Live Fast Die Jong

North Korea. One of the most reclusive, unstable and unwelcoming destinations on earth – or is it? Yes, it absolutely is. Having said that, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t have a slightly morbid fascination with the place – what is life really like in the self-contained and mysterious north? Well, I am not alone in wanting to visit and observe for myself, approximately five thousand Western tourists make the journey every year. However, it is common knowledge that (firstly) these tours are always under strict government supervision, (secondly) you will never be allowed to see the ‘real’ North Korea, (thirdly) they are insanely expensive and (fourthly) there is the real possibility that a propaganda poster may be snuck into your bag at the airport resulting in your brutal interrogation and eventual murder.

Despite all those highly rational arguments for not going, the primary reason I would not be booking a tour to Pyongyang was to avoid lining the pockets of a regime that is more concerned with blowing things up than feeding its people. However, this was not the end of my visiting every nation on earth – oh no. Although, how can I visit a country without visiting the country, I hear you ask? Well, by going to the most heavily-militarized border in the world and hopping over a table of course. JSA (Joint Security Area) tours leave Seoul on a daily basis and I grabbed the very last seat of the mornings’ excursions. After signing a waiver telling me that if I get shot, I only had myself to blame, we began the brief road trip to North Korea (won’t get the chance to write that again).

Upon our arrival, we were escorted into a large building with lecture hall and told the full history on the Korean conflict (from an American soldier’s point-of-view) before being given strict instructions on how to behave when we got to the border. I’m sure they were expecting us to shout, scream and dance the Viennese waltz in front of the North Korean soldiers given the number of rules and warnings we were given. Then again, most of the visitors were American and we all know how they act when they get excited. A further shuttle bus took us within waddling distance of the infamous House of Freedom, from where we got our first view of the blue meeting buildings – and of North Korea beyond.

A final demand not to do anything stupid was given and we were ushered outside and towards the Military Demarcation Line (MDL): the point where one Korea becomes another. As we filed toward our first building, I caught a glimpse of a North Korean soldier keeping a keen eye on our movements through binoculars on the balcony of their equivalent of the Freedom building. Suddenly, the temptation to do something American came flooding over me – I had to really fight the urge back. The MDL runs right through the centre of the meeting rooms and, as you walk in, you are greeted by a large mahogany table with armed, utterly motionless soldiers at either end. It was then that I tiptoed passed and took my first reticent steps in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

I had read that only the tallest and most intimidating soldiers were selected for duty at the JSA, although the man I found myself next to didn’t really seem either, and I felt comfortable enough to go in for a photo without him rear naked chokeholding me to death. He was the silent type, so I don’t think he minded. I spent a good five minutes hopping from one Korea to the other, safe in the knowledge that this would probably be the last time I ever entered the north – and I’m OK with that. As we left the building, we were given one last selfie opportunity with the hidden but all-too-real North Korean snipers before shuffling toward the nearby museum.

Of all the heated exchanges that have occurred since the JSA was first established in 1953, the axe murder incident of 1976 is one of the most prominent. It began, as all good stories do, with two American soldiers trimming a poplar near the Bridge of No Return (within metres of the border). Within seconds of the first branch being axed, a North Korean general shouted for them to stop as the tree had been “personally planted and nourished” by no other than leader Kim Il Sung himself. Upon ignoring the request, fifteen DPRK soldiers crossed the bridge and attacked the Americans with their own axes, killing both soldiers. This almost led to a retaliation that would have changed the world forever. Thankfully, restraint was exercised by then president Gerald Ford and the nukes were avoided. Amazing to think that, almost fifty years later, we are still at the same impasse, with no real end in sight. On a different note, the next stop happened to be the North Korean gift shop… Jesus.


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