How many people can say they've been to North Korea? I certainly do not want to say I am one of the lucky ones knowing what goes on beyond the demilitarized zone. The tour itself was eye opening but meeting a defector of North Korea made the experience that much more. We started on a tour bus and travelled to Camp Bonifas where we saw a short video on the history of the Korean battles mainly focusing on the war between 1949 and 1953. We showed our passports then proceeded to Panmunjom.
The Panmunjom is the office situated exactly on the border of the two Korean countries. The countries have not met in the room for some time. On a typical day, the office is to be occupied by only one of the countries with their troops on guard very near the border while the other has spies watching your every move. Usually when a country has visitors coming, their respective side will try to take the office early in the morning. Because North Korea gets so few tourists, it is South Korea that occupies the room most days. For my sake and the rest on my group, it was great as we were able to walk in the room and physically walk about 5 to 7 meters on to North Korean soil.
I did take as many pictures but we were only allowed to take pictures in certain areas. One thing I was a little surprised about was that we were only allowed to take pictures of North Korea. The UN does not want any tourists in this area taking pictures towards South Korea as to not show the North about their security or any information at all that may make the internet through blogs such as this. My friend Jon and I had the opportunity to talk to a US soldier named Blood who answered a few of our questions. He said that from his experiences he noticed that Koreans do look quite fragile and they are noticeably shorter than South Koreans. This was important for me to hear from someone who is there quite a lot because we only saw one North Korean soldier and he was of average height. He also said that their faces were gaunt due to malnutrition. He said that the border is monitored 24 hours a day and that they have quite advanced technology to do so. He did not go into much detail as he was not allowed to because they do not want North Korea knowing any of this information.
As much as walking into North Korea was cool and it truly was very exciting, this was all overshadowed by getting the chance to speak to a defector of North Korea, (through the aid of our tour guide who was bilingual). I can't remember her name but even if I did, I would not mention it for her sake. She was born and raised in North Korea. Her father left to China for work. Unfortunately during his work travels, he passed away beyond borders. The family wanted to retrieve his body was not able to and it was at this time that she decided that she needed to leave her family and flee the country. Of the eight who attempted to flee North Korea, only four survived. The others were either shot or punished severely. The way she escaped was by swimming across a 3 metre wide river. She also had help by some smugglers helping her get to the other side. After hiding out in China, she then proceeded to go to Vietnam. The reason she left China was because many of the Chinese do not welcome them. Instead, they report them and send them back into the hands of Kim Jong-il and his Republic of Korea.
Because of lanuguage difficulties, she then left for South Korea as the language would not be an issue. She was welcomed with open arms here, given a little money to start her new life. She was also informed that if she felt any danger or was scared at any time to call a certain number and someone would be there to help within ten minutes. She hired sumgglers to go into North Korea and try to locate her family. The mission was not successful as her family moved away from where they were before. She explained that she believes her family would have been questioned about the disappearance of their daughter and the family would have left their town in fear. I cannot help but think that her family was probably punished for her disappearance. This is something that is quite common. As a scare tactic, the government will punish the family of anyone who flees the country.
Q: "Is there anything you wish people knew about North Korea that maybe we didn't know before?"
A: Yes, you don't know how bad it is. We are not bad people but our governement is not good. Many people are overworked and starving each and every day.
Q: "What does the average North Korean dream of?"
A: The average person dreams of having a day off. North Koreans work every day of the year except for two days, Kim Jong-il's birthday and Kim Il-Sung's birthday. Koreans also dream of eating three meals a day each with meat. Some Koreans might only get to eat meat as little as twice a year.
Q: Were you surprised when you arrived in South Korea how different and modern it is?
A: No, not really. North Koreans hear a lot about what it is like outside of the country because there are many people coming and leaving the country. Many North Koreans do not believe what the government tells them because of word of mouth communication of those travellers.
Q: "Is North Korea really as bad as the media portrays?"
A: About 30% of the population works for the government and they live a little better than the rest, except for the few that work closely to Kim Jeong-il. 70% of the population work as essentially slaves working hard nearly every day and eat very little food.
Q: "Are all children educated?"
A: When Kim Il-Sung was alive, all North Korean children went to school free of charge. After his death, things changed dramatically in education. Parents now need to pay for their children's education and many girls stay at home and do chores instead of learning. Children do learn a little geography of the world but learn little history outside their own.
Q: "Does fashion exist in Korea?"
A: Everyone dresses the same. There is no disparity amongst the working class at all.
Q: "Do North Koreans want democracy? What would happy to anyone who challenged the government?"
A: Definitely, North Koreans want democracy. Saying something as simple as "I wish we had democracy" will most certainly get you killed.
Q: "Is it true that each family has pictures of Kim Jong-il all around the house?"
A: There are three pictures in all houses; Kim Jong-Il, Kim Il-Sung and his wife.
Q: "What do you think of Kim Jong-il?
A: I despise the man. He spends money for his twelve dogs before he spends money on his starving people. He has chefs for his dogs.
Q: Do North Koreans listen to modern movies or music?
A: They do get some music and movies brought in from China. These are all legal. However, the country does have some smugglers who work on getting South Korean and other international music and movies. However, anyone who is caught with any of these materials will be punished and often executed.
Q: What do you miss most of North Korea?
A: My family.
Q: Other than family, is there anyting else you miss about North Korea?
A: The beautiful countryside. Outside the major cities, North Korea is full of mountains and beautiful scenery.
Q: Are all North Korean as beautiful as you?
A: Yes...thanks....North Koreans are quite beautiful. Unfortunately, the women do not have the time or means to do themselves up nicely. I wanted to see if I could make her blush. This is a question that I asked and I succeeded. It was pretty funny.
From talking to this woman, I essentially got the feeling that the reason why she was talking to us is because she wants the world to know what's going on in North Korea. As much as the stuff you watch about in documentaries on North Korea seem so crazy and hard to believe, most of the information given in these documentaries match up with what this woman told us. I don't really know what the solution is but I think it's important that more and more people learn about this extreme violation of human rights. Please pass on the word and maybe knowledge will become power as knowledge expands around the globe.