Another World

Kaesong Travel Blog

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Tour buses heading for Kaesong (Photo by Marshall Electric)

People who made my travels more enjoyable: Catherine (South Korea)

Note: I pulled photos from a variety of sources to complete this blog. It was deemed illegal by the North Korean authorities, at the time of my trip, to take photos of local citizens or buildings. I was neither brave nor clever enough to take forbidden photos, and therefore had to rely on materials from others. Also worth mentioning, in case there is any confusion, I did travel to all of the places mentioned below.


Our journey started with a short taxi ride from the hotel to a bus stop on the south side of the Han River. The designated meeting place, and starting point for our tour, was near a ritzy department store in Apgujong. We arrived a few minutes early and I had just enough time to get some breakfast from a nearby McDonalds.

Kaesong Industrial Complex (Photo by Japan Focus)
I ordered a couple Egg McMuffins (which taste the exact same as in the US) and had just enough time to finish before the tour bus arrived. Catherine and I confirmed our iternary with the tour operator and after a few moments we were on our way toward the DMZ.

The fact that I was able to travel to North Korea, with a group of South Koreans, was a bit astonishing. South Koreans, and Americans for the most part, had been banned from crossing the DMZ since the conclusion of the Korean war in 1953. The political climate in South Korea began to change dramatically with the election of Kim Dae-jung in 1998. President Kim introduced his Sunshine Policy which pledged both aid and a general attitude of good will toward North Korea. His policy also stated that South Korea would not attempt to absorb the North, or its territory, in any way.
Kaesong Industrial Complex (Photo taken by Mimura)
This opened the door for economic cooperation between the two countries.

During the same year, Hyundai founder Chung Ju-yung, donated 500+ head of cattle to North Korea. Chung, who incidentally had been born in a town that is now part of North Korea, had attempted to initiate cooperative development with the North years earlier. Progress had been very slow, but the new political climate on the peninsula had opened a window. Within a year, Chung signed a tourism and development agreement with the North. He founded the Hyundai Asan group (which ran the tour I took to Kaesong), and began creating a tourism infrastructure at Keumgang Mountain. Over the next five years, Hyundai would bring around 200,000 tourists to Keumgang Mountain.
A better photo of the city center (Photo by North Korea Leak)
 

By 2003, Hyundai finalized plans with the North, which included laying railroad tracks across the DMZ. This historic development was followed by the planning of the Kaesong industrial complex. The Kaesong complex utilized local North Korean labor, which was significantly cheaper than similarly skilled labor in the South. It was also designed to help stimulate the local economy in Kaesong, and create jobs and job training for local citizens. With a cooperative framework in place, Hyundai began tours to Kaesong and the surrounding area in December 2007.

The concierge at my hotel, the Shilla Seoul, had booked our tour with Hyundai Asan. The process was relatively painless and similar to any visa application: send some passport photos, fill out a few forms, scan and email the front page of your passport, etc.
Government offices (Photo by Marshall Electric)
Although the tour was meant to accommodate everyone, it was essentially designed for South Koreans only. There was no instruction or information given in English. Had my friend Catherine not been there to translate, the tour would have been impossible to understand and, to be completely honest, downright frightening. 

After about 45 minutes of driving (Seoul is only 35 miles from the DMZ) we arrived at a large bus terminal. This newly recently built structure was our last stop before we crossed the DMZ. Upon entering the building we were greeted by a number of tour operators who gave us our badges and visas. These documents, along with our passports, had to be worn around our neck at all times. The tour operators also provided instructions on what not to do while visiting North Korea.
Kaesong city center (Photo by Btxtsf)
The list included: Don't refer to Korea as Han Guk (use Joseon, an older term for Korea), don't buy products that are considered illegal in South Korea (this included snake liquors, or medicines made with animal parts), don't ask why there are no trees (North Korea was largely deforested during Japanese colonial occupation and later by its own citizens after the collapse of the Soviet Union) and generally refrain from asking politically sensitive or uncomfortable questions. After the conclusion of the orientation, we boarded our bus, and started driving toward the DMZ.

