Text and Photos by Jon Hill, April 2006
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A couple of weeks ago I went to an area in North Korea called Geumgang-san. It is located on Korea's east coast, just north of the DMZ. The area is geographically isolated from the rest of North Korea by rugged mountains. For the last few years, the area has been opened up to tourism from South Korea. Hyundai Asan, a branch of the larger Hyundai group of corporations, is investing heavily in the area, developing it for tourists and boosting its infrastructure, presumably in the hopes of being well-positioned if reunification ever happens between the two Koreas.

I went as part of a tour with twelve other westerners. At the border into North Korea, we joined several hundred other people, mostly South Koreans, who were also touring the area. We stayed with this group the entire time we were in North Korea. Needless to say, it was a bit strange starting out for a scenic hike with a few hundred people around. South Koreans love hiking and they love hiking together. They are not very quiet trail companions. So I can't say I found the usual solace I enjoy in nature on this trip, but I was impressed by the rugged beauty of the place. The weather was not very pleasant, but cleared enough periodically for me to get a few nice scenic shots.

The Spring Melt

Layers in the Mist

Waterfall and Giant Writings

Lake Temple

Tree Silhouettes

Rugged Peaks in Geumgang

Forest Stairway

Communists are paranoid. Even though the area of North Korea I visited is not a true representation of the rest of the country, the propaganda and paranoia were clear. The fact that we had to travel in a group of several hundred people and follow a strict itinerary was the first sign. They simply can't tolerate the idea that one of us might wander and see something we shouldn't. We were told never to take photos from a roadway, and most definitely, to never photograph soldiers or military installations. I was sneaky with my compact digital camera and got the shot below through the bus window. We were not allowed to carry camera lenses with focal lengths longer than 160mm or binoculars with more than 10x magnification.

The paranoia was also evident in the hiring practices of the tourist facilities we visited. None of the workers were North Korean. They are all Chinese. The North Koreans would rather allow Chinese foreigners to serve other foreigners than to allow any of their own people to have contact with people from the free world. They are too afraid that subversive ideas will enter their population. Such a policy shows that the people of North Korea are little more than slaves to their government. They certainly are not regarded as humans who should have the right to have their own ideas about things. There is simply no respect given to them.

North Korean Soldier from the Tour Bus

I was made especially aware of the paranoia when I tried to clear North Korean immigration. My passport happened to be an older style made in an embassy. It looked different than other US passports, but I'd used it without any trouble in several countries over the last five years. The North Koreans found it suspicious. They detained me for about 20 minutes and finally put me back on a tour bus bound for their country without a passport. (I thought my tour leader had it, but I was informed that the immigration officers were keeping it until the next day to see if it was a fake.) Being in a communist country without a passport is a tad unsettling, to say the least. But I was only there for one night, so I tried to be trusting. The next day, on the way out of North Korea, things got really interesting. They had decided that my passport was "bad" and that I must now be fined $500 (yes North Koreans prefer United States Dollars) for traveling in their country without proper papers. I refused to pay. (Come on, if you had any suspicion, you shouldn't have let me in in the first place!) Eventually they let me leave their country but they kept my passport. So I had to get into South Korea again without a passport. This wasn't too hard, since I have a South Korean Alien Registration card, but even the South Koreans were dumbfounded by what had happened. Amazingly, South Korean immigration recovered my old passport a week later, but I had already gotten a new passport from the US Embassy in Seoul.

In retrospect, I think the North Koreans showed three distinct attititudes toward me. At first, I think their paranoia made them genuinely suspicious of my passport, but not enough to hassle with sending me back to South Korea. Then I think I saw an attitude of greed and corruption when they wanted to fine me. Finally, when I wouldn't pay, I think I saw an attitude of pride. They needed to save face, so they couldn't just give my passport back and send me on my way. They had to keep it to protect their dignity.

North Korean communism and dictatorships have plunged their country into decades of poverty, hardship, and separatism. And yet, amazingly, the dictators who have done so much to harm the country are revered as gods. Religion is outlawed, but goverment filled the void. Anyone who doubts this, has but to see the photo of the 30-foot painting shown below. In it, dictator Kim Jong-il gathers happy well-fed and well-clothed children around him in a blissful park scene. I've seen the same scene before, but it was Jesus shown with children, not a ruthless, corrupt tyrant. In a country where children get only a handful of rice to eat every day, such propaganda is sickening.

Kim Jong-il Plays Jesus

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