Stepping out to the observation deck of the Odusan Unification Observatory, for the first time in my life, my eyes settled on the far bank of the Imjin river and the distant buildings and vague shapes carved into the landscape created by the paths weaving their way between the fields of the Gwan San peninsula, North Hwanghae province. This was the first time I have ever had the chance to look at the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Kim Il Sung Memorial Hall
On the 9th of October 2018, I found a spare day to travel north of Seoul to the Udosan Unification Observatory overlooking the northern limit line between the two Koreas. The observatory is positioned on the banks of the Imjin and Han rivers as they intersect and across the river is a small farming village on the North Korean Gwan San Peninsula. Peering through the binoculars, I finally got to see everything i’ve been reading about and studying for years. First, my eye was caught by the marble pillar signifying the Kim Il Sung memorial hall, a building devoted to studying the Juche idea and Kim Il Sung’s theory. Behind it, the cultural centre of the village which sees use as a meeting place and centre of the village. Information in the observatory explains that after the death of the Eternal General Secretary Kim Jong Il in 2011, large numbers of people were seen entering the hall. Peppered across the landscape were the single and double story buildings constructed in the latter half of the 20th century. The buildings fell away as my eyes approached the bank, large areas of farmland surrounding the thrashing centre where the crops are thrashed before being transported onwards. The part which intrigued me most however, were the people. My years of studying the economy, politics, culture and social situation in the DPRK did little to prepare me for seeing people through those binoculars who seemed, remarkably normal. I followed a pair of gentlemen who finished their work in the field, one hopped on his bike while his friend walked alongside carrying a large bag. I couldn’t help but feel like this was some kind of human safari that I was partaking in, but I couldn’t look away as I watched the two men disappear behind the buildings and my attention shifted to a red tractor heading into the field.
Gwan San peninsula as seen from the observatory
North and South Hwanghae provinces consist of arable land which is rare in the rest of the mountainous country. It was clear that every inch of land, right up to the northern limit line was in use as farmland. The only divide between the farmland and the river that I could see clearly was the prevalence of military outposts, used to monitor the border from the north. Whilst this section of border is not especially contentious, only a few kilometres east of my position was Panmunjom. Panmunjom is famously the site of the Joint Security Area, where iconic blue conference buildings straddle the demarcation line between the DPRK and ROK. Despite the brumous day, I could make out the faint outline of Kjong-dong, an empty town sitting on the northern side of the demarcation line in which a huge flagpole was constructed a few years ago to rival a similarly huge flagpole on the southern side.
Map demonstrating the topography of the region, the distance between the countries
I was struck how, only 40km north of one of the largest cities in the world, everything seemed so tranquil, despite the inherent danger of the area. Picking out details on the far bank made it clear that the people inhabiting this hermetic state were, in essence, just people. A local primary school was pointed out by a map of the village in the observatory building and as I scanned the horizon towards Amsil, another small town in the DPRK, smoke was rising from a bonfire lit in one of the fields by the river bank.
I hope and plan to visit different points along the border in the near future, and of course one day visit the DPRK. However this visit will always hold a significant place in my memories as the first time I laid eyes on the country that has been at the forefront of my conscious thoughts for more than half decade.
I made a short video of my trip for the benefit of friends and family which you can find here:
Me at the border!