DMZ Deja Vu

Today we’re going to the DMZ from the south side and Kimberly and I start out a wee bit tired (of which our gracious travel mates aren’t slow to take advantage…) A bus takes us there and a guide tells us a thing or two about the DMZ; for instance about the time when the boss of Hyundai (being a former North Korean) gave away 1001 cows to North Korea. Or that the people who live in the DMZ, yes there actually are people living there, earn from $80k to $100k a year just to live there and farm the land. But then again, you do run the risk of stepping on a mine or being axed down by crazed soldiers

Entering the DMZ we come across the South Korean version of tank traps which consists of cement “portals” sort of like the ones at Stonehenge. When you need to stop something, the top part is blown off using explosives, falling down on the road and blocking it.

As we get to the actual Joint Security Area, where the blue barracks are, we get surprisingly strict instructions. There is to be absolutely no pointing, no stopping unless told so or even looking in the wrong direction. The North Koreans were much more laid back! The South Korean soldiers on duty were also very constipated, all wearing pilot glasses, helmets and standing with closed fists in front of their bodies. There was also a peculiar sound about them that took me a while to figure out what it was. It seems like they have steel balls sewn into the hem of their pants in order for them to fall just right! And when they walk around, those balls roll around and clatter against each other, hilarious! =D

Then again I guess they do have reason to be a bit more jumpy what with the North Koreans and their less than stellar track record of predictability… On the way out we stop by the usual souvenir shop and I buy a couple of trinkets. The place seems to be mostly staffed by Americans, interestingly enough.

Next stop is the “Third Tunnel of Aggression” where the North Koreans tried digging an invasion tunnel under the DMZ and nearly succeeded. If it wasn’t for the South Koreans capturing a spy that told them about its location. The North Koreans of course denied it being an invasion tunnel and claimed that it was a coal mine, pointing to black patches on the tunnel walls. (patches soon to be found being paint since the kind of rock that’s in this region never contains coal…) We did get to go down into the tunnel itself as well, wearing yellow hardhats. Which was fortunate since I bumped my head in the ceiling more than five times going back and forth.

Back up top we get to see a propaganda movie that is only slightly more balanced than the North Korean ones. There is also a little museum covering larger DMZ incidents. Interestingly enough the entry about the Pueblo (the captured spy ship) is rather tiny here and hardly mentioned… Outside the building are a few monuments, but the coolest thing I find is the “Mine” warning sign off to the side. I guess stepping out into the forest to pee is out of the question!

We hop on the bus again and arrive at some sort of watch tower with a view of North Korea and a joint factory venture between North and South Korea. The place is actually rather silly with a line some 10 meters from the actual view after which you weren’t allowed to take pictures. The view wasn’t all that special, especially since we’d just been in North Korea, I feel that they could’ve skipped this bit and gone straight for the train station which is the last stop on the tour.

What makes this train station special is its role as a symbol for the reunification effort, one day you’re supposed to be able to board a train to Pyongyang on this station. But right now it’s just shipping the workers at the joint venture factory to and fro.

On the way back to Seoul we’re herded into one of those crappy crystal shops you always end up in on tours like this. We manage to escape unscathed and spend the rest of the evening spelunking around the less touristy parts of Seoul and finishing off the evening with some excellent Indian food.

What do you think of our nuclear missiles?

Wake up call is at 6:30, no time to dilly dally, we have a full day ahead of us. Breakfast is at 7:00, except that it isn’t. Our guides has forgotten to notify the staff about the time and we have to wait until 7:30. It’s a great breakfast though with juices, coffee, on-demand omelet, toast, salad, fruit and yoghurt. After a hurried breakfast we hop on the bus and Mr Kim starts off by teaching us two phrases in Korean: “Annyong hashinika” which means “Good morning/day/evening” and “Kamsa hamnida” which means “Thank you”, and then proceeds to tell us about today’s program. First we’re going to the DMZ, then to nearby Kaesong city to look at an old bridge and a history museum, then back to Pyongyang to look at their subway and hopefully we’ll have time for a quick stop back at the hotel to change clothes before the Arirang Mass Games in the evening.

So we start off on the 160 km drive to the DMZ which Mr. Kim says will take about 3 hours. We were all quietly thinking “WTF?!” about that estimate but when we reached the highway outside town we understand why. The highway is in a really sad state, striped with cracks, making it impossible to drive much faster than 60 km/h. It’s also really wide and would easily be a four-lane, maybe even six-lane, if they’d bothered to paint any lines that is. The result is that everyone drives all over the road and general praxis seems to be to honk generously whenever overtaking someone to let them know you’re coming. There’s also a lot of people walking all over the road, so it’s not only the fact that the bus is shaking to pieces keeping the speed down…

On the highway

While careening down the highway, Mr. Kim siezes the opportunity to tell us just how sincere the North Korean people are in their wish to reunite with their southern brethren and how the USA is blocking the reunion. He drones on for over half an hour even though everyone stopped listening at the ten minute mark. Eventually he tires and we’re allowed to drift off to sleep.

