The day we went to North Korea
A country we have all heard of, yet barely know anything about. The secretive state of North Korea has one of the most military guarded borders in the world. On our trip to South Korea, Alex and I walked over the border and into North Korea.
We were staying in Seoul which is just 1 hour away from the border. I remember when I was looking at teaching jobs in Seoul discovering just how close North Korea is from Seoul. The only way to enter into North Korea is, understandably, through a tour. Incredibly frustratingly, however, is that once you have paid your hefty tour price there is no guarantee whether you can actually go into North Korea.
Choosing a tour
There are many tours leaving from Seoul that take you to the border. Depending on your interests and budgets there are different tours offering different sites. The different sites are:
- Joint Security Area (JSA)
- Infiltration Tunnels
- Dorasan Train station
- Dora Observatory
Alex and I decided to go for the tour that included all of these sites as you never know if you can return to a place again. Our tour choice was limited slightly with the additional need of a vegan meal for lunch. Most of the tours offer lunch but very few offered a vegan-friendly option. After several emails, I was assured that we could eat a bibimbap by one tour guide and therefore we chose that company.
Passing the first test
We arrived at the tour group bus, paid for our tickets and they assessed out clothing. Jeans and trainers are forbidden. Shoulders must be covered, and military patterns are also not allowed. For someone who insists on good footwear when walking all day and travelling I was slightly annoyed standing in my pretty pumps. I would never wear these when exploring normally! We both passed the test and were allowed onto the bus. Others who had not followed the rules were given clothes and shoes to wear for the day. such as longer skirts and longer sleeves.
When everyone was suitably clothed we were on our way.
Joint Security Area (JSA)
We caught our first glimpse of North Korea from the tour bus. Our tour guide pointed out that the mountains were bare from trees as the North Koreans use wood for fuel. As we began to enter the Demilitarised Zone we had to pass through one of the most militarised areas in the world.
The Korean peninsula is divided by a line called the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). The Border is 250km long and stretches from coast to coast. On either side of the MDL is 4 km buffer zone known as the DMZ. The border entering into this area is heavily guarded. We were strictly told not to take photos. A guard checked all of our passports and our clothes were judged again as well. The guards let us pass.
More serious talks about what awaits us at the JSA were given by our friendly tour guide. We were told that only last night a missile was launched from North Korea… my dad would be having a heart attack if he had known that! We were told that we were lucky as none of the other tour buses that week had been allowed into the JSA. Alex and I were relieved as the tour including the JSA costs quite a lot and the visit to the JSA almost doubles the price of all the other ‘attractions’ at the border combined.
We drove into a US military base and once again are strictly told not to take photos. Our hearts were racing. On arrival, we were taken into a briefing room and asked to sign contracts. The contracts stipulated that if we died it was our fault. We were quite literally signing our lives away.
The briefing was held by a muscular soldier who had a commanding presence. He talked us through the history of JSA. There have been several casualties on both sides of the border and we learnt about the ongoing tension between the two nations. It was the tensest powerpoint presentation I had ever sat through.
After our briefing, we were made to stand in twos in a straight line. Then we waited. And we waited. I can’t remember what we were thinking at this point. I believe ‘how on earth were we here?’, ‘are we allowed into North Korea?’, ‘what if I get shot?’, ‘what if I get kidnapped?’, ‘OMG I am about to step into North Korea!’ were all thoughts that were probably swirling around in my head all competing for attention.
Finally, an American shouted and we were moved to stand somewhere else for a while. The suspense was tangible.
The US soldier yelled again and we were ushered outside. Under no circumstance could we look behind us at the South Korean side for security purposes. We could only stare at the North Korean side. Armed with guards we were allowed into one of the blue huts that straddles the actual border of the most secretive state in the world.
The blue hut was small. The was a long desk in the middle for negotiation talks. A South Korean guard armed the door that led out into North Korea. None of us particularly wanted to step out of the safety of our smurf-blue portacabin. Beforehand we were told we may not get long in the hut, maybe just 1 minute and it would be under 5 minutes. I believe we had about 3 minutes in total and it went very quickly. We had spent three whole minutes in North Korea.
After our trip into North Korea, we were escorted back to stand by the South Korean building. We were allowed to look out onto North Korea. We could see a few guards but we were told there were more looking at us from inside an ominous brown building 50m away from us. Strangely the guards look at each other rather than looked at us. Our guide told us that they are guarding as well as watching each other. They stare at one another to make sure neither defects.
Our experience was incredibly surreal, and I believe we all breathed a sigh of relief when we returned to an area where we were not paraded in lines of 2. We were free, well freer, to stroll around the JSA area. Of course, there was a gift shop and everyone went to use the facilities. There was also a temple and a church. What I wanted to find out was what life was like up here on the border.
I approached a friendly soldier and started quizzing him. He was young, friendly and smiley. The US soldier was happy to answer all of our questions and we had a nice time chatting with him.
“The food is really good, portions could be bigger, but its good. We had chicken nuggets last night.”
Out of all the questions we asked about what life is like here on the border and such, the statement above resonated with me most. I believe it was the banality of it. The border is the result of a long and bloody war and has separated families for over half a century. Yet today I was visiting this deadly border as a tourist and was talking with someone who works here about his last meal. People have died here. I think it was at this moment that I began to question the ethics about North Korean tourism.
Should we be here?
We had just seen North Korean guards who were forbidden to leave their country and would have been shot if they had tried. How did they feel about strange foreigners coming up to the border, taking a photo then leaving to return to a first-world country with luxuries such as electricity?
Read this fascinating guest blog post by Lauren here to read a detailed article on the ethics of visiting North Korea.
