In a day of downtime between presentations and discussions, my friend and host Gyoung-Youl Jeong arranged for me to take a trip to the Odu Mountain Unification Observatory on the edge of the Imjin River. From a vantage point 118 meters above sea level, I could look across the river to North Korea, some 3200 meters away. This is the northernmost point of the “Western front line” of the divided peninsula.
As luck would have it, my visit came on a cool, wet, very foggy day, so visibility was extremely limited. Standing outside the observatory on a platform with telescopes to aid viewing, my translator Grace Sungjeun Liu and I stared across the river, dimly making out the outline of buildings nestled along a hillside rolling back from the water’s edge. Armed only with a Canon G9, I racked out the lens to maximum focal length in hopes of capturing some image that would help me preserve a memory of the experience.
Oddly, even though the density of the mist-laden fog and heavy cloud cover frustrated any hope of a clear image, I felt it was fitting as a metaphor for the difficulty of seeing clearly into North Korea and examining the real life of its citizens.
Within the observatory, dedicated to the memory of the 10 million Koreans displaced by the fighting between 1950-1953, a number of rooms contain exhibits portraying various aspects of North Korean life. Ironically, various North Korean products, foodstuffs, and alcoholic beverages are also sold in a museum shop providing some hard currency back to North Korea and could be viewed as an attempt to bridge the economic and political divide.
Mostly, the exhibits suggest clearly the gulf of contradiction about life for ordinary citizens in the closed country shaped by Kim Il Sung, the “Great Leader”, and his son Kim Jong-Il, the “Dear Leader”, and the view presented to the outside world through propaganda, such as public ceremonies that resemble Busby Berkeley musicals on steroids.
I found the front page of the Pyongyang daily newspaper instructive too as evidence of state control on the media message being delivered for local consumption. No doubt about where the publisher’s allegiance and priorities lay, based on the play of the front page photo.
It was equally fascinating to hear from a guide there that the village across the river was actually a “Potemkin village”, built to show the power and benefits of the North Korean economy to those living in the Republic of Korea and that in point of fact, any signs of life in the daytime were actually North Korean “actors” who then vacated the area. After hearing that story, I turned to look southward at a cluster of high-rise buildings, including a hotel, in the valley below the Observatory and wondered how that scene might be perceived by those actors looking south.
The overall impression was one of frozen time and an implacable dueling of propaganda messages created by very different economies and governments on a split peninsula. While some Koreans I spoke with take a long view and express cautious optimism about the eventual possibility of a reunification similar to that experienced by Germany when the Berlin Wall fell, it is hard to see the basis for such a development now. Instead, we see opacity, and bellicose gestures undertaken by the North Korean regime as responses to “provocations”, while much of the rest of the world sees the threat of nuclear proliferation and nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists as a danger from North Korea’s actions.