Saturday, June 29, 2013

North Question, South Answer


There is a Korean proverb I learned when I was living there my first year: tong mun, seo dap.  The literal translation is, "East question, west answer," and it means that the answer is unrelated to the question.  Looking back, a lot of times I think this describes the relationship between North and South Korea.  Nobody gets it.  Damned if the American media does - I don't.  And what the hell am I going to write that will add anything meaningful to the conversation?  If I were still in Korea, teaching my students about the purposes of writing, the primary purpose of my blogging would be to "entertain," with "inform" serving as a secondary goal.  And most of the entertaining I do comes from gratuitous swearing and the occasional lewd joke.  And as my mother will gladly tell you, North Korea is most certainly not entertaining (unless you are scrolling through Kim Jong-Il Looking at Things), especially when your daughter is working in their backyard. 

Well, I'm not sure what I'm going to write, but I feel like the time has come, especially since I'm doing this ghost posting thing for when I'm in Tibet, and it just so happens that Korea is in the news again.  Government officials are meeting.  The factory in Kaesong (that's in the DMZ) may reopen.  Who knows?  Geumgangsan tours might even resume.
I had my first taste of North Korea in fall of 2004, less than four months after I'd moved there.  The DMZ tour is one thing you must not miss if you're in Seoul.  This is one of those times when you want to live by the mandate, "Don't be a dumbass."  When they bring you to the middle of the Joint-Security Area (or JSA, which is a fantastic movie if you get the chance to watch it), the American officers escorting you (if you are on the USO's tour) warn you not to point at the North Koreans.  Not to make faces at the North Koreans.  Don't do anything to provoke them in any way, because they have orders to shoot you if they feel it is warranted.  Straddling no-man's land is a blue building in which talks used to happen in the good old days, when Kim, Jr. played the carrot-and-stick game like a boss.  Inside this building you can cross over and actually be on the North Korean side.  The South Korean soldiers are constantly at attention, holding a tae-kwon-do ready pose.  The air is thick with tension.
You get to see other things besides the JSA on the tour, though.  The bridge of no return is one of them.  According to our guide, this was the route that families took to switch sides as the war was finally coming to an end, and once you crossed over, there was no looking back.  Reunification is always held up as an ideal, is mentioned from time to time, but as time passes, I think it becomes less and less likely.  Not only would it cripple the South's economy to be rejoined with the North, but the rising generation does not have the emotional ties to the North that their parents and grandparents had; they are simply not as invested in the idea.
And since Kim, Jr's death in 2011, the atmosphere has taken a turn for the worse.  Projects like the railway to link the two countries seem hopelessly naive.  I was on the bus from Incheon into Seoul the first time I realized Kim Jong-Il had died; the tv was flashing his picture, a lot of Korean, and dates.  There wasn't a huge celebration or anything, but there was a slight feeling of hope.
For sure he was not the best neighbor, but the South never took his posturing as seriously as America did.  In the summer of 2006 the North launched its first missile test during the time that I was there.  The following weekend, Bronte, Curly Sue, and I visited - with only a little trepidation on the part of our Dark Lord and Master, and no trepidation at all from my mother, as I put this under the heading, "Things My Mom Will Needlessly Worry Over if She Knows About Before They Happen" - Geumgangsan, the "diamond mountain" where Hyundai Asan had established a tourist area (read: paid a crapload of money to Kim, Jr's government so Koreans from the South could visit).  Partly this was because the mountain has cultural significance to both sides of the peninsula - it has its own proverb, Geumgangsan do ku gyeong, or "Even Diamond Mountain should be seen after eating."  Partly it came from the philanthropic notion that family reunions could be held here, although I'm not sure that they ever were.

As with the DMZ, Geumgangsan came with warnings.  Do not so much as take your camera out of your bag while crossing the border.  There are North Korean soldiers stationed every - what, 100 meters? - to watch the convoy of tourist buses as you pass impoverished villages.  They don't want photos of children playing in the dirt, or the farmers working the fields by hand just as their great-grandparents did being published.  If they see a camera, they will stop the convoy and search the bus, to make sure no such pictures get taken.  We were told not to speak Korean.  At all.  Partly this is so non-native speakers don't cause a linguistic clusterfudge...Korean is a hierarchical language, and you can insult someone by not saying "-yo" when you're supposed to, or saying it when you're not.  We were told not to speak either Kims' names, since there was no way for the North Koreans surrounding us to know what the context was, since we were dutifully not speaking Korean.  Finally, we were instructed to give the military installment we came near at one point a wide berth.  Two years after our trip, the seriousness of this rule was made clear when a South Korean woman was shot after entering the military area.  Supposedly she was warned to stop and go back before she was killed; who knows if that is the truth, as a request for a joint inquiry by the South was denied.  Regardless, please see mandate #1: Don't.  Be.  A Dumbass!
Once you are at the resort, you're allowed to take all the photos you like.  Provided you don't give your camera to a friend, which is what I did...these last four are actually Curly Sue's photos, taken on my camera, while Bronte and I were exploring at a more sedate pace...aka, visiting the bathhouse.  Hitting the jjimjjilbang continues to be one of my favorite things to do in Korea, and the North is no different.  The Oncheonjang hot spring's waters are piped into the baths, which are sparkling clean.  Did it cure all my ills?  Well, no - I was 26 and as fit as I've ever been back then, and I didn't have a whole lot of ills to speak of.  It sure did feel good, though.  There was also a performance by the Moranbong Acrobatic Troupe,  and let me tell you, if anyone can do these things like the Chinese, it's their North Korean neighbors.  That night we went to a North Korean restaurant for dinner.  In Shanghai, I always liked to laugh at the so-called North Korean restaurants.  Just because you've got waitresses in hanbok serving bibimbap doesn't mean you're North Korean.  However, I have a feeling the restaurant IN Geumgangsan was a little more authentic.  We were served wild boar on a grill.  The skin of the meat still had bristles on it.  Curly Sue and Bronte I think both refused to eat it.  I tried some, and it tasted gamey, but was otherwise good.
One last thought I just remembered - our makeshift passport.  Curly Sue here is modeling the neckwear we were to have on at all times.  Rather than stamping our passports when we went through at immigration, we had identification cards that were stamped in lieu of it.  I was never entirely clear on why that was - possibly to save us some grief coming back into our home countries - but we had to present it on arrival and departure, and woe unto the person who lost it or got it wet.  Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, tours to Geumgangsan have been defunct for several years.  If you're really interested in visiting North Korea, try checking out Time Travel Turtle's blog.  And with that, I must go finish packing - it is creeping up on one in the morning and I fly out in about nine hours.  See you soon with tales from the roof of the world.

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