Fact and fantasy collide at the Penang War Museum in Malaysia.
In an alarming series of events earlier this year – now being referred to as the ‘2013 Korean Crisis’ – North Korea began testing new and improved missiles intended for the delivery of a nuclear warhead. South Korea, Japan and the United States were named as targets, while the already-familiar sabre rattling on the Korean Peninsula escalated to new extremes. Meanwhile, the rest of the world went to Red Alert, bracing for the outbreak of a nuclear war in the East.
At the height of the tensions, I visited the North Korean port city of Rason… and was able to take a rare glimpse inside a nation divided in two, and seemingly poised on the brink of mutually assured destruction.
On the Eve of War
Six months on from North Korea’s first 2013 nuclear test, the threats of leader Kim Jong-un have been revealed to have lacked substance. At the time however, there seemed to be a very high chance that he would launch nuclear weapons at the South: setting into motion a war which could have benefited no-one.
As with my last tour of North Korea, I arranged this trip through my friends at Young Pioneer Tours. They were receiving a record number of cancellations at the time, with more customers pulling out of their Korean tours almost every day.
Unlike the standard package tour of the DPRK – most of which stop at the capital Pyongyang as well as the Korean Demilitarized Zone – this time we were headed for a more rural destination: the port city of Rason, situated not far from Russia on the DPRK’s northeast coast.
In an attempt to parallel the Special Economic Zones of China, the DPRK founded the Rason Special Economic Zone in the early 1990s. The idea was to make it easier for foreign investors to take shares in the country, and the port of Rason trades regularly with Russian, China, and even Japanese firms. Some foreigners – most notably the Russians – are even permitted to apply for a work visa, which gives them free reign to walk the streets unaccompanied.
It is clear to see that Rason doesn’t have the economic wealth of Pyongyang.
While the capital boasts monuments, universities and libraries, the elaborate Pyongyang Metro and an impressive choice of two different television stations, life here is a simpler affair.
There are fewer cars on the road, often to be replaced by oxen and carts which regularly trundle through the city centre. The suburbs of Rason have the appearance of third-world favelas, but citizens still cycle to work dressed in formal business attire (or military uniforms, as is often the case).
By the recommendation of leader Kim Jong-un, each citizen of the DPRK is advised to have a haircut once every 15 days.
In fact, it almost seemed as though the people of Rason looked down on their visitors with a sense of kind pity; compared to their crisp and formal appearance, we must have looked a mess… a motley bunch of mostly-unshaven Western men, with two members even sporting dreadlocks.
The Rason Special Economic Zone
During the four-day trip we managed to visit quite a few destinations around the Rason area. We took a tour of a shoe factory, and visited a greenhouse that grew a rare breed of carnations known as the Kim-Jongilia. We even drove up to the Three Point Pass; the northernmost corner of North Korea, where the country enters into a three-way border with Russia and China.
Visiting North Korea is a strange experience, in that even the most trivial of details become instantly fascinating. A market stall, a girl on a bike, children playing football, are all enough to send tour groups reaching for their cameras. One such experience came as we visited a local grocery shop.
Beneath the long counter and covering the back wall of the shop, were a myriad of imported Chinese goods. Shoes, cigarette lighters, plastic toys and games. We saw very little in the way of electrical goods. Even the prices made for interesting viewing; with items such as beer and cigarettes generally costing much less than food.
I managed to scribble down a few of the prices. They were given in North Korean Won, but I’ve included a conversion to Pounds Sterling.
Chinese cigarettes – ₩2,000 (£1.44)
Bar of chocolate – ₩3,000 (£2.16)
Small can of Chinese beer – ₩4,000 (£2.88)
Can of CocaCola – ₩6,000 (£4.32)
Pot of instant noodles – ₩7,000 (£5.03)
Chinese instant coffee – ₩10,000 (£7.19)
Russian cigarettes – up to ₩20,000 (£14.39)
Needless to say, prices like these limit such ‘luxury’ goods to the rich and fabulous. The majority of North Koreans simply make do with the basic rations provided to them in return for state work.
