Visiting North Korea

Seoul to Kaesong, North Korea – Up at the crack of dawn, being 5:00 am, to meet Megan my Korean-national friend, resident of Seoul, to make the trek across the DMZ to go to the ancient city of Kaesong, North Korea for the day. Kaesong was the old capital of the unified Korean peninsula and only nine months ago did a goodwill accord get established between the North and the South to allow day trips to this historical city commence. Trips are limited to 500 people per day and run on a very strict time schedule with stops negotiaged between both countries with specific restrictions on how the southern foreigners, the “galwei” would be able to view the historical sites and interact with the locals in the North.

Got on our bus in downtown Seoul and headed off to the DMZ where there is the South Korean immigration and customs checkpoint about an hour away. The drive up the motorway was intriguing in that when we were still within a few miles of the North Korean border a tall fence with circular rings of barbed wire running the length of the top began to barricade any water approach to the country from the river behind. The fence ran literally for miles with camouflaged watch towers every few hundred yards and sodium lights to be illuminated the moment there was any sort of advance by unwelcome contacts.

On this stretch of road to connect to the North the DMZ consists of a South Korean military barricade, seven kilometers of the DMZ no man’s land, then the North Korean military barricade on the other side. About 2km before the South Korean barricade the bus came upon the ECO bridge where there was a military checkpoint which we cleared and started across the bridge, littered with bright yellow and black striped barricades, circular spiked wheels that would put out a car tire, and other one-sided spiked barriers, all pointed toward the North. The bus began the salom through these items and Megan explained that it’s to slow down an advance from the North if it were ever to happen.

Once across the bridge we arrived at a brand new steel and glass immigration building (called the INSERT NAME HERE) where we disembarked and went inside to pick up our North Korean immigration documents. We were handed clear plastic pouch to wear around our necks, inside a large colored card outlining the bearers name, nationality, and all personal details along with a full color photo of the visa photo submitted with the application. Megan’s was green since she is a Korean national but mine was bright purple to indicate I am a real non-Korean foreigner making the trek North. Since I’m a dual national I decided to go in on my Irish passport as not to raise any eyebrows since Ireland’s officially netural and would be less-confrontational than a U.S. national heading on in. Back downstairs where we officially exited South Korea and were stamped out of the country on our regular passports, then told to put them away and to always wear our North Korean immigration documents in full view for the duration of the trip until we were back. It was almost like wearing a scarlet letter (or a violet badge in my case).

We boarded the buses and drove to the actual South Korean military barrier which looked like a raspberry bramble of barbed wire 12-15ft high with multiple large fences, watch towers and staffed by both South Korean and American military officials as we passed through the black and white retractable barricade the width of the road. Now officially in the DMZ no man’s land the bus cruised along and I was expecting to see a large yellow line painted across the highway demarking the North and the South, but unfortunately no markings were in view. Since all of the commentary from the guide was in Hangul (Korean), Megan explained that the DMZ is marked by short one metre high concrete markers with a yellow painted point at the top. They’re spaced every 200 metres along the actual frontier but they are not visible from the road as not to stoke any tensions between the two countries – both who see the other’s territory as part of their own. As a parallel think of China’s policy toward Taiwan.

We came up to yet another steel and glass immigration building which was the official North Korean immigration and customs post – clearly funded by the South as part of the goodwill of allowing these trips. We disembarked and went into our immigration lanes to be admitted, and while the building was brand new the North Koreans wanted to make it have a cultural flavor of their own so before the metal detectors of customs and immigration, in the area where you wait in line, they’d pulled out two large full-length wood framed mirrors and placed them on each side of the hall just in case you needed to check yourself before inspection. Honestly it looked like a mirror my 90 year old grandmother might have had in her house at one time. And, just in case you didn’t know the time there was a matching grandfather clock next to the mirror that chimed on the hour. I’m guessing these came from some official’s house to make the immigration and customs inspection more welcoming.

