(note: sorry if the spacing looks odd on this post. I’ve posted from my phone and will sort it out when I’m on a laptop!)
Friday 31 May 2019
When we decided to visit Seoul, both David and I wanted to include a trip to the North Korean border in our itinerary. I find North Korea fascinating but would never want to properly visit the country – because of the risk and because I wouldn’t want to give them my tourist bucks. A tour from Seoul was a much safer option, while giving minimum money to the North Korean government.
Booking a tour
I tend to book tours as I go along instead of in advance. Seoul was our third stop (Malaysia and Taiwan first) so I didn’t give our trip to the Border much thought until four days before we arrived in Seoul. Big mistake!
It was specifically the Joint Security Area (JSA) that we wanted to visit – the tour that allows you to actually step foot in North Korea. We’re here Friday to Monday and the JSA tours don’t run Sunday/Monday. And they book out in advance! I tried loads of companies with no luck and it looked like we would be doing the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) tour, without the JSA section.
As a last ditch attempt, I emailed all the companies that I could find online, asking if they had any cancellations. Two came back to me saying that they had cancellations and we could join the tour the next day! As Kiridoor contacted me first, I booked with them. VVIP Travel also offered us cancellation places. A few companies replied to say that they needed 48 hours notice so couldn’t offer cancellation places. The moral of my story – book in advance, but if you don’t, try for cancellations!
What to wear
There’s a strict dress code for visiting the JSA. North Korean soldiers will take photographs of people touring from the South and use them as propaganda. If you show up looking scruffy, you might end up in North Korean propaganda as proof that those outside the country don’t have money to buy good clothes!
We’d planned to do the tour before leaving home so had brought what we thought would be suitable outfits. However, after we received the FAQs from Kiridoor, we decided to buy something else to be on the safe side. I was concerned about David’s shirt being crushed but our outfits weren’t scrutinised too much by the tour company or US military.
The journey north
After checking in for our tour at 8am, showing our passports and signing our lives away, we left Seoul at 8.30am with a full bus of around 40 people. Driving north, it wasn’t long before our guide, Vincent, was pointing out the window to the barbed wire and guard towers on our side of the river, and North Korea on the other side. About an hour into our drive, we went through a security point (I think this was us entering the Civilian Control Zone) where a South Korean soldier boarded the bus and checked everyone’s passports.
Dorasan Train Station
Our first stop was Dorasan Train Station. This is the last train station on the line between North and South Korea, however no trains ever cross the border. Dorasan Station is 56 kilometers from Seoul and 205 kilometers from Pyongyang.
A lot of money has obviously been spent on the building and it is pristine. Once inside the station, you can buy a ticket to visit the platform for 1,000 KRW. This also gets you a booklet that you can stamp with the Dorasan Station stamp.
The station is a symbol of hope that the two Koreas will one day reunify. The line was once connected to the Trans-Siberian Railway, so if this was to happen, you could get a train from Seoul to Paris in around two weeks.
There are actually trains that arrive at Dorasan from Seoul, mainly for tourists visiting the DMZ. I think this is probably the cheapest way to visit the DMZ and this article by Roaming Around the World has more info. However, if you want to visit the JSA, this needs an official tour company.
The Dora Observatory was the second stop of our tour. This is at the top of a hill and has lots of binoculars set up on the roof to look into a North Korea. You can see Kijong-dong – known as Peace Village within the North and Propaganda Village elsewhere. Built during the 1950s, Kijong-dong was an attempt to show that North Korea was wealthy and try to entice South Koreans to defect. In reality, the buildings there are largely fake with no internal floors and doors and windows painted on.
There are only two villages allowed within the 4km DMZ – Kijong-dong (North) and Daeseong-dong (South). We could see both from Dora Observatory. Daeseong-dong (aka Freedom Village) has 191 inhabitants and people can only live there if they lived there before the Korean War or are descendants of those who did. Although not the safest place to live (North Korean have kidnapped inhabitants) there are perks of living in Freedom Village. Villagers are all farmers and allotted 17 acres of farmland per household. They don’t pay taxes and are except from military service, though a lot of the men volunteer for the South Korean army (South Korea have mandatory service of 21 months for men. North Korea have mandatory service of 10 years for men and 5 years for women). There’s an elementary school in the Village which gets special attention and funding from South Korea so it quite sought after. They are free to go outside of the DMZ into South Korea but need to stay there 240 days a year or will forfeit their residency. Soldiers in the South offer protection to the villagers and there is a curfew from midnight to sunrise for safety. Our security escort told us that an older woman and her son were kidnapped from the village in 1997 and released only four days later, much to the South’s surprise. When asked why they had released them so soon, the North apparently said that the woman was nagging them so much that they let her go.
