North Korea 2015

North Korea 2015


We woke in Kaesong this morning to the sound of revolutionary music coming into our rooms through loudspeakers in the streets outside.  The reason was that the hotel staff were having their regular mass dancing exercise outside, an event that proved irresistible for several members of the group who were invited to join in.

The clouds in the sky seemed to have lifted somewhat, and there were even some small patches of blue sky, so we were hopeful that the hazy drizzle of yesterday afternoon would not be repeated.  This proved to be the case, and the day became sunnier and clearer as it progressed.

Our first stop for the morning was the Koryo Museum.  The museum, which details the history of the Koryo Dynasty, including the role played by Kaesong as its capital city, was recently designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It is built in a beautiful compound of buildings that was originally an institute of higher education specialising in literature and administration when first built in 992.  The museum’s display is somewhat drab and dreary, but the stunning architecture of the buildings more than compensated.

It was just a short four kilometre drive from Kaesong to the northern edge of the DMZ at Panmunjom, our major visit for the morning.  For more than 60 years, Panmunjom has been a symbol both of the continuing division of the Korean peninsula and the hope of peace that comes through negotiation.  It is perhaps the last remnant of the cold war frontiers that proliferated in many parts of the world in the second half of the 20th century.

After arriving at the entrance of the DMZ, it took about 20 minutes to complete the paperwork, after which we received a briefing on the layout of the Joint Security Area (JSA) that marks the central negotiating area in Panmunjom from an officer of the Korean People’s Army.  Then we proceeded outside, formed a single line, and walked into the DMZ before re-boarding our bus.

A short drive of about one and a half kilometres brought us to the point where we disembarked to inspect two small buildings.  The first was a neat, white hut where many of the negotiations to end the Korean War were held between the US and DPRK between 1951 and 1953.  It was interesting that the building still contains the original furniture used during the negotiations.

The second building was larger and probably more significant.  When the armistice to end the war was about the be signed in 1953, the US did not want the ceremony to be held in a permanent building that might become a memorial; they wanted a tent or a railway carriage to be used as happened in World War I.  However, the North Korean Army built this hut in just three days, and the signing took place on the day I was born - 27th July 1953.

The tables and chairs used for the signing are still present in the building, and the original flags are also visible.  One side of the building has been turned into a museum outlining the history of the conflict from the DPRK perspective.

In front of the building is a monument commemorating the signing.  As the monument includes my birth date, the Korean People’s Army officer who was escorting us agreed to bend the normal protocol and pose in front of it with me.  He seemed quite impressed to meet someone who was born on the day the armistice was signed, and he smiled a lot while speaking with me, he adopted the requisite serious stance for the photo.

A short drive of about 500 metres took us into the Joint Security Area (JSA), the sone housing the negotiating huts where talks are held at Panmunjom.  Desembarking from the bus, we stopped first at a large monument bearing the signature of Kim Il Sung and the date 7th July 1994.  It was taken from the last document he signed the night before he died, and it was a revised proposal for the reunification of Korea.

From this point we could already see the concrete strip that runs through the middle of a row of seven negotiating huts that straddle the demarcation line separating North from South Korea just a few tens of metres away.  We took a path to the front of a three storey building that overlooks the huts and looked ahead towards South Korea and the equivalent three storey building on the southern side, called Freedom House.  Some soldiers from the Korean People’s Army took up positions at the border strip, but unfortunately the negotiating hut was not unlocked that day for visitors to enter, so we climbed the stairs of the three storey building for as bird’s eye view of the JSA.

Unlike other occasions I have visited Panmunjom, there was no sign of activity whatsoever on the southern side.  Apparently, the annual war games are continuing with US and South Korean forces, so visits to Panmunjom from the southern side are not possible at the moment and won’t be for several weeks.  For a place that is militarily one of the tensest in the world, Panmunjom seemed strangely calm and peaceful, especially considering that just over a week previously the two countries had almost gone to war over the land mine incident just 15 kilometres to the east of where we had stood the previous day at the Concrete Wall.

