Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Democratic People's Republic of Korea - part 3

So today I’m going to chat about the overland border between North and South Korea, otherwise known as the Demilitarised Zone – the DMZ. It’s almost as badass as Run DMC. Almost. Actually, I take that back. The North Korean side of the DMZ is SO TOTALLY FUCKING HARDCORE.

Unfortunately it was one of those places with very strict regulations about taking photos. We were further discouraged from taking photos by the numerous heavily armed guards standing by. All the time. Watching us. There were certain official areas where we were allowed unlimited snaps, and for the rest of the time, a sharp whistle would be your only warning if a lens was raised, and if it was not swiftly lowered, then the full might of the fierce and terrible state would sweep down upon you as though hell itself were falling from the fiery skies.

Before I begin with my account of the place, I think you should have a quick scan through this. If the status of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is something that interests you, you really should look into the DMZ a little deeper than the wiki, but remember, in the same way we criticise the use of propaganda in a country like DPRK, the western world is constantly swallowing a feed of negative propaganda about DPRK. When you read about North Korea you are reading information almost always presented by somebody who already hates the country. Especially pages like Wikipedia. I give links to Wikipedia because it’s an excellent tool for easy self-education, and I presume that anyone wanting true knowledge of a subject would go on to do individual research themselves. In saying all this though, check this out, and I’m sure your opinion on the matter will be firmly cemented.

An appreciation of what the DMZ is (read: what it’s supposed to be) and what it stands for is crucial for an understanding of the current relationship between the two Koreas. This is probably the reason that most residents of DPRK have no idea what the hell is going on. There is a complete stagnation of information. It is impossible for any of us to have any idea what is going on in the mind of an average North Korean citizen. While we were seeing one of the particular negotiations areas, we were shown a room with two desks sitting parallel to each other. This room was used to try and come to an agreement about what should be done regarding violence at the border. One desk presented the flag of DPRK, the other presented the flag of the UN. After being given an evidently ridiculous version of the history of the discussions, our tour group was told by the official DPRK military guide, in closing, that “the US representatives were so embarrassed and ashamed of what they were doing, that in the morning they even forgot their flag and left it at home.”

Apparently the DPRK government believes that they were not in discussion with the UN, but in fact their enemies the US, who were too ashamed of their behaviour to admit that they were acting for themselves?

The room was full of pictures and artifacts from the time of the negotiations, full of almost hilarious captions. I say almost because at first I was laughing, but after about half an hour of seeing the word ‘imperialist’ before every single ‘US’, and hearing about how the whole world ‘revered’ the ‘Great Leader Comrade’, you start to realise the depth of the delusion. The crackly vinyl revolutionary string music playing in the background always begins with a certain feeling of quaintness, even charm, but it doesn’t take too much time to combine that with real-life, real-time propaganda posters in the street, and realise that you aren’t in Kansas any more. Do the people truly believe this version of history they are being told? Yes. Yes, they do. They have no source of information other than their government, and do not realise that they have turned their political leader (who is now dead) into an infallible God. I wouldn’t even know where to begin to try and talk about the brainwashing that goes on in a state like DPRK. But you should definitely be concerned.

The tour of the DMZ painted the exact picture you would imagine a cranky child would create upon not getting what it wants. They alter their memories to suit their desires, they point fingers, they lie, and they dramatise. Without world domination, DPRK will never have what it wants, and so the cranky child simply grows more irritable and hungrier. Literally.

I know the part most people were looking forward to was seeing the actual border. The place where a single cement line separates two countries which are as fundamentally different as countries can be. This line is clear, and three shed-type buildings straddle it. The inside of these three buildings are considered ‘neutral zones’ which belong to neither the North or the South. They are used for rare exchanges, but more commonly, for tourists. Everyone in the group was excited to go in the building and cross the border, but we heard from our DPRK guides that this would be impossible. The reason? The South Koreans had locked all the doors from the inside. The reason? Same as why the broadcast of BBC disappeared and turned to static two days ago on our hotel tv – there had been more missile attacks. The reason? Who knows.

It turns out that while I was there, the two Koreas had yet another altercation at sea, and were officially attacking each other off the coast. Yeah. While I was inside, the missiles were firing. What makes this most interesting, is what happened on the bus as we climbed in to leave the DMZ, dejected that we couldn’t go into those sheds. After much pestering (at this stage we were all in the dark about the real reason we couldn’t go to the border crossing place) our guide, exacerbated, told us this: 

      “I am sorry that you cannot go to that place, but it is not our fault at all. When South Korean   people go in, they lock the door from the inside. Usually we wait until South Korean tourists are finished in the building and then they unlock it and then we can go in but you know today there is some problem. The South, they have locked the doors from the inside because they want to so there is nothing we can do. So as you can see, this is not our fault, but it is the US fault.”

Hang on. WHAT? Where does the US even come in to this particular scenario? Where did that comment come from? I do not think that the guides knew that as they were speaking, missiles were hitting navy vessels off the coast. I do not think that the guides knew why the doors where really locked. What I do think, is that they have been told that absolutely none of this was the fault of the North, and that yet again, DPRK had been violently attacked without provocation by the imperialist puppets, and so were responding in completely understandable self-defense. Why would the guide blame the US for this situation? Does the DPRK still tell their citizens that the US and South Korea are constantly teaming up against them? For example, right now? I have no idea. I really don’t.

I suppose what I really learnt from this trip to the DMZ was that you shouldn’t let children play with barbed wire and heavy artillery. It is so difficult for us to imagine a world where all you know comes from the sole source of the government. This nation is being taught a version of history which has been totally created. I am not naïve enough to think that the rest of the world is taught accurate histories, but freedom of information means that I can understand all versions of the same war. I can see that all sides made mistakes and I can see that my country was not infallible and that my ancestors were not perfect. Most importantly, I can see, and encourage others to see, the differentiation of religion and state.

The worship of Kim Il Sung reveals just as much about humanity as it does about DPRK. To the people of DPRK, Kim Il Sung is a god. This needs no more explanation. The trouble that comes from this situation, is that whilst politicians are usually held accountable as any human being would be, a god as a head of state is infallible. Each policy decision is essentially a divine one, which on no grounds can be contested. There is no need for elections, nobody could be leader other than Him. Most importantly, He is of a different kind of greatness to the rest of the population, despite the fact that the rest of the population live under the harsh equality-based rules of severe communism. Freedom of religion or religious expression is forbidden in DPRK, and any kind of worship can only go ahead with express approval by the government. The irony is too unfortunate. It would appear that the human inclination to create supernatural solutions to unanswerable questions is universal. When the communist mantra (their specific version is called Juche. You can read about it here) dictated no religion, these people made their leader their god.

I digress, although there isn’t much more to say about the DMZ. When I break down the history and the conflict pertinent to the area, I see two opposing groups who are so fundamentally different in their priorities and beliefs, that they might as well be speaking two different languages without a translator. Neither party could, or will ever, truly accept the values of the other, and so remain locked in conflict. And so once again, I find myself understanding a little more about humans, and yet becoming more and more baffled.

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