Not what you’d normally expect from a British tabloid, but today’s U.K. Sun has a rare glimpse inside the gulag known as North Korea. Reporter Oliver Harvey and photographer Phil Hannaford recently paid a brief visit to the hermit kingdom, along with members a South Korean tour group. A South Korean firm has been running visits to the DPRK since last December; participants are bused through the DMZ to the city of Kaesong, located just across the border.
While Korea-watchers won’t find anything particularly new or revelatory in Mr. Harvey’s report, it does offer a grim reminder of life in Kim Jong-il’s police state. Members of the tour group were given a list of rules to be observed during their visit—with no exceptions.
Some were predictable; no alcohol and no newspapers or magazines from South Korea. Other regulations underscored the regime’s isolation and xenophobia. Visitors were barred from bringing their cell phones, or cameras with telephoto lenses. Taking pictures of “ordinary” North Koreans was also prohibited, and the tour group was warned against engaging them on such issues as politics, economics or diplomatic relations.
Reading Harvey’s account, one wonders why anyone—including South Koreans in search of long-lost relatives—would bother visiting the DPRK:
Soon we hit Kaesong, once the capital of all Korea and one of the North’s major towns. It was like something from old newsreels.
People either slowly walked or cycled through the streets past grey tower blocks bearing Communist slogans and ramshackle Korean-style slate-roofed houses.
Cars were almost totally absent. Small children gawped and waved.
As we moved through the austere town and out into paddy fields, the paranoia of “Dear Leader” Kim became apparent. At every junction and path with the main road, an armed soldier stood guard. Sometimes local people cowered behind walls as the buses went by.
We then passed through desolate, dry fields and farmsteads next to pine-forested hills. Most of the work in the fields seemed to be done by hand, with the occasional cart pulled by cattle. Despite the apparently barren landscape, we passed a huge gaudy mural of Kim’s dead father, “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, pictured in a field of flowing corn.
When one South Korean tourist took a step off the path a soldier from the North blew a shrill whistle and raised a red flag. The plain-clothes guys came rushing over.
When we took a couple of sneaky wide-angle pictures of our soldier guards we also got the red flag treatment.
On the way back from the falls we finally had a chance. The North Korean goon watching over us went to the front of the bus to sing a folk song on the mic and our South Korean watcher nodded off.
Phil and I immediately began clicking away, capturing bedraggled farm workers, Kim’s ever-present military guards and children playing in dustbowl fields.
In Kaesong we had lunch. It was served in a tourist-only block by pretty, smiling Party-approved waitresses in traditional outfits. Next was a gift shop. Although one pamphlet was entitled US – The Empire Of Terrorism, the only currency accepted was the American greenback.
What the Sun (barely) mentions is that Kaesong is something of a showcase in North Korea (yes, we realize that’s an oxymoron). The region is home for joint-venture factories built by South Korean conglomerates and was once touted by Pyongyang as a special economic zone, similar to those that sprang up in China 20 years ago.
Obviously, if life in Kaesong is that bad, we can only imagine conditions in the DPRK interior. With rare exceptions, foreigners are not permitted to travel there, the regions where millions have died in North Korea’s self-induced famine.
The tabloid’s story was published as Pyongyang engaged in a predictable bit of geopolitical posturing. On Friday, the DPRK fired a salvo of anti-ship missiles into the Yellow Sea, in response to “provocative” comments from a senior South Korean defense official.
Apparently, the ROK general offended the north by suggesting that his nation would launch a pre-emptive strike, if it learned that Pyongyang was planning a nuclear attack. The missile exercise was likely connected to the North Korean military’s annual Winter Training Cycle (WTC), which concludes in late March, but the South Korean’s comments gave the DPRK another excuse for launching the missiles.
Friday’s fusillade served other purposes as well. Some of the anti-ship missiles were fired near the Northern Limit Line, the maritime extension of the DMZ. It’s the same area where North and South Korean fishermen harvest crab, under escort by their respective navies. Efforts at creating a so-called “joint fishing area” have failed and with the spring crab season barely a month away, the missile test was also aimed (figuratively) at the ROK Navy.