Part of a trip concentrating on East Asia (China, Hong Kong, Japan, North and South Korea), continuing in South Asia (Bangladesh, India) and ending on the Arabian Peninsula (Oman, United Arab Emirates).

North Korea II – Demilitarized Zone

– Second report of an eight-part series on my August 2015 visit to North Korea. –

Breakfast consists mostly of potatoes, cabbage, kimchi, toast, jam and spaghetti with some unidentifiable sauce. A small selection for a buffet. I am in awe of the disgusting-looking red and green lemonade. We had to rise early today as we are heading to Kaesong and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), meaning the border with South Korea, a ride of about three hours.


We have now settled into our group. We are 18 tourists, Rowan from Australia is our western guide, Miss Kim (the one that greeted us yesterday at the train station) and Mr Ri are our North Korean guides. Mr Kim is our driver. None of the Kims is related to the überKims. A few kilometres from the hotel, we pass a clearly recognizable Russian-orthodox church. I can’t believe my eyes, a church? In North Korea? I hurry to Miss Kim who has taken up the guide-position in the first row. I am totally excited and ask her what we have just seen. She very coolly answers: “A church.” She looks at me in a way that says: “What kind of weird person are you? Never seen a church before?” I have to up my game. “Yes, but I thought that there are no churches in North Korea.” “We have three others here in Pyongyang.” “But doesn’t the North Korean government ideology reject all religion?” “The church is under the protection of the Russian Embassy.” Alright, I got it.

I didn’t realize it at that moment but Miss Kim just used a tactic that she would employ regularly on our trip. She would treat obviously interesting and contradictory things as completely normal. Her motto would be, everything here is like everywhere else, move on, there is nothing here to be seen. If you wanted to know more, you had to dig, had to ask detailed questions, outline the contradictions. Maybe she acquired these skills to fend of probing questions but maybe it is also a way to deal with her own life situation. Miss Kim is an obviously intelligent young lady; she speaks very good English and has regularly contact with foreigners, their ways and ideas. Apparently, being a tour guide is an entry-level job for English language graduates. If she is handling things well, she might one day get promoted into the diplomatic service or even into some sort of import/export business. Being asked, she said that she would love to visit Paris one day. The Kim regime deems her loyal, otherwise she would not be doing the job. She was our main guide; her English was just much better than Mr Ri’s but she left the field to him when it came to the ideological topics. He explained the Juche theory to us, if she came to edgy topics, she usually tried to take the edge and find some common ground. I have no way of looking into her mind, but one thing is clear, whereas I will be gone in a number of days, she will have to live her live under the control of the Kims, maybe forever. Considering North Korea as a “normal” country is maybe not such a bad idea under these circumstances.       

The church issue is a good illustration of the difficulty to get independent information on nearly anything in North Korea. The system is closed in a way that it is not possible to gather reliable information even on such a minor topic. Throughout the trip, I will again and again fail to get the information I want on things that picked my interest. What is certain is, that there are indeed four churches in Pyongyang. One is catholic, two are protestant and the fourth is the Russian-orthodox church we saw. They were built in 1988, 1988 and 1992, and in 2006. Everything else about them is speculation. Are there active priests or pastors? Have the churches from 1988 been built to suggest religious openness for the communist World Festival of Youth and Students? Is there active religious life? Apparently, the protestant churches see regular services with a South Korean hymnbook. Who is allowed to participate? Who controls the congregation? Is the rumour true that the participants are being paid for attending? Who is “Pater Francisco”? He led a service for visiting members of the German parliament and called for a “holy war of reunification” during the service (leading an accompanying German priest to stop his participation). In every other country someone could just regularly go to the churches, speak with people and over time find out what is going on. No way in North Korea, although if I ever should return to Pyongyang, the churches would be high on my list.        

