A Tale of Two Koreas

From Whence Two Koreas?

When US Army officers Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel sat down on the evening of August 10th, 1945, they had a bit of a job on their hands. Tasked by the Department of State to decide upon the division of Korea following the surrender of the Japanese Empire, and given very little time, they picked up a National Geographic map, chose a parallel, and made the nation of Korea into two Koreas.

In fairness to Colonels Bonesteel and Rusk, they were working under a very tight schedule, and their propositions would be included in a larger communiqué sent to Stalin the next day. Failure to deliver after the sentence ‘Stalin wants this shit tomorrow, so get on it’ has historically been something of a faux pas.

Furthermore, the line wasn’t entirely plucked out of thin air; the two chose it because it divided Korea into two countries of roughly the same size yet it kept the capital, Seoul, firmly in American hands. They did the best they could with the constraints they were under.

What the two didn’t know, possibly because of their complete lack of knowledge of the Korean peninsula, was that forty years earlier the Russian and Japanese empires had chosen the exact same parallel to divvy up the unfortunate country, presumably checking first that the Koreans didn’t mind their country being carved up between institutionally sociopathic foreign powers.  Colonel Rusk later said that if he had known about the parallel between the two decisions, he ‘almost surely’ would have chosen differently.

“No other country on Earth can claim the same bizarre marriage of a pseudo-monarchic dynasty with a twisted take on Communism.”

The Koreas, then, are countries pretty familiar with the meddling of foreigners in their affairs, and this is something that continues into the 21st century. North Korea is a country made in Moscow and nursed by Beijing, and she wears her status as one of the last Cold-War holdouts firmly on her sleeve. South Korea still boasts a hefty contingent of US troops, whether or not her people are particularly fond of it. Both remember what Japanese troops did to them during the occupation. And it’s arguable that the two are still locked in a Cold-War-style standoff for the sake of two superpowers; with the North, China retains one of her historical buffer states, and with the South the US has a strategically placed friendly nation on China’s doorstep.

Needless to say, the two Koreas are now separated by fifty years of opposing ideology and the ever-present foreign interests. Also, a whole mess of fucking landmines.

So, North and South Korea are Pretty Similar Then?

It goes without saying that a trip to one Korea could not be more different from a trip to the other. On the one hand you have the predominantly agricultural, poor, undeveloped North with its omnipresent chaperons and constant pushing of their fantastical, propagandist rewrite of the past (Kim Jong-Il was born under a shooting star on the slopes of Mt. Paekdu, and routinely sank holes-in-one). But this, after all, is why many people go – an anachronistic little window back to the height of the Cold War and the age of the Cult of Personality; all towering, smiling paintings of the Great Leader and his now-deceased son, and happy, healthy salt-of-the-earth farmers and factory workers toiling with a smile on their face in the Socialist Paradise. It recalls WWII- and Cold-War-era propaganda, and it’s fascinating to see a country where this kind of stuff still goes on.

And then you have the South — Seoul might as well be an American metropolis, except with more Korean people. Glittering skyscrapers and neon signs abound. Western expats are a very common sight, especially in the trendy foreigner-populated Itaewon district. US squaddies out for a beer are a constant reminder of how Uncle Sam isn’t quite done with this place. The ubiquitous Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks are another. The kids are hip, and everyone’s sporting iPods and tablets. It probably rankles Pyongyang a fair bit that its southern counterpart is so quick to assume the trappings of US culture, something that has been built up into the North’s own version of 1984’s Emmanuel Goldstein.

But it’s not quite as simple as seeing the broken Communist dream on one side of the border and capitalism’s glowing poster child on the other. For instance, take the famous DMZ. Which country would you expect to be more uptight and restrictive about taking foreign nationals into Panmunjom, one of the tensest places on the planet?

The Korean DMZ at the 38th Parallel

A visit with your Northern guide is, frankly, a lot less tense and restrictive than with the uniformed, po-faced US soldier who’ll be escorting you on the Southern side. An amiable, high-ranking North Korean officer talks you through their version of events regarding the Korean War and the establishment of the DMZ, which is promptly translated by the ever-present tour guide. Your group is then taken through a museum with some exhibits relating to the signing of the armistice and two incidents when the tension boiled over: the first is the infamous 1976 ‘axe incident’, in which North Korean soldiers set about a group of US soldiers trimming a tree in the Joint Security Area, beating two of them to death. The second incident was that of a Soviet diplomat who, presumably deciding that the Berlin Wall hop was a bit passé, ran straight across the border in full view of KPA soldiers, dodging bullets all the way. Naturally, the Northern accounts are a little more colourful than those of their JSF counterparts.

