On holiday in North Korea
Miss Kim is asleep, her interpreter’s manual open on her lap, and Mr O is listening to a borrowed iPod as the minibus rolls south out of Pyongyang and along the six-lane Reunification Highway. The occasional army truck rumbles by, the teenage soldiers packed in the back offering playful salutes to our waves. Ox carts heavy with hay lurch behind them. In the fields, in the shadow of giant billboards giving motivational advice or productivity targets, women in headscarves bend over crops of maize, corn and rice. Others sit by the roadside in the shade of birch trees, bikes propped up next to them on verges dotted with pink and white cosmos. Everywhere, people are walking. The whole of North Korea seems to have somewhere to get to.
Every couple of miles, massive concrete pillars hulk over the road. Designed to block the path of approaching tanks, they are the first clue that we are heading towards the most heavily militarised region in the world. It is Miss Kim’s first trip to the somewhat ironically named DMZ (De-militarised Zone), the 160-mile-long buffer between North and South Korea that has been in place since an uneasy armistice was called on the Korean War in 1953. Today, North Korean soldiers engage in a face-off with South Korean and American troops just a few metres away, and tourists on either side of the border stand and stare at one another.
Miss Kim points to a mural of the leaders and translates the slogan beneath it: ‘One Korea. Let’s reunite the fatherland for the next generation.’ She is visibly moved. ‘This place shows the tragic history of our country. I know families are separated. Mother from son, sister from brother. Coming here, I get the feeling that I have to try my best to reunify our country.’
A few miles away, the wall that physically divides the country sweeps over hills dense with foliage. Dragonflies hover in the still air. An affable lieutenant-colonel Chae, accompanies us to the visitor centre, his coat pinned with an impossible number of military decorations. He recounts a history of American imperialism and North Korean resistance, angrily stabbing a stick at a map of Korea to prove a point. As Miss Kim peers through binoculars to see for the first time ‘the wall of anguish and treachery’ that she has long heard about, he poses for pictures and stares critically towards the South.
The division of Korea and the hope of reunification run through every aspect of North Korean history and culture. Pop songs and film plots revolve around it, giant monuments to it dominate every town, children are taught about it from dawn to bedtime.
At Song Do Wan summer camp outside the port town of Wonsan on the east coast, Young Pioneers race excitedly to their dorms, unpacking suitcases beneath portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. According to their teacher, Miss Sujong, kids come from all over the country to join one of 19 such camps for a week. ‘The main purpose of the camp is to build up their bodies and minds for the purpose of building up the Fatherland,’ she says, standing next to a globe presented as a gift by the Great Leader and notable for the thick red line splitting Korea in two.
Miss Kim came to the camp aged 14. ‘I remember it well. It was so much fun. The scenery is beautiful here.’ It was her first trip away from her parents, her first time outside Pyongyang. ‘I missed them but it was good too. Travel makes my mind wider.’
There is a display on the feats of the leaders in one block of the camp, and Miss Kim pores over every photo. She spends a long time looking wistfully at a photocopied image of Kim Jong-il in his customary sludge-coloured suit. ‘He was so intent on helping the economy, he didn’t have many clothes. He spent most of his life defending peace so the children could prosper from his hardship and live a happy life.’