Our bus pulled to a stop in front of a South Korean army checkpoint. Several soldiers, dressed in full camouflage, removed a variety of obstacles from the road. The roadblocks at the DMZ, were similar to the ones placed on the bridges that span the Han River.
Housing complex (Photo by Marshall Electric)
After several moments the soldiers waved us on, we were finally crossing the DMZ. The DMZ itself is actually quite unique, and not in the way that one would expect. It is one of the few places on earth that was once inhabited by humans, but has now been almost completely reclaimed by nature.There are no roads, no barbed wire, no fences and absolutely no people. 

After crossing the DMZ, we arrived at another bus terminal. Unlike the terminal on the South Korean side, this building was full of North Korean military personnel. We assembled in lines and then proceeded through metal detectors, similar to any airport. Meanwhile, our bags were x-rayed and searched for contraband. Everything went smoothly until something on my jacket set off the metal detector.
Department Store (Photo by Marshall Electric)
Within a matter of seconds I had three soldiers standing next to me, a fourth soldier came up and started scanning me with a metal detecting wand. Under normal circumstances this wouldn't have been that much of an issue, but in North Korea, it was more than a bit disconcerting. After said issue was cleared up, I was given my temporary visa and allowed to return to the tour bus.

Korea, both North and South, have very rich musical traditions. People pride themselves on their ability to sing, whether it's at a Noraebang after a night of drinking, or at one of Kim Jong Il's famous revolutionary plays, singing is paramount. North Korea has a popular welcome song that is sung on many occasions, but mostly to foreigners who have just arrived in the country.
Near Pakyon Falls
The chorus of the song repeats Pangapseumnida (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nxj55eXBfpk), which means nice to meet you. As soon as our North Korean guides entered the bus, one of the brave southerners decided to start singing Pangapseumnida as loudly as possible. I have no idea what his intention was, but he quickly earned a stern look from the North Koreans. The man hushed up and sat down in his seat, meanwhile the rest of us started chuckling at his audacity.

We were informed by the tour operators that we would visit a number of natural sites and historical monuments from the Koryeo Dynasty. Our first stop was Pakyon Falls, but in order to get there, we had to drive through Kaesong proper. As interesting as the monuments were, I was much more excited to see Kaesong itself.
Pakyon Falls pt 1
As we drove into town, I felt as if I had just entered a time machine and traveled 60 years into the past. Seoul was full of neon signs and giant LCD screens. It had clean and efficient public transportation; almost every single person in the country has a cell phone. Kaesong, which was less than 50 miles away, was truly another world. There were no cars anywhere. Large boulevards were completely empty except for the occasional biker. Farmers were using oxen to plow the fields outside the city. There was no electric signage, only revolutionary slogans and propaganda billboards. People were more tan, visibly shorter and wore a haphazard mix of clothing. Buildings were in complete disrepair, windows were missing from apartment complexes, swimming pools had no water and the concrete was crumbling off many houses.
Pakyon Falls pt 2
It was a site like I had never seen before. I had expected things to be different from Seoul, but not to such an extreme.

Once through Kaesone, we made our way toward Pakyon Falls. This natural landmark, which may have had some historical significance, was put on the map after a visit by the eternal President Kim Il Sung. While I couldn't read any Korean at the time, we were told buy our guides that many inscriptions were carved into the granite commemorating his visit. Every communist dictator in the 20th century has maintained some sort of personality cult, but Kim Il Sung took his to a new level. Large statues of Kim Il Sung are present in every major city, all party members brandish Kim Il Sung pins and his portrait can be found in every home or apartment througout the country.

Near Pakyon Falls
His achievements and talents, which in some cases were truthfully significant, had been embellished to a point of ridiculousness. Pseudo-scientists have even genetically linked Kim Il Sung to the mythical founder of the Korean people, Tan Gun (whos wife was a shape-shifting bear). The fascination and admiration of Kim Il Sung by the North Korean people was summed up for me in one iconic image. A pristine, immaculate and freshly painted park bench was surrounded by crumbling and dilapidated housing complexes. The bench, which was encased in a protective glass box, had once been sat on by President Kim Il Sung. In essence this was the socio-economic situation in North Korea, the elite lived a life of relative luxury while everyday citizens lived in squalor.
Near Pakyon Falls (common North Korean setting)

The Falls were pretty, but I hadn't come to North Korea to see the nature. I was much more interested in speaking with North Korean citizens, and my only real option was to chat with the guides. Catherine politely played the part of translator while I had a conversation with several of the guides. This ended up being the highlight of my entire trip to North Korea. We spoke about all manner of things including Korean history, world politics, sports and even the virtues and talents of Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il. After the conversation concluded I couldn't decide if I was heartbroken or relieved. I was happy that interesting, intelligent and otherwise open-minded people lived in this repressive state. At the same time I was crushed to see such likeable people living in such horrid conditions with little opportunity to improve their lives.

