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North Korean Motorcycle Diaries

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Riding the Baekdudaegan

How a Group of New Zealander Bikers Planned a Road Trip Across Korea’s DMZ

By Tim Pool

The Arch of Reunification in Pyongyang, North Korea. All photos by Gareth Morgan

For the past decade, New Zealanders Joanne and Gareth Morgan have been living the semiretired lifestyle of their dreams, traveling around the world on motorcycles alongside a few of their closest friends. They’ve traversed all seven continents on their bikes, with routes as varied as Venice to Beijing, Florida to northern Alaska, and South Africa to London, just to name a few. Gareth funds his own trips, many of which he uses to pursue philanthropic endeavors, particularly in the social-investment space. He is able to do so with money he’s made as an economist and investment manager—one who has earned the reputation for criticizing unethical practices in New Zealand’s financial-services industry.

In late August, the Morgans embarked on their most ambitious journey yet, at least physically. The real journey began years ago, when they decided they wanted to ride the Baekdudaegan, a mountain range that stretches the length of North and South Korea’s shared peninsula. After countless hours of negotiation and coordination with both governments, they were granted permission. It was, the Morgans believe, the first time anyone’s ever traveled through both countries like that since the partitioning of Korea in 1945. By making the trip they hoped to demonstrate how Koreans can come together over what they have in common. To symbolize this, the Morgans took some stones from Paektu, a holy mountain in the North, and brought them to Hallasan, a similarly sacred peak in the South.

Joanne and Gareth shot the entirety of their trip, the footage from which they have graciously allowed us to cut into a short film that will premiere on VICE.com this month. In some ways, the footage makes the Korean coast look alternately like California, China, and Cuba. It’s a beautiful view few foreigners have seen, and even if planning the road trip straight through the Demilitarized Zone required working within parameters set by the highly choreographed and restricted confines of North-South Korean diplomacy, this was a journey worth documenting from start to finish.

The Morgans pay homage to Kim Il Sung, the “liberator” of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

VICE: Do you think negotiating your trip constituted a form of diplomacy? Would you like to be viewed as diplomats?
Joanne Morgan:
Gareth as a diplomat is actually quite funny. Gareth says exactly what he thinks, and I definitely wouldn’t put him into any diplomatic role.
Gareth Morgan: With this trip, the real point [for us] was just to understand the Korean people. What spins their wheels? What’s their sense of identity? How are they handling this 68-year interruption to their 5,000-year history?
Joanne: In the 80s, when I was standing in the DMZ on the south side looking across to the north, I saw a group of old men standing there gazing north and crying. It was very emotional and I couldn’t quite understand it. That’s always stayed with me, that huge longing that they had to reunite their families.

What are your thoughts on the North Korean government?
Gareth:
[The West] doesn’t like the North Korean regime—but there are a lot of systems around the world that we don’t like, yet nations have normalized relationships with one another. Even though they’ve got totally different regimes than we have in New Zealand, we have pretty normalized relationships with China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia—a whole lot of regimes that do not value human liberty and individual rights anywhere near as much as we do in a liberal democracy. North Korea fits into that camp. The interests of the state override the interests of any individuals. There’s no freedom of speech, there’s no freedom of association, and no freedom of representation. Those are all things that we, from the liberal democracies in the West, value hugely and would never give up.

South Korea has really come from a dictatorship-type regime, and it’s moving more and more to a liberal-democracy ideal… The issue is, do we go forward with the relationship by isolating and escalating the differences, or is it better to engage and allow normalized relations to occur, particularly between the two Koreas? Through the osmosis that comes from trade, investments, and cultural relationships, the regimes will come a bit closer together perhaps. I think that’s what all Koreans want.

Five riders, four guides, and our host reach the summit of Mount Paektu.

Do you find it strange that two New Zealanders were able to make a trip like this when the majority of Koreans would never be allowed to do so?
Joanne:
All the young people of South Korea [we’ve met] say, “We want to travel the whole Baekdudaegan as well; we want to travel the whole length of Korea.” And you could see that, apart from all the other issues with North Korea, they’re desperate to travel it.
Gareth: They were quite disturbed about the fact that we’d been able to do this. And one of the projects that we’re looking at going forward is to actually get some motorcycles from Seoul and ride through the DMZ, up to Pyongyang, and back—with South Koreans with us. That’ll be a big breakthrough.

How strict were the North Korean officials about letting you explore the mountains and seaside? Did they allow you to deviate from the predetermined path?
Gareth:
We chose the route we would ride, [but] we obviously had to agree on a route with the North Koreans many months in advance. We chose one that would follow the Baekdudaegan; that’s the part that binds [both] Koreas, and it was pretty symbolic to follow it. Once we were on the road, we were escorted the whole way by a ginormous motorcade with security vehicles in front of and behind our five bikes. We’ve been through China with the same sort of [escorts]. So we’re old hands—a standard tactic for us is for the last motorcycle to go quite slow so the sweeping vehicles behind them have to stay behind it… That would open up a big gap in which the motorcyclists in the middle could stop and take photos. They woke up to that after a few days. They were generally quite tolerant, but there was no way we would’ve been able to turn off the road and go down on our own… The rationale they would give for that was [North Koreans] are not used to vehicles coming down the road, particularly big motorcycles and foreign vehicles. You’d come around a corner and there’d be animals or whatever on the road, and that was true—that’s a fair rationale.
Joanne: Also, the children were fearful. They said to us that the children will see you and they will be fearful because they’ve never seen a foreigner before. Some of the areas we went to had huge crowds in the streets, and we’d slow down and wave to a kiddie or to a mother and child and some of them would be absolutely delighted and others would just be terrified.
Gareth: This society has become, over 68 years, pretty self-sufficient, agrarian, and traditional. There’s not much machinery around at all because of the sanctions and so on. So there’s sort of a serene peace to the society in terms of the way they go about their daily tasks. It’s actually quite lovely. It’s like going to a medieval village. So I can sort of understand the issues there in terms of the disturbance we caused.
 

More about North Korea:

The VICE Guide to North Korea

North Korean Labor Camps

North Korean Film Madness

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