Arch of Reunification

We leave Pyongyang on the Unification Highway. It leads straight to the city of Kaesong and on to the border at Panmunjom. Our first stop, still at the city limits, is the Arch of Reunification. Two giant Korean women in traditional dress, symbolizing the North and the South, are leaning forward over the road to jointly uphold a sphere bearing a map of a unified Korea. Two rooms contain stone plates with homages to Kim Il-sung and his reunification proposals from Korean and foreign admirers. A general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland left one, Thai Myohyang Shipping Co., Ltd. from Bangkok as well, the director of the Agricultural Research Centre „Kim il-Sung“ in Guinea, the Juche Philosophy Study Committee of India as did Humberto Ortiz and his family from Ecuador.

As soon as we had arrived at the arch I, as a true photographer, had moved away from the group. No one needs pictures in bad light and with annoying people in the shot. Two others had followed my path. I circled the monument in the other direction as the group and chose my own path until I thought that we were about to leave. Back on the bus, our western guide approaches me. He asks me to stick closer to the group. He warns me that there may be minders in civilian clothing that will report “suspicious” tourists. He tries to scare me by mentioning that sometimes this would lead to a very throughout search when leaving the country. The western guides in some ways are between all sides. On one hand, they try to make your trip as enjoyable as possible, on the other, they need to stay on good terms with the North Korean authorities.

Heading South…

Our tour in North Korea is guided and under full control of the North Korean tourism authorities. We will only see what they want us to see. I am aware of that. For some people this makes trips to North Korea worthless, they argue that tourists are only part of a show, that you will inevitably return with a positive impression of the country and will play the same role as the International Committee of the Red Cross did as it visited Nazi concentration camps and declared them to be okay. I disagree. Of course, we are limited in our freedom of movement and that limits our ability to pick up information. And yes, there is the danger that we will return with a more positive view of North Korea than warranted. We will not see anything seriously shocking as care will be taken to avoid that on our route. We will not see any forced labour camps. But with a little preparation, we will still gain insights into life in North Korea.

I tried to do my bit of preparation. Sometimes, I travel to countries with very little prior information but for this trip I have already read three books, studied the Architectural Guide of Pyongyang (which comes in two tomes, one official and the other unofficial) and in our breaks I read speeches by Kim Il-sung. I am able to double-check what our guides say with my knowledge and I recognize interesting details. When a woman or man at the side of the road is herding one or two goats (remember the pictures from the train in the first report?), I am not thinking “oh, there is someone with a goat” but I think about the devastating famines of the 1990s and subsequent government efforts to promote the keeping of goats. Goats are robust, they eat nearly everything and they give meat. I tried to inform myself in order to be able to understand, to appraise things. I hope to be able to realize where our guides try to influence us, which things they emphasize, what they want to show, what they want to hide and what the regime deems not worthwhile hiding. We travel around the country by bus, we can look out of the window, we see things. And I want to watch, I do not want to sleep, I want to be alert, I do not want to miss things.                     

As nasty as it sounds, being in North Korea has similarities to being on a safari. And by that I do not mean that we are driving around the country and staring at people. No, what I mean is that most things on a safari are totally ordinary. You see zebras, elephants, impalas, and in some places even lions get normal. What you are waiting for are the special moments. The moments when you are waiting, closely watching an amazing elephant. Suddenly, an impala runs away, giving a warning call. Little impala, what scared you, you think, and redirect your eyes on the elephant. Moments later, with a giant leap, a leopard jumps out of the same grass and starts to climb a tree. Little impala, you were careful and have just escaped a mortal danger. North Korea is similar, after the first experiences you have settled to the rhythm of the country, you have realized how difficult it is to get out of the bounds of your organized tour, how difficult it is to find something out about this country. You start to wait for the special moments. One such moment, where you catch a glimpse of the unscripted reality, is waiting as we have just left the Arch of Reunification behind. A detail, but a telling detail. We are on the highway south although the term “highway” is very misleading. The “highway” is as wide (or even wider) as highways in other places but doesn’t have the quality and not the traffic. There are minor roads in Germany (and I mean minor) that see more traffic than this highway. Pretty busy, in comparison, is the small, even paved track next to the “highway”. Cyclists and pedestrians on their way. A stream crosses the traffic artery, on the highway it is barely noticeable as there is a bridge. But on the track next to it there is no bridge, the stream just cuts the track in two. People approach, descend their bikes, push them through the stream and up the small hill behind, get on their bikes again. Wet feet will be their memory. Why don’t they just switch to the highway for that bit. The traffic (which traffic?) would not be a hinderance, there would be plenty of space. In every Asian country I know, people would use the highway to get across the stream. Not in North Korea, the highway is not meant for cyclists and pedestrians and they do not dare to question the wisdom of the authorities. Well, and the authorities could of course deal with the stream, build a bridge, but I fear they just do not care.

