“So what exactly is going to happen tomorrow (August 15) at Panmunjom?” I had asked Peter Woods, one of the invited Australian delegation members, attending the 조선해방70돐경축 국제련대성해사 [International Solidarity Event in Celebration of the 70th Anniversary of Korea’s Liberation]. He looked at me with some incredulity, and replied proudly in a long drawn out accent, “Well, we’re gonna be part of a demonstration for the reunification of Korea.”
“So, it’s not some lame tour?”
“Nahhh..,” he stated, “ it’ll be a full-on flag waving, shouting match.”
Christ! I thought, clenching my teeth.
Earlier that afternoon, after my exhibition, we had joined a solidarity march for one kilometer from the Juche tower to the Central Youth Hall. I was participating out of interest and respect for my hosts. There were several people in the march, including foreigners. Leading the march was a glorious female pipe band, dressed in white fitting uniforms.
It was late in the afternoon before sunset. The air was hot and thick. An orange glow radiated the street. As we marched (which was more like a casual stroll) crowds lined the streets chanting us on, “UNIFICATION, UNIFICATION, UNIFICATION, 통일…통일…통일…!”
It seemed a long time before we got to the Central Youth Hall, where our entourage was led inside to witness an hour of artistic performances from young musicians and dancers. Members of the audience were invited to dance as well, and that’s when I felt someone grab my arm and I turned to see chairman Pak, “Come on comrade Roger, we must dance too,” he implied. I reluctantly let myself be dragged into the swirling crowd of dancers where my hand was quickly taken by some young woman dressed in traditional Joseon Ok(조선옷). As I danced, I looked for chairman Pak, when I spotted him ‘standing’ on the outside with the spectators. He saw me, flashed a big smile, and waved at me.
He got me good, I laughed to myself.
Witnessing the patriotic drive of the solidarity march had forced me to raise the question about Panmunjom the next day. This country (DPRK) was driven heavily by the belief of reunification and solidarity. However, based on what I had seen, and what Peter told me, partaking in a demonstration at Panmunjom was no lighthearted matter. Panmunjom was a serious place.
What I am is a hiker, photographer, and writer of Korean Mountains. I work for myself and I don’t represent anyone. But on this peninsula, I have unfortunately learnt that politics are never far from you. Perhaps the only place one was free of that was when in the mountains. But now I was in Pyongyang on ‘Liberation Day’, and far from any mountain.
“Hwang, I need to speak to you and chairman Pak about something?”
“Sure what is it?” he replied. Chairman Pak was standing nearby and joined us.
“I understand that there is to be a demonstration at Panmunjom tomorrow?”
“Yes, we call it the Grand Meeting for Independent National Reunification.”
“Okay, how Grand do you mean,” I smile, “there’ll be a lot of chanting and remonstration and so forth?”
“Yes, but it’ll be done in a peaceful and orderly way.”
I envision what that would look like.
“Comrade Hwang Sung Chol, I got a problem with doing this,” he stands there waiting for me to continue, “ I’m all for the reunification of Korea, but Panmunjom is a different place,” I pause momentarily and look to the ground before looking back up at him, “ Firstly I don’t wish to take a side in this matter. I live in the South, I like living there, and I have no enemies there. Those images that we put on exhibition came partly as a result of the people of the South and of course your own good work. If I stand at Panmunjom in full view of the Southern authorities, and shout down the South, it’ll be like I’ve turned my back on my supporters. I can’t do that!”
Hwang translated my sentiments to chairman Pak. I was earnestly worried that I was letting them down and that this might come out negatively, but I had to do what I felt was right. Whilst they discussed it with themselves, I interrupted them and politely added more, “And let’s be real about this. If I am seen to be taking a side, then I make an enemy of the other. I have no desire to do that. I am here to support both sides through my work on mountains and culture, we have a lot more work we can do in the future.”
Hwang and Pak are quick to understand my predicament and are sincerely concerned for my wellbeing. I am grateful for their compassion. These men are truly my friends. As an outsider, I see them only as Korean people, not North Koreans, not South Koreans, just Koreans.