Customs first, so we lined up to pass through the metal detector and have bags x-rayed. I stepped up and as Megan noted my customs inspector was a two star military officer. I locked eyes with him when walking through and he would not break our long stare – I finally shifted my eyes after a few seconds due to the uncomfortable feeling I was getting from him. He was a tough one and let’s say I would’t want to have to spend a bunch of time with him in an interrogation room. He immediately asked me where I was from. “Ireland,” I responded. “Give me your papers,” which I handed over. Another long stare right in my eyes then he made the motion for me to pass and retrieve my bag. My camera which was a larger SLR with a 30-300mm lens had been check back at South Korean customs because lenses longer than 160mm are not permitted in North Korea due to “security reasons”. No camera an really nothing in my bag so I grabbed it and went over to the immigration officer who took my paperwork stamped my entry stamp on my purple card and sent me on my way to the waiting bus outside.

Now that we were in North Korea there would be three North Korean “guides” who would board the bus with us and accompany us throughout the day. On the bus our South Korean driver announced over the on-board microphone to please applaude when the North Korean guides arrived to “make them feel welcome”. They boarded, and on a bus where I was the only “galwei” they all clapped as instructed when the three arrived. Two sat up front and one sat in the back to monitor us and insure we didn’t take any photos out the windows while the bus was moving.

Since the North Koreans allow only 500 people a day they manage it tightly by chartering thirteen busses and move the entire group as a unit so no one gets lost (or no one gets into one of the luggage compartments to go South). When we departed, we departed as a convoy. First was the black 4×4 with four military officers inside, then a second military vehicle, our thirteen tourist busses, then a second black 4×4 bringing up the rear.

Our destination was the INSERT NAME waterfall INSERT DISTANCE from the immigration post, which would take us about an hour to get to. Once on the bus one of the communist North Korean “guides” took control of the microphone and started telling us about the virtues of the North and the major accomplishments and landmarks along the journey. We would need to pass on a road high above the city of Kaesong (not a small place) where we’d be visiting later, and what I found interesting is that since I couldn’t understand Hangul I had a very different perspective than Megan who could understand our Northern guide’s commentary.

At one point we were coming up to a turn in the road where a tall building stood, a view of the city of Kaesong below in the valley clearly visible past the turn. On the left was a grassy field with a small hill where a large antenna was mounted, but not particularly interesting. Clearly our guide had gone through ‘Communism 101′ tour guide training, because at the point where the bus would have a very clear view of the city and a children’s school nearby he got on the microphone and said something to the effect of, “If you look to the left you will see the largest radio transmission tower in the southern part of our country.” Immediately all Korean eyes looked to the left, away from the city view at the antenna, but I couldn’t understand him so I looked to the right and was looking right down with a clear view of the city, the broken tile roofs of the houses, the children playing in the school across the road, all dressed in identical school uniforms, playing on rusty playground equipment, the only spectator of this view.

This diversion tactic happened three different times, and I mentioned it to Megan so she became aware of what the communists were, in what we believe, was an attempt to shield us from seeing certain windows into local Kaesong life. Megan’s really mentally sharp and the two of us began to analyze every action our commie “guides” did from that point forward. Good thing it was first thing in the morning when we talked about this because she picked up on something very intriguing later that day.

Our guide prattled on for the entire hour en route to the waterfall (thankfully I couldn’t understand anything, let alone the North Korean folk song he decided to sing for the bus), but what was strange outside was the appearance of a North Korean soldier standing in the middle of a field or on a path every couple of miles. It was almost as if the military had been alerted to our bus route and they were there to make sure we were passing our checkpoints to our destination. What I noticed later, after seeing a solder standing on a dirt track in the middle of a wheat field, was that they were only stationed at any access points that directly connected a village or housing development to the highway. If there were paths running under the elevated road in places you would see locals riding their bicycles or walking, but if the path or road connected to the highway there was always a solitary soldier standing watching the road. It was almost as if they were keeping the people in to insure no contact with the foreigners’ busses versus insuring we didn’t stop to interact with anyone. We also got to see large concrete slabs in the middle of agricultural fields with murals of Kim Jong Il standing amid a bountiful harvest to incent those living nearby that “our great leader” will provide spiritual guideance for you (even if your crops fail).

