American visits Kumgang

From the Korea Times:

Rising dramatically from the East Sea, Mt. Kumgang _ about 20 miles (32 km) north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in North Korea _ is considered by most to be the most scenic area on the Korean Peninsula. The Japanese colonists even built a direct railway line to the area for sightseeing.

I didn’t comprehend the gravity of my excursion to Mt. Kumgang with my colleagues until the South Korean military escort pulled off the side of the road for our caravan of buses at the south end of the DMZ. We crossed the four-kilometer desolate and barbed-wire covered expanse, and picked up the North Korean military escort on the other side. As we approached North Korean immigration, a soldier goose-stepped into the road in front of the bus and held out a red flag to signal the buses to stop.

Upon entering North Korea the stark change in landscape was surprising. Unique clusters of rock formations rose up from flat, treeless, sandy plains. Looming dramatically and endlessly in the distance was the epitome of all Asian mountain images _ Mt. Kumgang.

But other changes were evident, too. The area was quite rural, with small, weathered clusters of traditional Korean homes that may in fact have been quite old. Instead of cars, there were pedestrians on dusty trails, bicycles instead of motorbikes and horse-pulled carts instead of trucks.

Citizens worked the fields with their bare hands and oxen pulled plows. My immigration stamp said “Choson,’’ the name by which North Korea refers to itself and the name of the Korean Kingdom that ruled the peninsula from 1392 until 1910. I had in fact stepped back to that time.

More striking still was the abundance of North Korean soldiers _ along the road, in the farm fields and on the sides of hills. They were stationed at every road and dirt path intersecting the tourist road, which was entirely separated from the rest of the world by continuous fences. Checkpoints were everywhere, both along our road and the ordinary North Korean roads.

The North Korean hotel and park workers were shy, modest, and polite with noticeably different accents and intonation. They often gazed at me innocently, with curiosity about the presence of a Caucasian American. In one conversation a woman who knew surprisingly little about other places in North Korea mentioned that it was her dream to go to Pyongyang.

“Why haven’t you been there?” my colleague asked.

She responded with three reasons: not enough money to travel; poor conditions of transportation making it a difficult journey; and difficulty in acquiring permission to travel.

Despite her having one of the more coveted jobs in North Korea, the 200-kilometer journey from Mt. Kumgang to Pyongyang was fundamentally impossible.



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