Exclusive: Evil Empire Travelogue
by TIM WILSON
October 17, 2008
For many years now I have wanted to see North Korea for myself. I have followed matters there with close attention and considerable growing concern, especially recently as Kim Jong-Il pursued his nuclear weapons program. It is possible to visit North Korea as a tourist, but I wanted a less constricted view of the country and also I was not willing to pay the over-priced fees which the regime uses to subsidize their control of that benighted land. Kim Jong-Il holds a monopoly which he uses to leverage every possible dollar, so the only way to avoid supporting him is to look for viable alternatives.
I have met and talked with refugees and escapees from North Korea, and was deeply impressed as well as moved by the recent South Korean film “Crossing”, which tells the tragic story (a compilation of true events) of a family destroyed by the restrictions imposed by the tyrannical regime of Kim Jong-Il. I have also met and talked with the family of one of the Japanese who were kidnapped from a beach (on Honshu) by North Korean “commandoes” and kept incommunicado in North Korea for nearly 30 years. The stories of oppression, thuggery and disregard for the most basic human decencies are compelling and entirely support President Bush’s declaration of that land as part of an “Axis of Evil”.
Most recently, I have followed the developments of the “Six Party Talks” and been sadly unsurprised by the failures of those negotiations. The most disappointing part was watching the contortions of our own State Department envoy, Chris Hill, as he was led up the garden path. His prodigious efforts were rewarded not, as he so frequently and fervently expressed to anyone and everyone, by real progress but, as with all previous efforts over many decades, by the evil empire making all concerned look like utter fools. In exchange for various unfulfilled promises, the regime has gained international recognition, considerable resources such as cash and free fuel oil and, most importantly, time to continue their clandestine development of nuclear weapons and missiles. In the latest move, in exchange for the significant step of removing North Korea from the terror blacklist without any formal verification agreements, the regime is allowing inspectors back in country. This may be progress, but it is historically unlikely when Mr. Hill has failed to achieve “trust but verify” as a basic premise of negotiation.
This was the evil empire that I so much wanted to see for myself, to confirm first hand, as far as possible, the nature of the North Korean regime. So when my wife agreed to attend a conference in Japan, we decided to travel on from there to try and see North Korea, at least from the Chinese border, which would have the additional benefit of also letting us visit both urban and rural post-Olympic China. The recent Beijing Olympics had led the Chinese authorities to improve both their infrastructure and their tourist access. It was both to see these improvements and for the chance to see something of North Korea for ourselves that we made arrangements to spend several weeks traveling.
We stayed in Hong Kong and Beijing for some days before heading Northwest by train and plane. My impressions of China are another story, but I will summarize the brief descriptions I give here by saying that, in my observation, prosperity has come to China producing a huge middle class. As a result Beijing was not unlike any other modern city – huge, crowded, many modern shops (including Tiffany’s and Louis Vuitton) and with too many cars (every model and make, and almost all of very recent vintage, in fact the modernity of the vehicle fleet on the roads was distinctive even in the most rural areas) traveling over well-maintained roads (including the back streets).
Within the limits of the routes we chose, travel within China was notably easy and pleasantly unrestricted for us. We booked an express train to Shenyang in North-Eastern China which gave us a wonderful opportunity to observe the countryside. Once again, the prosperity of the locals was apparent, with the local Wal-Mart in Shenyang doing a continuous and roaring trade, while the BMWs, Mercedes and Audis roared through the streets. We stayed in Shenyang for a couple of nights and visited the Korean district, where we had coffee in a North Korean restaurant. The waitress assured us that Kim Jong-Il was a good man and a friend of her parents. That was an unexpected start to gathering data on North Korea!
However, on the streets outside that restaurant was a group of beggars holding signs in Korean asking for help, sitting on the curbside looking utterly destitute. I assumed they were from North Korea and that added to the sorrow I felt for them. North Korean refugees must balance asking for help by begging with keeping a low enough profile so as not to attract the attention of the Chinese authorities who could arrest and detain them before sending them back to North Korea (China treats such refugees as “economic migrants” rather than refugees). On return to their own country they would likely have been sentenced to at least 3 years in a “labor camp” (hard physical labor combined with political brainwashing) if they were lucky, and sentenced to death for treason (wanting to leave North Korea is a treasonable offence under Kim Jong-Il’s leadership) if they were not.
While in Shenyang we also walked through the consular area, where the most distinctive feature was the Chinese military presence “guarding” the consulates, particularly the compounds of the USA and South Korea. Sadly, it was obvious that the impressive security was designed more to keep out potential refugees than for the safety of the occupants. It was because of the risk to refugees, migrants and others from the Chinese authorities that we deliberately did not seek out any North Koreans during our trip.
From Shenyang we flew further northeast to Yanji with no trouble, in a system which, in my limited experience, compares favorably with interstate air travel within the USA. Once in Yanji we hustled onto local transport to get to our final destination, the hotel in the (town sized) city of Tumen which is situated on the river of the same name (which river forms the border between China and North Korea). While international travel often requires a sense of humor, it was at this stage that patience and tolerance became real essentials to maximize the enjoyment of the whole experience. The first room we were shown into gave me the impression the furniture had been stolen, with 2 thin futon beds on a wide sheet vinyl floor. Since it was late at night and we were exhausted from traveling, I jumped into the shower, put shampoo in my hair, and the water dried up! Fortunately we had some bottled water so I was able to rinse out the worst before dropping off to sleep.