Restaurant/Gift Shop in Kaesong
One other issue worried me deeply. During our conversation the guide became fascinated with Catherine's jeans, which were fashionably ripped and faded. Catherine explained to the guide that this was a popular style, but the man could not wrap his head around the idea. He was so confused as to why someone would intentionally wear clothing that had been, in his mind, damaged. This exchange reminded me at how different the culture of North and South Korea had become. When the North Korean regime eventually fails, how will the people of North Korea ever successfully integrate into South Korean society?

After about 2 hours at Pakyon Falls we all boarded our tour buses and drove back to Kaesong. Next on the itinerary was lunch at a local restaurant. To clarify, the restaurant was not frequented by locals, it was simply located in the city.

Our Lunch in Kaesong
We were seated around a large table and were served a number of small dishes in beautiful bronze bowls. These dishes are referred to as panchan and are part of any traditional Korean meal. Two things worth noting occurred during this meal. The first, which came to my attention while in Kaesong, was that we were all being fed a significant amount of food despite food shortages that are commonplace in North Korea. I, along with most of the people at my table, felt very self-conscious about the extravagant meal that we were consuming. Should I be sure to eat everything so that there is no waste? Should I eat only a few bites and hope that the food reaches a more deserving mouth? The second interesting thing that came to my attention (at a much later date), was that we were given 12 panchan dishes.
Typical home in Kaesong (Photographer unknown)
12 panchan dishes were originally served to royalty and this was a very polite way for our guides to welcome us as distinguished guests. In-fact North Korea maintains many traditional customs that have fallen out of practice in the South. After our rather mediocre meal (and that is an honest assessment) Catherine and I left the restaurant to see a bit more of the city.

Unfortunately our plan to explore was short lived. I knew that we wouldn't be able to venture far from the group, what I didn't know was that we literally couldn't leave the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. Armed soldiers, in full uniform, were planted at both ends of the sidewalk. It created a bit of a spectacle in the town because nearly 100 tourists were crammed onto one sidewalk.

Seonjuk Bridge
Even more interesting was the fact that North Korean citizens were forced to avoid us, anyone walking along our side of the street had to cross over. Each person that passed by stared at us with a mixture of curiousity and longing. It was more than a bit heartbreaking...

After about half an hour of milling around the sidewalk we boarded our busses and moved to the next site. Our destination was Seonjuk Bridge, the first of the historical landmarks we would visit during the final portion of our tour. The guides explained the history of the bridge in great detail, but since their explanation was in Korean I didn't get very far. Catherine translated a portion of what was said and later explained in more detail. A famous Confucian scholar named Jeong Mong-Ju was assasinated on the bridge near the end of the second to last Korean dynasty.

Koryeo sculptures
In fact, Kaesong was the former capital of Korea during the Koryeo dynasty. And one might even notice that the English word for Korea comes from the name of said dynasty. 

Our next stop was at a museum dedicated to the Koryeo dynasty. Once inside the museum we were able to walk around freely and view the relics and sculptures. There were several women in traditional dresses explaining the historical context of certain pieces to the tourists. On the far end of the museum I was able to look over the short stone wall that marked the boundary of the museum grounds. Across a vacant lot a building was being constructed. The equipment was ancient, the building materials were of extremely poor quality and the worker conditions were extremely dangerous.

Museum tour guide
I wanted to take a picture so badly, but I feared the guards would not take kindly to this breach of security. 

I toured the rest of the museum and also took a picture with one of the museum tour guides. Unfortunately, due to my lack of proficiency with Korean I was not able to absorb much information. After an hour or so we made a final stop at an elaborate gift shop. This was the third time we'd had an opportunity to buy gifts. I knew after this stop we would head back to the DMZ, so I went around and bought whatever seemed interesting. Some highlights included ginseng liquor (which I haven't touched to this day), a pack of North Korean cigarettes, a dining set similar to what we had used during our lunch and a stamp collection that included a tribute to the mythical Tangun temptle.

