There is a tendency among some expats in Korea to align themselves along an us-versus-them axis. That is to say that some members of the foreign community feel that they are “normal” people living in a strange and illogical society. Expats often don’t understand why Koreans are the way they are here, and a lot of the time they don’t really want to find out.
Illogical. Irrational. Unpredictable. These are the kinds of words the outside world associates with North Korea and its dictatorial government. The infamous Kim family dynasty has been described as the world’s only remaining communist monarchy. They rule over a malnourished population and command an enormous military funded by a broken economy. There are few countries on earth that garner as much international curiosity as North Korea, simply because so little is understood about it.
Life for the average North Korean citizen is grim. Their dictator, Kim Jong-un, is ruthless, in the tradition of his father, and his father before him. The economy is anemic. Most of the population is poor. And without aid from its enemies, starvation would be widespread. It’s no surprise, then, to read accounts of people so desperate to get out that they will risk not only their life, but also the lives of anyone they have had any sort of close relationship with. And since three armies (South Korean, North Korean and U.S.) fortify the southern border, the only way out of the world’s last truly closed country is north, into China.
If you weren’t looking for the Guryong panjachon, you wouldn’t know it was there. Nestled into the side of a mountain and purposely hidden from view by a ragged fence of cloth and sheet metal, this panjachon, literally translating as wooden board town, won’t appear on any tourist maps. And while many people are aware of its existence, they couldn’t tell you how to get there if you asked.