The next morning we moved into a VIP suite (at a cost of less than $30 per night) which, while probably only 1 star standard, had both a bed and a view over the North Korean border, although the water remained intermittent! That view made the whole trip worthwhile, as we were able to look closely by day and by night at the activities on the border crossing bridge, and in the North Korean city (actually a village) of Namyang which lies directly across the Tumen river (the border for much of this region runs along the middle of the river).
First impressions were deceptive. The border crossing appeared little used and with no obvious security on the North Korean side. The Chinese military had an overt border guard at the crossing itself, but were friendly and allowed tourists through their control points and onto the bridge (for a small fee), as far as a painted line which marked the border with North Korea (albeit the Chinese authorities carefully ensured compliance with the directions of the escorting soldiers). However a close look showed that, mostly out of line of sight of the Chinese side, the North Koreans had a substantial force watching their border.
Such vehicle and foot traffic as did cross (in 3 days of observation, this averaged 15 trucks each day crossing into North Korea with sacks of what appeared to be grain and mostly returning empty) spent at least 30 minutes each time at the North Korean checkpoint. Travelers on foot were ushered into the building next to the crossing point where they seemed to spend several hours, regardless of which way they were crossing (each day there were 20 to 30 pedestrian travelers). This was considerably longer than required by the Chinese authorities for their checks (5 minutes for vehicles and a quick documentation check for pedestrians, taking perhaps 2 minutes).
Closer observation revealed that there was a North Korean bunker style observation post within 200 feet of the bridge. This was manned 24 hours per day by 3 men who changed over at 8am and around 7pm. We walked and drove some miles along the border and found that these bunkers were placed approximately every 500 yards apart for the entire length. There is also a network of trails connecting these observations posts as well as telephone lines between them which, while not immediately apparent, are visible in places by careful observation. Our taxi driver told us (in bad pidgin English) that this was the case and crossing was a bad idea, even though the river was generally only about 18 inches deep (albeit something over 100 feet wide)! Over the next few days it became clear that much of the pedestrian activity we could see each day in North Korea consisted of the guards from these posts changing over and moving to and from the nearest villages, presumably where they were based. It was also apparent from watching tourist activity (there were numerous buses and groups from places such as South Korea, Hong Kong and Shanghai), including boat trips on the River Tumen which punted to within a few feet of the North Korean shoreline, that the North Korean guards were not concerned with preventing anyone crossing into their country but rather with preventing their fellow countrymen from leaving.
Tumen has a large Korean community (according to our research, approximately 78,000 of the 136,000 population is ethnically Korean) and most of the shop signs and information are in both Chinese and Korean characters. Of the 4 schools in the town, 2 are Chinese and 2 Korean speaking. Locals are reticent in talking to foreigners (despite English being on the school curricula, most do not admit to speaking or understanding it) and, in order not to endanger anyone, we made little effort to speak to any “economic migrants” from North Korea. This reticence may in part be due to the looming presence above the town of a Chinese “interrogation center” where, according to some locals, North Koreans who are intercepted by the local authorities in the region are held there prior to being forcibly returned to their native land.
Tumen town does appear prosperous with numerous living apartments being developed and many new cars (again including Mercedes, BMWs and Audis) as well as prolific taxis in evidence. Certainly we saw poor dwellings in the surrounding countryside, many with poorly maintained thatched roofs, but we also saw much ongoing renovation including fitting of new, double-glazed windows and new sheet roofing. The fields and gardens were mostly well maintained and the region’s agriculture looks very productive, including many obviously “private” vegetable and grain plots. The roads were also in good condition and easy to travel, again with some improvements in progress and evidence of much new development. The railway and roads, especially the bridges and culverts, appeared in very good repair.
Tumen also has numerous souvenir shops, containing Chinese, Russian and some North Korean goods. Most were of very low quality and the North Korean goods in particular seemed greatly overpriced. One shop right beside the border crossing also broadcast a loud announcement on a repetitive loop advertising their wares. I worked out that this highly annoying screech was broadcast over 1,000,000 times per year and wondered if it was a form of psychological effort to reach the North Koreans in the village across the river (it was certainly loud enough), but suspect it was just an advertising gimmick - one which must truly grate on the nerves of the locals, especially the soldiers manning the Chinese checkpoint right next door!
Although we could only examine the fields, buildings, roads and railway in North Korea from a distance, they did not look to be in nearly such good condition as in China. At night the difference was even more apparent. While the promenade along the river in Tumen was well lit and the lights of the town were bright, across the river in Namyang there were few lights on (although not nearly as many as in China), and those appeared to be all of low wattage bulbs giving the place a gloomy air. In truth, the overall impression was that North Korea must be an unpleasant place to live, even in a border village which probably avoids at least some of the shortages which reportedly plague much of the country thanks to the proximity of a relatively wealthy and generous neighbor.
Altogether the trip was a great experience, and a very worthwhile (albeit superficial) glimpse into life in one of the Evil Empires of the modern world. It was also illuminating to spend time in Post-Olympic China. Our final experience was departing through Beijing Airport which, following its “Olympic” upgrade, now puts most American and European airports to shame. It is huge, spacious, well-planned and has plenty of good shops both sides of an efficient security screening process. Their Duty Free prices are also true bargains, making the spending of remaining hard Chinese currency a pleasure. Waiting for the plane, which departed on time, was a comfortable experience which those who run our western airports could learn a great deal from.
For sure we only experienced a tiny fraction of China, and most of that had been upgraded as part of the Olympic showcase, but what we did see and experience did support the view of a China which is changing for the better. We saw even less of North Korea, but what we saw there supported the view of a miserable, oppressive place held back, almost literally in the dark age, by a totalitarian regime.