Even more interesting was our trip to a large indoor market, filled with stalls selling makeup and perfumes, jackets and hats, herbs, spices and health tonics, household goods and cleaning products… as well as an aisle dedicated to hand-picked tobaccos and cannabis.
Of course, no tour of North Korea would be complete without a school performance. In Pyongyang I had seen young teens and pre-teens showing off their finely-honed musical skills, but in Rason the show was organised at the local kindergarten.
These children, aged mostly around five or six years old, sang for us, danced and played note-perfect violin concertos. The kids seemed happy enough, and enjoying the chance to show off their abilities… despite the obvious nerves which any child would feel under the circumstances.
This is the North Korea they want you to see.
Over the coming days we saw plenty more examples of normal, happy North Koreans, going about their daily lives: from the surprisingly flirtatious girls working at Rason’s Thai massage parlour , to a pair of off-duty soldiers we encountered at a bar, caught up in the most intense game of table tennis I have ever seen.
As interesting as it all was however, this was a country potentially poised on the brink of nuclear war; I was eager to get past the charade, and find out what the people of North Korea really felt about the prospect of war with the South.
I’d find my answers soon enough.
It’s very hard to remain objective whilst visiting North Korea. Your guides will do a terrific job of spoiling you, laying on banquet after banquet, interspersed with visits to museums, parks, cultural monuments and even breweries.
However, I was fascinated to find out how they felt about the current tensions. One afternoon, as we walked through the quiet city streets, I managed to strike up a conversation about it with our Korean guide, Mr Kim.
“We don’t want war,” Kim told me.
“We want to live in peace with the South, with the rest of the world.”
I found it hard to relate this humble outlook to the image of the DPRK presented on every television station around the world. Kim went on to explain that they would fight – if they were left with no choice – but that what they really wanted was to be left alone. He finished with a question, one that I’ve heard a few times now on my various trips around North Korea.
“What does your country think of us?”
Mr Kim had come across as a gentle soul, truly motivated by peace – but nevertheless prepared to fight for his freedom, and for the freedom of his family, when pushed into a corner. Still, I reminded myself that I was speaking to a government-trained tour guide; if I was going to be truly objective, I would need to find my answer elsewhere.
Towards the end of the tour, we paid a visit to a foreign language school; the children here spoke a good standard of English, and were keen to practice their conversational skills. At the entrance, their teacher asked our group to avoid topics of war or politics – though as it turned out, the children themselves would often steer the conversation in this direction.
Even the children’s motives for learning English would often come back to the theme of conflict. One boy claimed he wanted to become an English teacher… to help the revolution crush the traitorous puppet government of the South. Another described his aspirations of ‘butchering’ the South Koreans. Even the walls of the school were hung with colourful pop-art posters, often illustrating the mass extermination of US soldiers.
It didn’t strike me as an environment that would inspire an attitude of peace in young, impressionable minds.
On another afternoon we visited Rason’s skate park. This popular spot near the city centre consisted of a large circular area of tarmac, populated by children – and adults – strapped onto in-line skates.
To one side an older man had arranged several rows of skates beside a stool, charging a few coins for half an hour of use. The skates themselves were garishly colourful, tired, outdated, and almost certainly produced in China.
Looking down over the skate park, a large screen was broadcasting the region’s television channel; marching soldiers, explosions and efficient production lines, accompanied by rousing socialist anthems piped out through surrounding speakers. Every now and then, it would switch to a news report – at which point the skaters would immediately clear the park, to be replaced by crowds of men eagerly listening for updates on world events. At these times the women seemed to sit out of the way, and wait beside their children.
We took a walk along the beach as the sun set. Passing back through the park a little later, there were cartoons playing on the screen. A cluster of children were completely absorbed in the action, watching two animated moles – dressed in matching worker’s uniforms – defend their home against the machinations of an army of evil ants.
The ants all looked different to one another, they argued and fought over the spoils; in the end the moles won, by working together and fighting as a team. A strong communist message. I was surprised at the violence, as ants were beheaded, crushed or impaled on spears.
