Walking into DPRK (North Korea)
Inside the main armistice hall, we, the visitors, could see the main table sitting the middle of the hall where the ceasefire was signed.
The table literally was the dividing line between North Korea and South Korea. When we the tourist group from south are visiting, the door into the hall from the north is locked from inside. Only the United Nations Command personnel were inside the hall while the North Korean security personnel were outside the hall but "symbolically" peering into the hall through the glass windows at us inside.
We were all allowed to go round the table and hence stepping into DPRK (North Korea) and back into ROK (South Korea). So this is a moment to cherish and many photographs to be taken.
Mind if I take a photo guys
The North Korean soldiers at the border seemed a lot more relaxed than the American puppets (just joking guys) on the other side. If you get the chance I recommend asking if you can take a photo with them. They have no problems with that at all.Related to:
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Yes, the one true "must see" place in South Korea is North Korea, and there are two places (that I know of) where you can see the Communist state from the South..
First, is Panmunjom, which is a small village right in the middle of the DMZ about 30 KM's north of Seoul. The second is a Reunification Observatory located on the East coast, also right on the border.
At the Reunification Observatory you can look across with binoculars at the many large propoganda signs that are point south, saying things like: "Come to North Korea, Land of No Taxes !!!!" and "North Korea: The Workers Paradise" and the like..
Its even better in Panmunjom, as you can see the North Korean solders just right across the line. You can even go into one of the conference rooms where they hold periodic peace talks, cross the line over to the North side of the room.... I defect, I defect !!! (Not likely...)
So that is the extent of my North Korea experience so far... (Five steps across the line...)
Some day I would like to see more of the "Workers Paradise", tho'...
Book USO/JSA Tour to DMZ
We made reservation a week earlier through USO for a day tour to Pakmujon DMZ.
USO is open to civilian but you must bring your passport or relevant document.
On that day, we arrive at Camp Kim, USO at 7am as the bus depart at 7:30am. Need to dress appropriately and so check the dress code when booking.
The bus ride was a smooth ride. Looking out the window, you could see heavily military presence towards approaching the border.
Attend mandatory briefing at the border (JSA)
Upon arrival at the border or JSA (Joint Security Area), everyone will be escorted to the Ballinger Hall for a 30 minutes briefing on the tour and what to do and not to do.
Each of us were given a guest laminated badge as authorized guest of the UN command. To be worn at all time at the top left side. Unfortunately, we have to surrender the badge prior to departure from Camp Bonifas.
Interestingly, we were told not to make any erratic arm gestures that may provoke an international incident. Not to gesture or try to fraternize with the North Korean personnel.
Face off at DMZ
At the DMZ hall where the Korean Armistice Agreement signed July 27, 1953 for a "ceasefire" ending the Korean wall, you can see the most bizarre faceoff between the North and the South Korean army.
The famous sight of South Korean soldiers showing half their body, the other half hidden by the the building to their North Korean counterpart. The South Korean in the taekwando stance of ready for aggressive action.
While the North Korean soldiers were said to facing each other in case one of them tried to escape to the south while others look towards the north in case of anyone trying to flee. They were to shoot anyone trying to escape, civilian or soldier.
Of course, above is only hearsay but sounds appetizing.
Peering into Propaganda Village, North Korea
Using binoculars, we peered into North Korea.
The "Propaganda Village" , we were told by the South, is an empty "showcase" village. Loud speakers from there constantly broadcasted praises of the Supreme Leader and castigation of the "evil" south. Again this is hearsay as I cannot understand Korean.
This lookout reminded me of the first time when I saw Shenzen of mainland China from Hong Kong's Lowu lookout point and Zhuhai of Mainland China across the bay from Macau. It was during the time when China was not open to foreign tourists.
Perhaps, one day, the same will happen to DPRK.
Take the first photogragh - Observation Tower
Next everyone in the group took turns to take photograph of the landmark observation tower across the DMZ border.
The few buildings here in this Pakmujon village were rebuilt as the original village was razed and destroyed during the Korean war.
This was the first glimsp into North Korea and so everyone was well behaved but excited.
Pakmungan Hall, North Korea
This is probably the most photographed building in North Korea side by the thousands of tourists who visit Pakmujon daily.
Although the buildings on the South Korean side have since been added or changed, the Pakmungan Hall retains its original eternal features.
For tourists of North Korea, they will be walking down the stairs of Pakmungan in their traditional Korean dress. Unfortunately we could only see soldiers as the tourist groups from the North and the South are scheduled apart so that we would not never see each other.
Signing Visitor's Declaration Form (UNC Reg 551-1)
Before the tour began, everyone visitor after briefing was completed, had to sign a declaration form.
One of the statement is "... Although incidents are not anticipated, the United Nations command, the United States of America, and the Republic of Korea cannot guarantee the safety of visitors and may not be held accountable in the event of a hostile enemy act..."
At this juncture, one remembers that North Korea and the USA and South Korea have not sign a peace treaty after the end of the Korean War and so technically speaking.... well, it was too late to turn back as there was no refund. One of the famous landmarks here, anyway, is the "Bridge of No Return" besides the "Freedom Hall".
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Pyongyang Students and Children’s Palace
After arriving at Pyongyang airport and even before we had checked into our hotel, we were whisked along to our first attraction - a Children's Palace. I think it was at the Pyongyang Students and Children’s Palace and not the larger Mangyongdae Children’s Palace but it doesn't matter where we were. What matters is what we saw and heard. We were first greeted by a guide (she could have been a teacher) and led to a classroom where children were doing calligraphy paintings using thick black ink. They were all orderly with nice clean, crisp uniforms on and didn't look up at us at all. Another classroom had children doing embroidery.
