Nudity and North Korea

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Asia » South Korea » Seoul
July 31st 2007
Published: August 12th 2007
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We’d been planning on a trip to Jeju Island for our summer holiday but as it turned out so had the rest of Korea. By the time we got round to booking there wasn’t a single seat left on flights or boats so we decided to head up to Seoul for a more active break. I really like Seoul as a city, it hasn’t got any jaw-dropping sights but it has got the buzzing energy of a North-Asian-neon-lit-people-packed city. In keeping with the rest of Korea it has an improbable number of restaurants full of people sitting on floor mats cooking their own meat on sunken table BBQs and knocking back soju. The streets are filled with shouting vendors and people and more people. We just enjoyed walking around and soaking it up, that’s not to say there’s nothing to see. On our first visit (for Paul’s birthday) we went to N’Seoul tower, the highest point in Seoul for great sunset and night-time views. This time we visited Namdaemun ‘The Great South gate’ which used to protect the city from Korean (Siberian) tigers. Now it just sits there looking pretty and pretty strange too with it’s uber modern surroundings. We also visited the two main royal palaces (Gyeongbokgung and Changgyeongung) and saw the changing of the guard (down to luck, not good planning). Check out the pictures for the cool uniforms and swords, I particularly liked the guys blowing (playing?) conches and the guys with drawn on beards.

We also headed up to The Demilitarized Zone; the buffer zone between North and South Korea, commonly referred to quite ominously as ‘the most heavily fortified border in the world.’ The only way to visit it is on a tour, so we had ourselves a US army escort for the day. The tour was probably the most unusual I’ve been on. First off there’s a strict dress code which calls for no open-toe shoes, no baggy or ripped jeans, no sleeveless tops and no clothes with English writing on them amongst other things. The reason given for the strict dress code was that the North Koreans may use our clothing as propaganda; we soon discovered that propaganda is a reoccurring theme at the DMZ. We also had to sign a disclaimer which absolved the US Army, the R.O.K (Republic of Korea) Army and the UN of any responsibility in the event of our capture or death. The US army tried to avoid these events by keeping us unruly camera wielding tourists under strict control:

‘Do not take photos from the bus. Do not move to the outside of the R.O.K soldiers. Do not touch the R.O.K soldiers - see how I’m not touching him and he’s not hitting me please try to maintain that relationship. Do not try to communicate with the North Korean guards in anyway. Do not point or gesture towards North Korea. Do not attempt to defect North Korea.’

It didn’t come as a surprise to hear that the only person to defect did so from North Korea; he managed to get across unscathed but caused 4 deaths in the gunfight that ensued and narrowly avoided causing WW3. Despite all of this it didn’t feel all that tense to be there. That may have had something to do with the two coach loads of tourists, the majority of whom were American and over the age of 50. At times it felt a little more like Disneyland than the most heavily fortified border in the world.

We visited the JSA (Joint Security Area) the area within the DMZ which houses both South and North Korean buildings and the Military Demarcation Line. This line splits the DMZ itself into North and South Korea and can’t be crossed. This wasn’t the case until 1976 when the ‘Axe Murder Incident’ occurred. The incident occurred as R.O.K soldiers were cutting down a tree that was blocking the view of a watchtower. To cut a long story short The North Koreans soldiers didn’t like it and murdered two R.O.K soldiers with their own axe. The axe is now housed in the ironically named ‘Peace Museum’ in North Korea.

We went inside one of the buildings in the JSA which straddles the line and is used as a neutral space for meetings between the two Koreas and the UN.

‘Everyone now standing to the right of me can relax, you are still relatively safe in South Korea, those standing to my left congratulations you are now in North Korea’

I was standing to his far left and so I was for just a few minutes inside North Korea, mere inches from the R.O.K soldier guarding the northern door, a door that if I had tried to exit would have resulted in my head being unceremoniously blown off…. Hmmm ok so it’s not exactly like Disneyland.

The outside of the JSA buildings are guarded by tough looking soldiers specifically selected for their intimidating appearance. Their modified taekwondo stance and aviator sunglasses add to their terminator-esque appearance. No danger of me slinging my arm around one and getting him to say 'kimchi' (Korean version of ‘cheese’). No need for drawn on beards either.

