Monthly Archives: September 2012

A tourist description of the Korean Demilitarized Zone or DMZ

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After meeting up in Seoul with a tour group, we traveled North along the Han River on the recently constructed Freedom Highway. Looking out of the window I could see that the side of the river was lined with barbed wire and there were military posts every few hundred meters. Some with soldiers in them and some, interestingly, with cardboard cut-outs of military personnel in them, to give the impression of them being manned.

The tour began at Injingak Park, which is located just south of the DMZ, some 50 km north of Seoul. This is the furthest point north that civilians can go without permission and was built in 1972 in the hope that one day, Korea would become reunified and reconcile those who were separated from their families in North Korea.

The main building is the North Korean Hall and there are exhibits and photos here relating to life in North Korea, its politics and history. Standing opposite this is Mangbaedan, a large granite and marble altar constructed by the government. It is a place where people who cannot visit their homes and families in North Korea can gather, to perform ancestral rites on holidays at New Year and Chuseok.

Lying just beyond this is the Freedom Bridge. It gained its name from events during the ceasefire between North and South Korea in 1953 when a total of 12,773 South Korean prisoners of war crossed it, when they returned from the North. The end of the bridge is blocked by a fence and surrounded by barbed wire entanglements. People come here to pray and leave messages for a unified peninsula and peace between the two nations.

There is also an open air museum here with planes and tanks from the Korean War, as well as memorials dedicated to those who lost their lives fighting.

After looking around Imjingak, we then boarded a bus with other tour groups and headed into the DMZ. We then crossed the Imjin River over the Unification Bridge which was constructed in 1998 to replace the Freedom Bridge, previously the only entrance point into the DMZ. Along the way we were forced to slow down because of the huge metal tank barriers which the bus had to snake in and out of, like a skier going down a mountain slalom.

We then passed through a checkpoint where our passports were looked at by South Korean soldiers and we were warned not to take photographs for security reasons. Out of the window, I noticed signs explaining the danger of landmines in the area.

Once through the civilian checkpoint, we passed an army barracks where there were South Korean soldiers playing basketball and football, before we finally arrived at the Third Infiltration Tunnel. This was discovered on Oct. 17, 1978, after the South Korean government was informed of its existence by a North Korean defector. One of four tunnels discovered in the 1970’s, it is believed that there may be as many as 20 in all constructed by the North as part of an invasion strategy. Situated some 73 meters below the surface, the Third Infiltration Tunnel is 1,635 meters long, and averages two meters in height and diameter. It is the nearest of the tunnels located to Seoul, and would allow a total of 30,000 troops to pass through it an hour.

Before descending into the tunnel we had to put on hard hats, and then we walked down a 400 meter decline which intersected with the tunnel. Upon entering, it was possible to walk into it another 400 meters, to where the edge of the DMZ exists above ground.

Upon returning to the surface, we boarded the bus once again and headed to Dorasan Observatory, which sits atop a small mountain overlooking the DMZ. From here it is possible to view the North Korean propaganda village Gijong in the DMZ and see even as far as the city of Gaeseong, North Korea’s second largest city.

Gijong was built as a tool to show the prosperity of North Korea to those living in the South and until recently also broadcast North Korean propaganda through the huge speakers installed there. Strangely, no one lives there, only soldiers are present. The streets are empty. There are no cars or people. At night lights come on in the buildings, yet no one is in the buildings.

It is also home to what is believed to be the world’s largest flagpole at 160 metres. Displaying the North Korean flag, it was built in response to the South Korean government erecting a 100 meter tall flagpole in the nearby village of Daesong in 1981.

After a short time we then all got back on board the bus for our final destination, Dorasan Station. Dorasan Station is a place which provides hope for the future but also shows the reality of the divide that exists today. It lies on a track known as the Gyeongui Line, which is slowly being repaired after a summit between the two Koreas in 2000. It is the northernmost station in South Korea and it is hoped that one day it will eventually provide a connection with the North and the rest of Asia. Presently, three trains arrive here from Seoul each day and it doesn’t currently serve much more real purpose than this, apart from providing people with tangible hope that things will one day change.

A South Korean soldier on duty stood in front of a ticket barrier, just below a sign that points the way for the track to North Korea’s capital Pyongyang. He had little to do except pose with tourists eager for a photograph. As bands of happy, smiling snappers stood beside him to have their photos taken, he remained motionless throughout with a cold icy stare.

On the bus heading home I had time to reflect on everything that I had seen throughout the day. One of the last remnants of the Cold War which still exist today, it’s a place of intense emotion that seems a world away from the comfort zone of my apartment in Seoul, an unbelievably short distance away. It really puts in perspective much of the sadness that Korea has experienced throughout its turbulent history and the tragedies and hardships that people have had to endure here.

Maybe, just maybe, Dorasan Station will one day not just be the last stop on a railway line at the border of North and South Korea, or somewhere people visit on a tour looking for something that little bit different, but a place where families are finally reunited after years of separation.

[Excerpt from article by Stephen M. Little, The Seoul Times]

Why is North Korea holding a parliamentary session this month?

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North Korea will hold an unusual second session of parliament on September 25, state-run media reported on Wednesday, amid signals that the country under new leader Kim Jong-un is preparing to approve laws which can support economic reform programs.

