DPRK 2007

< Previous page Next page >

Sunday, April 22

Sunday was the longest day and full of travel, but it was our one day to get out of Pyongyang and down south to the border. We started on our two and a half hour bus ride to the DMZ where North and South Korea are divided. There’s not much to see between the two locations, but it did give us a chance to see the countryside.


North Korea is almost all mountains and they have very little arable land, which is one of the many reasons they have a hard time feeding everyone in the country. Driving through the country, you see they’ve tried to turn every possible free piece of land into something they can farm on. The hills and mountains are thoroughly sliced up and terraced to create flat land to plant on. We also saw very little mechanization, so it was mostly people working the land by hand or, at times, with an animal. While the country was beautiful, the word that most often came to mind was “arduous.”

The actual border was one of the more surreal experiences of the trip. After some time spent getting a talk from a North Korean soldier about the area, its history, and about how the division of the Korean peninsula came about, we headed on the bus to the actual border. People don't travel around North Korea very much, but amazingly, in the over two hour trip to the southern border, we did not pass a single car going in the opposite direction.

DMZ Demonstation

Much of the DMZ is made up of soldiers and land mines, but at Panmunjeom, there is the Joint Security Area where large buildings on each side of the border sit near each other, and in fact, some smaller buildings actually straddle the border. The area is calm and physically you could easily walk across the border if it weren’t for the North Korean soldiers that would shoot you. Soldiers on both sides stand guard, some just feet from the border. The North Korean soldiers face toward North Korea as if to stop people from leaving rather than stopping invaders from coming in.

As soon as our group approached this border, soldiers from the South Korean side got out binoculars to take a closer look at us, but they lost interest quickly. We got to go into one of the buildings that sat on each side of the border. The center table in the room actually marked the border and was situated so people from each side could sit at the table without DMZ crossing the border. We were allowed to cross, but not to leave the building out the other side, of course, as there were two North Korean soldiers guarding that door. It struck me that on any normal trip, this would be a museum of what things used to be like and we’d hear about what these buildings used to be used for and imagine what this border used to mean to both sides. But it was amazing to actually be on the border that means everything to the two countries technically still at war, and it’s easy to feel the tension that exists as grim-looking soldiers from both countries intently watch you.

Fresh from that little taste of the Cold War, we headed back onto the bus for lunch. Like many of our meals at restaurants, there were no menus to order from and no customers other than the Western tourists. In fact, our food was already waiting for us on the table when we got there. There was lots of it, and it was good.

Concrete Wall

Next was the next stop on the DMZ tour which was known just as the Concrete Wall. The North Korean colonel who was there to tell us about it described it as a long, concrete wall that separates the north from the south and that although it could be seen from the north, the U.S. and South Koreans had made it slanted and covered in grass on their side, so you couldn’t see it while looking north. A bunch of binoculars were set up for us to look through, although everyone seemed a little mystified at what we were looking at. It could have been a wall, and it could have been…lots of things. The colonel who was there to tell us about it was surprisingly charming, and he asked us to tell all of our friends, since the media wasn’t willing to expose it. So I am.

After several hours back through the country, we finally got back to Pyongyang where we quickly stopped off for one more site: Reunification Monument The Monument to Three Charters for National Reunification. It was another striking and enormous monument that made an arch over the highway. It’s dedicated to the reunification of the Korean peninsula, but sadly I don’t remember the three charters.

Another feature unique to Pyongyang is the traffic. The traffic in the city is famously light, but it does exist, and was there was even a little more of it than I had expected. However, there are very few traffic lights in operation, so instead, women known simply as "traffic ladies" stand in the middle of the intersection to guide the cars. Below is a video of a traffic lady in action. (This is the one video from the site that is not from my trip).

Back at the hotel, I had a few beers with one of our North Korean guides, and it was nice to get a chance to talk to one of them outside of hearing from them about some tourist site or what we were not allowed to do at them. He was a young guy who was excited to have gotten engaged recently and was actually on his first tour having just moved over from a job in hotel management. He was quite dismayed that at 33 I wasn’t married yet. Throughout the trip, he seemed the most enthusiastically pro-North Korean of the guides (no small feat), even though he had been lucky enough leave the country before and even fondly recalled his visit to Hong Kong as being in “shopping paradise.”

< Previous page Next page >