After a while we reach a roadblock and the bus turns off the road and onto a gravel road. After a few hundred meters we see why: it’s a bridge that is blocked off and the foundation doesn’t look in too good a shape. Probably a good thing we’re not on it… The gravel road turns into something marginally asphalted and we’re going less than 20 km/h at this point. I attempt to take some pictures, but the bus is shaking so violently that it’s impossible. It’s also too much people around, pushing bikes with humongous loads and ox carts filled with rice for me to get away with taking any pictures.

Suddenly Mr. Kim leans over and asks to see my camera. Gulp! I’m envisioning the deletion of all my pictures and a stern lecture about what’s okay to photograph. But instead he’s merely curious about the camera! He wants to know how old it is, what it costs, where it’s made, how many megapixels and so on… =P Phew..!

After some more driving on back roads we’re finally back on the highway again. Suddenly we’re passed by another, smaller tour bus (which are the only vehicles out on the road really). This seems to tick our driver off and we rapidly pick up speed. Soon we’re thundering down the highway at breakneck speed and it’s not long before we pass the other bus again and Mr. Kim turns to me with a big smile and two thumbs up: “Very fast bus, Japanese made, not Chinese!”. I lean over to see how fast we’re going, only to realize that, just as in Mongolia, the speedometer is broken…

The landscape zooms by and it’s mostly farmland. The main crop is obviously rice but we also see a lot of corn and even some cotton. We make a quick bathroom at a teahouse where there’s also a souvenir stand. I buy a Korean phrase book from 1989, containing gems like “Long live the great leader Comrade Kim Il-Sung!” and “I want to vomit”.

Souvenir stop

After some more miles on the bus we finally reach the DMZ. The first thing we lay eyes on are a bunch of people wielding actual pickaxes to hack stones to make a new porch (maybe it’s the people from last year’s tour?). Obviously we’re not allowed to photograph them… We gather in front of a big sign with a map of the DMZ and an army officer tells us all about it. It’s two km of buffer zone on each side of the actual border where all weapons are prohibited and we also get an earful of info about the buildings of which I miss most due to poor English and a general disinterest. We’re are asked to form two lines before walking into the DMZ and entering the bus again. The bus drives down this narrow road with two meter high cement walls on each side. On top of the walls are Indiana Jones-like contraptions in the form of giant square blocks perched up on a little slide with just a little stopper underneath to keep them from sliding down onto the road in the event of an invasion, very cool! After a while the blocks are replaced with electrified barbed wire and we pass over several flimsy bridges obviously designed to be collapsible.


The first building we arrive at is the one where the cease fire talks were held. Here we’re informed about how the US provoked the war and how the DPRK heroically threw back the aggressors. The US had suggested a specific spot to sign the cease fire agreement – an open air spot, supposedly so that there would be no memorial of this shameful event. But the North Koreans pulled a few all-nighters and built a large house in just five days to serve as monument for future generations. The Americans also didn’t want the flag soiled by this defeat and instead used the UN flag. The house is also filled with pictures of North Korean triumphs such as the siezing of the Pueblo, the felling of an American helicopter and the letter of apology from the Pueblo drama.

Cease fire house

Next up is the signature monument, which is just what it sounds like, a monument displaying the signature of the late Kim Il-Sung. It’s taken from the last document he signed before passing away in his office, diligently serving his people until his very last breath. The monument has a lot of symbolism built in, it’s 4.15 m high, denoting his birthday at April 15th, 7.7 m wide denoting the day of the signature. The monument is also adorned with 82 magnolias (magnolias are the state flower of DPRK and 82 is for the age of the president at the time of death). The document he signed is was a last wish for reunification with the south.

Then finally it’s time for the actual border. In the Joint Security Area, as this particular spot is called, the border goes in a north-south direction and straddling it are three blue barracks. In the middle one is a conference room where North and South meet every now and then to talk. The main table is placed so that the border runs right through it and the people on each side are still in their respective countries. We get to enter South Korea for a few meters before going back.

The border

Afterwards we go back to a larger building with a balcony from where we can get a better view of the area and can take proper photographs. We even get a photo-op with the officer guiding us (a one-time exception to the no-photos-of-military-men-rule). It’s also worth mentioning that the American guy we keep running into as his tour is taking the same route, has all the same opportunities as we do to photograph and move about.

That concludes the DMZ tour and on the bus back the officer that was guiding us leans over to me and you can really see his eyes beaming with pride as he asks “What do you think about our nuclear missiles?” I’m completely taken aback and start mumbling incoherently about it being “generally bad” and that “Sweden doesn’t have any” before being told that it’s okay and I don’t have to answer… What would you have said?! Sheesh…

He’s still curious though and wants to know what I do for a living and how much I make. I get the numbers wrong by a decimal place and answer “about 300€ a month”. He seems pleased and I take the opportunity to ask him the same question back. This seems to make him a bit uncomfortable but after a while he answers “2-300€ a month”. Now, I have no idea of how truthful he was, but odds are that my mistake made him a bit more forthcoming than he otherwise would have been. It’s a pretty safe assumption that he doesn’t earn more than that anyway. I also ask how high an officer he is and as far as I can tell he’s somewhere in the upper middle tier in whatever hierarchy they have in the North Korean army.

