On the 5th of December I travelled north of Seoul to Odusan on the Northern Limit Line between the Democratic People’s of Korea and the Republic of Korea for the second time. Last time I visited was a national holiday, Hangul proclamation day. I now see in retrospect how busy it was that day, limiting my time looking across the river through the binoculars to the Gwan San peninsula. It was a clear day, the previous trip had been rather brumous and so I was able to pick out more detail on the opposite bank. One of the notable sights visible through the binoculars was the flagpole in the distance at Kijong-dong near Panmunjom which was shrouded in mist during my previous visit.
Kijong-dong in the distance
Last time I spent my visit observing a mid-afternoon scene on the opposite side of the Imjin river. A few farmers dotted around, a few cyclists and a tractor. It was not a great revelation to me, nor was it a particularly exciting scene to observe; however it triggered a very basic human response in me, a person who has been studying this country for years now from a very objective perspective. I was aware of what I was looking at from a theoretical standpoint. I recognised the building designs, the work being done by farmers, the monument to Kim Il Sung and the different significant village buildings all from studying the culture and society of this country. But seeing actual people, in real time, in real life meant for the first time I was seeing a world up close for the first time, a world that had always seemed so far away. Seeing people talking with friends or cycling from home to work and realising that they lived in this world that was so different and unique in so many ways yet in the most basic ways was very similar to all of our lives outside the DPRK.
The village on the riverbank
This time the tower was almost empty of tourists, save for a kindergarten field trip and a few elderly Chinese tourists. When I headed up to the observation deck it was silent, the flag of the Republic of Korea flapping in the wind behind me. I got the chance to spend much longer at the binoculars inspecting every inch of the peninsula opposite me, and this time it was a mid-morning scene. There were large groups of people moving from the residential areas of the village down towards the fields, a few cyclists and even a motorbike which drove up a hillside path, slowing only briefly as a group of people (who didn’t appear to notice it at first) got out of the way. The motorcyclist then disappeared round a bend. These little things are the things we share with the people on the other side of this border. Most poignant to me however, was witnessing something to which I could very much relate – the school sports session. The elementary school is clearly visible from the unification tower with a large red and white banner adorning the entrance. As I scanned the distant village, I saw large groups of people coming out of the building dressed in red and blue. At first I was unsure what I was watching but they then began to do laps of their sports field, later splitting into two groups and starting sports drills of some kind – most likely football (soccer) given it’s popularity in the country. Whilst it may be a mundane thing to notice, it was a significant moment for me because that was something I can relate to. I felt sure that over on the other side of this border, there were a few kids who were freezing half to death in the cold December weather and just wanted to go back inside. And that was the moment that I could truly relate to at least one small aspect of their lives, because no matter where you live, no matter the country, there are some aspects of life which are universal and relatable.
Sports day at the elementary school?
After some kind of match, the children entered the building again and my attention returned to watching every day life. A few friends meeting near the culture hall and one of them pushing another one down a hill and running off. The people who live in the country may live in a different country and a mysterious country. A place where little is known about the intricate details of the lives its citizens, but what is important is maintaining our understanding that at a basic primal level they are normal everyday people. As diplomatic negotiations continue between the two Koreas it is more important now than ever before that we discard this tacit belief that the North Koreans are a fundamentally different people to their southern counterparts It is vital that we begin to understand that they are the same people and they are just like the rest of us. People are people; no matter where you go.
Kim Il Sung Memorial Hall