Foal Eagle protests divert air traffic around North Korea

Korean Air and Asiana Airlines are followed by Air Canada and Singapore Airlines in routing flights around North Korean airspace. The change comes as a result of North Korean warnings that it “cannot guarantee the safety of South Korean passenger jets” if the United States and South Korea move forward with annual joint military maneuvers. This annual event yields an annual complaint.

The exercise, called Operation Foal Eagle, is one of three remaining joint exercises left on the Korean peninsula. North Korea is notified every year of the operation, which tends to involve a large number of U.S. military personnel stationed in South Korea. This year, participation is expected to reach 26,000. The countries involved have engaged in high-level talks on the matter.

The communist regime did not indicate the specific problems that would befall South Korean flights that came to close to their neighbor’s airspace, though two flights were downed in the 1980s: one by a Soviet-made fighter jet (1983) and one by bomb-toting North Korean agents (1987).

Of course, North Korea may have issued the warning because it has its own plans for that airspace, with MSNBC reporting that “Kim [Jong Il, North Korea’s leader] hinted the threat could be a way to clear airspace before a possible missile launch.”

[Photo via Gawker]

More details on American access to North Korea in 2009

It may not be time to celebrate, but you can certainly be optimistic (with a dose of caution). Koryo Tours has received an update from its partners in North Korea about the upcoming Arirang (i.e., “Mass Games” event). The Mass Games are expected to be held in August and September – and could run into October (based on past experience). Koryo Tours is currently scheduling tours for westerners for this period.

Americans will be able to attend the event this year, but there are some restrictions. North Korea is expected to limit U.S. visits to four nights, and Americans will only be able to enter and exit the country by plane. But, Koryo Tours is willing to remain flexible in the event that longer stays are permitted. For guests who have already been to North Korea, the company is working on itineraries designed for repeat visitors.

Of course, this has not been confirmed yet, but Koryo Tours is confident based on how these developments have unfolded in the past. As we get more information, we’ll be sure to pass it along

[Thanks, Koryo Tours]

Top 10 stupidest laws you could encounter abroad

Destination on the edge: golf on the DMZ

The small golf course in Panmunjom is often called the most dangerous in the world. Nestled between North and South Korea – which are technically still at war – sending a ball off the fairway means that it probably won’t be retrieved.

Welcome to the strangest place on earth. Panmunjom is the heavily militarized “truce” village straddling the Military Demarcation Line that cuts down the middle of the Korean peninsula’s Demilitarized Zone. The most famous image from this corner of the world, of course, is that of soldiers squaring off across from each other, each rigid and ready for the worst. Not far from this scene of perpetual anxiety, worries turn to backswings and short games.

Camp Bonifas, the U.S. military installation in Panmunjom, is home to a one-hole golf course, mostly for the benefit of service members stationed in this dangerous spot for a year at a time. The 192-yard par three “course” is free to anyone interested in playing but is generally unavailable to outsiders. Once you’re on Camp Bonifas, according to Erica (who prefers to keep her last name private), it’s pretty easy to find “The World’s Most Dangerous Golf Course,” as the locals call it. There isn’t much of anything on this army post, and there are only so many places you can go.

“It’s a fairly flat one-hole course,” Erica recalls, “so it serves as a novelty, not as somewhere to play an actual game.” The location, however, is what makes it unusual. “There isn’t anywhere else in the world that one can golf while gazing across the world’s most armed border. It’s surreal to say the least.”

I can see why she feels this way. As you approach the golf course, the sign that welcomes you announces with no equivocation: “DANGER! DO NOT RETRIEVE BALLS FROM THE ROUGH LIVE MINEFIELDS.” Never have the implications of shanking a drive been so severe!

If you’re up in Panmunjom for the DMZ tour, don’t plan to squeeze in a few rounds, however short they may be. But, if you’re getting ready to spend 12 months of your life in the Joint Security Area (well, 11 months, as you’ll have 30 days of leave), bring a putter and a nine iron. That’s all you’ll need.

[Photo via Nagyman on Flickr]


Infiltrating North Korea Part 19: A Final Word

Infiltrating North Korea is a 19-part series exploring the world’s most reclusive nation and its bizarre, anachronistic way of life. To start reading at the beginning of the series, be sure to click here.

Although it was a short trip of only five days, my time in North Korea proved to be one of the most fascinating journeys I’ve ever taken.

This brief glimpse into the world’s most reclusive nation was a rare opportunity to go back in time and witness what the Soviet Union was like fifty years ago. Everything I’ve ever read about the former USSR was alive and well in the streets of Pyongyang; red banners hanging everywhere, blanket censorship, ubiquitous propaganda, very few automobiles, fantastic and accessible cultural arts, barely any crime, and a tightly controlled populace afraid to even fold a newspaper with an image of Kim Il Sung on the front for fear of doing something sacrilegious to the Great Leader’s image.

The North Koreans, however, have taken this concept of totalitarianism even further than the Soviets ever did. The Korean cult of personality, for example, requires that people not only wear a pin of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il on their lapel every day, but also that they bow to any statue of the leaders they come across–and there are a lot of statues in North Korea. Not even Stalin nor Lenin were worshipped to such a degree.The North Koreans are also more paranoid about tourists than their Soviet predecessors; we weren’t allowed to speak to anyone during our time in North Korea, we were routinely prohibited from taking photographs, and we couldn’t wander about on our own. We saw only what the government wanted us to see and spoke only to those thoroughly vetted and officially approved to deal with tourists.

