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:
- Budget Travel
- Theme Park Trips
Get to know your Kims
The purpose of this review is to merely introduce you to the key people you should be familiar with prior to visiting North Korea. You will certainly be well aware of them before you leave unless you close your eyes and plug your ears for the duration of your trip! Should you read my other reviews/tips you will encounter reference to, and more details on, these people with, perhaps, monotonous regularity. Welcome to the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea!
North Korea and the Kim family dynasty are inextricably linked. North Korea today is essentially the Kim family and the Kim family is North Korea.
Apart from infrequent reference to a few early kings the history of North Korea will appear as if it commenced around the beginning of the 20th century and the only people you will hear about within the DPRK will be Kim Il-sung, his first wife, Kim Jong-suk, and his descendants. When I say descendants I mean his son Kim Jong-il and his grandson and current leader (though not supreme leader – in the sense of President) Kim Jong-un. While Kim Il-sung died in 1994 he still holds the title and position of Eternal President of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.
Inquires, to guides, as to the siblings/off-spring of the leaders are answered in one of two ways – either you will be told that such information is secret or it is not known. This may appear odd but the only people of importance in North Korea are the leaders – essentially, why would you be interested in anyone else? Guides will appear perplexed. The leaders are gods, great military men, song-writers, composers, writers of opera’s and general purveyors of advice and wisdom on absolutely everything. In the sense that absolutely everything bad and wicked in North Korea is directly attributed to the United States everything good and wholesome is attributable to one or more of the three Kims.
The peoples' (those whom I had contact with and saw) respect for, and allegiance to, the leaders will probably end up being my most enduring memory of my trip to North Korea. While in North Korea you will be expected to show respect for the leaders and you will be well briefed on this topic long before you get to North Korea. There are a number of rules applicable to visitors to North Korea and number one of these is that you will respect the leaders, past and present. This means among other things:
• You will not speak in derogatory terms about the leaders – you are permitted to discuss politics and have your views – don’t cross the line and offend
• You will bow (bending at the waist with your hands by your side) and present flowers before statues, mosaics, and other representations of the leaders as appropriate – your guides will direct you in this regard and I will refer to it in other tips
• You will, when permitted to take photos, of statues of /monuments to the leaders ensure that you take in the full figure – no pictures of parts of figures. If you are in the picture you will stand respectfully in front of the statues – no “v” signs, outstretched arms in imitation of Kim Il Sung, no “picking” of the leaders noses, etc.
• In the event that you obtain a newspaper (including the weekly English language Pyongyang Times) it is almost certain that one or more of the leaders will be depicted on the front page and throughout the paper. You will not scrunch up such pictures, use them to wrap your shopping, etc and you will not fold the newspaper such that a crease is embedded on a leader’s face.
While the above may seem rather draconian and indeed ridiculous to some readers in North Korea it is seen simply a matter of showing respect for the beliefs and customs of the people. You are not being asked to convert but rather show respect in the same way as you would remove your shoes before entering temples, etc in other countries.
You will be clearly advised of these and a number of other requirements by your tour company before you sign up to go to North Korea. Literature from the tour company I used was very explicit and clear – if you feel unable to comply with the rules then they simply but clearly ask that you do not go to North Korea. That’s fair.
I have somewhat digressed from the Kim’s.
There are five Kim’s that you need to be aware of as depicted in my pictures attached. You will see statues, images and other depictions of Kim Il-sung (picture 1) and Kim Jong-il (picture 2) everywhere, typically displayed together, with much fewer depictions of Kim Jong-suk (picture 4). Apart from news articles and similar you will not come across depictions of the current leader, Kim Jong-un (picture 3). Such depictions are forbidden.
The final Kim that you need to be aware of is Kimchi, (picture 5) which you will encounter twice a day, at lunch and at dinner.
The leaders (living – noting that Kim Il-sung remains the Eternal President notwithstanding his death in 1994) of North Korea since 1948 have been:
Kim Il-sung - 1912 - 1994 (leader 1948 – 1994)
Kim Jong-il - 1942 - 2011 (leader 1994 – 2011)
Kim Jong-un - 1983 - (leader 2012 - )
Dates given, especially birth-dates, are open to debate.
I have referred to the various Kims as leaders – in reality they each have, and continue to have, a multiplicity of titles. For ease of reference within the DPRK the Kims are often referred to as:
Kim Il-sung - President
Kim Jong-il - General
Kim Jong-un – MarshalRelated to:
- Historical Travel
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".
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.
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:
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.
Spyship USS Pueblo
This was originally not on our tour itinerary and having read about it on the new, I asked if we could visit it. I was told that it wasn't possible as some building works were being carried out on some steps nearby. I thought this was a pretty poor excuse and felt a bit hard done by. The following day, one of guides mentioned that it would actually be possible for us to visit the Pueblo and when we arrived, some steps did look like they had been worked on and were actually cordoned off. I thanked the guide for his work in getting us the chance to visit.
Basically the boat is here because it entered into North Korean waters in 1968 and was captured by them and her crew (of which were numbered 83) were kept imprisoned for nearly a year until Major General Gilbert H Woodward signed an apology on behalf of the American government. The crew were then released over the Bridge of no Return into South Korea at the DMZ. As part of the deal, the North Koreans also got to keep the boat as a trophy even though the Americans wanted it back. We got to see the whole boat, which still includes all of the spy equipment, and were treated to a 15 minute long film about the boats capture.
North Korea Hotels
Pyongyang, North Korea
Satisfaction: Very Good
Good for: Families
The are only a small number of hotels in Pyongyang at which tourists are permitted to stay. One of...more
Chilgol-dong, Mangyongdae District, Pyongyang, North Korea
Good for: Solo
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