(Above: North Koreans walking on the tracks as the train enters Sinuiju station to begin customs)
Building on a previous entry of entering North Korea for the first time today we’re going to focus in more detail exactly what happens in North Korean customs (via train). So suppose you have just got on the train from Dandong, you’ve proceeded across the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge and not long after you’ve come to a halt in Sinuiju. As you stop at the platform, this is where the process of customs begin. For newcomers to the DPRK, this can be a tense moment, but for regulars, you soon realize it isn’t that scary at all.. albeit of course, relatively lengthy.
When the train stops soon a number of North Korean guards in uniforms quickly board. During this entire process, you simply wait/sit around with your group in the carriage whilst they do their work (no photographs are permitted). At the platform in Dandong you should have been given several forms to fill in, firstly an entry form and secondly a customs style declaration form which asks you to declare any electronic goods you are bringing in, and of course, a regular customs style tick box list. The border guards will eventually ask for these forms from you. First however, they want to look at your passport and tourist visa. In a daunting fashion, they take every single person’s passport away to a private office to check them. There is never any issue with this, you do get them back, but it tends to be sluggish.
As the passport checks proceed, the guards will come into your cabin and ask to inspect your luggage one by one. In contrast to modern and quick style airport scanners found elsewhere, the guards instead simply ask you to open up your case and any other bags you have. Often this results in nothing more than a glance, they have never actually searched through anyone’s stuff or touched anything (so you don’t after worry about that). Of course, for obvious reasons still don’t try your luck with prohibited articles! During this process, they will then ask to scan you briefly with a metal detecting device. This is done with consideration, male guards such the male passengers and female guards search the female ones. After this, they collect your other forms and then this part is largely done.
Although the guards may appear intimidating during this procedure, they are in fact friendly and very humble in their approach. Attempts to speak Korean to them will be met with respect, courtesy, praise and curiosity (some of them are capable of speaking basic English). In general, they express a noticeable appreciation to visitors, far from the stereotype of the “evil and hate filled” North Korean troop… one of them was even funny. One time there was a small, bubbly and very jolly female guard assisting them. She sat down with us to do the passport and entry card checks. One of the people in our group at the time was from Israel. She of course noticed this on getting his passport and said “Israel! Palestine! Always fighting, always going raghraghragh!” and she proceeded to wave her fists playfully. The guards are human beings and it’s a fun experience to meet them.
Once the guards have done everything they need to do… now it’s the waiting game. This can be lengthy and even a tad boring. It will likely take up to 2 hours. At this point you are actually free to leave the train and venture onto the platform. A stall is often set up there where you can purchase drinks, snacks and beer (the latter ensures it isn’t a complete bore!). As you are stuck in limbo, this is a great opportunity to get the know the people in your group. There are few other opportunities to make friends quickly than a trip to North Korea.
Eventually the guards will come and return your passport and tourist cards, carefully arranged by giving them back in the reverse order as to how they took them. It’s finally over! The guards depart, the train doors and shut and you trundle away on the long journey to Pyongyang. Despite the lengthy wait, North Korean customs aren’t really scary after all. It’s a bit archaic as to what we’re normally used to, but there’s little to fear overall and as you can see it proves to be a great learning experience. Your first encounter here with North Koreans quickly blows away the myth that they are “indoctrinated robots”, in perhaps the most surprising context.