Kaesong Travel Blog› entry 1 of 2 › view all entries
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.