In 2005, the South Korean Buddhist Cheontaejong and North Korea collaborated to begin restorations at Yongtong Temple and as of June this year, an agreement was made permitting tourists to visit the area of Kaesung with the focus of visiting the sacred land. Though the tour is limited, it still has symbolic meaning as it is the only region of North Korea that South Koreans can legally visit in addition to Geumgang Mountain. The following is a report on Kaesung from the eyes of the reporter.
|▲ North Korean guides monitoring the entry of visitors to the folk inn. ⓒ the DailyNK|
Tourists not only visit the sacred land of Yongtong Temple but the Sunjukgyo located in the regions of Kaesung and the Korean Folk Museum. Visitors arrive at Yongtong Temple via a road which workers and laborers take on their way to work at Kaesung Industrial Complex. Then, tourists visit the traditional folk inn, Sunjukgyo and Korean Folk Museum.
Excluding the ruins, photography is prohibited at all times. The path to the holy land, the people and the urban area of Kaesung as well as the country scenery on the outer skirts of Kaesung may only be captured just by the eye.
There were many people clustering in groups within the city of Kaesung. Most of the people wandering on the streets wore dark colored short sleeved t-shirts and black pants. The main form of transportation is the bicycle.
The people cautiously watched the tour bus which travelled on the road to the holy land but showed very little response. Every so often, soldiers stood at attention gazing at the tour bus and the guards observed and cautioning that the no contact was to be made with the people.
However, every so often, people and children wove in a friendly manner while eyeing the guards.
On arriving at the centre of Kaesung city, I noticed that people were sitting in groups. I saw some people sitting in two’s and three’s leisurely smoking and chatting, some aged people carried bundles with difficulty, and 10 or so students attentively listening to a person that seemed like their teacher.
Complete control over contact with Kaesung citizens
Once we had just reached the outer skirts of Kaesung city, you could see hundreds of acres of fields. Here, groups of North Korean workers had been mobilized to work. There were even quite a lot of young students. Just like the children, they watched the South Korean tourists but did not wave their hand. On the whole, there are more rice paddies rather than corn and bean fields in Kaesung.
The urban areas of Kaesung was cleaner and more organized than I had expected. Propaganda slogans idolizing Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung were visible sporadically. Kim Il Song’s statue alone made it clear that this was North Korea. In addition, barbers, clothes alteration and shoe stores were located within a building for convenience as well as prominent trade names for a ‘Wedding Photo Gallery’ and ‘Hair Salon.’
All the homes around Kaesung were either one-storey or apartment blocks. However, whether the buildings were old or not, paint was peeling and some buildings even used plastic as a window shield instead of glass.
In order to go to Yongtong Temple, you must pass through Kaesung’s urban area, only then will you be permitted to enter the outer skirts and rural districts of Kaesung. The scenery outside of Kaesung was of endless fields. Though the mountains were dense with trees, there weren’t many outstanding tall trees. Rather all the trees stood at around 1m.
|▲ A statue of Kim Il Sung vaguely visible on top of a roof in the folk inns. ⓒ the DailyNK|
I felt a sort of loss, having only seen no more than 10 people while riding the tour bus that was traveling the regions of Kaesung that had been disconnected to South Korea for over half a century. Above all, I was most disappointed at the fact that I could not capture any photos of Kaesung which I had never before laid eyes on.
Two North Koreans accompany the tour as "guides" to the South Korean tourists, though these people were there to assert control over taking photos.
“The problem is South Korea’s conservative press who criticize North Korea”
Whether or not these “guides” had met many South Koreans in past, they freely took photos with the tourists without hesitation and casually socialized with the South Koreans. Further, they were the ones to open discussion on South Korean people, Kaesung Industrial Complex and the South Korean presidential election. The two guides on our bus showed quite an interest on the South Korean media.
One guide began by saying, “I cannot understand why Southern conservative media criticizes North Korea” and used this as a point to continually criticize the South Korean press. Further, the guide even named a particular reporter, expressing anger and complaints against the reporter for distorting the news.
Though you can capture some of Kaesung city through your eyes on the tour, it is difficult to capture the hearts of the people. This Kausung tour must be a “confined tour” which prohibits all contact with the people.
Visitors are prohibited from taking any photos outside the ruins and Yongtong Temple. While taking photos of the people is completed forbidden, conversation with the people whom the guides did not permit to talk is even more difficult. Even the average citizen is surely not permitted to approach us.
At the North Korean immigration office, all cameras owned by South Korean tourists are inspected. This is to regulate any photos that were taken without the guides’ permission. Any photo that is not of the ruins or remains is deleted.
One tourist said, “I took a few photos of North Korean transportation because it was so interesting. I was rather surprised when a North Korean official made an issue of this and made me delete the photos.” If any photos are taken without consent, the camera is confiscated and the person fined $100.
The 500 or so visitors to the Yongtong Temple all carried one or two souvenir bags. There are more than 2 souvenir stores at both the folk village and Korean Folk Museum which sells special gifts such as Kaesung ginseng, alcohol and other special products.
These two stores displayed goods produced at Kaesung including alcohol, honey, medicinal herbs, ginseng, fans, stamps, stamps and books. In particular, the books were on Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il propaganda, and others beautifully decorated idolizing the two people. They had also been published in English. An expensive book would set you back about $100, though on average, the books cost $10~$50.
There is only one reason why North Korean authorities strictly regulate contact with the people and capturing of photos. It is to do with money. This was clearly evident throughout the whole Kaesung tour.
The Kaesung tour costs 160,000 won (around USD 172) per person. When you calculate the tour costs of 500 or so people and the average amount of money they spend purchasing souvenirs, North Korea can earn more than $100,000 through one Kaesung tour.
My heart raced as I visited Kaesung in person, a place I had only known on the map. It was probably because of my high expectations and excitement, however, my expectations were greatly disappointed. On the tour, I merely saw scenery and was unable to meet any people. I wonder how much longer it will be until the North Korean regimes continues to enforce control and venture on this dangerous ride of foreign money.