In June 2015, London based Lawyer Keith Ly went on a tour with Visit North Korea, he offers the following reflections on his journey:
North Korea is indeed a very interesting part of the world to visit. Certainly not impossible, but has its challenges. You have to travel with a tour group to North Korea as independent travel has not been granted to foreigners and probably will not be granted any time soon. We were five British citizens, an Irish citizen and two Finnish citizens who had kept an open mind about North Korea. We had already met up beforehand in Dandong where we had mingled together visiting the Great Wall of China, the broken bridge across the Yalu River and taking a speedboat into North Korean waters where we were metres away from North Korea! Our excitement in visiting the Hermit Kingdom intensified as we made our way across customs at Dandong Station. I was troubled by the officer as he did not realise that I actually obtained an official visa in my passport. Most tourists have blue tourist cards that allow them passage across to North Korea. The blue tourist cards are kept by the officials upon exiting North Korea which is why I went through the trouble of obtaining the visa, something that I saw as a trophy alone.
One thing that really got to me was the fact that we were mingling with everyday North Korean citizens. Perhaps not the average Joe or in this case Park, Kim, Jeong… but actual North Korean citizens. Each North Korean wore their badges with pride and looked extremely proud to be carrying a North Korean passport which had the emblem on the front of it. On board our carriage was a group of women who had represented the DPR Korea but I couldn’t tell what sport they had recently participated in nor was I aware of any ongoing sports events in China during the last few days. How wrong I was as on our return journey, a local North Korean girl had come up to us and spoken to us for a good hour and wanted to practice her English with us. She was a student in Pyongyang from Sinuiju harmlessly learning from us. We would never dare to infiltrate her mind with what was seen as imperialist propaganda so we kept our conversations simple although questions on asking where she would like to visit outside North Korea was not something we would get an answer for.
“The rice paddy and fields were completely untouched, a testament to the world which shows what a lack of international globalisation looks like”
The journey was very overwhelming and was more incredulous than I had anticipated. The rice paddy and fields were completely untouched, a testament to the world which shows what a lack of international globalisation looks like. Whilst passing some of the obelisks and monuments dedicated to the Juche ways and the Kim Dynasty, it made you feel like that you had gone back 60 years in time where many of the people used traditional ways to farm. Occasionally children would wave at us from the fields and chase after the train to say hello as well as watching typical life pass. We eventually passed all the fields and slowly entered what looked like suburbs and eventually into Pyongyang City. Pyongyang looked like your everyday capital city, a metropolis which any citizen would be proud of. The train station on arrival was quite magnificent. It wasn’t special but it had that North Korean feel on arrival. It might have had this influence thanks to the propaganda that was playing through the speakers and the slogans which had exclamation marks at the end!
“Pyongyang looked like your everyday capital city, a metropolis which any citizen would be proud of. The train station on arrival was quite magnificent. It wasn’t special but it had that North Korean feel on arrival.”
Whilst Pyongyang itself is a very interesting place given what it symbolises around the world especially around places such as the Juche Tower, Kim Il Sung Square and the USS Pueblo… the Demilitarised Zone (aka ‘DMZ’) or otherwise known as the town of Panmunjom was the one place that made the entire trip even more breath-taking. At Panmunjom we listened to a short seminar on the history of the Korean War and how the North Koreans had fought bravely against the South Korean forces. After our seminar, we found out that our guides had requested clearance for us to cross into the DMZ with a soldier allocated to travel into the DMZ as protection in case of ‘an attack from the imperialist aggressors and the puppet army’. A gate was opened where a North Korean soldier saluted to our minibus. Our minibus was allocated a ‘sangjwa’ which in English is Colonel and we could tell from the two stripes and three stars on his shoulder board.
Our minibus was allocated a ‘sangjwa’ which in English is Colonel and we could tell from the two stripes and three stars on his shoulder board.
We made a stop at the North Korea Peace Museum which was the building where the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement was signed. There are many items in the museum dedicated to how North Korea was apparently victorious in the war with our soldier watching over us whilst we looked at all their war artefacts including an axe which was used to murder two of the ‘American imperialists’ years after the armistice agreement. There were also many articles on the alleged war crimes and atrocities that the Americans had apparently committed in the Korean War. After leaving the North Korea Peace Museum you can clearly see the extremely large flagpoles to the North and South of where we were with the flags of their respective countries, a sign of provocation and aggression on both sides to each other. Where the North Korean flag pole lies is Kijong-Dong, one of only two villages that were allowed to remain in the DMZ with the other village in the Southern half of the zone. There are many buildings in Kijong-Dong which looks like they have a fair sized population but it is reported to have no civilians and was built as a ‘Propaganda Village’.
We got back on our minibus and headed to the Joint Security Area (JSA) when the soldier that was guarding our bus started asking me a lot of questions especially being intrigued at why I was with a Western tour group. He was extremely friendly and very open to my questions which included questions on whether he thought the two Koreas would reunify. His response was simply ‘I would love for this to happen one day.’ We arrived at the JSA, which although is neutral territory was the unofficial point where we crossed into South Korean territory. Many phones started ringing or vibrating with the constant Whatsapp pinging going off over and over again. The phones had just picked up the South Korean phone signal with the North Korean soldiers looking at some of us with a bit of awkwardness. For some of us it would have been a good few days since we’ve had some form of communication with the outside world.
We were escorted to the Military Demarcation Line where we were explicitly told to not cross into or that we could be shot by the South Korean or US Army. We went into the famous blue conference rooms which straddle the border with both the Korean soldiers guarding either side of the rooms of their respective sides of the border. There is a door on the other side of the room that leads to the South Korean side of the JSA which no one has ever crossed. After leaving the Conference Rooms we went to the Panmungak, North Korea’s propaganda palace which faces the Demarcation Line and Freedom House, South Korea’s propaganda palace. I climbed to the highest level and stared into South Korea. You could see the tension and intimidating look from the soldiers on both sides. Freedom House had tinted windows but we were aware that we had tourists from the South that were staring directly at us towards Panmungak and vice versa. It’s so surreal thinking that both of the Koreas were literally split in two by an imaginary line in the ground and some conference rooms. If anyone in the JSA had unintentionally fired a weapon by mistake, there would be an all-out war in front of us.
As you can see these two nations, glorious or not, has been split by a three-year conflict and an armistice which technically means both are still at war. It is extremely difficult to see an end to the conflict anytime soon but one thing that I would definitely question is whether a reunification would work as well as both Koreas would want. Whilst families do get the chance to meet each other again, this is a postcode lottery and something that only the lucky few will get to achieve. Would the opening of Panmunjom and the invisible line which is essentially entrenched become a permanent relic to the Cold War? No one really knows the answer to this question and many Koreans are probably too afraid to answer this question. The invisible line is a testament to time and whatever the future holds will shape this peninsula