Then it was time to see a bit of North Korea from good vantage points within the DMZ, unfortunately we couldn’t see a great deal, the weather was pretty terrible. We could see the watchtowers though with North Koreans soldiers watching us through binoculars and taking photos of us. Our US soldier encouraged us to ‘return the favor’ so we entered into a strange photo-taking battle, preferable to a more traditional battle I suppose. I didn’t fare to well though; damn my small zoom. We could also just make out the North Korean flag pole through the fog. South Korea was first to erect a flagpole during the 1980s, it measures a very respectable 100 meters. North Korea soon put it to shame though in true play-ground ‘our-flags-bigger-than-yours-we’re-better-than-you’ style by erecting their own much taller flagpole which at 160 meters is the tallest in the world. Undoubtedly Kim Jong Il uses it as proof of his country’s - and more importantly his own - superiority. The man loves his propaganda so much so that he built what is known by the UN as Propaganda Village. South Korea has always had a village within the DMZ (people who live there get a nice pay off for living in one of the most dangerous places in the world with high pay for farming the land and a tax free existence) so Kim Jong Il decided he wanted one too (‘you’ve got a village! why don’t I have a village!’) so he had a village built and rigged up a powerful sound system to rant and rave about how much fun they were having and how fantastic life is under the Great Leader for up to 20 hours a day. However if you were to be convinced that the good life was indeed on the other side and manage to make it across you would be gravely disappointed to discover there
R.O.K soldier facing North KoreaR.O.K soldier facing North KoreaR.O.K soldier facing North Korea

Embodying the spirit of the US/R.O.K army DMZ slogan 'In Front of Them All'
is no one there apart from the guy who turns the lights on and off and the occasional cleaner.

We also visited the 3rd infiltration tunnel, one of the tunnels North Korea dug in an attempt to launch a surprise attack on Seoul. The tunnel is 1.6km long and finishes just 44km away from Seoul. The North Koreans claim it’s actually a coal mine but seeing as there is no coal in that area and they have just rubbed a bit on the walls it’s a pretty half-baked cover-up. They have found four so far but it’s thought there are at least ten. The tunnel itself was pretty big, although the ceiling was quite low and we needed to wear hard-hats to protect our heads. It did occur to me it was a slightly odd thing to be doing, marching down a tunnel towards North Korea; not your classic summer holiday activity.

All in all it was a very interesting day but pretty depressing too to see all the barb wire and watchtowers (not just around the DMZ but also along the coastline to avoid attacks by sea) and to think that not so long ago

US army and R.O.K soldiers in the JSA. The concrete line you can see running between the buildings is the Military Demarcation Line. The building in the background is in North Korea, you can just make out a solitary guard.
Korea was just one country. Forgetting all the politics and propaganda that the DMZ represents, the human element of forcibly separated family and friends is heart-wrenching. It seems most Koreans over a certain age are desperate for reconciliation but the vast majority of younger Koreans are against it. The older generation remember Korea as the one country it was before the war and haven’t forgotten that they are still ultimately the same people with the same language, race and culture. The younger generations have no experience of how it was and don’t want to jeopardize what they have. To paraphrase what one of the girls I teach said; ‘they’re so poor, they’re not like us, we don’t want to become like them.’ It’s sad but you can’t blame her for not wanting her poor, backward neighbour from the North bringing her country down to its knees.

After all this danger, excitement and depression we wanted to chill and do something a little more holiday-ish so after getting back from the tour we visited the Jimjilbang (Korean style sauna/spa). I was more nervous heading to the spa than I was going to the DMZ. That’s because Jimjilbang are pretty special, by special I mean that everyone is naked and getting scrubbed with brillo pads by no-nonsense dinner-lady types (Ajumas). Not my idea of fun. Anyway, because the Spa was located in an International Hotel in a touristy part of town I thought I might be spared this particular cultural experience and went with an optimistic bikini and no intention of being scoured. I put on the provided ‘uniform’ (shorts and t-shirt) that is worn in communal areas and headed through into the spa to find Paul, unfortunately all I could find was decidedly non-communal areas with not a scrap of clothing in sight, just baths full of naked strangers scrubbing each other. The place wasn’t a watered-down Jimjilbang for the sensitive foreigner as I had hoped. I went to share my horror with the guy in reception who was clearly used to annoying clothing-obsessed foreigners and motioned in another direction suggesting that that area may be communal. After getting bored of me standing around looking pathetic he went off to find Paul for me, only to come back with a grin and say ‘2 minutes.’ How very disturbing. Anyway out came Paul and told me he’d had a shower in his full Jimjilbang uniform (a bit like having a shower fully clothed) and then attempted to get in a hot tub with it still on only to be remonstrated by a member of staff and told to strip. He had bravely obeyed and got naked with the locals. Hats off. You get enough looks/stares out here whilst fully clothed and so a naked foreigner is quite an event. Apparently one old guy was mesmerized. Another group of men were sitting around naked together and drinking beer - male-bonding taken to a whole new level. I later learned that business men come to these places with clients in order to seal deals; ‘let’s get naked together and talk business,' nope I don't really see it catching on back home but I suppose it’s the ideal place to let down barriers and cultivate a ‘special’ relationship. Anyway, we finally found the communal area which was full of people in the Jimjilbang uniform making it look a little bit like a posh prison. It consisted of cave-like kiln saunas with people lying on mats on the floor and then a large open ‘recovery’ hall with sweaty people comatose on mats or drinking beer or eating noodles, all quite surreal but not really my thing; with temperatures outside well into the 30s and 75% humidity, sweating is something I can do all day everyday for free. Top marks for Korean cultural experience though, the JimJilbang is in a league of its own.

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