As if a trip to North Korea wasn’t surreal enough, a standard part of every respectable “revolutionary tour” of the DPRK includes a trip down the so-called Reunification Highway for a quick visit to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). This very fact was all the more unreal to me, having had the chance to see the same heavily fortified DMZ, albeit from another side, some 4 years back from the south. It deeply intrigued me then. Said to be one of the most dangerous borders in the world, I saw it then as a gateway into a hermit-like nation that few people knew much about aside from its notorious reputation. Now that I was in the country with the notorious reputation, the trip down the DMZ now kind of became like a sort of irony. Instead of the DMZ serving as a gateway to the unknown, it now became that small hole into the so-called free world that I’ve been living in all my life. It was hard to believe that only some 100 kilometers away from that point where people worshipped Kim Jong Il even in his death, the streets of Gangnam in Seoul would be buzzing with Psy lookalikes and well-heeled South Koreans with the latest gadgets from Samsung.
Here’s looking at you, kid!
Rather than spend my time listening intently to the soldier talking about another one of Kim Il Sung’s heroic exploits, I spent my time making several feeble attempts at getting reception while at the DMZ (there is no roaming service at all in North Korea, and forget about the internet). And suprisingly, I did manage to get it… for a split second! So anyway, back I went to listening about the Korean War. I couldn’t help but notice how different some parts of it were to the version I heard during the DMZ Tour from the South, where an American soldier was giving an account of the same war. In the North Korean version of the story, it was the US-backed south that triggered the war by attacking first, while the western version involved Kim Il Sung making a first and bold move to recapture the entire peninsula by launching an attack. So what really happened? It’s anyone’s guess. But 60 years later, the war officially hasn’t ended yet. Only a truce was signed in 1953 and tensions have been on and off since then.
one of the negotiating rooms used, from the northern side
There are a few significant buildings that are found in the DPRK side of the DMZ, These are the negotiating rooms which eventually led to the armistice (pictured above) as well as the actual room where the armistice was signed. Our soldier-cum-guide emphasized how the “US-controlled United Nations” (in his own words) was so embarrassed with the outcome of the war that the delegation could not bear to bring back their own flag. The supposedly same flag is still left there in that same room to this day. If you want to see these parts of the DMZ, you’ll just have to join a tour to North Korea. These buildings are inaccessible from the south.
this is it folks, the actual border between north and south korea, split in the middle of those blue huts – the large building at the distance with the weird roof is the south korean side where our tour took us some 4 years back
4 years ago, this was the view that i got from the southern side, so there are actually south korean soldiers hiding behind the blue huts in the previous picture!
One noticeable difference with a tour through the DMZ from the northern side is the lack of strict rules. I remember coming from the south, we were forbidden to bring certain types of camera lenses, discouraged to point at the direction of the north and if my memory serves me right, proper attire was also required. Entering the zone from the south, all our belongings were subject to x-ray scanning. All these rules were absent during the DMZ tour from the north. And to add to that, this is the ONLY place in North Korea where taking pictures of soldiers and WITH soldiers are allowed.
our pansanggi set lunch after the dmz tour which looked eerily similar to the food of the south korea dmz tour i went for 4 years ago
One strange thing though was how the lunch food during the DMZ tour from the north looked eerily similar to the food in the DMZ tour from the south. It consisted of a pansanggi set meal, which one could argue, is a common type of meal served in Korea. Check out some photos from my trip 4 years ago.
listening to the north korean account of the korean war
The quick tour proved to be very interesting but I was disappointed about one thing – they did not allow us to go into the blue house this time. It is supposed to be a standard part of any DMZ tour (whether from the north or south) as the border officially cuts through these otherwise unassuming blue bungalows. I still think it’s kinda cool to be able to step from one country to another just like that. According to our minders, it was the south which blocked any North Korean tour groups from entering the blue huts.
How to get there: A trip down the DMZ is a standard part of a trip to North Korea so there’s usually no need to book for a separate tour. From Pyongyang, it is a leisurely 2 to 3 hour scenic ride down the mostly empty Reunification Highway. Along the way, one can get some good glimpses of rural life in the DPRK.