Intrigued by the North Korea-South Korea tensions often depicted in mass media and proliferated by social media, I would sometimes ponder about how exactly the locals feel about living in a nation that is divided.
It got me excited when I chanced upon an opportunity presented by Delegations for Dialogue* that allows us to learn about the inter-Korean relations first-hand; the Two Koreas programme was a travelling symposium exploring the issues surrounding the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula.
(I went in 2016, when I was doing my part-time masters. I chanced upon it under Suggested Posts on my Facebook – a good recommendation in this case.)
Together with 11 other delegates from different parts of the world, we first gathered in Seoul and met with groups of university students, think tanks and academics before heading North. During the trip, we also got to visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) from both sides. The DMZ was established in 1953 as part of the Korean Armistice Agreement between the United Nations, North Korea, and China to end the Korean War.
Sometimes, it’s scary to think that the two Koreas are still, technically, at war – as an armstice is a formal agreement of warring parties to stop fighting but is not necessarily the end of war, constituting only a cessation of hostilities while an attempt is made to negotiate a lasting peace.
While mentally prepared that the 4D3N stay in North Korea was going to be unusual, I still found it a mind-blowing experience. We were accompanied by two guides throughout the entire itinerary and we had our passports held by them as well.
Here’re some interesting facts about North Korea:
1. You can’t get into North Korea from the South. Crossing from one side to the other via the DMZ is not a possible option – an exception being the North Korean soldier who managed his escape. We took a flight from Incheon to Shenyang and then a bullet train from Shenyang to Dandong, before taking a train from Dandong to Pyongyang the next day.
2. Contentious items such as notes and materials regarding North/ South Korea cannot be brought into the North. Laptops, cameras, mobile phones and bags would be randomly checked on the train from Dandong to Pyongyang (similarly for the trip out). The North Korean soldiers took about two hours to do the check before the train could move again. If they found any photos/ videos that should not be taken in/ out, they delete them without permission. One friend had a photo of the Ginseng chicken we had for one of our lunches deleted – we had no idea why – but I still had mine intact. I also had a couple of photos deleted (but I can’t remember what they were).
3. There are differences in the Korean language between the North and the South. For example, woman is written as “녀자”, but in the latter, it’s written as “여자”. Apart from language, they also want to be different from the South in terms of time zone – they are 1/2 hour behind South Korea.
4. We had to bow to the statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il at several places. We bowed a total of six times when we visited to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun where the embalmed bodies of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il sat (on the right, left, and front of each body)!! When the North Koreans get married, they visit the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun and the Grand Monument on Mansu Hill to get blessings.
5. We got to shop at a local bookstore; an important aspect of tourism in North Korea is education. I bought a few books.
6. In their history, the U.S.A was the one who started the Korean War.
7. To them, life is the South is bad after the armistice till now.
8. One of the “attractions” was a visit to a high school where we got the chance to interact with the students. It was interesting to know that they were taught English and Chinese, and that education is free (even university education). When asked what they wanted to do when they grew up, one of the boys mentioned that he wanted to work on nuclear weapons for his Great Leader Kim Jong Un.
9. There is no wi-fi in the whole country; they have their own internal network (it’s like intranet). But there is postal service in one of the hotels we stayed in. I received the postcard I sent myself some 3.5 weeks later.
10. While it seems like the most common mode of transportation is walking and cycling, the buses and trains are often packed as well.
“Sometimes the greatest adventure is simply a conversation.” -Amadeus Wolfe
This is especially so during this trip as some things were censored and could not be further discussed in the North. Because I found overseas exposure extremely helpful in broadening my horizons and increasing my cultural awareness, I was especially glad that I was able to sign up for this trip since I was back to being a student.
Like this one, there are some opportunities that are only open to students, so grab the chance to participate in such exclusive programs when you’re still in school! Don’t miss out and regret it when it’s too late.
*Delegations for Dialogue provides future generations of leaders the opportunity to engage directly with issues at the heart of international affairs. Each year they organise a series of travelling symposiums, fact-finding programmes and sports & cultural diplomacy missions within important regions, often divided by conflict, with the aim of facilitating dialogue and promoting mutual understanding.
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