Getting that little extra
We built up a good relationship with our 3 guides and whilst we were not 100% compliant we were always very respectful to them. Mostly the guides like to herd you as a small pack so that your time interacting with locals is kept to a minimum. However, it is possible to over-rule sometimes.
There were a number of occasions when we decided we wanted to play with the locals on the local stalls set up for Liberation Day, such as temporary shooting practices. Our guides tried to protest but (and I guess this is where having children was advantageous!) we were so excited and then the locals were so excited that they had to back down and let us... and you need them to back down because you are not going to be in possession of any local currency which is what is required to play! (your guides pay and then charge you in Euros or Yuan). It is a great way of mingling a bit more. After we did this once our guides were more relaxed about us doing it on other occasions - I think it is all to do with trust and respect... but you get so much more out of your trip when you can have that human contact with people other than guides. On one shooting stall occasion several other groups of tourists went past and made noises about wanting to also have a go. There was absolutely no question as to that being allowed and they got herded on their way.
You will have an itinerary from the agent with whom you booked your DPRK trip. You should print it and bring it to DPRK with you, fro reference.
The day you arrive in the DPRK you will have an itinerary meeting with your guide(s) and any other people you are in a group with.
It seemed to be usual/standard practice that on that first evening the itinerary is restricted down and then for certain activities (in particular those that involve mixing with local people) to be reinstated once the visitors have proved themselves as respectful visitors not wishing to cause trouble! On the first night the funfair was a cancelled activity and no amount of grumbling was going to see it reinstated. However, by day 3 it was no longer any problem to go to the funfair... So, a word to the wise... behave yourself and you get to do as much as you can be trusted to do!!!
For some reason the newly opened war museum was also a challenge to visit (and there did not appear to be other tour groups visiting it) but we got there (although I got the impression our main guide had to work really hard on our behalf to make it possible!)
Also be aware that every year the monsoon rains cause flooding which damages and destroys roads and bridges. Itineraries may have to be adapted to compensate for areas that, as a result, are not possible to reach.
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Taedonggang Maekju is a beer brewed in North Korea, but still surprisingly for sale in South Korea. We bought a bottle for 10,000 Won ($9 US) on a tour of the DMZ. While expensive, its price is comparable to average beers where we live in Tokyo.
The beer comes in a big .75 liter green bottle with a label entirely in Korean. The design on the label features a large, modern bridge over the Taedonggang River in North Korea. Taedonggang pours a golden color, with a thick, lasting head. The taste is surprisingly good, without a doubt better than most South Korean beers.
Taedonggang beer is brewed in Pyongyang and named after the Taedong River which flowed through the North's capital city. The brewery was purchased by North Korea from England in 2000. The brewery was moved to Pyongyang, and it opened in 2002. This beer was first exported to South Korea in 2005, though the demand seems to be very low, partly due to the exorbitant prices. In North Korea, this is said to be the most popular beer, and even at foreigner restaurants, it sells for less than $1 US a bottle.
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DMZ - Panmungak
ُThe most impressive building on the North Korean side of the Joint Security Area is called Panmungak. This gray, three-story structure was completed in August 1969, and it houses the North Korean JSA guards and it serves as a waiting are of North Koreans participating in talks with the South. This facility is occasionally open to the North Korean people who visit the DMZ.
When people visit the south side of the JSA, northern soldiers stand watch with binoculars. Occasionally you will also see a curtain pulled up in Panmungak so a guard can snap pictures of visitors.
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DMZ - Military Armistice Commission Buildings
At the center of the Joint Security Area, straddling the Military Demarcation Line, stand a series of silver and baby blue United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission buildings.
All visitors are allowed to enter the center UNCMAC building where peace talks are held. But be wary of the burly South Korean soldiers standing in Tae Kwon Do stances with sunglasses -- they guard the door leading to North Korea. They serve a dual purpose -- to protect visitors from the North Koreans, but also to prevent people from entering the North. While in this building, you may step across the line into the North...but only for a few minutes until your tour continues.
