Donald Trump’s crossing of the 38th Parallel into North Korea was a ten out of ten for symbolism. It was wonderful television and an outstanding PR move by the US President and the North Korean Leader, Kim Jun Un. The event took me back almost 30 years to my own crossing of the famous ceasefire line which also generated little of substance.
My drinking buddies in the bar of Pyongyang’s Koryo Hotel turned out to be Soviet engineers. They were in North Korea in search of a suitable location for a nuclear power station, promised years earlier by Moscow to its fraternal neighbor.
As drinks were taken, the truth emerged. The offer of a power plant, Moscow later realized, had been rash. Making nuclear technology available to Pyongyang would be a mistake. The engineers were now on a secret mission ‘not’ to find a suitable location for a plant, “but please don’t tell anyone”. Unlikely alliances form in the fantastic world of North Korea where nothing is as it seems.
Outside of the hotel a police officer, baton in hand, pirouettes as she directed nonexistent traffic. The few vehicles that do pass are badged Pyongyang 2s, produced by the country’s nonexistent motor industry. In truth they are Mercedes bought with hard currency flowing from a clandestine sanctions busting oil and arms trade with Iraq.
For our small band of Beijing based correspondents, this was a rare, choreographed, highly controlled and, at times, humorous visit to this socialist Wonderland. Over the course of a week, we took in a Museum of American Atrocities, a shabby mockup of a “typical” collective farm and a crowded Catholic Church service – this in a country where only religion tolerated is the Kim family’s carefully orchestrated cult of leadership.
The highlight for me was a recently discovered tree in which Kim Il Sung had apparently carved his initials during the war with Japan. Over the decades, bark had covered the carving. Now it could only be seen under some kind of infrared light. This, of course, begged the question, how was it found in the first place.
In short, this was all an audacious but clumsy attempt to score propaganda points over the South by convincing us that North Korea was not the brutal, totalitarian dictatorship it was made out to be. Our young, Western educated minder was a sporty type who spoke perfect English with an American accent. He was always up for a frank, open and agreeable chat. And, was just too good to be real.
Our visit in August of 1989, had been timed to coincide with North – South crossing of the heavily militarized frontier dividing the Korea’s by a 21-year-old South Korean student named Lim Su-Kyung. Accompanied by Father Moon Kyu Hyun, Lim had made her way to Pyongyang via East Germany without the permission of the South Korean government.
Lim wanted to demonstrate the Korean people’s desire for reunification under the great leadership of Kim Il Sung. The promise of this naïve political stunt made her a sensation of rock star proportions – daily television appearances, visits to schools, memorials, factories and of course, the fake church service.
Her departure south towards the Demilitarized Zone was marked by a massive, made to order, rally in Pyongyang’s huge Kim Il Sung Square with tens of thousands of cheering, flag waving fans in brightly colored national dress. Totally isolated from the outside world, these supporters seemed genuinely free of cynicism.
The train journey to Kaesong City not far from the DMZ, involved a stop at every station; more flag waving, singing crowds of what seemed to be true believers. A highly emotional Lim was in tears for much of the way prompting my journalist colleagues to speculate that she had been drugged.
We travelled the final 10 kilometers from Kaesong to the frontier by motorcade. Lim’s open topped limousine, it was said, once belonged to Joseph Stalin. Near hysterical crowds lined the route to hear the young student chant “Korea is one” and “Unite the country”.
The famous truce village at Panmunjom itself was austere. No cheering well-wishers here; only severe Communist soldiers in baggy cotton uniforms, a friendly group of Swedish truce monitors and an unlikely army of North Korean television technicians. The young student’s crossing into the South, a truly history making event, was to be the first ever live broadcast to the people of the North.
On the Southern side of the 38th parallel, identified by a metal strip set into the ground, stood a pagoda like structure used as a filming platform by Western and South Korean news crews. Our activities were no doubt observed by our peers across the line which made me feel a little uncomfortable. Were they perhaps judging us? Did they look upon us as kind of sympathizers? Were we guilty by association with the regime?
The day was a long one with Lim not making her move until well into the afternoon. Eventually, she emerged from a stout Northern administrative building, declared herself “willing to die”, shed more tears and then walked between the blue colored huts that straddle the 38th parallel.
At that moment and acting on impulse as Donald Trump would 30 years later, I joined Lim as she cross the line that divides the Korean Peninsula and the Cold War world.
Together we continued on, passed the crowded pagoda and into an empty carpark well inside the southern zone. There we were stopped by an officer commanding a squad of South Korean soldiers. As his men bundled Lim into the back of a waiting army truck, I was ordered to “go back to where I came from”. I turned and for the second time in a matter of minutes I again crossed the 38th parallel, this time returning to North Korea.
Leaving Pyongyang and returning home to Beijing was like crawling out of Alice’s rabbit hole. China sudden seemed so open, cosmopolitan, sophisticated, normal, alive compared to North Korea where I had watched elderly women building roads one cricket ball sized rock at a time.
While there were no consequences attached to my adventure at the DMZ, Lim Su Kyung’s “symbolic gesture” earned her a treason conviction and a five-year prison sentence. Donald Trump’s more recent and spectacular departure from the script was also symbolic but it carried with it some hope of progress on the Korean Peninsula and perhaps a better life for the long-suffering people of the North.