You think income inequality in America is bad? Come visit North Korea.
Yes, we have some significant issues with the concentration of wealth in America. But the North Korean 99% would kill to have our problems.
America’s poor get excited over things like McDonald’s adding the McRibb back to the menu and the iPod coming in sparkly new colors.
In North Korea 33% of the population is undernourished, and few have ever seen an iPod.
In America citizens can come together in massive protests, demanding change and equality, generally unmolested by the police. Those few protesters who, from time to time, are arrested, are generally released within 24 hours
In Pyongyang you’d be arrested, tortured and probably killed if you even suggested protesting anything the government did. 400,000 people – double the population of Orlando — have perished in these political prison camps, though the ones left alive, suffering through torture and rape, may envy the dead.
In America virtually every man, woman and child has cheap and easy access to the internet, and can post anything they want, anytime they want.
There is one internet café in North Korea’s capital city, Pyongyang. Just one. Information available through that solitary internet portal is severely censored, and most North Koreans have never even heard of the internet.
The United States government has at its head a democratically-elected Harvard graduate who is routinely questioned and even ridiculed by those he governs.
North Korea is ruled by a megalomaniacal, sadistic, paranoid dictator, never once elected to public office, who brainwashes his people into thinking he’s a god.
And this paranoid nutcase has nearly one million rabid soldiers stationed along the demilitarized zone (DMZ), the buffer between North and South Korea, just waiting to sweep across the border, slaughtering everyone in their path.
Sounds like a party. I couldn’t wait to go!
Unfortunately, I can’t get in. Or, perhaps more accurately, if I did manage to get in, it would be many months and an “unofficial” diplomatic visit by Bill Clinton before I got back out. But I could get right up to the edge, right along the DMZ, and that sounded just like my kind of excitement.
So I’ve come as far as I can, to the demilitarized zone, the 4-kilomneter wide swath of earth studded with landmines and across which enough troops and bombs are faced off to wipe several countries off the map. Soo and I made the 50-minute trek north from Seoul with the Cosmo Jin Tour Company, which promised an “up-close and detailed exploration of the pain and devastation of a divided country.”
They warned that we must always have our passports on us, should be exceedingly careful not to slip over the border lest we face arrest, and advised us at all times to be respectful of the many South Korean soldiers we’d meet.
I was breathless with excitement.
You’d think by now I would have learned the value of low expectations.
The tour was interesting, and probably would have been fascinating had I not built up this goofy image in my head of tip-toeing around land mines as shots from dastardly North Korean soldiers zipped past our heads.
Unfortunately no one tried to kill or capture us, and the few South Korean soldiers we met were more interested in posing for pictures with young ladies than doing anything menacing.
Once I got over my disappointment at not being able to star in my own private James Bond movie, I resolved to learn as much as I could about this sad, and as yet unresolved, chapter in a proud nation’s history.
Korea’s history goes back 5,000 years, though only the last 1,300 have been as one unified country.
The armistice of 1953 divided this ancient nation in two, much as the Allies were forced to do with Berlin at the end of the war in Europe. Ten million Korean families were separated by this division, most never able to see their loved ones again.
The South became a capitalist democracy, and thrived. The North, a Stalinist state, fell under the dominion of a cruel and repressive regime, and stands today as one of modern history’s great global tragedies.
Our tour took us to four stops along the DMZ, three of which were interesting (I still can’t figure out why we visited the fourth, a functioning train station, unless the tour operators just figured they needed one more stop to make it a day.)
Our first stop was Imgingak and the Bridge of Freedom, a former railroad bridge which was used by prisoners of war returning from the north. You can walk right up to the reinforced barbed-wire fence marking the DMZ, and watch the stern-looking South Korean soldiers patrolling just inside.
Our next stop, at the Third Tunnel of Aggression, was my favorite. The Third Tunnel is one of four underground tunnels the North dug in a botched invasion attempt in the 70s. Visitors are allowed to walk through several hundred feet of the damp 2 meter x 2 meter portal through which it’s estimated as many as 30,000 troops per hour were set to be unleashed on the South.
They strictly forbid photography inside the tunnel (which seems silly – the North built the damned thing – I’m pretty sure they know what it looks like) and all visitors are required to surrender their cameras before entering.
So I was only able to get off a couple of sneaky ones on my phone. (For an outfit obsessed with security, and as tech savvy as the Koreans are, you’d think it’d have occurred to them to snatch the phones, too.)
It was an eerie experience. The dark, seemingly endless tunnel, dripping water every few feet, looks like something concocted by Hollywood. I could almost see a horde of screaming North Korean soldiers charging at us as we traipsed along the dank corridor. It was fascinating, and made the whole trip worthwhile.
And last we stopped at the Dorasan Observatory, where we could gaze across at North Korea, staring down the brutal enemy!
What we stared down were pine-tree covered hills shrouded in haze. Dull, and ever so anti-climatic after the tunnel.
Before allowing us to return to our hotel our tour bus wanted to take us to an authentic amethyst factory where they had, wink-wink nudge-nudge, arranged for “special” discounts should we wish to purchase any jewelry.
We didn’t, so we snuck away as the rest of the dopey tourists were dutifully filing into the shop.
A long day of not being harassed by North Koreans had us famished, so we ducked into Saboten, a wonderful little eatery, for some noodle soup and coconut fried shrimp.
The food was good, inexpensive, and hit the spot, so much so that, full and happy, we strolled out without our bag of souvenirs from the DMZ (yes, in lieu of being shot today I purchased a tacky t-shirt and a DMZ patch. I’m pathetic.)
We were several blocks down the road when a small, out-of-breath Korean man caught up to us, holding our bag. He was a waiter from the restaurant, and had chased after us to return our silly tourist items. I was stunned, both because this kind man had gone so far out of his way for something so trivial (and then refused to accept a tip), and because I didn’t want anyone here to know I’d really purchased a nerdy DMZ t-shirt.
The day didn’t provide the excitement I’d expected, but it was full of surprises.
These Koreans are a remarkable people. I’m really glad I married one.