We all got back on our tour bus and left this tense place. Slightly exhausted after all the adrenalin and anxiety we were quite hungry. Our guide took us to a non-descriptive restaurant where we were all asked to take our shoes off upon entering. Most of the tourists took part in a gigantic hot pot filled with slightly odd-looking meat. Alex and I, on the other hand, were served an absolutely delicious bibimbap.
Imjingak Station & the Freedom Bridge
With a fiery fizzle on our tongues we left and headed towards the freedom bridge and Imjingak Station park. I believe we must have overrun with lunch as we only had 20 minutes here. The Imjingak was again a strange place.
It is at once a peaceful, colourful place as well as a sad, grey location. Red, pink and orange ribbons are attached to the ugly, steel grey barb wire.
Seeing a shelled-out train once again reminded us of the violent history of the still ongoing Korean War.
We could see the Freedom bridge in the distance. It gained its name as it was used by repatriated prisoners of war returning to South Korea from North Korea.
Afterwards, we headed into one of the 4 tunnels that have been discovered beneath the border. The story goes that whilst peace negotiations were being held above ground, below ground North Koreans were digging under the border. Naturally, both sides said the same story.
After a while, the North Koreans changed the narrative and said they were building a coal mine and smeared the inner walls of the tunnel with black coal to prove this.
The tunnels were discovered by a dog walker who heard a large explosion. It took almost 4 months to discover the first tunnel and dig an interception tunnel. We were visiting the 3rd tunnel which is the tunnel closest to Seoul.
We arrived at the site and were asked to put all of our belongings in a locker, especially phones and cameras. There is a strict no photo policy in place in the tunnels. We then donned very stylish bright blue hard hats to protect our heads. I was pleased of this precaution later. A strange white shuttle appeared and we strapped ourselves in and headed deep underground.
Our ivory carriage slowly crept downwards. It was damp. I wished I was not wearing my pretty pumps.
We arrived at our final destination after a few minutes. Inside the tunnel, the tour guide told us the story of how it had been discovered and then we were allowed to explore. All of us were crouching as we followed the eerie lights inside the tunnel. The tunnel was not built for tall people!
We walked as far as we were allowed, and we could see the second blockade from a small gap in the third blockade. None of the tall people lingered for long at this site as we were eager to reach the higher part of the tunnel again.
Able to stand upright again we all stretched. We then had the option to take the strange white mobile back to the surface or to walk up a different tunnel. Alex and I decided to walk to stretch our legs. The path was a quite slippery and I was grateful for the handlebars at the side. I stared in disbelief as children ran down the slope with perfect grip!
As we reached the surface, our eyes readjusted to the light and we explored whilst waiting for the rest of our tour to ascend from the depths.
There are several monuments around the entrances to the 3rd infiltration tunnel. There is a sad logo which symbolises hope as well as well as division. A barbed wire cuts through the letter M whilst there is a flower on the Z letter.
Another poignant piece of art is a giant globe symbolising reunification. The globe has been cut in half and one side has North Korea and the other side has South Korea. Bronze statues on both sides are pushing the sides together to unify the sections. Yet it has not yet happened and there is still a gap between the two.
The next part of the tour is a visit to the DMZ museum. You are ushered into a cinema and watch a short film. Afterwards, you are free to wander around the museum. There was a lot of interesting information about policies, the history as well as geography. For example, I had no idea that the DMZ was a haven for wildlife.
Dorasan Train Station
Dorasan Train station used to connect North Korea and South Korea. The station is just 650m from the DMZ.
The station was very interesting. I found the maps fascinating as it showed how South Korea is blocked to the rest of the world by North Korea. The station is full of hopeful propaganda of reunification with saying such as:
“Not the last station from the South, but the first station towards the North.”
Even though we had been into North Korea in that very morning, seeing signs of trains going towards Pyeongyang once again reminded me of how close we were to the world’s most well-known communist dictator.
We did not stay long at the station before moving on to our final stop on the tour: Dora Observatory
The final part of the tour is a visit to Dora Observatory.
Dora Observatory offers visitors a chance to glimpse civilian North Koreans. Through binoculars (which you have to pay for) you can see North Koreans walking down streets, look at the houses and see the propaganda village close to the border.
There is also an ongoing battle with who has the tallest flag. Each country tries to outdo the other by having a taller mast than their neighbour. In the 50ies two villages were built on either side in the DMZ. North Korea’s village also known as the propaganda village is called Kijong-dong meaning Peace village. In fact, no one lives there are the buildings have no glass windows. On the southern side, the village is Taesang-dong. This village has inhabitants who are exempt from taxes and compulsory military service but they are never allowed to relocate. The flag battle began in the 1980s when the South Korean government erected a 98m pole in Taesong-dong and flew the country’s flag. North Korea responded by building a 160m flagpole which was the tallest in the world at that point.
South Korea also plays Kpop music and beams bright lights from the Dora Observatory in order for North Koreans to gain an idea of what life is like south of the border. North Korea respond by blasting anti-Western rhetoric, military music and communist operas.
It felt strange watching people who were essentially prisoners in their own country. I was swept over by a feeling of privilege. I was able to just leave my country and work in China when I wanted to. Who knows when North Koreans will have that privilege.
It was also interesting to have a bird’s eye view of the DMZ. It was lush and green in the DMZ as the museum had described. I could see beautiful mountains in the distance that I wanted to climb. I could see people, just like myself, but ones who were living a very different life.
We returned to the bus and I felt overwhelmed by the day’s activities. I had learnt and seen so much. Alex and I were very pleased that we had managed to take part in the tour and see the border for ourselves.
Make sure you take part in a tour to the DMZ whilst you are in Seoul. Hope this helps you plan your trip and know what to expect.
Let me know if this was helpful in the comments below!