbong for taking pictures in the area. The soldiers erased all of his two days' worth of recording just because of one or two shots he took at Kusunbong.

Our two days in North Korea left a very deep impression on me. And on Kris, too. "All these 18 years of my life, I have taken freedom for granted. Now I know what freedom means after this visit to North Korea," said the South Korean woman.

TEMPO MAGAZINE, No. 35/VII/May 01 - 07, 2007


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