We can take pictures. There is just one rule: No pictures of the military. But sometimes it is hard to distinguish what is military and what not. There are a lot of men with brown or brownish-green clothes. Some with military insignia, but most without. Do they belong to the military or not? It is unclear. From rule number one follows rule number two: No pictures of construction sites. Why that? Well, because all construction sites are officially under the control of the military.

North Korea is a beautiful country, I am visiting in August and everything is green, the fields look good. The terrain is hilly and we cross plenty of small rivers. No one took the seat in the first row so it is free for me. Our bus is a South Korean Hyundai and must have migrated north during the years of the Sunshine Policy in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Other tourist groups travel on more modern Chinese buses but I love our bus as it has small sliding sashes in the lower part of the windows, allowing photographs without annoying glass in between.

After one-and-a-half hours on the road, we approach a massive concrete bar lying over the highway. On closer look, it turns out to be a bridge restaurant. We can use the toilets but otherwise the building is locked. The bridge function is totally unnecessary as you can just wander across the highway, let’s face it, there are very few cars. There are stalls in the parking lot and they give us a first taste of what is waiting for us at nearly every stop. There are sweets, drinks and cigarettes. Some souvenirs, T-Shirts and books on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). For the first time I meet, in the most socialist of all the socialist countries the most capitalist of all capitalist drinks: Coca Cola. The can is one euro and I immediately take one.            

If you spend some time on a North Korean highway you will notice the North Korean way of repairing potholes. They are not fixed as elsewhere by preparing a number of potholes and then having a truck with some asphalt come over. They are fixed by a small crew of two or three people with bicycles. They pick a pothole, light a wooden fire(!), prepare the hole, use their fire to warm the asphalt and put it into the hole. There are many potholes on North Korea’s roads. At the side of the highway is a lorry that obviously crashed frontal onto something. You ask yourself how this could happen on this road. We are talking about one of the main transport routes of the country, the highway leading from the capital to Kaesong, with 300.000 inhabitants one of the most important cities, we are on the mythical Reunification highway that should one day link the two parts of the country. The road has the width of a highway, an accurately cut central reservation but on my pictures, it is mostly free of cars. As I love to take pictures of everything, I take some of the damaged lorry. Our western guide tells me not to, the North Koreans wouldn’t like it. Seems I need to update the rules for taking pictures, no pictures of anything not looking perfect?

We come closer to the border. The concrete steles along the road are testimony of this. In the case of war, they could easily be made to fall on the road and would block the path of approaching troops. I wonder how effective they are, a well-prepared army should be able to move them in a limited amount of time. More effective are the unnecessary tunnels that we pass through, with a slightly different planning the road could have avoided the mountain but blowing up one of these tunnels might provide an effective hinderance for South Korean troops.

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)

We reach a gate and enter the border area. A well-known propaganda poster greets us, two happy Korean kids in front of an outline of Korea (including the islands of Jeju, Ulleungdo and Dokdo) formed by Magnolia flowers. A slogan demands unification. I am surprised how many tourists there are. There is hardly a way through the souvenir shop. There are about 10 buses which would suggest about 200 tourists. I try to get out of Miss Kim if this is a normal day on the border. She insists it is like that every day. She is definitely not right on that, as I will learn later while visiting South Korea, the two Koreas actually have agreed on sharing their border. Some days the North can bring its tourists and other days belong to the South. I further suspect that the North is pooling its tourists on certain days. There are not enough visitors to have a few hundred people visiting the border every day.

