The final day of the trip we head south, to the DMZ, the 2.5-mile-wide swath near the 38th parallel that separates North and South Korea, a border so tense it could squeeze the breath out of stones. The paved road is wide and flat, seeming to stretch the length of the world. It is big enough to land an aircraft in an emergency. And scattered every few miles are ‘tank traps,” concrete pillars that can be pushed over to ensnare an armored vehicle heading north. We pass through several military checkpoints along the way, but never with incident.
Once at the DMZ we are ushered into Panmunjom, the Joint Security Area where the armistice was signed July 27, 1953, ending a war in which almost 900,000 soldiers died (including 37,000 Americans)—and more than two million civilians were killed or wounded. “We were victorious,” the guide, who wears three stars on his shoulder, shares, and adds, “We have very powerful weapons. Though you in America are very far away, you are not safe…..but don’t be nervous.” Then he points out a display case with an ax and photos of an incident in 1976 when two American soldiers tried to cut down an obstructing tree on the wrong side of the line, and were dispatched by the North Koreans.
We step single file through several gates, and our guide points out a flagpole 52 stories high, heaving a 600-pound red, white, and blue North Korean flag; beyond is the South Korean version, not nearly as high. Birds and torn clouds and cigarette smoke cross between the two, and little else.
At the white dividing line, cutting through the center of three blue negotiation huts, we can look across the barbed wire to our doppelgangers, tourists snapping pictures of us snapping shots of them. We’re not allowed to shout, but I make a small wave, and my mirror image waves back.
On the way back we stop at the Royal Tomb of King Kongmin, a 14th-century mausoleum with twin burial mounds, looking like giant stone gumdrops, surrounded by statues of grinning animals from the Chinese zodiac. Inside are the remains of Kongmin, 31st king of the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392), and his wife, the Mongolian princess Queen Noguk.
Miss Lee, exquisite in high heels and frilly blouse, dark eyes quiet as a pond, points to a mountain across from the tomb, and says it is called “Oh My God.” She then tells the story about the place. When Kongmin’s wife died, he hired geomancers to find the perfect spot for her tomb. Upset when everyone failed, he ordered that the next to try would be given anything desired with success; with failure, he would be killed immediately. When one young geomancer told him to review a spot in the mountains, Kongmin told advisors that if he waved his handkerchief they should execute the geomancer.
Kongmin climbed up to review the site. Upon reaching the top, exhausted and sweaty, he dabbed his brow with his handkerchief, while pronouncing the place perfect. When he found that the geomancer had been executed because of his mistaken handkerchief wave, he exclaimed “Oh, my God!”
Before heading back to Pyongyang our guides take us shopping at a souvenir stop in Kaesong, North Korea’s southernmost city, and the ancient capital of Koryo, the first unified state on the Korean Peninsula.
Outside we’re greeted by young women in bright traditional tent-shaped dresses. The glass door sports a “DHL Service Available” sign, and inside is a cornucopia of temptations, from statuary to stamps, oil paintings to jade to silks to pottery, to stacks of books by The Great Leader and Dear Leader, to ginseng to cold Coca Cola. I can’t resist a series of dinner placemats of North Koreans bayonetting Americans with the saying “Let’s kill the U.S. Imperialists.”
Our guides throughout have been warm, welcoming, gracious, informative, funny and friendly. On the last night, sharing a beer at the lobby bar, when asked, they insist there is no prostitution in North Korea, no use of illegal drugs, no homosexuality, no homeless, no illiteracy, and no litter. Everything is clean. There is universal health care and education. It’s a perfect society, flawless as a new coin. And it’s the same jewel box presented when I visited the People’s Republic of China under Mao Tse-tung in 1976.
MTSobek has permits for two departures to North Korea for 2013. For information contact Julie McCormack at +1 510 594 6000 ext. 6034; julie (at)mtsobek.com
-Richard Bangs’ latest American Public Television special, “South America: Quest for Wonder,” co-produced with KQED, is airing nationally now on PBS. Check your local listings.