DMZ Tour Part 8: Stepping Into North Korea at Panmunjom
On a cold afternoon with a clear sky ahead and a beating down sun, Panny Yu and I stepped nonchalantly across the border from South Korea into North Korea. Or, as it should be officially from the Republic of Korea into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. This border is one of the most dangerous political and geographical borders in the world. Ironic then, that our crossing of it was the most hassle free and safest border crossing either of us had ever done. So while essentially we both stepped in North Korea and can say we have been there, our experience in the DPR Korea at Panmunjom was perhaps a little less authentic or unique than having a cup of tea with Kim Jong Un himself. Facts aside, this was still a venture into the unknown, yet we were on a guided tour of the DMZ, as guests of the United Nations. A lot easier to get booked on and organise than you would believe. I booked it for us to do it on Christmas Eve 2011 through a tour company in Seoul.
Wearing hats, scarves and coats and braving the snow, ice and minus degrees “Panny and I got on the bus to North Korea”. It was our second bus of the day. We first got a bus from Seoul up to the DMZ where we visited Paju, Imjingak, Dorasan Station and The Third Tunnel before boarding our second bus, manned by a guy from the US Army. A couple of photos of our bus above. All the other passengers were tourists like ourselves, mostly either Chinese or European. South Koreans cannot do this tour of course. The tension in the DMZ is high, and there are certain regulations. No signs or politicial logos or emblems, stay calm and quiet. It’s all very by the book and strict. We were even told not to take photos and videos at certain points on the tour, but we saw other people doing it so why not eh? I was enjoying the tour immensely so far, a real eye opener and then I was anticipating the moment we arrived at Panmunjom. This part of the tour I deemed to be the best, as not only would we be officially able to step into North Korea, but we could see North Korean soldiers there, we could see the flag of North Korea and stare into the sparse countryside on the communist side of the DMZ. Communist, Stalinist or Totalitarian, call it what you want. I was highly enthusiastic at this point.
At the JSA (Joint Security Area) we boarded our bus to Panmunjom. The US Soldier on our bus was very knowledgeable and informative and gave a detailed description of the area and the tension within on the journey to Panmunjom, this can also be read here in Part 7 – The JSA . That part of the report may help you to understand the difference between the various terms used on the DMZ Tour – i.e. The DMZ (De-militarised Zone), The JSA (Joint Security Area), Camp Bonfas, The Truce Village. For the benefit of this report however, I will simply refer to the countries as North Korea and South Korea, and to this border crossing place as simply Panmunjom. On the bus to Panmunjom we are joined by a US Army Soldier who is stationed out in the DMZ. He gives us some information and the do’s and don’t’s.
On the bus on the way in we catch our first glimpses of North Korea, nestled in the distant countryside behind the fields and trees. Then we pull up outside a grey building with a large staircase. We are in Panmunjom. We are on the South Korean side of it.
Our UNCMAC badges.
A model of what Panmunjom looks like.
A good old travelling friend of mine, Ian “Skin” McKinney and his wife Olwyn had done the whole DMZ tour about a year or so before us. They had been living out in South Korea at the time, both hailing from Northern Ireland like myself and had given me a few tips and inspiration to follow them. Panny and I had always planned to visit North Korea, and to first see the DMZ was a good start for us. Trips to Pyongyang and the rest of North Korea pretty much all leave from China (either by flight, or even by train) so this was a bit less special but none the less exciting. Entering North Korea at Panmunjom is was like ringing the back door bell and bolting. We were in and out of the country almost without the North Koreans knowing who or what we were. There needs to be a cut off point somewhere, and so it is here at Panmunjom. The official border therefore, between the two countries happens here in Panmunjom. We arrive at the top of a staircase and we look north wards. The wonderful little sky blue huts are right in front of us. They look pretty in the afternoon sun. They are all guarded on our side by South Korean guards in Taekwando Stance. In behind these blue huts lies one of the world’s enigmas. A country we know little about. One of the last remaining fragments of Stalin’s empire. This country in front of our eyes is North Korea or The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
We have a few minutes outside at the top of the stairs and we are told we can take photos and videos facing into North Korea. But we are not allowed to take photos facing into the country we are in, South Korea. I didn’t find out the proper reason for this, but assumed it probably to be that the South Koreans didn’t want the North Korean soldiers to see people taking photos of their own buildings and facing the other way. I loved the setting of it all. The clear blue sky, the snow, the masses of soldiers, the charming blue huts, the sparse trees. And North Korea.