We finally arrived at the parking lot for the waterfalls which consisted of a small wooden building, a “shop” (free use of the word), with the entire inventory of the snacks for sale on display on the single shelf attached to the outside of the building. We figured that if it wasn’t outside it wasn’t in stock any more. It was almost comical how the workers went running behind the building when the busses arrived to find that single power plug to connect the CD player to blare Korean pop songs at high volume into the parking lot. Half of the tour of 500 had passed the shop by the time they got the music going – I could almost see them running out back to scream to the one sleeping electrician, “Turn on the power – the galwei are here!” We bought an instant coffee and discovered the pricing system of “one dollar” as the base price for everything in the country.

The waterfalls are set in a lush forested setting with hills and a concrete path and staircases cutting through the foliage. The waterfall was nice great setting with a lagoon, and there were a couple of small temples higher up above the falls that we visited. Each of the stone markers describing the falls or the temples were engraved in Hangul and after reading the third one Megan giggled when I asked her what it said because each started out with the same words of, “Our dear great and beloved leader . . .”

After our temple visit we were sitting near the falls on a bench by ourselves when one of the North Korean male guides came over and asked if we were a couple. Megan responded we weren’t but ex-work colleagues, then tried to politely finish the conversation with him. Since we were off away from the other tourists the guide now had the opportunity to talk to Westerners so he continued to ask questions of Megan across a variety of topics from if the new Windows Vista really had a bunch of bugs to who won the latest “INSERT WORD” Korean chess tournament. Megan was actually pretty surprised that he was aware of many of the items he had questions about which indicated information is getting into the country, more, it appears than we were led to believe.

One topic of particular interest was the fact that I was from Ireland. He asked about me, where Ireland was specifically, then asked about whether British English was better than American English since American English mangled the use of proper grammar. (Megan to verify if I got the concept correct on this.) Megan just explained that they’re both the same language with a differential of word usage between the two.

It was time to head down to the busses and in the parking lot there were a good couple hundred people of the 500 on our tour all sitting around and waiting for the call to board the busses. Megan and I were speaking in English to each other when another of the North Korean guides came over and asked Megan if I was realy from Ireland. It must have been strange to them to see a South Korean woman together with a Western galwei, the two of us speaking English together. Megan joked I was probably on the communist watch list since we were getting so many questions from the different guides, and clearly they were talking about this among themselves because another two times with different guides did my nationality come up – in one case where the question was worded, “You are from Ireland, right?”

Headed away from the falls and back through the country to the city proper of Kaseong, passing the lone military guards standing in the fields watching our convoy go past. Arrived in town and were taken a circuituous route to our lunch destination in a building on the corner of an intersection where five major four-lane roads converged, a lone traffic guard standing in the middle. What immediately struck me was that there were no cars – anywhere – coming or going through this town of 300,000 residents. The odd bicycle, a handful of men and women crossing the main street on foot a couple of blocks down, but literally no traffic of any kind. Honestly it was like one of those post apocalyptic horror films where something happened and there are no longer residents of this once largely populated city.

Our guide pointed out the three things were were allowed to take pictures of: the crappy concrete building the lunch restaurant was being held in, the large bronze statue of Kim Jong Il at the top of the hill at the end of the road above us (but we weren’t allowed to walk up there), and the stone spire across the street, a monument to one of the Kim Jong wives, but crossing the street was not permitted, nor was going any farther than the corner outside the restaurant and down the block about 25 metres. On the diagonal corner the construction site with the crane and the big pile of dirt on the sidewalk was forbidden to be photographed. Whatever.