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DMZ - Third Tunnel of Agrression
The Third Tunnel of Northern Aggression is located near Panmunjom at the DMZ. It was the third of four confirmed tunnels dug by North Korea to establish invasion routes into the South. There are believed to be at least 20 tunnels from the north to the south in total, and it is estimated that the tunnels would allow 30,000 soldiers an hour, armed with light weapons, into South Korea. The tunnel was discovered in 1978, when its location was revealed by a North Korean defector.
Today the third tunnel is a popular tourist stop when visiting the DMZ from Seoul. There are two entrances to the Southern side of the tunnel, one via tram and one that must be descended and ascended on foot. The tram is much easier, but not always available. The walk takes 5-10 minutes each way, and does get a bit claustrophobic once you enter the small, wet, dark portion of the caves made by North Korea. Directly under the DMZ, the south built three walls, 2 of which can be viewed by tour groups. Unfortunately photos are not allowed at the walls under the DMZ, and most tour guides tell visitors not to take photos anywhere in the tunnels.
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DMZ - Propaganda Village
Kijong-dong is the official name of a small village located on the North Korean side of the border int he DMZ. It is one of only two villages in the entire DMZ, along with the South Korean village of Daeseong-dong.
Kijong-dong is known outside of North Korea as "Propaganda Village," mainly because most of the town is fake. The buildings, constructed in the 1950s, appear to be empty concrete shells without rooms or windows, but wired with electricity for the illusion of inhabitants. Also, until 2004, load speakers in the village broadcasted propaganda messages into the south. Finally, Propaganda Village is also home to a 525-foot tall flagpole, but solely to be taller than the 323-foot tall flagpole constructed on the South Korean side of the border.
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DMZ - Dorasan Station
Dorasan Station, on the on the Gyeongui Line, is the last train station before the North Korean border. For about a year trains were allowed to pass through this station and across the border to Kaesong's industrial city, but these only ran from 2007-2008.
The station may no longer be an active gateway to the north, but it is the terminus for four trains per day from Seoul. From here, visitors are very close to Dora Observatory and the third North Korean invasion tunnel. You can also buy a souvenir ticket to Pyeongyang, 205 kilometers to the north, for just 500 Won (USD 0.50). The station lies 56 kilometers from Seoul.
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DMZ - Dora Observatory
The Dora Observatory is located on Mount Dora, just across the border between North and South Korea. This tourist destination has an observation room and an outdoor observation deck that offer great views into North Korea. The area is open for tourists and it has a small gift shop, public restrooms, and a small temple.
From here you can look into North Korea over the DMZ to see propaganda village and the world's tallest flagpole, as well as Kaesong.
Dora Observatory is next to Dorasan Station, the last South Korean train station before the border, and very close to the third North Korean invasion tunnel.
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DMZ - Camp Bonifas
Camp Bonifas is located just 3 kilometers southeast of the Joint Security Area near the DMZ. This is the home of the United Nations Command Security Battalion—Joint Security Area, which is responsible for patrolling the JSA and protecting visitors to the area.
The UNC Security Battalion also provides tours of the JSA. The tours begin with a visit to the new visitors center, where guests must sign a form labelled UNC Reg 551-1, which warns prisoners of the dangers of the DMZ. This form reads in part: "The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action." After signing the form, the military personnel at the JSA give a very good and informative briefing about the Korean War, the DMZ, and the JSA. Next guests enter UNC buses for the ride to the JSA.
The visitors center at Camp Bonifas has a large gift shop, selling items to include North Korean goods, and it has a small museum.
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DMZ - Bridge of No Return
The Bridge of No Return was for many years the only bridge connecting the Joint Security Area at the DMZ with North Korea. The bridge itself straddles the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) which is the actual border between North and South. After the Korean War ended, the bridge was used for prisoner exchanges where the prisoners were free to choose to stay in the north or south, but once the decision was made, it was final. The prisoners could never return to the other side, hence the name of the bridge.
Until the axe murder incident of 1976, the North Korean soldiers used this bridge to man their posts within the JSA, but after the incident the forces in the JSA were ordered to stay on their own side of the border, and North Korea constructed a new bridge to the north.
