Andrew Harmon



My Trip to North and South Korea
By Madeline Shikomba

On August 19, 2011, I departed the United States for a trip that would include visits to South Korea and North Korea. Despite a bad start — a delayed flight and lost luggage, the trip was great. I spent eight days in South Korea and eight days in North Korea. Booking the tour to South Korea was difficult, as there are very few travel agencies offering tours to South Korea. As a single, African-American senior citizen, I found the tours to be pricey; not because I was African-American, but because I was traveling as “a single”.

The trip to North Korea was easier to book. Global Exchange, a reality tour group based in San Francisco, sponsored the trip. I have travelled with them many times. Their tours are excellent and allow one to meet and talk with various indigenous groups, individuals, businessmen, political activists and, sometimes, politicians. I have travelled with eGlobal Exchange to Iran, Northern Ireland, Syria, Lebanon, Uganda, Cuba, Venezuela and many other places. If you are really looking to learn more about a country and to get an in depth experience, as well as another perspective about what is going on, other than that which is propagandized by the US corporate media, Global Exchange is the best choice of tour groups.

I stayed in a hotel in the Itaewon district of South Korea. It is a tourist haven—a variety of shops, hotels and restaurants. In North Korea, I was housed at the Yanggakdo International Hotel that is situated on a small island; there is nowhere to go and nothing to do. This is a forty story building built exclusively for foreigners. I met many people from all over the world — including other Americans. The hotel was practically full. There is a great deal of interest about North Korea as seen by the number of people at this hotel.

There were marked differences between the two countries. I had complete freedom of movement in South Korea. I travelled alone by train from Seoul to Gyeonggju where a driver picked me up at the station and took me to my first tour sight, the Bulguksa Temple, where I met my tour guide. My historical and cultural tour of Korea had begun. Over the next seven days I had several guide who were all proficient in English. The North Korean guides, Mr. Kim and Mr. Cha, stayed with us throughout our tour. We were instructed to take pictures only when permitted. We could not take pictures of military installations, personnel, trucks, or convoys; nor could we take close up pictures of people without their permission. This was understandable and is a common practice in many countries. Most North Koreans were shy and didn’t want their pictures taken.

In Gyeognggju, as in other cities, I joined other Americans and English-speaking individuals that were on tour. In Gyeognggju, Bussan and Seoul I visited many historical sites, including Cheomseongdae Astronomical Observatory, Royal Tumuli Park, Gyeognggju National Museum, Busan Tower, Jagalchi Fishery Market, Nampodong Shopping Street, UN Memorial Cemetery, The Korean Folk Village, Gyeongbok Palace, and the Folklore Museum. The Korean Folk Village and the Folklore Museum were the most interesting and I really enjoyed them.

The guide, and my fellow travelers, in both countries, was surprised at my knowledge of Korean history and culture. Thank goodness for the Korean dramas on Philadelphia’s television station Channel 35. I watch them religiously, which is one of the reasons I wanted to go to Korea. The dramas are very good and much better than most of the junk currently seen on television. I have been watching them for over five years and have learned a few Korean words.

Among the historical and cultural sites visited in North Korea was Mangyongdae (birth place of Kim Il Sung), Bongsu Church (Christian Church), Tower of Juche Idea, the American spy ship, “Pueblo”, a cooperative farm, Victorious Fatherland and Liberation War Museum and the tomb of Dong Myong King. We went to Guryong Waterfall, but, unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the waterfall because my legs couldn’t take the climb. I went halfway and turned around; however, I enjoyed the gift museum. It was amazing to see all of the gifts sent by various heads of states, wealthy businessmen, dignitaries and groups to President Kim Il Sung and his son. Among the gifts were luxury cars, furniture, and musical instruments — just to name a few. It was quite impressive.

In both Koreas, the cultural sites are restored or are in the process of being restored. The Japanese either destroyed most of the original buildings during their occupation or they were destroyed during the wars. There are several UNESCO world cultural sites in both areas; most are within North Korea, but both sides are trying to preserve their cultural heritage.

I visited the DMZ on both sides. The South Korean side of the DMZ was heavily guarded and we were restricted in what we could do and see. I was taken down one of four tunnels built under the DMZ by North Korea. Picture taking was extremely limited. We were forbidden from taking pictures in the tunnel or in the room where the two sides had met. We were not allowed to converse with any of the soldiers.

The visit to the DMZ on the North Korean side was just the opposite. We were allowed to take pictures freely. Cameras from the South Korean side could be easily seen. Our pictures are probably on their security camera tape. We conversed freely with the North Korean military personnel at the DMZ as they were very friendly and joined us for a cup of coffee. They talked about reunification and peace. It was the highlight of my trip. The chance of reunification is a dream and is not likely to happen in this lifetime. Kim IL Sung (KIS) and his son’s ideas differ greatly from that of the South. The Kims propose two separate autonomous states held together by an ineffective national government, while South Korea wants a strong federal type of government.