Inside for lunch which consisted of twelve small gold bowls, each with a different item. Korean food generally isn’t my thing since you can never really identify the food in the first place, and this particular spread was questionable at best. The entire meal was a facade the government put on for us to show us that there’s no food crisis in their country. We had a chicken soup, a bowl of some kind of spiced meat, another of fish, various vegetable dishes, a sticky rice dessert with fruit, and alcohol you could have stripped the paint off your house with – all items that none of the local women serving the food could possibly afford. Megan also ordered this local cold noodle dish which looked a bit like purple dishwater with glass noodles, all for the outrageous price of only two US dollars. Ate pretty much nothing but a bowl of warm rice then headed to the “gift shop” at the entrance to the building.

I was hoping for communist propaganda items, but this shop only held organic goods from the region, dried vegetables and the like, and three or four bottles of local spirits. The shop looked well stocked, had items in glass cases as well as along all of the walls, but as I browsed I realized that the bottles on one side of the shop were the same kind as the ones at the entry. Ditto for the vegetables and honey across the way as well. Looks like they had a very limited selection and just put more and more out to give the appearance of a stocked store.

Headed outside to take some photos before the communists ushered us into the bus again so Megan and I walked out and were able to walk into the middle of the four lane main thoroughfare outside. The North Korean minders had created a cordon standing spaced apart down the middle of the road which was the farthest we were permitted to walk. Stood in the street without fear of traffic since there wasn’t any and took photos of each other with the Kim Il Jong statue in the background and the empty intersection down the hill from us (construction site, crane, and all). The lone traffic cop was still standing in the empty intersection when a blue colored local bus, absolutely packed to the rafters with locals, turned onto the road a few blocks up, headed our direction. The bus hit the intersection and the cop got to do his duty and direct it off to the right, away from the Westerners and down the road we weren’t allowed to visit.

We walked down the block to the corner where another group of the North Korean guides had placed themselves to keep us from going any farther where we looked around the back of the restaurant to see a sad looking creek flowing with small pedestrial bridges crossing over about 30 yards down. There were people walking across, a couple of men on bikes, so I took a photo of the bridges with the people while pretending to be taking a photo of the ugly restaurant building. When we were driving in I noticed a nice looking temple visible just steps from the corner of the block, but it was invisible unless you stepped into the gutter. I mentioned to Megan that we should ask if we can take a photo of the temple, moreso so we could get a good look down the long wide boulevard just beyond where the temple sat.

She walked over to the communists and asked if we could step off the block to take a quick photo. “No,” came the response. Megan’s a very independent woman so she stepped off the sidewalk into the street and moved toward the guide and asked again. “No, No.” She pushed it to no avail and came back over to meet me and we headed back up the hill towards the busses. Megan turned to me and laughed a little as she said “There’s really nothing to take photos of” as we passed the stone monument to the dictator’s wife, a sad looking department store sitting behind it, closed, with no more than three children’s shirts in one of the multiple display windows, the rest empty for lack of product. By now the entire tour had finished eating and there were now five hundred people standing in the middle of the street taking photos and milling about, the walkie-talkie toting guides calling to those stragglers who crossed the invisible barrier keeping us from interacting with anyone from their country.

We were called to board the bus and we drove down the street a bit, one we’d come up prevoiusly, while out the window there were a handful of men and women walking without a glance at the passing bus convoy. The children would look and wave at the busses but nary a look from the adults at all. A short while later we pulled up outside a temple and a historical stone bridge and were told we had thirty minutes to look at both. Everything on the tour was precisely timed and literally when it was time to go they got all of these people back on their transport and moving along in under five minutes – they meant business.

The temple was simple and it took no more than five minutes to visit. The stone bridge was constructed in approximately 600 A.D. and has special significance to Megan since one of her ancestors from the Koryo dynasty stood up against the conquering Chosun dynasty and was killed on the bridge for standing up for what he believed in. This story is now a folk tale still told today, with variations depending on if the storyteller has allegiance to one dynasty or the other. That took another five minutes so we walked through the adjoining garden back to the long wall running the length of the garden and nearby road. There was a small staircase cut into the wall which if we climbed would allow a view of the people walking and biking on the path just across the creek behind. We were close to mounting the first step but one of those pesky communist guides standing next to a nearby tree did what he was told to do and forbade us from having a look. Our attempt was more another poke at them, just to see what they’d do since we both knew we weren’t supposed to climb to the top of the wall.