The North’s parliament normally meets annually to adopt the state budget, approve important appointments and amendments, and to make formal announcements. The parliament last met in April. During the seventeen years Kim Jong-il was in power, the Supreme People’s Assembly held double sessions only twice, in 2003 and 2010.

“The unusual gathering of the Supreme People’s Assembly means there is a decision to be made through consent from all the citizens,” Chang Yong-suk, a researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies of Seoul National University, told the Yonhap news agency. “Economic reform measures or reshuffling power groups like the National Defense Commission could possibly be [such decisions].”

North Korea rolling out agricultural policy changes

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Several media outlets that employ North Korean defectors, including Washington-based Radio Free Asia, have reported that Pyongyang is rolling out agricultural policy changes that mark a significant break from the state-controlled economy.

Those measures, according to the reports, reduce the size of cooperative farm units from between 10 and 25 farmers to between four and six. The decrease is critical because it allows one or two households, not entire communities, to plan and tend to their own farms. Farmers still must hit production quotas, but they can keep 30 percent of their crops, up from less than 10 percent. They can sell the rest to the government at market prices, not state-fixed prices, and they can keep (and sell privately) anything exceeding the quota.

The changes do not apply to the entire country; they have been introduced in three rural provinces and took effect in July, according to reports.

It remains unclear what is driving the government to allow farmers more personal control. The North could be trying to wring more production from its farmers “out of necessity, not out of virtue,” because its centrally planned rationing system is broken, said Victor Cha, a former White House director of Asian affairs. If and when the North’s food shortages ease, he said, the country is likely to retreat.

“Having said that, the more time they have to do this and let the economy function on its own, the better off we all are,” Cha said. “You can say to farmers, ‘Okay, for six months, you can keep 30 percent,’ but the more times you do this, the harder it will be to pull back.”

Few foreign government officials or scholars on North Korea expect a big-bang economic makeover or official announcements about reform.

Kim Jong Un has shifted North Korean rhetoric to emphasize the economy rather than the military

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The Washington Post emphasizes that North Korea, under Kim Jong Un, has shifted its rhetoric to emphasize the economy rather than the military, and is introducing small-scale agricultural reforms with tantalizing elements of capitalism, according to diplomats and defector groups with informants in the North.

The changes, which allow farmers to keep more of their crops and sell surpluses in the private market, are in the experimental stage and are easily reversible, analysts caution. But even skeptical North Korea watchers say that Kim’s emerging policies and style — and his frank acknowledgment of the country’s economic problems — hint at an economic opening similar to China’s in the late 1970s.

Analysts and outside government officials say it depends on the ambitions of its 20-something supreme leader, who can either bring his destitute country out of isolation or keep it there, figuring it too risky to loosen state controls.

Analysts emphasize that it could take years for a clear answer, but they point to early indications that Kim is willing to run the country differently than his father, who died eight months ago.  It is not known whether the Swiss-educated Kim has a worldview different from that of his dour and militant father.

Typhoon Bolaven leaves thousands homeless in North Korea

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Typhoon Bolaven, one of the most powerful storms to strike the Korean Peninsula in recent years, made landfall in North Korea on late Tuesday with torrential rains and maximum sustained winds of 90 kilometers (55.9 miles) per hour and gusts up to 129.6 kilometers (80 miles) per hour, according to Choe Tong Hwan, the director of the North Korean Hydro-meteorological Management Office in North Hwanghae province.

The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said at least three people were killed and around 110 public and factory buildings were destroyed. The typhoon, which weakened quickly after making landfall, also destroyed more than 490 houses in Paekam County of Ryanggang province and 100 in Sinpho City of South Hamgyong province. More than 3,300 people were left homeless by the destruction, KCNA reported.

North Korea has been hit hard by floods this year, killing hundreds of people and leaving nearly a quarter of a million people homeless. Tropical storm Khanun hit in July and was followed by torrential rains just days later, killing at least 169 people and leaving more than 400 others missing. Torrential rains hit the impoverished nation again between August 17 and August 20, killing six people and destroying hundreds of buildings.

North Korea signs technology agreement with Iran

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Iran and North Korea signed a scientific and technological cooperation agreement Saturday, bringing two nations deeply at odds with the U.S. closer together.

Iranian state TV did not provide further details on the document but said it will include setting up joint scientific and technological laboratories, exchange of scientific teams between the two countries and transfer of technology in the fields of information technology, energy, environment, agriculture and food.

Any technical accord between Pyongyang and Tehran is likely to raise suspicions in the West. The U.S. has repeatedly accused North Korea of providing Iran with advanced missiles capable of targeting Western European capitals.

Last year, Iran denied a U.N. panel report saying that North Korea and Iran appear to have been regularly exchanging ballistic missiles, components and technology in violation of U.N. sanctions.

Iran’s state TV said the agreement was signed in Tehran in the presence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and, by Iran’s Minister of Science, Research and Technology Kamran Daneshjoo and North Korea’s Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told North Korea’s No. 2, Kim Yong Nam, that North Korea and Iran have “common enemies.”

“Arrogant powers don’t tolerate independent governments,” Khamenei told Kim. “In the march towards great goals, one should be serious, and pressures, sanctions and threats should not cause any crack in (our) determination.”