I was free to take unlimited pictures in South Korea and I had many opportunities to speak with some Koreans that I met who spoke limited English. As I stated before, South Koreans were very open. The young people dressed similarly to the young people in the states. Their skirts and dresses were extremely short and they wore shorts and pants. I didn’t notice the men wearing shorts, but they were wearing the latest fashions; however, I didn’t see anyone in South Korea wearing a traditional hanbok.

In stark contrast to South Korea, North Korean men and women dressed very conservatively. Women wore mostly skirts, dresses, or trousers of modest length. Men, for the most part, wore shirts and ties and I noticed that a few were in suits. All were modestly dressed—no shorts or mini skirts. Their clothing was generally dark — blues, browns, light color beiges — nothing bright or colorful. The traditional hanbok can be more readily seen in North Korea than in South Korea. I learned that hanboks are only worn on special occasions and are not for everyday wear. The only women I saw wearing them everyday were museum tour guides. We were told that hanboks are theirs work uniform. They are extremely beautiful and very colorful.

In South Korea, there are numerous restaurants and an abundance of fast food places. Kimchi, the national food, is served everywhere. I ate it sparingly, not because it wasn’t good, but, because it was too spicy for me and spicey foods tend to upset my stomach. Kimchi has a nice taste so I ate it, occasionally, by mixing it with rice. Many Korean dishes are spicy, so I had to be careful. Malls, shopping centers, department stores, huge office buildings and complexes abound in South Korea and it houses the world’s largest department store, Shinsegae. There were some fast food places in North Korea and all were government-controlled. The owners are basically employees of the state. In Pyongyang, there were a few malls; no large department stores, office buildings or complexes. Nearly all of the huge building structures were hotels or residential/apartment complexes. Most businesses seemed to occupy the first floor and none of them occupied an entire structure. Kimchi was plentiful and it tasted different from that of South Korea.

I rode the subway in both countries. The South Korean subway system is very good having modern trains and several subway lines. In contrast, North Korea’s subway system is archaic; having much older trains, only two lines and appears to be non-existent in the rural areas. Most people rely on walking, bicycling, or hitchhiking.

Many South Koreans are Christians and Koreans divide them into two groups — Catholics and Protestants. This took me aback because I thought they all were Christians. I didn’t visit a church while in South Korea. In North Korea, the practice of religion is permitted; however, it is state-controlled. We visited Bongsu Christian Church in North Korea but no denomination was mentioned. It was a beautiful church in a nice government building. The choir wore beautiful hanboks, as well as the female congregants. The men were dressed in shirt and tie or suits. I felt as if I was watching a stage production rather than a genuine service. We also went to Buddhist a temple where we saw a few monks. Buddhist monks are allowed to marry and have children. There were no mosques.

Kim Il Sung’s image is everywhere. Every household and every building that we visited had his and his son’s pictures on the walls. Huge statues of Kim Il Sung are all over the country. When visiting his memorial where he lies in state, everyone (visitors and Koreans) must bow three times —once on the right side of his body, once on the left side of his body and at his feet. Also, you must bow before his statue in the gift museum. His images are everywhere! In photos that he took with groups of people (workers, children, citizens), they are always smiling and singing the praises of Kim Il Song, The “Il” in his name means “son”. “Kim Il Sung” is considered the “Son of the Nation” and “Kim Jong Il”, the “Right Son.” North Koreans are attempting to spread Sung’s philosophy of “Juche” around the world. We visited the Tower of Juche where plaques praising “Juche” were displayed on the wall. They were presented to Kim Il Sung by organizations from around the world. In essence, this philosophy states that ”Man is his own destiny” and stresses self-reliance.

One of the most beautiful events to see was Arirang, aka the Mass Games, that is held annually. This year it was from August 1st to October 10th. The performance recounted Korea’s history from the Japanese occupation to the present day, glorifying the economic achievements of Kim Il Sung and his son. Men, women and children of all ages perform and at least 100,000 people participate in this event. Nearly 30,000 children create huge mosaic pictures by holding up colored cards. It’s amazing to see how they constantly change the scenes using these cards. Traditional dances and gymnastic events are performed and are well choreographed. It’s an extremely colorful and well-coordinated event.

I enjoyed my trip very much and learned a great deal. Some of my views regarding both countries have been changed. I think I now have a more positive perspective and a greater knowledge about South and North Korea.



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