The DMZ is separating the Koreas, it is about four kilometres wide and in the middle is the actual border. It is called the Demilitarized Zone but in fact to the north and south of it, are some of the most militarized areas on the whole planet. We visit at the famous Panmunjom with the specialty of the Joint Security Area. This is where, at the end of the Korean war, the negotiations about the armistice (still the actual state of affairs) took place and this is nowadays the only place of actual contact along the border. At the height of the Sunshine Policy, in the expectation of the trains soon to run, the railway tracks were already upgraded and train stations on both sides renovated. That hopeful feeling is long gone and at the moment the situation is rather tense. A week ago, two South Korean soldiers were gravely injured by a land mine. The South accuses the North of having planted the mine in the soldiers’ path and announced that they would re-start the loudspeakers, that blast propaganda towards the enemy. I am curious if we will hear something of that (we will not, thankfully).

We are still at the edge of the DMZ and we get a soldier-guide who will lead us around. After some time to spend some hard currency on souvenirs, we start the tour at a map of the Joint Security Area. Our soldier is wearing a trendy mini-tie and follows the most important rule of North Korean officialdom perfectly: Never smile. We get back to the bus. From now on, pictures are only allowed with special permission. A gate opens and we drive into something that is best described as a concrete ditch. The concrete walls are at first vertical and then, starting about one metre from the ground rising at an angle of 35°. Concrete cylinders with a diameter of about 1 meter are situated on that slope, blocked from rolling downwards by small concrete cubicles. If the cubicles would be taken away, the cylinders would immediately roll down and block the way. In some distance, we spot a giant flagpole with a giant North Korean flag. It is hanging limp, no wind today it seems. Further distant is another, the South Korean flagpole, of similar height and equipped with a flag of similar size but this flag is fluttering like crazy. Wind over there? Probably not, just electricity and an air blower. I will later read that the South put up a 100-metre-high flagpole in the 1980s to have a good place for its 130 kg flag. The North “retaliated” with a 160-metre-high flagpole carrying a 270 kg flag. Knowing the relationship between the two countries it is actually surprising that the South has still not built another flagpole to “win”. But therefore they have a powerful air blower. Maybe the North has one as well but just no electricity at the moment. There were times when regular meetings were happening in one of the huts right in the middle of the Joint Security Area. The huts are built right on the actual border so both sides can talk with each other while sitting “at home”. Each delegation brought a flag, then one of them started to bring a flag that was 5 cm wider, then the other, then the other, then the other, …. Until the day when the flags didn’t fit in the hut anymore. In a short moment of mental clarity, they decided on a standard flag size.

Our first stop is the building where the 1953 armistice was signed. It was built by the heroic North Koreans of yesterday in just one day. Our soldier does not speak any English but one of our guides translates (two groups of Young Pioneer Tours visit the border together). A cameraman is trailing us and if you want, you will later be able to purchase a video of your visit to the DMZ. In the North Korean version of history there is no South Korea. They fought the Americans and they made peace with the Americans (in truth they made peace with the UN forces). They repeatedly tell us, that it was the first time in the history of the U.S., that they had demanded an armistice. In official North Korean terminology (TV for example) words like “Yankee” or “American bastard” are actually common but they are not used with us tourists. Actually, we even have an American in our “sister” group. They can visit but there are some special rules, Americans are, for example, not allowed to take the train, they need to fly.

We take the bus for another bit and Miss Kim tells us about what is known in the Western world as the “axe murder incident”. In her telling it’s only the axe incident and the following happened: It is the year 1976 and American soldiers want to fell a tree within the Joint Security Area that is obstructing their line of sight. North Korean soldiers tell them to stop. The Americans keep on working, a fistfight broke out and at some point, well, ended. If you did your homework that explanation leads to a question: “Miss Kim, I read that two American soldiers lost their life in the incident, is that true?” She confirms the two dead soldiers. She told the outlines of the story correctly; she just didn’t mention that one point of contention is if the felling of the tree was previously announced and agreed upon. And well, she left the two dead bodies out of the story. No one wants to hear about dead bodies on their “holidays”.