Knowing that my journey to North Korea was carefully regulated to reveal only the positive sides of this “socialist paradise” was extraordinarily frustrating. History is full of naïve international observers who were similarly distracted by smoke and mirror tactics, and then reported back to the civilized world about the excellent conditions they witnessed at various prisons, camps, and hellholes.

Totalitarian governments are very effective with their Potemkin villages and deceitful webs and I wanted to make sure I did not fall victim as well. I therefore read everything I could get my hands on before visiting the country. If you plan on going yourself, I highly recommend that you do the same, otherwise you will be won over by singing children, clean streets, well dressed citizens, and a fanatical devotion to socialism.

In fact, I will go so far as to say that it’s criminal to visit North Korea without educating yourself first. Mandatory reading starts with The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan–the son of a privileged Pyongyang family who spent ten years of his life, starting at the age of nine, in a North Korean labor camp. Chol-Hwan is coincidently my age and it was therefore particularly poignant knowing that at the same time I was going to high school homecoming dances and football games in the 1980s, Chol-Hwan was being beaten, brainwashed, and forced to cut trees and dig holes in freezing temperatures without adequate clothing. And, he ate rats to survive.

This certainly raises a moral conundrum; should tourists pay exorbitant prices to visit this totalitarian nation knowing that their hard currency helps support the regime?

I scoffed at this originally because my experience in traveling has taught me that human interaction with supposed “enemies” is the very best diplomacy in the world. In addition, bringing an outside perspective to an imprisoned people can also be extraordinarily powerful. The whole reason East Germany was the first communist country to fall was because they had more access to the outside world than any other communist country–they saw what life was like on the other side of the Wall and they rebelled.

The problem with North Korea, however, is that the people remain isolated even in the presence of foreigners. We were never given a chance to speak or interact with a single person. My initial belief that I could make some type of impact, perhaps by simply giving a child a candy bar, turned out to be an absurd impossibility.

And, as a result, my presence did nothing more than slightly boost the government coffers and help Kim Jong Il purchase more of his beloved premium cognac while the rest of the country starves.

And so, I leave it up to you to decide on whether such a trip is appropriate or not (and if you’d like contact information for my travel agent, please email me). Despite my frustrations, however, I feel fortunate that I was able to go and I can only hope that my injection of hard currency into the Kim Jong Il regime has been negated by this fair and balanced account of my time spent in the Hermit Kingdom.

Yesterday: A Tale of Two Cities

Infiltrating North Korea Part 18: A Tale of Two Cities, Pyongyang vs. Seoul

Infiltrating North Korea is a 19-part series exploring the world’s most reclusive nation and its bizarre, anachronistic way of life. To start reading at the beginning of the series, be sure to click here.

When it came time to leave North Korea and check out how the other half lives, it wasn’t as easy as showing up at the border and crossing from the North into South Korea; the two countries are still technically at war and border crossings as well as direct flights simply don’t exist between them.

Instead, I had to fly to China and then onwards to Seoul. Although the travel time took less than a day, I felt as though I had journeyed 50 years into the future when I arrived in South Korea.

I had never been to South Korea before and it was very odd showing up for the first time having just come from the North. I can’t imagine that too many people are introduced to the Korean Peninsula in this same unorthodox order, but by doing so, my perspective shifted and I began comparing the South to my experience in the North, instead of the other way around (which is the way it’s normally done).

Although I was in the sedate North for only five days, I was nonetheless taken aback when I arrived in the chaos of Seoul and was briefly overwhelmed with the mass of people, the hordes of traffic, the loud noise pollution and the avalanche of consumerism screaming for my attention with neon lights and brightly lit storefronts. North Korean defectors who arrive here must explode from sensory overload.

Seoul was very alive and very, very different from anything I saw in North Korea. It’s simply amazing that a similar people divided by a political line drawn in the sand can grow so radically apart and change so fundamentally over the course of 60 years. We’ve seen this before in East and West Germany, but the differences in Korea are far more extreme.

Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate this is a simple satellite photo of the Korean Peninsula at night which clearly shows a very dark North and a brightly lit South.

The differences are equally extreme when a tourist such as myself is able to zoom down to a more granular level and personally witness the impact of communism in the North, the explosion of capitalism in the South, and the shocking polarity which has occurred as a result.

The photos accompanying this post help illustrate this in a simple, visual manner. As you’ve no doubt figured out by now, the North Koreans are featured on the left (naturally) while their southern brothers are spotlighted on the right.

The differences, in my opinion, are so pronounced that I could mix up the photos and most people will still be able to guess which ones were taken in the North. One thing that doesn’t come across, however, is the pronounced height difference between the two countries. Prior to World War II, a variance didn’t exist. But after years of malnutrition, northerners are now four inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts. In fact, according to a fascinating LA Times article by Barbara Demick, the problem has become so extreme that the North Korean army has waived its 5’3″ height requirement.

Perhaps one day in the future, North and South will become one country; it will take countless more generations after that, however, before the Koreans return to being one people.

Yesterday: Video Tour of Pyongyang Highlights
Tomorrow: A Final Word