After the artist children, we were then led into another classroom where children held huge accordions that nearly dwarfed them as they were sitting down on small stalls. They started playing a short tune, where we applauded afterwards and were then taken to other classrooms with other children playing instruments such as guitars, grand pianos, electronic keyboards, (with some children who only look like they're 5 or 6 years old), and on the gayageum (a 12-string traditional Korean zither-like instrument). All were very good and very accomplished.
Next up on our classroom tour was to see children using PC's. Quite interesting given that the country doesn't allow internet access and that no-one can afford a PC. What was more interesting was that the PC's were using the English version of Windows XP and not the Korean version.
Next it was a walk through the upper floor of a large open hall with children doing Taekwondo, (the Korean martial art), down below us. One end of the hall had boys whilst the other end had girls.
The final part of our tour around the Children's Palace was to see the children put on a performance for us, other tourists and locals/parents. Various children, some of which were very young, came on and sang, danced and played instruments and the whole 40 minute or so show was very good indeed but you do go away thinking if the children are naturally gifted or have been forced into performing for us tourists.
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Arch of Triumph
The Arch of Triumph was built to commemorate the Korean resistance to Japan from 1925 to 1945 and the triumphal return home of Kim Il Sung after hiding in exile during the 2nd World War. It was unveiled in April 1982 to mark his 70th birthday and was built out of 25,500 blocks of finely-dressed white granite - one for each day of his life up until that point. The structure is modelled on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and was deliberately built to be slightly larger. It is the world's tallest triumphal arch, standing 60 metres high and 50 metres wide over a 4 lane road that we could stand in the middle without fear of getting run-over. Inscribed on the Arch is the "Song of General Kim Il-sung", a revolutionary hymn, the year 1925, when North Korean history states that Kim set out on the journey for national liberation and the year 1945, the end of World War II, which ended the Japanese occupation.Related to:
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Myohyang-san - International Friendship Exhibition
The International Friendship Exhibition are two huge partly underground palaces filled with over 100,000 gifts from over 150 countries to both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. We visited the larger of the two first, that was opened in 1978, which had gifts presented to Kim Il Sung. We first had to hand in our cameras and were then told to put on dust covers over our shoes. This is due to the fact that marble is everywhere - on the floors, walls, balconies and staircases. We were led into many rooms were the gifts were very impressive. Some of the stand out ones include a limousine sent to him by Josef Stalin and an armoured train carriage presented to him by Mao Zedong. Most of the gifts are vases, glassware, pictures etc which are fairly boring but some really stand out like a stuffed crocodile holding a wooden plate and cups from the Nicaraguan Sandinist National Liberation Front. Most of the gifts come from extreme left-wing African countries or Communist parties based in the west. Some halls feature large photo's of Kim Il Sung meeting foreign heads of state.
After visiting just some of the 120 rooms (otherwise we would be there for a lifetime), we were led into a room where two large groups of North Koreans were. All the women were sitting down whilst the men were standing in neat rows. We went in before them, into a room with a grinning life-sized waxwork of the Great Leader stood. Our guide bowed his head but we just looked on. He's not very tall but still manages to look down on people as he's standing on raised ground.
After visiting the first palace, we were led down the road to a small building that contains all the gifts presented to Kim Jong Il. Gifts here include those from Hyundai, CNN, a good luck note from Jimmy Carter and a basketball from Madeleine Albright. Some gifts come in the form of old electrical items such as TV's, record players and other stereo equipment as Kim Jong Il is a big 'techy' fan.
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Pyongyang - Kim Il Sung's blank canvas
Pyongyang is the capital city of North Korea and will be your arrival and departure point if you're ever thinking of planning a trip here. It is believed that between 2-2.5 million people live here but they're not just any old people. They have been specifically chosen by the government to live and work here and so it's a great privilege for them to be a resident here. They go about their business, mostly by foot, in an almost Trueman Show kind of way - just being there and not really doing anything. As they mostly walk from A to B, vehicles are few and far between and so the streets are virtually devoid of any traffic which lends an eeriness to the city. Countless propaganda photos and murals of the, so called "Great" leader, Kim Il Sung, are spread throughout the city to act as a show of strength and power to the people, defiance over hardship and that everyone should pull together for the better good of the country.
Pyongyang didn't disappoint me or let me down in any way, shape or form. It was just how I imagined it to be: 100% Communist in every way - the buildings, streets, people and customs. Think of how Moscow would have been back in the 1980's but with virtually everything dating from when it was destroyed during the Korean War in the 1950's. It was the perfect place to start a regime and that regime's capital city from a blank canvas and to infiltrate the 'new' ways on its population and architecture. I actually liked the city - no noise, traffic, litter, advertising or clutter and some of the buildings are actually quite nice. But then, the side that we didn't see must be a very harsh way for the people to live by.
I spent four nights here on my weeklong tour of North Korea and the itinerary crammed in as much as possible as there is an awful lot to see here. We were shepherded around in a brightly coloured bus, from which we could take pictures from open windows that I didn't expect to be allowed to do. This means that I ended up taking over 600 photo's of the city, of which more than half have found their way onto this page. So enjoy them as they speak for themselves more than me writing about what they depict.
Mass Gymnastics and Cultural Performance Arirang
The Mass Gymnastics and Cultural Performance Arirang is a spectacular performance put on by 100,000 talented singers, acrobats and gymnasts in midsummer in the 150,000 seat Mayday Stadium in Pyongyang. 30,000 participants holding flashcards make up an everchanging beautiful backdrop. SEE PICTURES IN ARIRANG TRAVELOGUE
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