For the past few years, I’ve been fascinated with North Korea and how little the rest of the world know about it. I’m both fascinated and saddened by what I read, and since coming to South Korea my curiosity has only increased.
Having done some research before I left Scotland, I knew that you could only visit the North as part of an expensive organised tour where you had to be accompanied by a government official the whole time (except when in your hotel room) and the tour guide only told you what they wanted to tell you. This option didn’t appeal to me. The only other way you can visit North Korea is by going to the Joint Security Area (JSA), or Panmunjon as it’s also known.
The JSA is the jointly controlled truce village in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas. The DMZ is a strip of land that runs across the whole 160 mile (25okm) breadth of the Koreas. At 2.5 miles (4km) wide, it acts as a buffer zone between North and South Korea and it has been in place since the cease-fire in 1953. Technically the countries are still at war since no peace treaty was ever signed, which is why it is the most heavily militarized border in the world. Exciting stuff.
After much deliberation in deciding which tour to do, I booked the combined tour run by TourDMZ for myself, my cousin, and two friends, and at 120,000 won (about £70) for a full day tour – it was well worth the money! The tour included the 3rd infiltration tunnel, the Dora Observatory, Dorasan Train Station, Imjingak (Freedom bridge), the JSA and the Bridge of No Return’…. and not forgetting the lovely Laura – our English speaking tour guide. She was a cracker!
Point to note: you need to book 4 days advance incase your nationality is on the restricted list and additional background checks are needed.
The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel
The first stop on the tour was the 3rd infiltration tunnel. After the ceasefire in 1953, North Korea dug several tunnels in a bid to invade South Korea. The third tunnel was discovered in 1978 (the 4th tunnel was only discovered in 1990!) at a depth of 73 metres, 1.95 metres high and 1,635 metres long. It is located only 44km from Seoul and it was estimated that it would take approximately an hour for 10,000 soldiers to move through the tunnel. Hard hats on, we went down into the tunnel on a wee train. Unfortunately photographs weren’t permitted, but I did manage to pick up a bit of the rock from inside the tunnel as a wee souvenir for myself.
The Dora Observatory
The Dora Observatory is the official viewing platform into North Korea. From there you can see Gaesung city (the second largest city in North Korea) and Kijongdong – the North Korean propaganda village. The North Korean government claim that the village has a population of 200 people and boasts a childcare center, kindergarten, primary and secondary schools, and a hospital. However, the South Korean government claim that the village is actually uninhabited and was in fact built at great expense in the 1950s in a propaganda effort to encourage South Koreans to move to the North. No photos of the landscape are allowed, and soldiers keep watch to make sure that is enforced. Not because it’s North Korea, but rather as the area includes the South Korean landscape, the government doesn’t want images getting into enemy hands that might show them lie of the land. Paranoid or what?
Not one to be deterred, I managed to snap a view sneaky photos…
Dorasan Train Station
Next stop was Dorasan trainstation. This is the closest station to North Korea. Before the war it connected North and South Korea, and in 2007 it was reopened to freight trains, but it was then closed again in 2008 when the North Korean government accused South Korea of a confrontational policy. It’s also the only place you can get the North Korean immigration stamp – unfortunately you’re not allowed it on your passport – so a postcard had to do!
Imjingak (Freedom Bridge)
This bridge was used to exchange the prisoners after the war. A park was built to console families from both sides who are unable to return to their hometowns and families. Even today people still write messages of hope of unification and dreams of seeing their families again on ribbons and tie them to the fence. It was a sad place and a very poignant reminder of how many people are still affected by the war.
The afternoon was dedicated to the Joint Security Area. It contains both South Korean buildings (Blue) and North Korean buildings (grey) and it is the only area of the DMZ where South and North Korean soldiers stand face-to-face. One building in particular, the MAC Conference room, is where all the meetings take place that are ‘essential to the supervision of the Armistice’, and as it straddles the border, it is the place were tourists can cross into North Korea. Which is what I did.
It was a tense place. Before we were anywhere near the border, passport checks were carried out by South Korean soldiers and an armed guard accompanied our bus the whole time we were in the vicinity. Prior to the trip we had to agree to adhere to a strict dress code (no hot pants or ripped/faded jeans) – which the soldiers then checked when we were on the bus. After a Powerpoint briefing on the history of the JSA, we were on our way to the border. We were told when and where we could take pictures. We were told to make no sudden sounds or hand gestures, nor to point in the direction of the North. We had to stand in a line, in pairs, and we were given UN guest badges so that when we were facing the North, they could identify us. It wasn’t until later that I found out the reason for the strict dress code: if the North saw us in hot pants or ripped jeans they would use that as propaganda to show their people how poor the tourists were as they couldn’t afford decent clothing… mental. This is was also the place where I bought North Korean currency.
The Bridge of no return
The final stop on the tour before heading back to Seoul was the Bridge of No Return. So called because once the POWs decided which direction they wanted to go, there was no turning back. After the ‘axe murder incident‘ in 1976 it was closed and no one has ever crossed the bridge since. It’s nice to finish on a happy note.
If you’re not already sleeping, to quickly sum-up, it was a great tour. It was educational, exciting, scary, tense, sad, depressing and moving. At times I thought the tour guide was overly biased towards South Korea, but that’s to be expected. I was overwhelmed at parts, especially when I thought about all the families who are still separated, and how South Korea is flourishing and their North counterparts are starving and they can’t do anything about it. It’s tragic and frustrating, but that doesn’t stop every single South Korean from believing that one day the two countries will be united again. Having now lived in Korea, and heard first hand views on the North, I can honestly say unification is every Korean’s wish. I’d like to say it will happen in my lifetime, but sadly I don’t think it will.