Searching for Signs of Christmas Near the North Korean Border
“We’re gonna die out here, aren’t we?” TTD said. It had been almost two hours and we were still on the 3000 bus, heading towards the border of North and South Korea. The sun was out when we got on the bus, but there was no light now and everything was pitch black. It was Christmas Eve and neither of us knew if we were even remotely close to our destination.
Kim Jong Il had only passed away a few days earlier, and now it looked like we might be following in his footsteps. It had snowed the night before and the ground was covered in white. “Do you have your cross?” I asked TTD.
“Yeah, I got it,” she said. The 3000 bus ventured on; we’d be on a busy street one minute and then driving through an empty field the next. Sis sat beside me, shaking her head.
“This was the dumbest idea ever,” she said. “The next time you’re in charge of making plans, I’m staying home.”
“It seemed like a good plan,” I said, vaguely trying to defend myself, “until we got on the bus…”
“Have you read about the Christmas Tree?” I asked TTD while we were participating in the annual 12 Pubs of Christmas bar crawl. “The one North Korea is all upset about?”
She had. The “border tree” was big news. It was a week before Christmas and North Korea was threatening that there would be “unexpected consequences” if South Korea allowed the “border tree” to be lit. The tree – which is really not a tree at all, but a big metal tower with Christmas lights on it – sat on the top of Aegibong Hill, about two miles from the Korean border, and, from what the news reports said, it would be big enough for people in the North to clearly see it. This infuriated the North Korean government (on a website, the tree was referred to as “psychological warfare”); the North, like most communist states, is strongly atheist and viewed the tree as an attempt by the South to spread Christianity.
I took a big sip from my delicious Guinness. “We should go see it,” I said. “On Christmas Eve…we should go spend Christmas Eve at the border tree!”
“Don’t you think that might be a little dangerous?” TTD asked. She wasn’t drinking.
“Well, yes…” I said. “But who else is going to do that? We’ll be the only ones…and who knows what will happen? It’ll be an adventure.”
She shrugged. “Okay, I’m in.”
With that decided, we did a little research. The tree was on the top of a hill. To get to the hill, we’d have to take a bus to the bottom and then somehow get a car to take us to the top. Furthermore, we’d have to go through a security checkpoint, and we wouldn’t be allowed in unless there was at least one person in our group who spoke fluent Korean.
“Do we have a Korean friend we can bring?” TTD asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Let’s think.” 3 seconds later, we agreed that we didn’t.
“We don’t have a car, and we don’t speak Korean,” TTD said. “How are we gonna get in?”
I’d read a few articles about Christian groups going to the tree to sing carols for North Korea. “We’ll have to latch onto a church group,” I said. “We’ll have to pretend we’re Christians.”
“I’ll buy a cross.”
“That’s a great idea! It’s gonna be Christmas Eve – there’s bound to be Christians all over the place. So we’ll wear crosses, we’ll pretend we want to sing ‘Silent Night’ for the North Koreans, and we’ll get one of the church groups to drive us to the top of the hill.”
The next day, Kim Jong Il died. The idea of going to the tree was a little suspect to begin with, and this didn’t help any. What if they actually did bomb the tree? It sounded paranoid, though with the switch to Kim Jong Un, who could say exactly what the North Korean government would be thinking?
It didn’t matter that much. TTD went and bought her cross. She somehow persuaded Sis to come along, and there we were, the three of us, on the 3000 bus driving through the darkness, headed for the border tree.
On the first pass, we went too far and ended up at the bus station on Gangwa Island. “I’m done,” Sis said. “I’m getting on a bus and going back to Incheon.”
“Don’t you want to see the tree?” TTD asked.
“You guys realize there’s a 95% chance you won’t see the tree,” Sis said. “Merry Christmas.”
She was right. TTD and I brushed her pessimism off and went back. We focused on the bus stops, and when we heard the right one, we jumped off the bus…and into a desolate no-man’s-land completely devoid of any signs of human existence.
“Shit!” TTD said. “What do we do now?”
“Fuck, I don’t know!” I shouted. It was dark and cold. “Where the hell are all the Christians?”
“Where’s the tree?”
“I don’t know. You’re supposed to be able to see it from North Korea…you’d think we’d be able to see it from here…”
We were surrounded by big hills, and yet there was no Christmas tree in sight. There weren’t even any lights in sight. There were just a bunch of side roads, covered in snow, going up towards the hills. No people. No cars. There was a church way off in the distance, with a neon red cross on its roof.
“This is like a horror movie,” TTD said. “There’s nothing out here. I don’t even know which direction to go in.”
“Maybe we should wait here until the next bus comes and go back…”
“I just wanted to see a Christmas tree,” she muttered.
Maybe in North Korea there was somebody who, on the night before Christmas, looked out and, unlike us, saw the bright lights shining from the tree on top of Aegibong Hill. It’s strange to think that no carols went through that person’s head; that there could be no Christmas songs in a person’s collected knowledge. Or that an enormous Christmas tree could be seen as nothing more than a pole with lights on it, out somewhere in the far distance.