Daily Telegraph, 24 June 2000
Korea: Wish Orwell was here
Can Stalinism cope with tourism? Monica Porter peeks behind the last Iron Curtain
For those who regret the demise of communism, if only because of the opportunities it afforded to visit places with fascinatingly ghastly regimes, all is not lost. There is one last Cold War holiday destination left: the Korean Peninsula. But connoisseurs of armed-guard tourism should waste no time, because even here, as we saw last week, the ice is beginning to thaw.
There have been pacts between South and North Korea in the past, but none with the potential impact of the Pyongyang agreement between President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea and the North’s eccentric autocrat Kim Jong-il. Tomorrow, in front of Seoul’s monolithic War Memorial, the veteran Southern politician will be able to celebrate – if only cautiously – the success of his policy of patient diplomacy at the 50th-anniversary commemoration of the outbreak of the Korean War.
As part of the growing rapprochement, the first organised tour from South Korea to North Korea was launched recently, courtesy of a deal struck with the North by the Southern conglomerate Hyundai. For just under a billion dollars, Hyundai acquired a 30-year lease on a tract of North Korean territory and the right to transport tour groups there via cruise ships. It was more dosh than they had ever jangled in that pauper state.
So began the three-day cruise to Mount Kumgang (the Diamond Mountain), an area of exquisite scenery as well as spiritual significance to all Koreans. Chung Joo-Young, the 85-year-old founder of Hyundai, was born in this region, a poor farmer’s son. But the billion-dollar investment was hardly motivated by sentimentality. The industrial giant intends to be first with its foot in the door when North Korea finally opens up. Then it can build factories there and run them far more profitably than at home, where wages are high and the workforce always seems to be on strike.
Only a handful of Westerners have been on the cruise and, among the 600 passengers on board when I went, mine was the only Western face. This type of exclusivity turns you into an instant celebrity: cocktails with the captain is the least of it.
The North Koreans have gone to fanatical lengths to control these unprecedented sightseeing “incursions”. Each tourist is numbered and labelled and photographed, and made to queue in a specific order twice a day to be processed by stony-faced customs officials. You must wear your visa and personal-identity documents around your neck at all times and I was warned repeatedly by my South Korean minder not to let the visa get wet, torn or stained, as this would incur a hefty dollar penalty.
You are also fined for dropping litter, spitting, smoking in the wrong place or using an undesignated loo. As for the more serious offences of photographing where it is forbidden (which is most places) or making a “provocative” remark to the ubiquitous North Korean guides, the penalty can be much worse. A female tourist was jailed for 10 days for suggesting to a guide that he might just be impressed by a visit to the South. You do not cock a snook at authority here.
From the port of Changjon, our convoy of tour buses takes us to the areas we are permitted to visit, along a road specially constructed for the purpose. Fenced off from the surrounding countryside, it is off-limits to locals. Every hundred yards, an armed soldier stands guard, scrutinising each passing bus, on the lookout for anyone taking a picture.
We pass rice paddies and fields of potatoes and wheat, an occasional ox pulling a plough, a few cyclists (only the military and government functionaries drive cars) and a collection of ramshackle, single-storey dwellings of unspeakable dreariness.
By contrast, Hyundai’s visitors’ centre, to which we are taken for refreshments and retail therapy, is bright, spotless and comfortable. Dollars are the only acceptable currency here – a North Korean stipulation – although there is little to buy. Afterwards, we head into the mountains for our five-mile trek. With its jagged peaks, waterfalls and translucent ponds, it is easy to see how Mount Kumgang acquired its mystique. Some of the older South Koreans on our hike are overcome by emotion. These mountains have been barred to them since the country was split in half. Many of them originally came from this area and have been separated from their families for the past 50 years. The North Korean guides – more akin to wardens – keep an eye on us as we climb the steep, rocky trail. The men are dressed in plain, drab outfits, but the women, bizarrely, wear dainty blouses and the sort of lacy, wide-brimmed hats you would see at a Home Counties wedding. All of them have little red badges with a picture of the late “Great Leader”, Kim Il-sung.
The mountain has been turned into a memorial to the tyrant who ruled the country for 46 years until his death in 1994 – his proclamations are carved in giant letters on rocks and cliffsides. Yet, with classic Orwellian double-think, they will fine you for “damaging the environment” if you discard an apple core or wash your hands in the stream.
I ask one local guide, a woman, whether she minds climbing halfway up a mountain every day to get to work. She replies drily that it is her privilege to do so. When I say goodbye, she reaches out and I think it is to shake my hand, but she merely checks the lens on my camera to make sure it is no bigger than the maximum permitted 160mm.
On day two, an excursion to a lake and seaside beauty spot involves a longer drive through the countryside of Kangwon province. We are stopped at army checkpoints. Through the window, we see locals fetching water from a stream and farm labourers crammed like livestock into open-backed trucks.
We pass two dilapidated train stations, disused since the Korean War, and a grimy little village devoid of all colour except for the red lettering on huge signs praising the Great Leader. That evening, we slip out of Changjon harbour and begin our voyage back to the port of Tonghae in the South. Entertainment is by a South Korean Elvis impersonator and a troupe of hefty dancers from Vladivostok.
In Seoul, the thrusting, garish capital replete with coruscating neons and giant outdoor video screens, the GIs of the US 8th Army are preparing for a Saturday night out. Their vast base in the city centre has plenty of clubs of its own, but no hookers. So the GIs wander into the adjacent entertainment district of Itaewon and fill the murky dives. On the narrow, steep alleyway known as Hooker Hill, skimpily clad girls lounge in doorways and cry: “Hey soldier, you come with me.” Straight out of a Hollywood B-movie. The presence of soldiers is something Koreans accept without mention. Throughout their 5,000-year history, they have endured no fewer than 900 wars. The Korean War, however, which ended in stalemate 47 years ago, is the one that will not go away. The scars are too deep.
Even the South’s new international airport at Inchon – which opens next spring – will serve as a quirky reminder. It was there that General MacArthur led UN forces in a daring landing behind enemy lines in 1950 and chased the invading North Koreans back to the borders of Manchuria. Soon everyone will be landing there . . . There are daily tours of the demilitarised zone and it is not to be missed. There is a strict dress code – no shorts, jeans, T-shirts, sleeveless tops, sandals or trainers – because the South does not want the North taking “propaganda pictures” of us. At the UN post that guards access to the zone, we are made to sign a disclaimer: we accept that our safety cannot be guaranteed and that we might be injured or killed as a result of enemy hostilities. How often can you go to a party like that? From either side of the dividing line at Panmunjom, North and South have tried to outdo each other by seeing who can raise the higher flagpole. Now they both play propaganda music at each other through loudspeakers.
For some reason, the words “Monty” and “Python” spring to mind . . . but for how much longer?