‘I see someone’, says Seoyoung, looking up from her binoculars and pointing. Elongating my zoom lens, I home in on a man walking along a field, then bending to pick something up. Then we notice other people nearby, all dotted around and doing the same thing. Then, behind them, I see that a house is being built.
A busload of labourers clambers around on its unfinished roof. In the foreground, the guard posts of the two Koreas stare at one another across a small sandy estuary. At the more frequently visited Dorasan Observatory near the Joint Security Area, described in my second blog post, North Korea presents an implausible face of success, but this view from the Odusan Observatory seems far less choreographed.
According to North Korea’s system of ascribed status, songbun, those whose families are deemed less loyal to the regime are not permitted to live in the areas of the country closest to the Korean border, so presumably this grim little place is home to a privileged community, trusted to remain pure. I feel like I’m watching documentary footage from an historical film, albeit on a tiny television that is in a house on the other side of the street. And I also feel like I am making a curiosity out of a humanitarian disaster. In a way, that is exactly what I am doing.
Yesterday, at the United Nations Human Rights Commission, North Korea lined up alongside various other regimes that violate human rights on a scale that is unimaginable to most of us to express ‘concern’ at the USA’s ‘human rights violations’. They have a point, but this is like John Wayne Gacy interrogating Ronald McDonald about whether he embraces the true spirit of clowning. It is very useful for such regimes to be able to display liberal democratic adversaries in this way. And yes, American democracy is the most expensive corporate farce on earth and Western imperialism is a global scourge, but I am glad that I am allowed to say that without being arrested and sent to a gulag or re-education camp when I step off a plane at Heathrow at the end of this month.
Western tourists are also useful to North Korea. Despite my curiosity, I am as close as I want to be to the ludicrously-named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, where all of my movements would be chosen for me in advance, where I would have to bow to statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and where the dissent of locals (e.g. not bowing to a statue of the Kims) is unthinkable and brainwashing as near-absolute as possible. ‘Look’, proclaim the authorities: ‘even foreigners want to come here to honour our Great Leader and Dear Leader’.
I’m glad these people have the right to be wrong, whatever I think of them and whatever you think of them, because I want to have the right to be right, however fashionable or unfashionable it is to be right.
‘Pray for reunification of Korea’, an old man says, tapping me on the shoulder and shaking me from reverie. But several other people I have spoken to are more ambivalent. ‘I never think about them’, one woman told me. And though the two Koreas share a unique language and alphabet, and an unusually unbroken history of many centuries, they also share almost a lifespan of crisp and acrimonious division, and an ideological gulf wider than the Pacific, that has only grown wider in the five decades since South Korea became an economic powerhouse in thrall to its chaebols then threw off military dictatorship.
Shuffling around the Seoul capital area, one is a whole world away from the land of the Juche ideology, less than a marathon run to the north. It is easy to imagine how it might be forgotten. Yesterday I climbed Gyeyangsan, one of the bigger peaks that breaks up the huge suburban sprawl, past a hill fort to the windy summit. The tower blocks of Incheon marched off in one direction, and those of Seoul in the other. Islands in the bay where the Incheon Landings occurred were little wooded shadows before the sinking sun, and up the Han River estuary this observatory was just about visible through my handy zoom lens, a dark mass of similar hills that none of these people can visit rising above it.
I wonder what the distant figures I’m now straining to gawp at through my camera make of the orange glow that pollutes half of the sky to the south every night. All eight of the observatories in the DMZ are of course on this side of the border, but that stain on the ether must be a constant reminder to all of the people in this village that a very different life exists nearby. I am reminded that ‘Seoul’ means ‘capital’. It should be their city, too. And I am also reminded of one of the most subtly moving and memorable documentaries I have ever seen, Sung-Hyung Cho’s My Brothers and Sisters in the North. Watch it.
I suspect they know nothing about the US election, these village people a mile away – the result of which, as I write, has only just been announced. On the day of the vote, and with a determination to put my mind on something other than that, I headed to Gyeongbokgung, the grandest of Seoul’s royal palaces. ‘It is almost impossible to avoid the crowds’, I read in my pre-COVID-era guidebook, as I sauntered through and around its empty wooden buildings, trying to work out how to put the finishing touches on a poem I’d been writing. Then I popped to Gwanghyamun Plaza, really a long stretch of grass and pavement between two carriageways, where political demonstrations now often take place beneath a huge statue of King Sejong.
About twenty people were waving flags behind a police cordon: ‘KOREANS FOR TRUMP’, ‘REINFORCE S. KOREA—U.S. ALLIANCE’, or just simply ‘TRUMP’ (which still primarily means ‘fart’ to me). One asked whether I am American (oh the horror, dear reader), then what I think of the current US President. ‘I don’t like him’, I said – though I didn’t add that I am a democratic socialist, the first word being equally important to the second, at which she turned away by a few degrees and waved her flag a little more vigorously at the passing cars. I’d hoped for a conversation. Another flag-bearer gave me one, sort of. ‘He is strong on the military and China’, he told me.
In fact, in 2018, Trump announced that the US would stop its ‘war games’ with South Korea, and he has questioned the extent of the US military presence here. And in January he praised China’s ‘transparency’ about COVID, before changing his mind. I’m glad these people have the right to be wrong, whatever I think of them and whatever you think of them, because I want to have the right to be right, however fashionable or unfashionable it is to be right.