Back on the bus to the next stop at the Kaesong Institute which was a INSERT WHAT, but the bus journey was only about 150 yards from the stone bridge we’d just visited. By walking the galwei might come in contact with someone so the bus was necessary. The institute is basically another small, simple-looking temple complex of about three buildings set back from the street behind what looked like an auditorium of some kind. We had to walk around this auditorium to get to the temple and as we were walking Megan noticed the glass in the building didn’t look quite right. “It’s shiny,” she said. I then picked up on the fact that in the doors and tall windows, no more than six feet high, there were one or two horizontal lines across the glass panes on each panel. We worked out that the shine Megan spotted was because the glass wasn’t actually flat but imperfect and bumpy with bubbles in the glass, clear so you cound see through, but the waves from the uneven surface in the pane creating the gleam she saw. The lines I noticed on the larger glass panels were where the North Koreans had placed two pieces of glass together in the frame because they couldn’t produce a single pane six feet high by two feet wide.

The temple visit took ten minutes so we had twenty minutes to kill before the last stop of the day. We went out in front of the auditorium building which was on another of the main four-lane roads, devoid of cars as usual, and stood at the edge of the sidewalk. I looked to the left and spotted one of our military escort guards about two hundred yards away telling the pedestrians that passage was blocked until the foreigners leave. Their option was to go back to the corner and cross the street to pass on the other side. Our North Korean guides had established their cordon in the gutter and another military guard was down to the right completing our military barricade to keep us in. Straight across the street no more than ten yards away there were now a fair number of people walking to and fro passing by the growing number of Westerners lining the edge of the sidewalk. Since the institute didn’t take that long to visit more and more of my fellow tourists were just standing there in silence watching the people pass across in front of us. None of the North Korean locals turned to look at us, some barely glanced. It was almost as if they were wearing invisible horse blinders created by the fear of reprisals from their local communist party officials if they stopped and had a good hard look at us.

We had eight military officers with us, four in the lead convoy car and four in the rear, and one of them walked past us talking into a walkie talkie when we were standing watching the locals. It was one of those walkie talkies we used to have as children in the 70’s with the large black plastic rectangular shape that holds two ‘D’ size batteries and the long silver telescopic antenna. Usually broke after three weeks of pretending to be an army ranger. This is the 2008 North Korean military issue walkie talkie I’m talking about and it looked exactly the same.

One final stop ahead of us, no less than three hundred yards by bus from the last stop, which was the old Kaesong University site with adjacent stamp museum. This stop was actually pretty interesting and we immediately headed to the stamp museum which doubled as a stamp shop to have a look. I skipped the museum part and started looking at the single rack of propaganda postcards, exactly what I’d been looking for throughout the day. Cost for a postcard printed on what felt like parchment paper was USD 0.30 each, and the stamp depicting Kim Jong Il shaking hands with his dead father in some twisted power transition illustration was a cool two dollars. Ouch.

The site of the old Kaesong University was actually beautiful. We passed through a large wooden gate set in a tall whitewashed wall into an enormous courtyard shaded by two trees that were more than a thousand years old. As with most temple complexes there’s a series of gates


1 comment to Visiting North Korea

  • Vince

    This is very interesting. The lenghts they go to to make it look perfect is absolutely hilarious, yet they see it as good hosting i’m sure. It’d be cool to get into some of those forbidden areas somehow and see what they don’t want us to. What could they be hiding? The way the buildings are laid out I wouldn’t be surprised if some crazy shit is going down. This seems like a trip I want to take some day, I have to see this for myself. I want to get some of those “forbidden pictures.”