Today was a day that I had been looking forward to all year and it was pretty much everything I hoped it would be. Today we visited the demilitarised zone (DMZ) which is the border between North Korea and South Korea and, ironically, one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world as it’s still technically an active warzone due to the fact the Korean War has never officially ended with a peace treaty.
A fairly early start today – a quick 7am breakfast followed by stocking up on bottled water for the journey which, at 85 cents for 4 bottles was very cheap, then it’s onto the coach for the trip to Panmunjom. On the way out of the city the landscape changed quickly from high-rise buildings, to soviet-style breeze block apartments, to tin shacks and finally to open road through the middle of farm land. Compared to the UK this highway was almost empty – we only really passed a few cars, military trucks and buses plus farmers pulling carts until we reached the next major town. On the way we passed several military checkpoints manned by soldiers armed with AK-47s who were stopping every vehicle. In North Korea you need a permit to travel outside of your town / city so they were checking that we had permission to leave Pyongyang and enter each zone we went through.
When we arrived at the DMZ there was time for shopping before we joined a tour group from Finland who were also there at the same time for our trip down to the border with South Korea. First there was a brief introduction to the DMZ, which was translated into English by one of our guides and then to Finnish by their guide, before we were shown to the armistice hall where the treaty was signed. The hall contained the original signing desks plus exhibits detailing the history of the DMZ.
Then it was down to the MDL (Military Demarcation Line) which is the official border between North and South Korea. Every time I’ve seen the border on TV there have been soldiers from both the North and the South staring at each other over the border and staring at tourists on the other side so I was expecting a lot of tension, however except for one truck moving up a hill in the distance there was no activity in the south. There were no soldiers, no vehicles, nothing! We asked our guides and they said the border is only manned on both sides at the same time when there has been recent cross-border tension. Other than that people are only visible in the North in the morning when tour groups from the North arrive and then in the South when their tour groups arrive. Despite this there was still tension in the air.
We were allowed into one of the huts that cross the border between North Korea and South Korea and is the location that both sides meet for talks when needed. This was the part I had been looking forward to the most as you’re able to pass freely backwards and forwards across the border while in the hut – effectively crossing the only active war zone line in the world. I decided to get a photo taken straddling the line.
After a short time in the hut we were taken to the roof of the building overlooking the border which, I’ve read online, when you visit from the South you are told is only a shell of a building and not an actual building as they can’t afford it. This bit was wrong and I can assure you that it is a real building – this is also presumably why we were shown it by the North Koreans, and they even allowed us to have a photo with one of their border guards on top of it. Overall they weren’t as strict as I imagined they would be at the border – one lady accidentally stepped onto the line near the huts which is supposed to show where only the military can go but other than asking her to move there were no problems.
Onwards to Kaesong and lunch at the Folkcustoms hotel. The hotel consisted of numerous traditional Korean buildings set in wooded grounds along a stream and lunch was just as traditional in that we all sat around on mats and ate a lunch containing numerous small dishes most of which we had seen before but there were also some interesting additions. We had a chance to relax and let our food sink down but we were running late so our next stop at the Koryo Museum was only brief – we had a short tour of the exhibits and grounds before being taken into Kaesong itself to see a statue of the Great Leader.
It was at the statue overlooking Kaesong where we had our most surreal experience of the trip so far and, even though it felt completely set up, was interesting nonetheless. After we had finished looking around and taking photos our guides walked us around the corner to where there was a group of Koreans in traditional clothing playing music and dancing. We started taking photos but within a few minutes we all got roped into dancing with the group – most of us tried to escape but were unsuccessful but looking back it was an experience I can talk about so it was worth it.
King Kongmin’s tomb was the next stop of the day and after walking up the steep flight of steps to the tomb we were given an introduction to King Kongmin and told various stories about his time as leader of Korea. Our guides then gave us a test to see if we could discover where the entrance to the tomb was as when the Japanese tried to raid it during the war they couldn’t find it so blew a hole in the side. I won’t say where it is but it’s fairly obvious for anybody that has played video games. During our free time walking around the tomb we saw the Finnish tour group who had also been persuaded to join in dancing with another group of dancers adding more weight to the theory it was a set up, although I still find it funny.
We were originally going to see the concrete Wall along the border but we were told we had run out of time so it was back to Pyongyang for dinner. After passing through a few checkpoints and a brief stop at the National Reunification Monument who should we see again at the restaurant but the Finns! They were rather amused by the fact I was wearing a t-shirt of a band from Finland and after joking about it we sat down to some BimBim Bap for dinner – basically a hot pot with rice you cook and mix yourself in a little pot in front of you. It was rather spicy but nice food, except for the cabbage the waitressed insisted we mixed in with it (I’m not a fan of cabbage).
I’m relaxing back in my room in the Yanggakdo Hotel now but will be catching an early night soon. Tomorrow we are required to dress smart as we will be visiting the Mausoleum of President Kim il-Sung.
(Please note – I have been given permission to include details of my trip on my blog by the tour company but the names of my guides as well as photos of them have left out to respect their privacy. It is forbidden for journalists to visit The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on a tourist visa and it is forbidden for us to publish information about our trip in any capacity without permission. As a result I do NOT give permission for anything I write about North Korea in this blog, or any photos I upload of North Korea, to be used anywhere for any purpose other than reading directly on my blog if you are considering travelling to North Korea as a tourist. In addition I do NOT give permission for my name, my blog’s address, or any photos of me to be used or quoted anywhere for any purpose related to The DPRK. If you breach this notice you will be subject to legal action from the tour company. Thank you for your understanding.
If you feel that the post / page containing this notice breaches any regulations or if it contains any information or photos which should be changed or removed to respect the rules of the tour company or the traditions of The DPRK please let me know ASAP so I can fix the problem.)