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DMZ - Site of the Axe Murder Incident
In the Joint Security Area of the DMZ, next tot he Bridge of No Return, is the site of the Axe Murder Incident. At this spot in 1976, a US Army Captain and a US Army Lieutenant were killed, and 8 other UN soldiers were wounded while trying to "prune" a tree to improve visibility between checkpoints.
Later, the UN responded with Operation Paul Bunyan on 21 August 1976. This show of overwhelming force including an 83-man tree-cutting crew, backed by a 64-man South Korean special forces unit, 20 utility helicopters, 7 cobra attack helicopters, and a number of B-52 bombers, F-4 Phantoms fighters, South Korean F-5 fighters, and the aircraft carrier USS Midway. Additionally, 12,000 other US troops were deployed to South Korea. The operation went smoothly, with a quiet response by 100-200 North Korean soldiers, as the tree was removed in less than 45 minutes.
Today, this infamous site is marked by a bronze plaque that sits above a circular concrete pad that is said to be the precise size of the tree they were sent to trim. The inscription on the plaque reads:
On this spot was located the yellow poplar
tree which was the focal point of the ax
murders of two United Nations Command
officers, Captain Arthur Bonifas and First
Lieutenant Mark Barret, who were attacked
and killed by North Korean guards while
supervising a work party trimming the tree on
18 August 1976.
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Nampo - West Sea Barrage
Nampo is a large industrial port city located about 50km south-west of Pyongyang at the mouth of the Taedong River. It was little more than a small fishing village but opened as a port for foreign trade in 1897 and today is the country’s largest and most important port. Not only is it a port but it is also home to the country’s main heavy industry plants such as a steel complex, general tractor works, a smelting complex, shipbuilding yards, a heavy machinery complex and a glassworks. I never saw any of this as we stayed overnight outside the city at a posh villa complex that used to be a holiday resort for North Koreas top officials. We did, however, drive through some of the city on our way back to Pyongyang after visiting the city's main attraction - the huge 8km long West Sea Barrage built to close off the Taedong River from the Yellow Sea in order to supply fresh drinking water and water for irrigation. It is quite impressive and about the only sensible project to have been built under the 'Kim' regime.
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Panmunjom is the general name for the area where buildings are located on both sides of the 38th parallel or DMZ which splits the Korean peninsula into two following World War 2. In fact, Panmunjom was actually a small village on the northern side of the border but nothing of it remains today except for a few buildings where the Korean War ceasefire Armistice agreement was signed on 27th July 1953. You'll get to see the Korean and UN copies of the agreement in one of the buildings before visiting the JSA (Joint Security Area) and the MAC (Military Armistice Commission) building, where talks now take place. This area is full of tension between the two sides and you can still sense the stand-off between the North Korea soldiers and the South Korean soldiers who stand in a provocative taekwondo stance. Throughout your trip here, you'll be accompanied by a member of the Korean People's Army (we had a lieutenant colonel, no less!).
It's best not to step out of line or say anything that can undermine yourself or anyone else within your tour group as things are taken very seriously here and there's good reasons why as there's been many conflicts and shootings within this area between the two sides over the years. For me, it was another highlight of my time in North Korea. In fact I actually came back here one week later as part of a South Korean tour which was very different to the North Korean one. For example, on the South Korean tour we had to sign agreements so that the UN will take no responsibility in any actions that may arise whilst visiting. We didn't sign anything or were told nothing as part of our North Korean tour. We were told not to take any bags, point, run and to walk in single file as part of the South Korean tour. We could take bags and virtually 'fool' around on the North Korean tour. So, the differences are even there to be seen on the tours yet alone the places themselves.
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Kaesong - Tomb of King Kongmin
This tomb is located about 13km (8 miles) west of Kaesong. King Kongmin (1330 - 1374) was the 31st king of Koryo dynasty and he is buried his alongside his wife. The tombs are guarded by 12 guardian gods, sheep and tigers. There is a stone offertory table with a 7-ton stone slab in front each tomb.
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