We have reached the next highlight: A signature that Kim Il-sung left on the day before his death in 1994. By now, it has been etched with golden contours into stone to make it last for eternity. A few steps bring us to the actual border. Every Korea has put up a big building with a viewing platform; the “House of Peace” in the South, and the “House of Unification” in the North. In between them is a square with six longish huts. In the middle three blue ones erected by the South. On the sides three silver ones (one to the left, two to the right), a bit bigger than the blue ones, erected by the North. Across the huts, cutting them in half in the middle is a small concrete marking: the actual border. A few soldiers are positioned on the North Korean side, the southern side is totally empty. The North Koreans are only there because of the tourists, if we wouldn’t be there, the whole scene would be deserted. Some from our group take pictures with our soldier-guide, pictures of a military person are obviously allowed here, he keeps his starry face all the time.

Back to the bus, we are leaving the DMZ. The arrangement on the bus is as follows, Miss Kim is always sitting in front, Mr Ri is always sitting somewhere towards the back. Wherever you sit, he is either close or watching you from behind. I choose one of the middle benches on the side facing away from the sun. A fence is waiting for my attention.

Kaesong & Sariwon

Kaesong is a city with a long history that should be known to the politically interested due to the Korean-Korean industrial zone that was established during the Sunshine policy. We are hungry and lunch is waiting. The table is bursting with food. In the Korean tradition we find a small bowl of soup and twelve even smaller bowls with snacks: kimchi, boiled eggs, sausage, black pudding, seasoned meat, cabbage in different variations. This is not the main meal by the way, just starters. As yesterday at dinner, there is free water and beer. Until the main meal (bibimbap) arrives there is an extra. We had to pre-order on the bus, but for an additional 5€ we could have dog soup. Never to let an experience slip, I immediately ordered one. I am very curious. What follows can only be explained by the idea that the cook must be a dog lover. The deal supposedly was that he makes the soup (he needs the money) but he makes it so disgusting that everybody who eats it, will regret it and never ever think about eating dog again. The soup arrives and it doesn’t look good: Brownish-greyish, watery. A turn with the spoon brings the dog up but doesn’t make things better. Instead of small pieces of meat in the form of dalmatians or something like that slimy slices of meat come up. The girl who speaks Korean, who is vegetarian, meanwhile talks about the lovely yellow dogs that are the preferred victims for the soup. I put the spoon to my mouth. It tastes even worse than it looks. I think I must be mistaken; it can’t taste that bad and immediately take another spoon. Ough, the bad taste is confirmed. I ask myself if I have ever eaten something more disgusting. Five or six people from our group have ordered the soup and everybody thinks that it is inedible. All the other food is tasty and the bibimbap quickly lets the dog soup slip into history.           

We visit an old Confucian academy. Or to be precise its reconstruction. Kaesong at some point received a proper DPRK treatment and all old stuff was scrubbed away. At some point, some Kim thought that some history would be nice and the academy was reconstructed. Who cares if it comes close to the original? A “local guide” is showing us around, one of our guides translates. I don’t care what she says about the three-kingdom period or any later kingdoms, if there is any need I get better information on Wikipedia. Attached to the academy is the postal museum: Books, plenty of propaganda posters (some hand-coloured) and postcards. I pay more than 50 € for about 30 postcards with stamps. First world prices, let’s hope that my postcards will make it home quickly.       

On the way back to Pyongyang we stop in Sariwon. We hike to the Kyongam pavilion that offers a beautiful view. Sariwon has a Folk Customs Street that is supposed to show an ideal picture of the ancient Korea. We taste some rice wine called makgeolli in a small narrow bar. Nothing to write home about, but the waiting in front of the bar is nice. A good opportunity to put on my zoom lens and take some pictures of life passing by. A few hours later, back in the capital we have a Korean Barbecue. The meat is roasted on a plate embedded in the table. Nice stuff. We get a bottle of soju, the Korean spirit with the dinner. So far, food and alcohol have been plentiful. 13-and-a-half hours after departure we are back at the hotel.

Rowan, our western guide, is the perfect have-fun-guide for North Korea. He always tries to give you the feeling that this is a totally ordinary country and that you can have a lot of fun here. All easy, all good. Someone asks if we can leave the hotel, the door is open and there seems to be no one around watching. He says, you can have a walk, just see how far you get. I take this, that it will be possible to have a short walk around the hotel, maybe walk the few metres to the tip of the island, I decide to give it a try, maybe tomorrow.