‘People call him “Fat Man” but I call him “Crazy Fat Man”.’ Fair enough. I’m with seven other people on a minibus that is bowling out of Seoul beside the Han River, and Sunny, our guide, is giving a very personalised history of Korean relations. ‘When I was young, I thought North Korean people looked like devils’. She makes cute little wiggly index-finger horns on her head and giggles. I don’t quite believe her and nod politely, annoyed with myself for choosing to sit at the front so I would be able to take it all in. Then I message my partner. ‘That’s going to be in a poem now and you know it’, she replies.
Eventually, the suburbs of impossibly high apartment blocks give way to shrubby crags on the right and a wide marsh on the left, with a different river flowing through the middle of it, like a blue thread. A few flocks of cranes heave across the break in what can only loosely be described as formation, towards hazy hills on the other side. And then I start to notice the guard-posts, like little bird hides, and realise the fence I’m looking through as we zip along is topped with coils of razor-wire. The transition was surprisingly quick, but the map on my phone confirms it: our blue dot is rolling north of where the Han meets the Imjin River; the last impermeable front of the Cold War runs between us and the Hebridean landscape a mile or two across the water, for a few miles at least, before briefly bouncing northwards.
I’ve planned many later trips to the DMZ and other sights of historical and political interest, but this tour is the one most tourists take, and includes a few obvious highlights, so it seems like the right initiation. Our first stop is Imjingak Resort: a hybrid of artefacts from the Korean War (a train riddled with bullet holes, the Mangbaeddan memorial for displaced people whose hometowns are in North Korea) and jovial performances of capitalist freedom, in the form of a string of cheery gondolas, a merry go round going round, and overpriced tourist boutiques. 6,000 won (about 4 quid) will get you a can of DMZ lager, made a few miles back towards Seoul. The beginning of a former railway bridge across the Imjin, destroyed in 1950, ends abruptly, proceeded only by a row of concrete pillars, like stepping stones for a giant. They are riddled with bullet holes. A toddler beside me licks a dribbly ice cream cone.
Then our little group is driven to a checkpoint to the ludicrously misnamed demilitarised zone, two kilometres from the border (the active front when ceasefire was announced at the de facto end of the Korean War in 1953). We show our passports to stern soldiers, then roll on past strings of notices warning of landmines, to the ‘Third Tunnel of Aggression’. After watching a seven-minute film about the Korean War (no mention of the fact that the US dropped more ordinance on Korea between 1950 and 1953 than they dropped anywhere during the Second World War), the the discovery of the tunnel when an underground explosion was detected in 1978, and hopes for ‘the reunification of the Korean race’, we move to the tunnel itself.
I take advantage of the very low number of visitors and rattle off ahead of the group, about half a mile through bedrock, to the poignantly underwhelming temporary terminus, 170 metres from the border, where security cameras and more razor wire greet me, and a concrete wall with a little window in it gives a view of another concrete wall with a little window in it. It is believed that 30,000 armed soldiers could’ve passed through the tunnel per hour, to be discharged behind enemy lines and within a day’s march of the capital area and its twenty-five million inhabitants. Three other similar tunnels have been discovered under this 250-kilometre-long belt across the peninsula. There will almost certainly be more that haven’t been.
The final stop is the Dorasan observatory, and its line of binoculars on poles. Off to the right, two giant pylons a mile or so apart carry the flags of the two Koreas. A breeze pulls them both flush in the same direction and at an almost perfect right angle, in coincidental empathy. The North Koreans are winning this phallic war, because their ‘flagpole’ is ginormous – many times the height of the big buildings beside it, which are, in fact, completely empty shells, designed only to imply prosperity at a distance.
Through my zoom lens, I am extending only a very superficial probe towards the surface of the most secretive nation on earth. It looks almost normal, and wholly beautiful.
To the left is the huge Kaesong Industrial Complex, on North Korean territory, which opened in 2004 as a collaborative economic development: North Korea benefitted from a foreign cash injection, and South Korean companies from the cheap skilled labour of about 50,000 North Korean employees. They’d work alongside a few hundred South Koreans, who parked at the border every day, took a shuttle bus across, then returned at night. In 2016, South Korea ‘temporarily’ shut down operations in protest at a North Korean satellite launch and nuclear test. Any hope that they might restart seems to have been dashed: in June this year, North Korea blew up the inter-Korean liaison office at the complex, and gutted at least several other buildings.
I take out my camera and zoom in on the remains, then on the tower-blocks that stick up above the lip of a valley behind it, and belong to the city of Kaesong – once the capital of Korea. Suddenly, I think of the young North Korean escapee, Yeonmi Park, who now lives in America, and who has become famous for talking about her experiences. Last night, I watched her break down as she discussed the sex slavery of North Korean women in China, and how Western politicians and companies like YouTube – who fall over one another at present to sell their expedient, newfound progressive values – ignore it, and suppress criticism of China.
Kim Jong Un also recently broke down in tears, while addressing his people, and apologised for their suffering, a sure sign that the country is again in peril – even by its own standards. Through my zoom lens, I am extending only a very superficial probe towards the surface of the most secretive nation on earth. It looks almost normal, and wholly beautiful.
And then it is back to Seoul, a bit sooner than I would’ve liked, where I am dropped off beneath a skyful of neon signs, glowing through the settling dusk. Sunny welcomes us back, says goodbye, and promptly marches into a Starbucks.