|Tourists get an overview of North Korea through binoculars at Dora Observatory. North Korean defector Jeong refused to be photographed for this story to protect his family who are still in the North. Korea Times file|
By Kwak Yeon-soo
PAJU ― "I'm a dead man in my hometown," a North Korean defector, who uses the alias Jeong Sang-soo to protect his identity, said during a Korea Times interview in the middle of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) tour. "I had to fake my own death so that my wife and children who are still in the North could live on."
Jeong left his home in North Korea in August 2016, crossed the border into China through Mount Paektu and then fled to Laos before arriving in Thailand over the Mekong River.
In Thailand, he surrendered to the police. After several trials, the North Korean escapee was taken to a refugee camp, where he applied for political asylum to South Korea. Three months later, he finally landed here.
"The border lines of China were all blocked, so I chose to cross through Mount Paektu," Jeong said. "I knew the routes well because I had been involved in smuggling for 10 years. Nonetheless, it still was risky."
After spending months at Hanawon, a resettlement facility set up to help North Korean refugees adjust to life in South Korea, Jeong became a South Korean citizen in June 2017.
The 51-year-old now works as a park ranger at Korea National Park and a guide assistant at a travel agency providing DMZ tour programs.
The DMZ, a 250-kilometer strip of rugged no-man's land stretching east to west across the Korean Peninsula, is a place for those who want to have a first-hand look at the divided Korean Peninsula and view the heavily defended landscape.
"In October, I signed a one-year contract with the tour agency. But I got a full-time job at Korea National Park in January, so I work with the tour agency eight days a month as a freelance guide assistant," he said.
Despite his active job search, Jeong said he continues to keep a low profile by distancing himself from other North Korean escapees and using multiple phones. He refused to be photographed for this article and asked to omit certain details that may give clues to his identity.
His family had lived a good life until the early 2000s, according to Jeong. He had been a staff sergeant of the Supreme Guard Command, the personal bodyguard force of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, and his wife was a police officer. "I joined the military at the age of 16 and served two North Korean leaders over 18 years," he said.
As a military official, his family lived in an apartment in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, provided by the government. But even "luxury" apartments did not have electricity during the winter season.
"We had to burn coal or use candles during winter," Jeong said. "My wife in North Korea, whom I talk to by phone at times, still doesn't believe we have unlimited electricity in the South. It's simply unthinkable for her."
After leaving the Supreme Guard Command at the age of 34, Jeong moved back to his hometown located in North Hamgyong Province with his family.
"I first crossed into China as a businessman to make a living. I exported edible frogs," he said. "Then I sold antiques and later imported used clothes from China."
Only in China he began to see the outside world ― learning about better life conditions, the United States and South Korea and belatedly realizing how flawed the North Korean regime was.
He lost his money and motivation to work hard in 2009, when the government carried out its "currency reform" (or devaluation). So he started smuggling North Korean defectors who had family members in South Korea, to China. As a broker, he was able to earn an average $1,000 for smuggling each North Korean.
"Of course I did it for the money, but I also wanted to help those who wanted to reunite with families who had already settled in South Korea," he said.
In 2017, the State Security Department learned about Jeong's smuggling business. He had no choice but to leave the country to save his life.
The tale of the North Korean defector is the highlight of the DMZ tour package offered by travel agency Cosmojin. Besides Jeong, there are six other North Korean defectors who assist tour guides by sharing their North Korea stories and why they left, according to an agency official.
Cosmojin features English-, Chinese- and Japanese-speaking tour staff who provide assistance and comments for a fee (65,000 won). Considering the visitors' interest in Korea's history and divided past, North Korean defectors are present to answer questions about their North Korea lives and why they left.
"Following the inter-Korean summit between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in April, the number of visitors near the DMZ has seen a remarkable increase," an agency official told The Korea Times.
