A Journey to the End of Asia's Cold War
By Tessa Morris-Suzuki
January 24, 2011
I am sitting at the window of my hotel bedroom, watching the rain sweep across the landscape from North Korea into China. In this landscape lie the past and future of Northeast Asia.
The great stretch of murky grey water opposite my hotel is the Yalu River. Here, in 1895 and again in 1904, Japan’s armies won crushing victories over China and Russia, establishing Japanese dominance in East Asia. The iron bridge immediately outside my window ends abruptly half way across the river, at the point where it was split in two by US bombs during the Korean War.
Across the parallel railway bridge flow the nutrients which sustain the life of the ultimate Cold War state, North Korea. North Korean officials in shiny blue suits, who come and go across the border on shopping trips, drink whisky in curtained alcoves of the restaurant on the river bank. It is on this border that much of North Korea’s destiny is likely to be determined.
I can’t help wondering what the visitors in blue suits from across the river make of that.
These are notes from a recent journey that took me (by a roundabout route) from the city of Harbin in northeastern China to Busan at the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula. It was a hundred year journey: a pilgrimage in the footsteps of a remarkable but almost completely forgotten woman traveler named Emily Georgiana Kemp who, with her companion Mary MacDougall, made this trip in 1910, the year when Korea became a Japanese colony.
In the company of my artist sister Sandy and our friend Emma Campbell, I retraced Kemp and MacDougall’s journey a century on, as a divided Korea engaged yet again in a tense military stand-off along the 38th parallel – the last great Cold War divide.
Along the way, we discovered the chaotic energy of the new China – the Marxist-Leninist state in capitalist overdrive. We met Mongol business executives, Hui Muslim Imams, descendents of White Russian émigrés, and young Chinese entrepreneurs developing their market skills by smuggling goods across the Yalu.
In Chanchung we stayed in a corner of a vast Mao era hotel whose only other occupants seemed to be the doormen in their Cossack style coats and fur hats. Not long after our visit the same hotel becomes the site for a top-secret summit between senior Chinese officials and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.
We also learnt more about the remarkable life of our ghostly guide, Emily Kemp, who devoted her life to traveling and studying China, a country she loved deeply, despite the horrible fate inflicted on her sister, brother-in-law and nephew by the Righteous Harmony Society Movement (aka Boxer Rebellion) of 1900.
The final point of Kemp and MacDougall’s journey through Northeast Asia was the Diamond Mountain range – Mt. Kumgang – which now lies just on the North Korean side of the 38th parallel. For centuries a magnet for Buddhist pilgrims and the subject of some of Korea’s greatest art and poetry, today the Diamond Mountains are at the heart of the tensions between North and South. In 2008, a South Korean tourist to the mountains was shot dead by North Korean soldiers, resulted in the closing of a tourism resort that had been the focus of reconciliation efforts between North and South. The consequent bitter recriminations continue to this day.
As we crossed the Yalu River by train and headed south towards Pyongyang, our aim too was to journey to the Diamond Mountains and to see the “precipitous mountains of granite formation” which Kemp described breathlessly as looking like “mammoth beasts in all sorts of shapes.” But first, we had some discoveries to make about North Korea.
Using Emily Kemp’s book as our guide, we started to see a North Korea very different from the one presented either in state propaganda, or in the endless western media images of goose-stepping soldiers in Kim Il-Sung square. North Korea today as a hundred years ago is, to be sure, a desperately poor country – its poverty and repression all the more starkly visible because it is now surrounded by the wealth and dynamism of the rest of East Asia. But it is also a place with a deep and fascinating history; a place whose people show immense ingenuity in finding ways to survive their extraordinarily difficult lives.
Early May. I am sitting on the shores of Lake Sijung, a beautiful calm lake on the east coast of North Korea. Beyond the lake, on the horizon, I can dimly glimpse the peaks of the Diamond Mountains. We have just had a rousing karaoke session with our North Korean guides, whose repertoire extends from songs in praise of the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung (sixteen years dead, but still officially Eternal President of North Korea) to “Climb Every Mountain” and “My Heart Will Go On”. I am watching young women meticulously removing tiny fish from the mesh of the nets used by the local fishermen. In North Korea, no fragment of food is too small to be valued.
Beyond, in the mountains, I have discovered, state trained North Korean Buddhist priests work as caretakers for the ancient temple that they have recently reconstructed as part of collaborative venture with Buddhists from a temple in Seoul.
[You can learn more about Emily Kemp and her journey through the Northeast Asia in her book To the Diamond Mountains: A Hundred Year Journey Through China and Korea, published this month by Rowman and Littlefield.
See also http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pymdjVMVjE ]
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