Kaesong City, North Korea

Any international trip that begins with you leaving your passport at home is bound to be an interesting one. Luckily, my friend and coworker Ricky was convinced to drive my passport two hours up to Seoul for $80’s just in the nick of time; making the following trip possible.

Boarding the bus in Seoul at 6am, my friend and I were far from awake. Fortunately the three-hour bus ride from Seoul to the North Korean border and gave us ample time to wake up.

After passing through South Korean customs, our bus convoy drove through the DMZ. At the North Korean border, three North Korean tour guides all wearing suits boarded the bus. Our convoy of six buses was then escorted into North Korea by several South Korean cars driven by North Korean soldiers.

After crossing the boarder and entering the North I as struck with how bleak the scenery seemed. It made no conceivable sense that a few miles could make such a different on the surroundings. Yet as I look closer at the mountains, I realized most of the trees had been chopped down, leaving only winter brown grass to cover the countryside.
As the bus got closer to Kaesong City we began to pass small farming villages. The scene could best be described as something out of rural China. Villages were comprised of ten to twenty houses, which were surrounded by a wall about head high (This type of wall is normal in rural Asian villages). At first glance these villages could have been nearly anywhere in rural Asia. It was the military presence in each village that made you realize your were in North Korea.

Alongside the road anywhere there was a house, village, or building a North Korean solider(s) stood with a red flag. Their primary job was to keep the civilians from getting close enough to interact with us; their second objective was to watch for any of us taking pictures from the bus.

Taking pictures while inside the bus or of, North Koreans, farmhouses, and anything else aside from national monuments and natural wonders is strictly forbidden in North Korea. If a North Korean soldier spots or believes he has spotted someone taking a picture from the bus, he raises the flag and the convoy has to stop. The North Korean soldiers then boards the bus and typically confiscates the perpetrators camera and slaps them with a fine or possibly jail time.

As our bus passed through Kaesong City the muted color theme continued. Everything was drab. Nothing drew attention to itself, the people, the buildings, and the few cars all seemed to be trying to escape any unwanted attention.

*In the video above, I had to hide the camera at one point in this video to keep from being caught by a policeman standing on the street. In hindsight it was rather a close call. .
I was also struck by the construction of the buildings. It reminded me of pictures I’d seen of Eastern Europe in National Geographic. Delicately thin single pain windows hung from catawampus high-rise apartment buildings that had no lights on. The construction materials being used in half built buildings seemed to be an odd mix of precariously stacked concrete blocks, none of which were uniform. Most buildings under construction had the same black cranes sitting idly above them, giving entire portions of the city felt like a movie set. The streets however, were clean enough to eat off of.

After passing through Kaesong City we traveled down the Reunification Highway to our first stop, the Pakyon Waterfall. The waterfall was beautiful and as is typical with natural wonders in North Korea, poetry/ propaganda had been carved into the surrounding rocks. Most of it had done by the North Korean’s, but some of it predated North Korea, so if you looked around you could see where the “offensive” poetry had been chiseled out of the rocks.

From Pakyon Waterfall our convoy drove back down the Reunification Highway and into Kaesong City to have lunch. During the ride one of our North Korean guides decided to lighten the mood and sung us this song:

“Lets love our country
Compared to other countries North Korea is the best
North Korea is the greatest country
North Korea is the greatest country”

On the hour-long trip we only encountered a handful of cars. Most westerners make this out to be a bad thing. Personally I though it was great. There was no traffic what so ever and the air quality was great compared to Seoul. The North Koreans I saw walked or rode bicycles; if they had enough food nearly everyone in North Korea would be in exemplary shape.

For lunch we were given traditional Kaesong cuisine, which was served by North Korean women wearing traditional Korean Hanbok’s. The food was delicious and we were given so much that no one including myself was able to finish it.

Following lunch we were allowed to walk outside in a very limited, but interesting area. At the top of a hill, that we were not allowed to walk up was large statue of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung and at the bottom of the hill lay downtown Kaesong city. We were allowed to take pictures of nearly everything including North Korean citizens, because we were to far away to get a decent picture of them. Downtown Kaesong city had little to no traffic and for a city of 400,000 and very little foot traffic.

Near the end of the day we were allow to stand on one side of the street and watch the North Korean’s “going about their everyday life” on the other side of the street. (Interestingly while we were on the sidewalk no North Korean ever walked on our side of the street.) The mood could best be described as a people zoo; though its debatable as to whom the wild animals were. As with the entire tour, the North Korean’s citizens were there, but just out of our reach. They paid little to no attention to us, though once in a great while a small child would acknowledge the waves from people on our tour.
The last stop on our trip was to a gift shop and temple. After buying a rather interesting anti- American stamp collection, (which I had to smuggle back into South Korea) I wandered around the temple. Upon returning to the parking lot, I walked as far away from the other tourists as possible and took a moment to take in the scenery.

Off in the distance a man on a hill carried a bale of straw that was bigger than him. Bellow him on the hill laid a half completed water-slide that looked as though it would never be finished. To my right was half built building with yet another black crane standing guard over it. Then some movement over on the hill caught my eye. It was two little boys. From behind some rocks they peered down at the parking lot taking in the foreigners milling about. Their curiosity made me smile and reminded me that even in North Korea kids are kids.

Going back over the boarder was a little stressful. I had brought two memory cards for my camera. On one memory card I had taken approved pictures. On the other I had the forbidden pictures and videos that ended up on this post. So with the "illegal" memory card stuffed in my underwear and thoughts of going to a North Korean prison running through my mind, I walked through the metal detector, which of course had to go off. Yet with a swoop of his hand held metal detector and an inspection of the approved pictures on my camera, the North Korean soldier waved me through customs. (One person on my tour was caught with several forbidden pictures. At one point four North Korean soldiers surrounded him and yelled at him in hushed tone. Only after our South Korean tour guide intervened was he able to make it through customs and onto the bus.)

Sitting in Seoul Station waiting for my train back to Cheonan, I though about the positive aspects of life in North Korea. The lack of materialism was great. There were no giant advertisements, fast-food chains, or big box stores. There were no televisions, blaring radios, or ringing mobile phones. The lack of cars, trucks, and buses left the city air fresh. The time capsule feeling of the country gave me an insight into the world that has all but disappeared.

Yet for better or for worse the world has changed and rather than fighting that fact, I settled into my seat on a 200mph bullet train, looked at my forbidden pictures, and smiled as I bit into my Big Mac.

*As of December 1, 2008 North Korea has closed its boarder with South Korea indefinitely. My tour was the last offered by Adventure Korea until the boarder reopens.
**This tour was the only way for Americans to visit North Korea aside from during the Mass Games, which are typically held once a year.
***All video was shot out of my tour buses window or while I was standing on the street. At one point I was shooting video with a North Korea solider standing next to me.


Diamond Head

This is near the summit of Diamond Head on a trail that goes around the rim of the volcano's cone.

Hawaii Harley

The weather on the back side of Oahu threatened to rain on me. In the end I escaped the rain, but not a dog bite to my shoe on dead end road.