Yesterday, Saturday, I went to Kaesong in North Korea. I have no evidence that I visited North Korea; no visa, passport stamp, tourist card or photos that you wouldn’t find outside a tourist pamphlet.

I only have insight and words. Eights hours may sound a short time, but to someone who lives in freedom, it’s an oppressively long time.

Kaesong is North Korea’s southern most city, an ancient capital of the once unified Korea. A city full of historic relics; and crumbling buildings. Historically Kaesong was a city for learned scholars, religion and I guess wealth. In an odd way it probably still is compared with other places in North Korea. But to the outsider, it’s a city of worn out buildings, dirt laden paths, bicycles, and an eery quiet. Kaesong has to be the epitomy of a poverty stricken communist country.

The last time I experienced communism on this scale was Yugoslavia (a long time ago). When I went through Kaesong, the images of rural towns in Yugoslavia came flooding back. A patina of sadness, an era of dilapidation, all in the name of paranoic-communism.

Kaesong has potential

Surrounding the town there is beauty, peaceful, non-industrial, smogfree beauty. The small mountains and rocky outcrops are smothered in forest, which I could picture as being gloriously colourful in autumn, and lush in summer.
There are also waterfalls and mountain paths that have potential, that is, if the country opened up. Being on a strictly controlled (escorted) tour group from South Korea, I was taken to one of the region’s famous waterfalls -Bakyeon.
Bakyeon has sheer cliff faces, bleached white and worn smooth from water and weather. Arriving at the falls and walking around the trails was welcoming relief after the reality of Kaesong town.

Of course now that it’s winter the falls were only a trickle and partially frozen over. Not much to photograph. But still worth admiring from an ancient pagoda on top of a hill.

Bakyeon Falls has history written all over it. From the fortress walls, pagodas and rock faces:

  • inscript
  • Communist Korean and ancient Chinese:
  • rock
  • Anything but normal

Travelling around the Kaesong area was anything but normal. There were seven tour buses, mostly full of elderly Koreans wanting to see their old country before they go. My group was a mix of Koreans and incredibly curious non-Koreans: Japanese, Canadians, Americans (yes!) and one Kiwi.

Escorting the buses were four black, shiny SUVs. Inside these SUVs were escorts aka secret little spys. Their job: to ensure we don’t harm ourselves. And to zealously watch over the non-Koreans wherever they went.

As the bus convoy drove through the countryside, the only other life outside were soldiers – standing to attention on the roads; and in the fields. Soldiers spaced 50 -100 metres apart. Soldiers looking on suspicously. But not all soldiers held an intense dislike for us. On the rarest occasion one or two gave us a cautious smile. One even gave us a warm grin. If only that shot could have been captured.

Where were the locals?

Outside of Kaesong town the fields and roads were devoid of humans. The tour was full of aging pensioners, some with limps and a lot with heart problems. Not a good formula for danger.

Were the North Koreans a danger? From what I saw of them, they looked timid and in fear. Who was protecting whom? Did we need protecting from ourselves?

Unable to shoot the reality

Unfortunately all shots I tried to sneak were deleted at passport control. The patient guard went through my entire collection (300 shots). All in the name of security!

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