22.06.2008 - 22.06.2008
We visited the North Korean city of Kaesong as part of a day trip from South Korea. The tours were organised by the South Korean company Hyundai Asan as part of a cooperation innitative between the governments of North and South Korea.
Seoul to DMZ
The pick-up point for the tour was a bus station in suburban Seoul. A small handful of mostly South Koreans waited as the coach pulled up at 6am. Other than ourselves one lone American made up the foreign contingent. The 35 mile trip to the demilitarised zone (DMZ) which separates the countries took about an hour. Upon reaching the South Korean side of the DMZ we disembarked the coach to collect our visa papers. The papers had been arranged in advance and consisted of a clear wallet containing a photo card and visa document. The wallets had been colour coded based on nationality (yellow for South Koreans and Blue for other nationalities). It would be mandatory to wear the wallet around our neck for the duration of our stay in the North. We were also issued with instructions informing us of the rules for our stay: "No mobile phones. No radios. No video cameras. No literature of any kind (including newspapers and guide books). No photos taken from inside the coach. No photos of soldiers or any military building. Etc...". Our previously empty coach had now filled up with tourists from other parts of South Korea and with seven other coaches joining us we set off in convey across the DMZ
Crossing the DMZ
Despite its name the DMZ is said to be the most heavily militarised zone in the world with estimates of one million soldiers guarding each side of the central demarcation line (DML) which officially marks the central part of the 2.5 mile wide DMZ. Despite this build-up the DMZ is a strangely quiet place with few signs of the large military presence. The view from each side of the coach was mostly of green fields. However, as we reached and crossed the DML things changed a little with watch towers coming into sight manned by soldiers intently watching our coaches pass through binoculars. After a short while we reached the North Korean side of the DMZ and it was finally time to enter the North.
Entering the North
Our coaches pulled up at the North Korean immigration point where we disembarked again. As we entered the immigration building loud music blasted over the PA system. Fellow South Korean travellers informed us the tunes were old Korean folk songs which had been banned in the South following the Korean war. After some basic immigration checks we reboarded the coaches again, this time with new drivers and and the addition of 4-5 North Korean 'tour guides' dispersed in various places throughout the coach. Following a welcome announcement in Korean we were off on our way to Kaesong.
DMZ to Kaesong
Kaesong town is about 5-6 miles north of the DMZ and on our way there we passed through the Kaesong industrial complex which is a joint venture between the North and South Korean governments to provide manufacturing jobs to North Koreans working forlarge South Korean companies. The scheme tends to prosper or fail depending on the prevailing relationship between the two governments at any given time. The complex was quiet as we passed through but it was a weekend. As we made our way towards Kaesong the speed at which we were travelling became noticable. Whilst in South Korea the coaches had diligently kept to the speed limit but now we were driving at breakneck speed along patchy roads. As we made our way through the North Korean countryside at speed you could make out blurred images of people manually labouring in the fields. There was no sign of any machinery but there soldiers were stationed every 200-400m or so, often just standing to attention in a field. It was not clear whether they did this all day or just when the weekly coach conveys passed through. We didn't see any vehicles other than our convey. Despite our earlier instructions one fellow tourist tried to take a photo from the coach but was quickly reprimanded by one of the 'travel guides' sitting throughout the coach. It soon became obvious that the guides were primarily there to enforce the rules and the driving speed was designed to prevent us seeing too much from the windows as we passed. The head guide now decided that the time had come for some light entertainment and started belting out karaoke versions of popular North Korean songs from the front of the coach. The majority of the coach looked on rather bemused.