As we drove back northwards through Kaesong, I described some of the differences between visiting Panmunjom on the northern and southern sides.  Surprisingly, visits are more relaxed on the northern side, where (unlike the South) photos with soldiers are permitted, there is no dress code, no waiver of rights needs to be signed, visitors can wear caps and carry umbrellas, and pointing at things on the other side is permitted.  I also described some of the amusing disinformation in the way several of the places we had seen at close range are described to visitors when they visit Panmunjom from the southern side.

A drive of just over two hours brought us to the city of Sariwon, where we had lunch at the 8th March Hotel.  Sariwon is one of my favourite cities in North Korea, its appeal being that there is nothing special there and so it is a typical, functioning DPRK city. 

After lunch, we had two visits in the area.  The first stop was at the Sariwon Folklore Street, which is actually an open square with a series of mosaics outlining in brief detail (and in Korean) the history of Korea.  We had a local guide to explain things, but she seemed to lose interest after about 90 seconds explaining the first mosaic, and we only saw her again from a distance when she was reporting one member of our group to a plain clothed policeman for taking a photo she didn’t like of some boys because they had dirty faces and the photo might be posted on the internet to discredit the DPRK.  This delayed our departure for some time while our guides had a long conversation with the plain clothed policeman.

Our second visit was far more interesting.  The Migok Co-operative Farm is located on the western outskirts of Sariwon and is a beautiful area producing rice, fruit, vegetables, corn and a range of other crops.  With an area of 740 hectares, the farm accommodates 1500 families, and as each family has 2 or 3 farm workers, there are just over 3000 workers on the farm.  Each rice padi measures 100 metres by 100 metres (or one hectare), and the farm is able to get 10+ tonnes of rice per padi annually; this makes it the most productive farm in the DPRK, where the typical average is about 5 tonnes per annum per padi.

Half the farm’s production does to the government, and the other half remains on the farm to be distributed to families according to the number of days worked.  On average, each farmer therefore receives 1.8 tonnes of rice per year.  This practice of spliiting the farm’s production 50-50 with the government applies to all co-operative farms in North Korea, and 90% of the country’s farms are co-operatives like this one.  The remaining 10% of farms are State Farms where the farmers simply work 8 hour days for a fixed salary.  On both state and co-operative farms, the typical working weeks is eight hours per day (8am to 6pm, with a break for lunch, 25 days per month with Sundays being the usual day off).

The reason for the farm’s high productivity is the highly fertile soil found in the area, together with the high level of mechanisation.  Apparently the farm benefits from frequent “on the spot guidance” from the country’s leadership, who determine what machinery the farm needs and sends it accordingly.

Our visit began by walking up to a lookout point from which we were able to get an excellent overview of the farm and its layout.  This was followed by a visit to a farmer’s house, and it was great to be able to see the living conditions of a (probably atypical, model) farming family.

The afternoon’s program had been somewhat improvised.  The original plan was for us to drive from Sariwon to Sinchon and on to Nampo for the night.  However, recent heavy rains had washed away a bridge on the road between Sariwon and Sinchon.  Our guides had suggested deleting Sinchon from the itinerary, but after discussions with the group, we agreed that we would retain Sinchon in the schedule by rearranging the itinerary and driving to Nampo today via Pyongyang (the long way around), seeing Sinchon tomorrow and then taking a very long drive to our hotel that night.  It was a measure of the group’s enthusiasm to see Sinchon that they agreed to deleting a couple of other visits (an orphanage and a sparkling water factory), as well as a very late arrival after a long day’s driving, in order to make the visit.

As we entered Pyongyang, we stopped briefly at the Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification (otherwise known as the Reunification Arch) that we had seen the previous day when driving south from the city.  The huge team of gardeners seemed to have completed their work, and the usual gardens and lawns had been replaced by porous black mesh ground sheets with sprinklers.

Our long drive concluded at the Ryonggang Hot Spa Hotel, north of Nampo.  Set in spacious walled grounds, and comprising some ten small two-storey cabins, the hotel offered us the opportunity for in-room hot spas with local mineral waters, heated to 37 degrees Celsius.  For those of us who used the spa, it made for a very relaxing night’s sleep after the long day’s travels.

Day 7 - Panmunjom and Sariwon


6 September 2015