Surprisingly, the atmosphere on the Northern side of Panmunjom is much more relaxed and convivial. The accompanying officers, for all their pomp and barbed comments about the US Imperialists (and the various other countries whom they hold responsible for interfering – check for your country’s flag on the wall of the shared hut in the middle of Panmunjom), have been very laid back and amiable on both my visits to the North. In contrast, the stern, formal US officer on the Southern side ominously intoned the rules of the visit and seemed keen to impart a real sense of gravity and danger to proceedings.

Touring the Rest of the Korean Peninsula

A good deal of North Korea’s other major tourist sites are very interesting, either because of their political history, or else because of the insight gleaned into the North Korean psyche. There is what you are shown and expected to believe, and what you actually see beyond the distortions and self-glorying propaganda.

The International Friendship Museum showcases the gifts received by both Kim Sr. and Jr. by various tin-pot tyrants and multinational companies, and the contrast between the sort of gifts they received is telling, despite the fact that your guide would have you believe that they are equally revered: Kim Il-Sung’s gifts are lavish, elaborate and oftentimes beautiful: carved gold ornaments and esoteric African sculptures are on display in his part of the museum. His son’s collection is more mundane and belies a corresponding diminishing of respect for him internationally: camcorders, VCR’s and other materialistic yet unimpressive appliances feature heavily in his somewhat lacklustre display wing.

A visit to Kim Il-Sung’s mausoleum is demonstrative of just how much the Great Leader has been deified in the country: melodramatic voiceovers recount his life and death via issued headsets, and the actual display room, with Kim’s waxen body laid out in a glass case, is as hushed and reverential as any major cathedral in Europe.

A tour of the purported US spy ship the USS Pueblo, docked in the Taedong river in Pyongyang, exemplifies the North Korean regime’s ham-fisted attempts at foreigner-oriented propaganda. A walk around the captured vessel is undoubtedly fascinating, but the accompanying propagandistic video presentations convince the viewer of nothing but the unintentional hilarity of the blatant attempts to demonise the US. More so when you’re aware (as I wasn’t at the time) that the crew of the Pueblo actively — and hilariously — undermined the efforts of the North Korean government to propagandise their capture by covertly flipping the camera the bird whenever they were trotted out to ‘apologise’ for their crimes.

Meeting the Common Folk

Something of a surprise is the ease, or lack thereof, of chatting casually with locals on both sides. The Southerners are surprisingly reserved and, perhaps inured to the presence of foreigners in their country, don’t tend to react much to Westerners either way. The Northerners are obviously forbidden from interacting with tourists in most instances; one remarkable and unforgettable experience on a YPT tour, however, saw my group and I interacting with the locals during a May-Day barbeque in a Pyongyang park. Easily the highlight of the trip for everyone, it was simply nice to interact with the people behind the bluster and propaganda and anti-US rhetoric. The locals were open, curious, and eager to meet outsiders. Given the amount of persuading needed before our guide consented, it seemed that this sort of thing didn’t happen too often.

This isn’t to say that the South Koreans are not friendly; I personally am an antisocial bastard, and the only South Korean people I interacted with socially were acquaintances of an expat friend. What was surprising about them, as a resident of China, was their familiarity with Western culture; something completely alien to their Northern cousins. And analogous to China’s Confucian culture was their friendliness depending on mutual connections or acquaintances; although strangers were very reserved, the South Koreans were very friendly provided that you were in their circle of friends.

The South Koreans are as progressive and forward-thinking a people as any in East Asia; in stark contrast, the North is still fighting a cold war the rest of the world left behind with Gorbachev’s resignation. And they very much have an ‘us versus the world’ mentality; with the exception of their superficially ideological brothers-in-arms in Beijing, of course, this is entirely true. No other country on Earth can claim the same bizarre marriage of a pseudo-monarchic dynasty with a twisted take on Communism; these two seemingly mutually exclusive concepts as easy for the North Koreans to reconcile as two plus two making five.

And it’s there where a trip to the North ultimately trumps its Southern counterpart: it is an anachronism, an atavistic throwback to the dark days of Stalinist Russia. It is a country untouched by globalism and the ubiquity of the Western world, and this makes a visit there all the more fascinating.