In 2008 I had a rare chance to take a bus trip from S. Korea to N. Korea. Here is what I wrote of that adventure. I had a blog but got a bit lazy.
Just came back from one of the most interesting trips I took. It was to North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). I went with my friend Dwayne and spent one day in the city of Kaesong, which is just north of the DMZ, a one-kilometer boarder between the North and the South. It has a population, supposedly of about 2 million.
The day started by going on a bus and taking the hour drive from Seoul to the DMZ. We got to the “transit office” on the south side and were reminded the rules: Do not take any pictures while traveling in the bus, do not talk to any of the N. Koreans, ignore the soldiers, do what the N. Korean tour guide says, do not go away from the group. Those were the basic rules of the game. So after about an hour milling about we were allowed to go on the bus and head through the DMZ.
The S. Korean soldiers opened the gates and the bus rolled through the DMZ. On the road there were these yellow cones. When the yellow cones turned blue that is when we crossed over to the North. The DMZ is very green and lush since there are only small observation posts in it. There are no mines in the DMZ but only on the outsides of it. We got to the other side and got out of the bus to go through N. Korean Immigration. There were soldiers lining the place with their machine guns behind their backs. They asked a lot of questions and such. We were then asked to get back on the bus to head to one of the first tourist destinations.
The bus rolled past the factories that the South has built just on the other side of the North. The factories make clothing, shoes, pots, pans and so on. The South provides the building, training, food and the North gives the labour. The factories are new and very modern. I even saw a Family Mart there. There doesn’t look to be any difference until you get past the factories.
The 8 busses rolled in to the southern part of the city. That is when you saw the changes. The buildings were concrete and looked like they were built in the 1950’s and never maintained. Some of the buildings had glass but most of them didn’t. As the bus rolled everyone was looking at us but there were not a lot of people. A city of about 2 million looked like there were only 100 people if that. We were told after the tour that those who were not “party members” were not allowed out during the tour. The people were very stone face with no expression. The children were walking to school and did not smile, were not playing or laughing or anything. All we saw were bikes and people walking. The cars or vehicles all had military in them.
The first place we went to was a waterfall about a half hour out of the city. About every Kilometer there was a soldier standing at attention with a red flag. If you take a picture out of the buss they would raise the flag, the busses would stop. The soldiers would board the bus and asked to see any of the pictures you have taken. You were not allowed to take film cameras. Along the way our N. Korean tour guide sang the anthem of his country, which is similar to the South version.
After the tour of the waterfalls we went to a restaurant for lunch. The food was plentiful and abundant. Along the drives you could see that they plant food on every piece of land that could bare food. Lunch was served by these women who looked like they were about 14-15 years old. They were shaking as they were serving the food. They looked very small and understandably so. The restaurant was in the middle of the city. I ate quickly and was allowed to walk around this small area. You could take pictures but again not of the people and not of any building that was not in good condition. It was 1 o’clock and the streets were dead. There were some people but none around us. There were guards at the intersections and people wouldn’t come near us. Up on the hill was a huge bronze statue of Kim Il Sung, the former leader. As we went through the city you could always see a poster or a huge mural of him and the current president Kim Jong Il. All of the N. Koreans had pins on with their pictures in the pins along with the logo of the Workers Party of Korea, the communist party. We got back on the bus and headed through the city to see the sights.
We went to a bridge that was built in around 900 AD. All the Koreans looked at it and took pictures of it. I went to near a wall. The wall was just short enough that you could see over it and watch the people doing their thing. It was quiet. Around the bridge it was this wall of noise and clatter. Where the citizens are you could hear nothing but the rain falling. Children were not playing but walking side by side. There were a lot on bikes and every once and a while a bus, which looked exactly like the ones in Seoul, would go by. Every tourist spot we went to, I tried as much as possible to turn away and look at the people doing their thing. Try to get some sense of what life was like. I was told sternly a few times to turn around and such, but tried again.
We went to a “duty free” shop where they sold N. Korean beer, soju, stamps and post cards. I picked up a few and had no addresses to send away. The Koreans (both sides) were talking and being somewhat friendly. The S. Koreans were drinking while the Northerners were just smoking. They didn’t smile that much but just talked. Don’t know what they said.
After 8 hours in the North we got back on our busses and headed back to the DMZ. I saw a few more Communist slogans that were painted on big banners. Then we went back through Korean Customs. We had to show all the pictures we had taken. Ones that were not liked were deleted. Immigration was quick and easy. They didn’t stamp our passports at all but when we left and came back to the south they did. We got back at around 5 pm to the other side.
All and all $250US well spent