Kaesong has an important place in Korean history and used to be the capital of the combined Korean peninsula during the Koryo dynasty. The city today is a fairly deserted place with crumbling infrastructure and lifeless streets. The architecture is typically communist in style and propaganda images and slogans adorn the buildings. Traffic police stand in the middle of wide empty boulevards directing non-existent traffic. The local people are noticably shorter than their South Korean compatriots and most are dressed in fairly drab and basic clothing. The first sight on the itinerary is Barkyeon Falls. A perfectly pleasant but unremarkable waterfall which the government has designated a 'scenic materpiece'. The waterfall is surrounded by rock carvings of quotes from the 'Great Leader' Kim Il Sung who alledgely carved them himself. A young tour guide, with broken English, enthusiastically showed us around. The ever present coach tour guides intervened whenever we attempted to ask questions unrelated to the site itself. The biggest point of interest for the local guides seemed to be finding out which countries we came from. Facial features and the blue documentation wallet gave us away as non-Koreans. They generally seemed fairly happy to discover we were not from the imperialist enemy number one, America. Next on the itinerary was Kwanumsa Buddhist Temple, a National Treasure of Korea. In a land where worship is usually reserved for the ruling Kim family it was surprising to see some religious sites remain intact.
One of our coach 'guides' and a local guide proudly wearing their 'Great Leader' badges:
Lunch and shopping
Next stop was Kaesong Model Village and time for lunch. The model village is a recreation of an old style Korean village surrounded by a high perimeter fence. The fence is presumably to prevent unvited people from entering but possibly to stop invited tourists from seeing the less desirable areas outside also. A glimpse through a crack in the gate showed some fairly rundown scenes. Lunch was a full traditional Korean banquet with twelve separate dishes served in gold coloured bowls as well as rice and soup. Waitresses were decked out in the tradional Korean Hanbok dress. After lunch it was time to view what souveneers Kaesong had to offer in the model village shops. The grocery shop had mostly bare shelves but there were packs of stale biscuits for USD 5 (2 months past sell buy date). The book shop mostly stocked books written by the 'Great' and 'Dear' leaders in Korean though some had been translated into questionable English. Audio tape cassettes were available with popular North Korean songs including such classics such as "Yanky Imperialist Bastards". The final shop sold alcohol at highly marked up prices. Not wanting to contribute any further funds to the North Korean government we decided to pass and it was back to sightseeing for the afternoon.
Sunjukgyo Historic Bridge was the next stop on the itinerary. The bridge is famous as the place where the Confucius scholar Jong Mong Ju was killed by the first Emperor of the Chosun Dynasty back in 1392. Aside from its historical significance the bridge is fairly unimpressive. The final stop of the day was Koryo Museum which houses important relics from the Koryo period. The most note worthy incident here was when I was ordered to delete a photo from my camera which happened to include a local tour guide who apparently didn't like to be photographed. With sightseeing complete it was time to return to the DMZ.
Exiting North Korea
We were warned at the start of the day that upon exiting North Korea it was likely that our cameras would be checked for any photos deemed 'inappropriate'. And so it was as the passengers from all eight coaches were lined up while the border guards checked every single photo on every single camera. When the last camera had been checked and with other formalities complete we reboarded the coaches and headed back across the DMZ towards the South. As we crossed the DML there was an sigh of relief from many of the South Koreans onboard.
Note on photographs
The 'Authorised photos' on this site were taken at the official tourist sites and were permitted by our North Korean guides. The 'Unauthorised photos' were taken surreptitiously from the coach using a separate and smaller camera. The speed at which the coaches travelled and the ever alert onboard guides made it difficult to get decent shots. On exiting North Korea it was just a matter of hiding the extra memory card and showing the technically challenged border guards the 'acceptable' photos on my main camera to get through.
Visiting North Korea was an unforgettable experience and one I don't regret. I certainly questioned paying USD 200 for a tour where a sizable chunk of that money would fall into the hands of the North Korean government. However, the flip side is that as more tourists visit North Korea it's likely that the informationally starved local population will learn more of the outside world which will hopefully make it harder for the government to maintain its iron grip in the longer term. The tourist sites are fairly underwhelming but it's fair to say that most people visiting the North are not going for the monuments. In this day and age it is unbelievable that places such as North Korea can still exist and that's probably why it's still such a facinating, yet dark, place to visit.
One month after our visit a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a soldier on a tour to the North Korean resort of Mount Kumgang. Tours from over the border to the south were subsequently cancelled and at the time of writing have not resumed. It is still possible to visit North Korea via China.