Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.
Visiting the DMZ on the North Korean side is not everyone’s idea of a vacation. The Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea has been called “the most dangerous place on Earth.” On either side of the border sits the largest concentration of soldiers and weapons on the planet. Vice President Mike Pence recently visited the DMZ to look out over North Korea. Here’s what it’s like actually being on the other side in the heart of North Korea.
We left our Pyongyang hotel early for the 120 kilometer drive on the Reunification Highway to the DMZ. As we neared the border the bus passed through a series of checkpoints that were a few miles apart. These weren’t that intimidating, just a guard shack by the side of the road with a swinging gate out front.
But as we approached each checkpoint the mood on the bus got a bit tense. It was one thing to be in North Korea, it was quite another to be scrutinized by army personnel, particularly when carrying an American passport.
After the final checkpoint the bus pulled up to a large concrete wall where we disembarked. We were led into a building that contained a gift shop, at the DMZ of all places, offering a wide range of ginseng products and books by the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung. We soon learned that ginseng was available for purchase wherever we stopped in the DPRK.
We were led into a room that contained a ten-foot high overview map of the area. A North Korean soldier, wooden pointer in hand, proceeded to provide a military briefing on the DMZ. Like all rooms in North Korea, it had pictures of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, and the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, beaming down on the proceedings. After the brief pep talk we proceeded to the actual border which was delineated by a concrete curb that even a child could just step over. A series of small buildings the size of mobile homes straddles the border.
We noticed that there was also a tour group lined up on the South Korean side. So while the North and South Korean soldiers stared off against each other to see who would blink first, we had our own stare down with the tourists, likely from the same countries as us, on the other side.
We were permitted to enter one of the small buildings that straddle the border which is used as a conference room when there are disputes between the two Koreas. Through the small windows of the building we could see the South Korean guards about twenty feet away standing in battle ready positions, their arms hanging tensely at their sides with their fists firmly clenched.
As we ambled around the room we walked in and out of both Koreas so technically we were in South Korea at one point. On the bus ride back that was a matter of some discussion among our group as to whether we get credit for going to South Korea based on our brief foray.
After we arrived back in Pyongyang there was a sense of relief that we had survived our visit to the most dangerous place on Earth. Then reality set in and we realized we were still in Pyongyang, the capital city of the most isolated nation in the world.
With the recent death of Kim Jong Il, travel arrangements to North Korea are uncertain. The isolated country does not allow independent travel and all groups are escorted by two minders. But if you are interested in visiting the DMZ on the North Korean side. We traveled with with Koryo Tours. The British-run company has been leading tours to North Korea since 1993.
Click the link for more stories about our visit to North Korea.
Link to United States government information for visiting North Korea. (Spoiler alert: They highly recommend not going.)