Next stop is Kaesong City where a large part of the population seems to be occupied with fixing potholes, using donkeys and other likewise medieval means. Kaesong is North Korea’s third largest city with about 300K inhabitants and just kilometers from the DMZ. We’re here to see the old Sonjuk stone bridge where some guy got assassinated back in the 13th century or so. This was in the time of the Koryo dynasty, from which the country has gotten its name. Afterwards we cross the road to a little temple containing two bigass turtles carrying the entire temple on their backs. I actually don’t remember the significance of this temple, but the turtles were cool. =P

Kaesong Main Street

Now we finally get to eat lunch (believe it or not but we squeezed all that in before lunch, the schedule in North Korea is _packed_). Lunch consists of a boatload of little bowls, each containing a little dish. There’s deep fried potatoes, candied rice, seaweed, kimchi, another kind of kimchi, some sort of mushrooms, omelet, squid, sauce, bean sprouts, acorn jelly, lotus root, pork, some sort of North Korean dinner liqueur (20%), rice, noodles and finally a bowl of chicken broth. Since we’re behind schedule we’re only given a little more than half an hour to eat up before moving on to the stop: the history museum.


On the way over we see several women doing the laundry, old school, in the river with a washboard and all. The actual history museum is nothing to get excited about, they talk some more about Koryo dynasty and we also get an earful about the benefits ginseng root (they’re somewhat obsessed with ginseng in North Korea). There is something cool to be learned though, and that is that they had actual printing presses as early as mid 12th century, very impressive!

After the museum we get to shop postcards, stamps and general souvenirs in a shop outside the museum. I buy some liqueur for 1€ (25%), alcohol sure is cheap in this country (beer is 60 euro cents for a 64 cl bottle (4.5%)) and four postcards, including stamps, for 6€, not exactly cheap…

That’s it for Kaesong and we get back on the bus to go back to Pyongyang. The young guide Yeoh sits next to me and we talk about this and that. He wants to know about the company that I work for (Ericsson) and is surprised at how big it is. He’s never heard of it but seem to recognize Huawei when I mention them as competitor. He’s also interested in computers and I ask him how much of the population that has computers. He answers that 60% of them do. Umm right, I’d be surprised if 60% even have power…

Being a tour guide is his full time job and he has 4-5 tours a month, from June to November is the most busy period since that’s when the Arirang Mass Games are performed. This is also the only period when Americans are allowed to visit as I understand it. The rest of the year the guides study history, geography and such.

As we come back to Pyongyang it’s time visit the subway. It’s being presented by the guides as something really special so we’re not sure what to expect. “It’s a metro for chrissakes, get over it!” was what most of us were thinking… We arrive at the station and showed an interactive map of the subway where you can push buttons and the path from this station to the one pushed is lit up, kind of impressive if it weren’t for the fact that the entire metro system consists of two (2) lines… Then we go down a really long escalator to look at the actual platform, and I have to say that I’m duly impressed. The station is beautiful with colorful paintings of happy Koreans adorning all walls and chandeliers in the ceiling. In the middle of the platform, newspapers are mounted and people are standing there reading.

The Pyongyang Metro

The train arrives and we hop on to go one station down the line. The cart is adorned with the omni-present pictures of the Kims (junior and senior) of course. Henrik has heard that the trains are old DDR leftovers and and asks Mr. Kim about it. This clearly doesn’t go over well with our guide, but finally he answers that yes, they are indeed from DDR. The next station is just as beautiful as the former, but you can’t help but wonder if we’ve seen the only two pretty stations in the entire metro system.

The second station

After a quick change into warmer clothes we’re bussed off for dinner and treated to hotpot. Not a favorite really but not bad either. We’re short on time as usual and after devouring as much we can we’re packed back on the bus. I’m looking for a place to dispose of my chewing gum after dinner but realize that there are no trash bins in Pyongyang! This actually seems true for much of the Asia I’ve seen, they seem to rely on people with brooms instead.

Mr. Kim asks if we are fed up (to general amusement) and we’re off to Arirang Mass Games! This is something that really can’t be put into words properly so I’ll stick to the bare necessities: The whole thing takes place in an open air stadium and looks like that old Leni Riefenstahl movie Olympia, or the Olympic opening ceremony times ten if you will. There are 100 000 people on the field (not at the same time though) for the 80 minutes the show lasts and on the opposite side of the stadium from the audience sit 20 000 school kids, each with plates in different colors that they hold up at certain intervals. The plates are like pixels in a giant screen and everything is synchronized like clockwork! No dead (or lazy) pixels in sight, truly amazing!

Arirang Mass Games

There is really no way to describe this, we just watch slack jawed and try to comprehend all that is going on. This is the weirdest/coolest/bestest/scariest thing I’ve ever seen.