“You can stay behind in Pyongyang if you wish too,” Chairman Pak says sympathetically.
“No, I’d still like to go, but I don’t want to partake in the demonstration with the crowd.
“And, let’s not forget, I think I’m the only foreigner in this bunch that actually lives in South Korea. It might be okay for a bunch of Aussies or Irishmen and so forth, to stand there and shout, wave flags, and then go safely back home to their wives and kids, but I gotta go back to Jolla-do through Incheon. Those guys at Panmunjom standing behind the mirror glass on the other side will see me and I might get questioned on my return, even have my visa status challenged, and booted out. I don’t wanna get involved in that shit.”
So the next morning (Aug 15) I am thirty minutes ahead of schedule, because North Korea has changed its official time back to its original clock from 1908, before being changed again by the Japanese in 1912.
We all set off for Panmunjom, in a motorcade of about twenty buses and vehicles, stopping in Kaesong for lunch. At Panmunjom, there is a large crowd gathering out the back on what feels like the hottest day of the year. The female pipe band is there again. Chairman Pak comes over to me, “Come with me.” I remember the last time he said that I ended up dancing with a girl. He leads me to a large meeting room upstairs of the main building that looks out onto the blue sheds and southern side of Panmunjom, “Stay here, do not leave this room other than to go to the toilet,” he instructs me in a friendly voice, I look around the room, sadly there is no girl.
A short time later, I can hear the crowd assembling and then the pipe band starts up. Beneath my feet, I can feel the tremor of fifteen hundred people rumbling through the staircase that goes under the main building and out directly onto the courtyard, opposite the South. I can see it happening, it’s like watching a swarm of bees break from their hive. Everyone assembles on the steps, carrying flags and banners. Then the speeches begin; Korean overseas compatriots and foreigners each speak loudly into the microphone. All their words are being translated into Korean through a hand held loudspeaker. In between the speeches there are episodes of singing and chanting, “통일…통일…통일…,” it goes, on and on, louder and louder.
During it all, I am sitting mostly by myself in a large smoky room with rosette styled carpet and long drapes. I make some notes to try and capture my isolation, I want to partake, but I want both sides to partake. How did mountains lead to this? Are they so inseparable from the people?
“We are One Nation, 우리나라하나…우리하나….” I can hear the crowd chanting. I get up to take a peek outside. Past the sea of thrusting fists and flying flags, all I can see on the southern side is empty space.
About an hour later, the show is ending. I leave the room and watch the crowd come back up the stairs, North Koreans, compatriot Koreans, foreigners of all race and color, all of them sweating from the relentless heat, but all smiling. They spill out into the open backyard and then the pipe band marches up from the side of the building. With a click of their heels they halt, pause, and then come to ease. They are exhausted.
On the way back in the bus, I am thinking about the empty southern side. I understand Panmunjom may not be the most appropriate place to hold a joint (North & South) rally for reunification and other than differing views each side may have on the definition of what reunification should look like, I can also clearly see for security reasons how difficult it would be to manage a joint rally there too. Passions could rise and things could get out of hand. After all, it’s literally only a painted yellow line that separates them at Panmunjom. But if it could be agreed upon, then is there a way to do this peacefully? I lean over and ask Peter Wilson, a New Zealand friend of mine a question, “Pete, do you think it’s possible we could organize a joint event sometime at Panmunjom?”
“It’s already in the pipeline Roger. We would like to organize a joint peace concert at Panmunjom, with children singing peace songs from both sides. Some of the children will come from foreign countries and practice to sing the songs in the Korean language. They’ll live with Korean families for a while, in both North and South Korea to learn those songs,” he answered.
So there was still hope!
Back at the hotel I am standing in the lobby, watching the demonstrators pile in. Comrade Kang Young Myeong is standing next to me. He is one of our English-speaking hosts whom I’ve been getting to know better. He is a very likeable young man. I remark to him how emotional today was. He turns to me and says, “Being divided is painful, but being one is more painful,” he pauses, “It takes a lot of effort.”
He wasn’t far wrong with that comment, I thought.