On Jan. 31, this reporter met with Jeong and a tour guide named S.P Hong, who formerly worked at Korea National Palace Museum, in the lobby of President Hotel at 8 a.m. to embark on a DMZ tour in Paju, Gyeonggi Province. The bus tour included visits to Imjingak Park, Dorasan Station, Dora Observatory, the DMZ Theater and the Third Tunnel.
|Mangbaedan Altar, a monument which stands opposite Imjingak, is a spot where Koreans separated from their families in the North visit and perform ancestral rites by bowing toward their hometown every Lunar New Year and Chuseok (Korean autumn harvest festival). Korea Times photo by Kwak Yeon-soo|
Located seven kilometers from the Military Demarcation Line, Imjingak Park is an easily reachable place where visitors may face the reality of division between the two Koreas without security checkpoints.
Built in 1972, Imjingak is a three-story building surrounded by several monuments and Unification Park. Mangbaedan Altar, a monument which stands opposite of Imjingak, is a spot where Koreans separated from their families in the North visit and perform ancestral rites by bowing toward their hometown every Lunar New Year and Chuseok (Korean autumn harvest festival).
The Freedom Bridge stands behind Mangbaedan Altar. Near Imjingak also lies the Gyeongui Line, a train line which was destroyed during the 1950-53 Korean War. "The divided Koreas agreed last November to reconnect and modernize Gyeongui Line, which runs along the west coast of the peninsula, and inspections took place in December," Hong said.
|The train tracks are connected at Dorasan Station, a place which serves as a beacon of hope for the reunification of the two Koreas. Korea Times file|
After crossing the Unification Bridge, where soldiers conduct security checks and review passports, the next stop was Dorasan Station, which is the only train station in South Korea with customs, immigration and quarantine facilities.
A sign in the station reads, "Not the last station from the South, but the first station toward the North." "It is the northernmost station of South Korea, which is only 700 meters from the southern boundary of the DMZ," Hong explained.
"Although the tracks are connected, North Korea does not allow trains to pass through." Being closed at the moment, Dorasan Station still serves as a beacon of hope for the reunification of the two Koreas.
|The Dora Observatory building Korea Times photo by Kwak Yeon-soo|
Then the tour group visited Dora Observatory, where visitors can view North Korea. Not only the North Korean scenery but also urban areas of Gaeseong, the third-largest city of North Korea, and the Gaeseong Industrial Complex are visible through binoculars.
One can also observe a bronze statue of Kim Il-sung and a fake North Korean village, with uninhabited buildings. "Within the DMZ of the North side, there's a small village often referred to as Propaganda Village. Like a Hollywood film set, North Korea created it to pretend as if people are living there. But it is actually deserted," Hong told the tour group.
Inside the Observatory building, there is a screening room where visitors can get an overview of the buffer zone.
|Wax figures stand in front of the entrance to the Third Tunnel, a secret underground passage North Koreans dug with the intention to infiltrate the South. Picture taking is banned inside the tunnel. Korea Times photo by Kwak Yeon-soo|
DMZ Theater and the Third Tunnel
The last stop was the DMZ Theater and the Third Tunnel. The theater features an eight-minute 3D documentary, telling the story of how the North invaded the South and the torn history of the past. It also shows the beautiful scenery of the restricted DMZ area inhabited by wildlife.
Exploring the Third Tunnel, a secret underground passage North Koreans dug with the intention to infiltrate the South, is the most popular and well-received tourist attraction of the DMZ tour, according to Hong.
Discovered in 1978, the tunnel stretches over 1.6 kilometers with a diameter of two meters, large enough for 30,000 armed soldiers to pass through per hour. The ceiling of the tunnel was only high enough for a person of 155 centimeters in height to walk without bending. For those taller than 155 centimeters, the 20-minute walk can be unbearable despite the excitement that you're walking inside a tunnel which leads to North Korea.
"The tunnel walk is valid only until the 250-meter point from where you started, but turn around anytime if you no longer want to walk along the dark, cramped path," Hong said. Picture taking is banned inside the tunnel and one should put on a safety helmet when walking down and up the tunnel.
The DMZ tour with a North Korean defector is available from Tuesdays to Sundays. It may be canceled for security or safety reasons.