You can see massive flagpoles from the Dora Observatory – one with the South Korean flag and one with the North Korean flag. South Korea erected a 100m flagpole in the 1980s and North Korea responded by erecting a bigger, 160m flagpole!
Looking closely into the North Korean side through the binoculars, you can make out people in fields and walking about. I wonder if they know they are being watched by tourists from all over the world (I’ll mention here that a South Koreans aren’t able to go on tours to the DMZ).
3rd Infiltration Tunnel
Next on the agenda was a visit to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. After the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953 (agreeing to stop fighting), it seems that North Korea then proceeded to build some tunnels intended to invade the South. North Korean defector, Kim Bu-seong, told the South about the 20 tunnels they were planning to build as he thought an invasion would lead to World War 3. Four tunnels have been found from 1974 to 1990. The 3rd (that we visited) was discovered in 1978. It is about a mile long and 73m below ground, running 1,200m into North Korea and 435m into South Korea (only 73 miles from Seoul). The tunnel would allow for 30,000 soldiers and artillery to pass through in an hour. When discovered, the North claimed they were simply on the hunt for coal (despite the tunnel being made of granite) and even went to the trouble of putting some coal on the walls in an attempt to disguise it as a coal mine. Sneaksters.
When we arrived at the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, we first went into a theatre to watch a short video of around five minutes giving some background to the Korean War and the tunnels. From there, we had to put all our belongings into (free) lockers as we weren’t allowed to take anything into the tunnel. This is the only part of the tour that we weren’t allowed to use cameras and I think was actually because holding people up by stopping to take photos would result in a huge backlog in the thin tunnel. We put on hard hats (necessary for the low roof) and walked down a huge sloping walkway down into the tunnel. This was surprisingly steep and I really wouldn’t recommend it if you’ve got any medical conditions or are really unfit – because you later have to walk back up that huge, steep slope! It takes about 10 minutes to get down the slope and then you turn left into the tunnel. From there on, the roof gets much lower and you have to stoop to walk through. I’m 5’9 and had to stoop for most of the walk. The walk must only take about 6 or 7 minutes but starts to feel a bit endless, when you eventually reach a concrete wall blocking the tunnel. The South Koreans have blocked the Military Demarcation Line with three concrete walls. You can walk as far as the third and see the second through a small window in this. To be honest, it felt like a really long, uncomfortable walk to look through a hole so if you’re not up to the walk, don’t worry you’re not missing too much. The climb back up was hard going! There’s a few points with seats on the way if you need a quick break.
Once we were back at the top (and had caught our breath!), we had about half an hour before the bus left. After getting a few pics with the soldier mannequins, we sat outside in the sun. The area around the tunnel is really lovely with beautiful plants, trees and a little lake.
Next up, lunch! Obviously, there’s not many options for meals in the DMZ and our tour stopped at a cafeteria type place. There was the option of beef stew 10,000 KRW or vegetarian bibimbap 8,000 KRW. We both had the bibimbap which was surprisingly nice for a place where you have no other choice. People are also welcome to bring their own food and eat it in the cafeteria. There’s some drinks for sale but free water available. They were selling beer though we were later asked if we were under the influence of alcohol at the JSA so probably best to avoid that.
Outside the cafeteria building, there’s a immigration gate for cars to pass between North and South Korea which is unused. We got some photos with this, though were shouted at by the guards if we went anywhere near the road.
In 2004, Kaesong Industrial Zone (KIZ) was launched, largely funded by the South to increase cooperation. It is located inside North Korea, just across the DMZ and would allow South Korean companies to use North Korean labour. Companies would benefit from cheaper labour, it would help the North Korean economy and would stop Korea outsourcing to cheaper countries. In 2016, the South Korean government closed the KIZ, concerned that the money being made was being used to fund their military operations. Previously workers from the South would have got to the KIZ through the immigration gates. Maybe one day it will be used frequently for North and South Koreans passing through.
JSA Visitor Centre
After lunch, it was time to visit the JSA! We got our bus to the JSA Visitor Centre and US Military Officer, Yates got on board and checked all of our passports. We were then asked to leave everything except valuables (phones/cameras allowed, no bags, only in pockets) on the bus and go into the theatre in the Visitor Centre. We got a form to read and sign our lives away (for the 2nd time) and Yates asked us all three questions – were we under the influence of drugs/alcohol, did we have any penknives etc on us and….did anyone intend to defect to North Korea! No takers there!
The JSA is controlled by the UN. We then watch a 13 minute film about the JSA, UN involvement and hopes for peace in the future. There were video clips of North and South Koreans being reunited in the DMZ after years torn apart by the war. It was quite moving and I had tears in my eyes. It was a good video to remind us of the people involved in all this. Those involved in the war and caught up in fighting and families torn apart for years, mainly because of a power crazed, paranoid leader.