Typical South Korea Soldier stance facing north into North Korea.
To the far right at Panmunjom. The white building in behind may well be fully in North Korea, the other one straddles the border and is owned by North Korea. We weren’t allowed in.
Panny Yu at Panmunjom. All smiles and with North Korea only metres behind her.
North Korea in behind me and my Glentoran scarf on. The Northern Ireland – Republic of Ireland border used to be heavily manned, but this was something else.
Panny and I safely in South Korea for now. Soon to step into one of the Blue Huts known as the MAC Building and forward into North Korea.
South Korean Soldier.
North Korean building and soldier at Panmunjom. This fellow was the first ever North Korean person I have seen for real in my life. Assuming he was for real.
This brown sign denotes that the building behind is the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission Conference Building. This is often just referred to as The Mac Building, so we’ll go with that. No idea who left their handbag hanging from the door knob in the above photo. For the first time ever on this blog that is probably an OK moment to say “lol”. I just hope there isn’t a suspicious package inside it.
After getting our photos and staring into North Korea, it was time to actually go inside the hut itself for another short briefing.
The North Korean building on the other side of the border. They deliberately built it higher than the South Korean one so that they could “win” and “see further into the other country”.
Another of these little Blue Huts. This one was also open but we didn’t go in.
Panny Yu had been to South Korea before, but wasn’t allowed on this DMZ Tour when she visited. So it was nice for her to be with me on our first Christmas Eve together to cross the border at Panmunjom.
All the North Korean windows in this building give nothing away. There are probably soldiers behind the curtains. Or the building may even not be in use apart from the ground floor soldiers. We don’t really know.
A couple of last photos in South Korea before we are escorted single file into the MAC Building.
This guy in the middle of the photo gives us a quick briefing and tells us that we must go on the right hand side of the table if we want to stand in the North Korean side.
This microphone in the MAC Building picks up and records everything that is said or done and is available to those on both sides. It also marks the border itself between the two countries.
A lot of the tour group rushed to the other side. It really was the most odd and bizarre border ever. Of course it’s all inside this hut, but once you are on the North Korean side there is a door on the other side of the room and you can enter if you really want. It would probably be the door to no return. You may be captured, shot or killed, and for sure your life would never be the same again. But actually we don’t really know.
We were stepping into North Korea the very week that Kim Jong Il had just died, which added to the experience of the trip. A few days before there had been some strange activity in and around the DMZ. Panny even thought our trip may be cancelled in the wake of his death. For me it gave an added bit of excitement to the trip. The day we were there, he had already died but had not yet had his funeral or official send off.
And so myself and Panny walked to the other side of the room in the MAC Building at Panmunjom. By doing so we had left the democratic South Korea for the communist dictatorship of North Korea. But without all the madness of visas, passport stamps, bag checks etc. It was very well organised and simple. No nervosity or anxiousness or anything. Being in the DMZ you knew it was a tense area, but it’s a 4 kilometre wide de-militarised zone, and on the South Korean side at least, all very tourist friendly.
Here my right foot is in North Korea and my left foot is in South Korea.
I was stood on the actual border when I took this photo. The South Korean Soldier on the other side is standing in both countries for most of his shift. The guy in the grey top on the left is in South Korea. The other guy is in North Korea.Well, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere!
Panny stares at the soldier and the door behind. That is the real entrance to North Korea. We’re just in a hut!
Out the window at the next building and two more South Korean Soldiers.
Panny stands in North Korea by the entrance door to Kim Jong Un’s land next to a South Korean Soldier.
Panny Yu does North Korea.
It was time for my first ever photo in North Korea.
Standing in North Korea in the MAC Building at Panmunjom, DMZ. Christmas Eve 2011.
The light blue door to North Korea. You can go on in, NOBODY is stopping you. Unsurprisingly nobody on our tour went through it.
A heater on the North Korean side of the border. I wonder who was paying the bills for it.
North Korea from North Korea. Yes I was on the North Korean side of the MAC Building when I took this photo.
Staring directly north in the MAC Building from the North Korean side.
Panny with the Soldier manning the actual border. She’s in North Korea here. The UN flag marks the border.
Same for me – note that in North Korea they use exactly the same plugs and sockets!
North Korea, well what we saw of it on this trip.
The beautiful countryside of North Korea, viewed from Panmunjom.