On the last evening of our tour, we sat watching television with our guides. The news came on, and we asked Mr Kim to translate. The anchorwoman was in the middle of a passionate tirade, images of soldiers and military hardware flashing past on a screen behind her head.
She was talking about South Korea’s plans to attack, Kim explained. The newly instated traitor Park Geun-hye, along with her puppet government, were hatching plans to infiltrate the northern capital of Pyongyang; and destroy the statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il that stand on Mansu Hill.
Like all the best lies, there is a little truth here. Last year an extremist group in South Korea was plotting the destruction of those selfsame statues – but it was the South Korean government who uncovered the conspiracy, and put an end to it.
Our guide was visibly sad as he related the news to us. Given the terrible challenges that faced them from all sides, it seemed obvious that the people of the DPRK had no choice but to defend themselves; to prepare for battle, stake their right to existence, and at the very least go out fighting for the freedom handed down by Eternal President Kim Il-sung.
I would probably have been of the same opinion – had I believed a word of what I was hearing. With just one television channel on offer though, no free press, no contact with the outside world and very limited ability to communicate discreetly even with one another, who was to question the news?
Meanwhile, outside, the same channel was being broadcast on a cinema-sized screen attached to the side of our hotel. The sun was setting, and several dozen Koreans were stood around the square; frozen to the spot, eyes glued on the screen, while brightly coloured images of war lit their upturned faces.
The American Threat
While much is reported of the threats made by the DPRK’s leadership, it is generally presented in the world media as wild, unprovoked threats. However, one of North Korea’s key objections is to the increasing US presence in their neighbouring country.
It’s common knowledge that the United States are fast strengthening their foothold in Asia. Justified by what the White House has referred to as ‘team-building war games’, the US seems desperate to push its ships, ground troops and missile silos ever closer to potential enemies; countries such as Russia and China.
I watched a televised interview a few weeks later, in which US Secretary of Defence, Chuck Hagel, stated that China were not pulling their weight in negotiations with North Korea. Hagel put this down to China harbouring resentment for the ever-growing US military presence in Far East Asia. He then went on to discuss, “these latest provocations by North Korea”.
Watching at home, I wanted to throw a dictionary at him.
Although things have remained tense ever since the Korean War, in this instance at least, US military presence in Asia is the provocation; the rhetoric coming out of North Korea is a response to that, a retaliation. It may be a melodramatic and unreasonable response, but nevertheless, North Korea cites American involvement on the Korean Peninsula as the main problem here.
To put this into perspective, imagine what the White House’s response would be if China started deploying heavy artillery and missiles in Mexico, or Cuba… and shrugged it off as a team-building exercise.
Of course, politics are never really that simple. The DPRK is calling for the US to retreat, and leave the Korean Peninsula to the Koreans. A reasonable request on the face of it, but there are great concerns as to what would come next.
“We only want to talk,” is the message from Pyongyang.
However, North Korea’s leadership is not renowned for keeping its word, and there are very real fears in the South regarding their fate left alone with the DPRK. It’s a difficult debate (and one that I delved into in more depth for my report on the Korean Demilitarized Zone).
Things have quietened down now on the Korean Peninsula. The North tested several more missiles throughout April, before capturing a Chinese ship and its crew of 16 fishermen as hostages.
A key turning point was reached on July 16th, however; after a 15-hour meeting at Kaesong, representatives from North and South Korea reached an agreement to reopen their cooperative project, the ‘Kaesong industrial complex’.
Nevertheless, Kim Jong-un’s statement still stands; any provocation from the US and South Korea will be interpreted as an invasion, to be met with “war without quarter.” For as long as the United States Army remains stationed in South Korea in such force, it seems that the threat of war with North Korea will never long be forgotten.
 When I say ‘massage parlour’, that’s not a euphemism. These girls had studied at a massage school in Pyongyang, before returning home to work in Rason… and they gave a great massage. As we were just arriving we passed a group of Russian dock workers leaving the building. From what I understand, prostitution on the other hand does exist in the DPRK; but for the most part, the girls are imported from mainland China.
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