I wiped away my tears and we were led out to a UN bus – we were going to North Korea! Escorted by Yates and another couple of US military guys, we started the drive to the JSA. After a few minutes, Yates declared that we were officially in the DMZ. Looking out the windows, the area is surprisingly so lush and beautiful. A 4km expanse largely untouched by humans for over 60 years, it is a haven for wildlife scattered with rice fields of the Freedom Village farmers. We could also see the massive flag posts with the North and a South Korean flags that we had seen from Dora Observatory.
We arrived at Freedom House (South Koreans building) in about 10 minutes. We arrived at the same time as another tour group and were split up, with Yates still leading our group. Both groups were given some instructions but there was construction going on and we could hear what was said – we hoped that it wasn’t too important!! A group of South Korean soldiers marched from Freedom House into the area in front of the blue huts and we followed out, in two lines.
Standing in front of the blue huts was surreal having seen so many pictures. Half way across the huts is North Korea and in front of the huts is Phanmun Pavilion, North Korea’s building. Similar to the flagpole pettiness, it had been lower than Freedom House so the North added an extra floor to Phanmun Pavilion. I wonder if that construction was another floor being added to Freedom House…
After giving us some information, Yates advised us that we had two minutes to take photos. 40 people trying to take photos in the middle was a bit shambolic but we managed to snap a few!
We were asked to line up in two rows again and it was time to go into the blue hut. This is where talks between North and a South take place and there’s a conference table in the centre. If you cross half way across the hut, you are officially in North Korea. We walked into the hut and past the conference table – we were in North Korea!
Yates gave us some info about the room before another two minute photo opportunity. We lucked out and were quite near him when he started his watch (I’m not sure if this is literally but I did see him pushing buttons on his watch) and managed to get a couple of (slightly blurry) snaps with him at the door to a North Korea. He asked people not to go behind him so he was always closest to the door. Though it was locked, North Koreans have once grabbed a South Korean Officer who was locking the door. His South Korean buddies grabbed him right back and now they have a new system of a guy holding on to the wall with one hand and the door locker with another so they can’t be grabbed.
I moved back to the South side of the room and David tried to join me but got stuck behind all the people trying to take photos. We will forever talk about the time that David got trapped in North Korea!
We left the hut (in two lines) and walked along to the tree that was planted by Kim Jong-Un (North Korean leader) and Moon Jane-in (South Korean leader) using soil and water from both sides during the Inter-Korean summit in May 2018.
A few minutes walk down hill to the right of the huts is the blue Bridge of Freedom which was built for delegates of the neutral nations to get easily to the JSA. It was also where Kim Jong-Un and Moon Jane-in had a private conversation and tea during the peace talks last year.
We walked back to Freedom House and had five minutes to take any more photos before getting back on the UN bus. On the bus drive back, Yates invites us to ask any questions. I asked why there were no North Korean soldiers anywhere as they are usually in the blue huts and outside Phanmun Pavilion in photos I have seen. Yates advised that the situation was less tense since the Peace talks and they now only usually see their soldiers when they are doing tours from the North. Occasionally North Korean soldiers will be outside their building taking photos (that’s where you end up as propaganda!) and sometimes even go right up to the hut windows and take photos! Previously you would have seen soldiers in the North facing South and vice versa. I was a little disappointed not to see any North Korean soldiers but obviously fantastic that peace talks went reasonably well. The South also used to have massive microphones blaring KPop into the South to drown out the propaganda messages that the North were playing – that would have been amazing to hear.
Leaving the DMZ
Back to the JSA Visitor Centre and we had 20 minutes to look around. There’s a museum in the Centre, a church being built and a UN Buddhist temple. We got back on the bus about 3.30pm to drive out of the controlled area and back to Seoul, with a final passport check when we were leaving.
Such an interesting day to learn more about the conflict between North and South Korea and what happens in the DMZ. As I sit here writing in our hotel in Seoul, it’s almost unbelievable to think that this vibrant, affluent city is just 56km from such a volatile place. Not for the first time on my travels, a day that has made me wish that I’d done history at school. (Others being visiting Auschwitz in Poland and the War Remnants Museum in Vietnam.)
I was a little nervous about visiting but on reflection, the experience was much more pleasant and welcoming than entering the likes of the USA! Though it goes without saying that we were all on our best behaviour throughout the day.
This is by far the quickest I have ever written a blog post as I was excited to share the experience with everyone. Surely there must be a few of you out there equally as fascinated by the secretive, closed off country of North Korea as I am?