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North Korean gunboat and village seen from Yeonpyeong Island

Another little flurry of notes from friends, concerned about the ruckus going on between North and South Korea and our placement a mere 70 kilometers away, prompts a bit more nosing around in the news, and jiggles the memory.  A few years ago Marcella and I took a one-day journey into North Korea, to Kaesong, a town – we were told it was N. Korea’s second largest city after Pyongyang – some 40 kilometers or so on the other side of the DMZ borderline.   Passing through the border station, a modernish building, with loudspeakers blaring what seemed slushy patriotic music, we were greeted with smiling hostesses and “guides” who were clearly some kind of civilian-dressed police. Our convoy of about 12 buses, virtually all full of South Koreans going up for a glimpse of former “home” – there were about 5 westerners in the entire group – then proceeded into  North Korea along a single paved road, and the sudden absence of all hints of anything “commercial”.  No billboards, no signage on buildings, nothing of the sort.  It was in truth rather a relief from the over-developed South Korean “countryside” which is crammed with industrial-style agricultural structures, plastic covered green-houses, rice-paddies, and small and big factories, along with an onslaught of corporate chaebol advertising bill-boards:  Samsung, Lotte, Doosan, KIA, and all the rest.  Instead one saw a landscape that seemed 100 years ago, bereft of anything industrial or modern at all.  Rather the roads leading off this one paved highway were of dirt, and led off to a mix of traditional and very-tattered-with-time little houses, or workers housing little 4 or 5 story dormitory buildings.  There was no color, and everything was drab, with the small exception of the occasional patriotic banner or portrait of a Kim.  There wasn’t much of that.

Kaesong, North Korea [images off net]

Kaesong was a dull place, a few high-rises (less imposing in reality that the photos here, taken of the internet), dirt streets, a smattering of people on the streets.  They took us to a museum, cautioning about what we could and could not take photos of, and then we had a dinner, likely lavish for 99% of North Koreans, if modest next to those served to the Kim clan and their high-level associates – mostly in the military.  On the flanks of Kaesong is a modern little bubble, an industrial park built by South Korean corporations, a kind of exchange program.  Not long after our visit, in the other site where South Koreans could visit, a sacred mountain further north where there was a resort to cater to them to bring in foreign income, a woman was shot to death for allegedly crossing some demarcation line.  Subsequently these tours were stopped, and for a while the industrial park was shuttered as well.  I think it may still be so, especially now.

From Kaesong, our caravan wended its way about 30km, along the only paved road, to a lake, above which was a Buddhist monastery.   Every 4 or 5 kilometers, a dirt road would branch off to a village of old-style houses, some with thatched roofs, usually a half kilometer or so to the side, though a few flanked the road.  Those near the road had a few 4 or 5 story concrete apartment blocks, poorly built and with stucco or paint peeling off.   At the center of each dirt road stood a single soldier, rifle at hand, in stiff attention, his large hat looming over his head like a halo.  They looked so out of place and lost in the landscape that they seemed like a little boy’s wooden toy.   The only traffic on the highway were very infrequent sedans, clearly military.  No trucks, no motorbikes, no civilian cars or buses, no farming tractors.   In the fields, which seemed heavily farmed, with little terraces carved in any slopes, however small, were groups planting or harvesting.  Some had bicycles, most were on foot.  A few draft animals were seen.  It reminded me of the landscape of East Germany under the old DDR, except 10 times more impoverished.  No trabbies.  No lights.

Pictures from bus, outside Kaesong

Buddhist temple above lake

The last days the news has been full of items on North Korea,  the views of China, the President of South Korea saying the next time the price will be high; polls of South Koreans saying they’ve had enough of feeding their brothers to the north.  The won took a little dip, denting for the moment my savings.  I imagine this will blow over in some more weeks, South Korean policy will get a little stiffer, less generous, and if the winter is harsh as predicted and indicated by the little flurry of snow 2 nights ago – early for here – then the Kim dynasty will once again put out the beggars bowl.

In reality, were a war to occur, North Korea would collapse quickly – lacking infrastructure, oil, food, all the things that keep an army moving.  I doubt they trust that their missiles would loft a few nukes in the right direction or even off the launching pad.  And an attempt to move one by truck would doubtless be picked up by the space-borne spies above and picked off long before it neared Seoul.   Their indoctrinated troops would doubtless put up a suicidal effort, but it would not go far.  The best bet for them is huff and puff, and “appear” strong.  Perhaps when Kim Jong-il passes on, some significant change will happen.  His son was schooled in Switzerland, has traveled abroad, and despite his military minders, he knows what the world outside the Kim Kingdom is really like.

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