More North Korean trees.
A photo of Panny and I in with both countries in it.
The typical scene all tourists see at Panmunjom.
Panmunjom, North Korea and South Korea.
A US Soldier and some South Korean Soldiers in this photo.
Just a few more photos of Panmunjom from the best vantage point in the middle.
View from the window of the South Korean dude.
Panny took this one – love the icicles dripping from the roof and the snow. It really was a cold day. Minus 10 degrees or something.
Icicles and soldier.
The above photo is the only one of Panny and I both in North Korea! We had to quickly grab someone to help us take it, we were the last ones out of the hut. There was a funny moment here as we had to rush and Panny told me it was OK to walk behind the Soldier. However he attacked me with his arms as I tried to do so (though realised I didn’t know about it) and I quickly walked back into North Korea! You have to walk back into South Korea on the same side of the table that you walked in. So I was actually attacked by a soldier in North Korea! Interesting experience but the bus was waiting and we got to see a bit more of North Korea from the bus before the tour was due to come to a close.
Bidding farewell to Panmunjom. Just under 2 years later, Panny and I went to the DMZ on the North Korea side, where Robert and I necked a Guinness tin. It was much more relaxed in the north.
Without further ado and over in a flash, we had stepped into North Korea in the MAC Building, got our photos, went the wrong way back across the border and were now safely back in South Korea. The oddest of border experiences of my life so far, but a very enjoyable one.
Where – The MAC Building, Panmunjom, DMZ, Korea (North and South)
What – The official area on the border of North and South Korea where official meetings take place
When – We visited in the wake of Kim Jong Il’s death. Christmas Eve, 24th December 2011
Who – Panny Yu and Jonny Blair
Countries Visited – South Korea, North Korea
Strange Currencies – South Korean Won, North Korean Won
Nationalities I Spoke To – US, South Korean
Nationalities I Saw – US, South Korean, North Korean
Key Song –
NORTH KOREA VS SOUTH KOREA BAD BOYS:
(MUSIC AND DANCE – WELL WORTH A LOOK!)
on a more serious note…
U2 – PEACE ON EARTH:
My Videos –
ACTUALLY WALKING ACROSS THE BORDER FROM SOUTH KOREA INTO NORTH KOREA IN THE MAC BUILDING AT PANMUNJOM:
STARING INTO NORTH KOREA FROM SOUTH KOREA AT PANMUNJOM:
STARING AT NORTH KOREA AND ITS FLAG FROM THE BUS:
Other People’s Videos – THE DMZ AND PANMUNJOM FROM THE OTHER SIDE, A TOUR BASED FROM NORTH KOREA:
A NORTH KOREAN SOLDIER GIVES A SPEECH IN THE MAC BUILDING:
OTHER STRANGE DMZ ACTIVITY THE WEEK OF KIM JONG IL’S DEATH:
POSSIBLY THE TOP FIVE MOST DANGEROUS BORDERS IN THE WORLD: Number 5 – The Demilitarized Zone between North Korea and South Korea is one of the scariest places on Earth. At nearly 150 miles long and 2.5 miles wide and home to 2 million armed troops, it is the world’s most heavily militarized border. Since the 50s, the DMZ has been the site of many incidents including the 1976 one in which North Koreans used axes to kill two US officers while they were cutting a tree.
Number 4 is Pakistan and Afghanistan. With dramatically increased violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the tension has continued to rise between the two nations. Both accuse each other for not doing enough to control the insurgent activities across the porous borders which lie along the lawless tribal areas. According to a BBC report, an Afghan official claimed that recently, there have been over 3,000 cross border attacks over a period of 3 months.
Number 3 is Sudan and Chad. Years of conflict has resulted in the border between those countries being extremely volatile. Although in the recent past both countries have created joint forces to control the situation, even today numerous crimes take place including rape, killings, and recruitment of child soldiers.
Number 2 – China and North Korea share close to 900 miles of border. Due to the tough economic conditions, thousands of North Korean refugees have tried to cross the porous border between the two countries. However, if caught, these North Korean refugees are tortured and forcibly sent back. They are likely to face imprisonment and even execution.
Number 1 is India and Pakistan. Since their partition in 1947, these countries have always seemed on the brink of war. After 3 full-scaled wars in the last 65 years, the borders of these 2 nuclear powers are among the most volatile in the world. Daily artillery fires are not unheard of across various border points.
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