Kaesong Gift Shop pt1
I say mythical because the structure does not exist and also because Tangun is the mythical father of Korea with whom Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il et., are apparently biologically related to.

After everyone finished with their purchases we got back on the bus and began our journey back toward the DMZ. On the way out of town a group of children came close to the bus and began waving at us. It was sad to wave goodbye to them, but I knew a new batch of tourists would be back to entertain them tomorrow. On the way out of the city we took a slightly different route and I was able to see the Industrial Complex up close. The new metal buildings were a sharp contrast to the crumbling poverty we left behind.

Our buses stopped one final time at the North Korean bus terminal and we went through security just as we had earlier that morning.

Kaesong Gift Shop pt3
They took the visa from my passport and also glanced at the photos I had taken on my camera. I had no problems this time and I quickly cleared security. Once everyone cleared and we were in the bus, we joined a line with all the other buses and several semi trucks (lorries).  

We had one last checkpoint to clear before our bus would be allowed to cross the DMZ and return to South Korea. This was a tense moment because there had been stories of the North Koreans refusing to open the border for various reasons. Luckily there were no issues, and after about 15 minutes the line of vehichles began to move. We drove on the same route, snaked around the South Korean road blocks and crossed the DMZ back into South Korea. 

Several hours later I returned to the hotel and called my mom.

Statue of the Great Leader in Kaesong (Photo by Marshall Electric)
She was relieved to hear that everything had gone well and I assured her everything was fine. My trip to North Korea had been incredibly fascinating, saddening and energizing. It would take a long time for me to fully reflect upon the experience, but for now I was content to be back in bed, safe and in my hotel room.

Tamanawas says:
WoW! I'm surprised too that you went to North Korea.
Posted on: Jun 16, 2013
simsing says:
Wow, you are one of those rare people who traveled to North Korea! Nice blog!
Posted on: Nov 17, 2012
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Tour buses heading for Kaesong (Ph…
Tour buses heading for Kaesong (P…
Kaesong Industrial Complex (Photo …
Kaesong Industrial Complex (Photo…
Kaesong Industrial Complex (Photo …
Kaesong Industrial Complex (Photo…
A better photo of the city center …
A better photo of the city center…
Government offices (Photo by Marsh…
Government offices (Photo by Mars…
Kaesong city center (Photo by Btxt…
Kaesong city center (Photo by Btx…
Housing complex (Photo by Marshall…
Housing complex (Photo by Marshal…
Department Store (Photo by Marshal…
Department Store (Photo by Marsha…
Near Pakyon Falls
Near Pakyon Falls
Pakyon Falls pt 1
Pakyon Falls pt 1
Pakyon Falls pt 2
Pakyon Falls pt 2
Near Pakyon Falls
Near Pakyon Falls
Near Pakyon Falls (common North Ko…
Near Pakyon Falls (common North K…
Restaurant/Gift Shop in Kaesong
Restaurant/Gift Shop in Kaesong
Our Lunch in Kaesong
Our Lunch in Kaesong
Typical home in Kaesong (Photograp…
Typical home in Kaesong (Photogra…
Seonjuk Bridge
Seonjuk Bridge
Koryeo sculptures
Koryeo sculptures
Museum tour guide
Museum tour guide
Kaesong Gift Shop pt1
Kaesong Gift Shop pt1
Kaesong Gift Shop pt3
Kaesong Gift Shop pt3
Statue of the Great Leader in Kaes…
Statue of the Great Leader in Kae…
Koryeo Museum pt1
Koryeo Museum pt1
Koryeo Museum pt2
Koryeo Museum pt2
Koryeo Museum pt3
Koryeo Museum pt3
Another Koryeo Museum
Another Koryeo Museum
Description of the very old tree
Description of the very old tree
Very old tree
Very old tree
Koryeo museum with burial mounds i…
Koryeo museum with burial mounds …
Koryeo Pagoda pt 1
Koryeo Pagoda pt 1
Koryeo Pagoda pt 2
Koryeo Pagoda pt 2
Map of the grounds
Map of the grounds
Kaesong Gift Shop pt2
Kaesong Gift Shop pt2
More Kaesong Homes (Photo by Marsh…
More Kaesong Homes (Photo by Mars…
Pakyon Falls pt 3
Pakyon Falls pt 3
60 km (37 miles) traveled
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Kaesong
photo by: kkrater