Stepping Into North Korea

by Jason -- June 8, 2010

A couple months ago, Sharon and I claimed to have been offered a writing gig in North Korea. For those who thought we were currently rubbing elbows with Kim Jung Il, I’m sorry to admit, but that was an April Fool’s joke. While that was a joke, we did have an opportunity this past week to truly step inside North Korea during our visit to the North & South Korea border.

We booked a tour of the DMZ and the Joint Security Area/Panmunjom through our hostel and just before 9:00AM last Thursday our tour bus was headed north to the border. Despite the recent security concerns, our tour bus was nearly full. Most of the group was Japanese tourists, with only 15 being non-Japanese tourists.

The freeway emptied out as we got closer to the border. After an hour we came to the checkpoint to enter the DMZ and a Korean officer came on to the bus to check each one of our passports.

Korean nationals are not allowed into the Joint Security Area unless they’ve gone through an extensive application process that typically takes months.

Once we were inside the Joint Security Area there were many rules:

  • There was a “strict” dress code that required non-ripped jeans and a clean sleeved-shirt. (I put “strict” in quotes because one of the tour group members was wearing shorts, which I was under the assumption were not allowed.)
  • You were not allowed to take pictures unless explicitly given permission.
  • You were not allowed to point at the North Korean soldiers or to the North Korean side of the border. (The pointing could be viewed as a weapon.)
  • You were not allowed to wave or talk to the North Korean soldiers.
  • No bags were allowed in, including camera cases. (Camera’s were allowed, just not the cases that accompany them.)

Our tour guides made sure we were aware on several occasions that these rules were not set by the North Koreans, but rather the United Nations Council, who is in charge of the DMZ.

After a slide show on the history of North & South Korea we arrived to the famous meeting room in which half of the room sits in South Korea and the other in North Korea. Inside the meeting room was our first opportunity to take pictures.

The group picture to the right was taken while standing on the North Korean side of the room. At this point, we were technically standing in North Korea. Unfortunately, we were only in the room for 2 to 3 minutes before we were quickly whisked out.

We were immediately brought to a large building that stands just outside the meeting room where we were able to observe the soldiers for a short period of time. While observing, we saw another tour group visiting the area, however this group was from the North Korean side. We were told it is quite rare to see a group from the other side. These were most likely higher-class North Korean citizens. This tour group entered the same room we had just left. Before they were able to enter, all of the South Korean soldiers left the room and then locked their side of the door.

While the tour lasted several more hours, the meeting room was by far the highlight of the tour. The rest was spent driving around a couple parts of the DMZ, seeing the famous large North Korean flag and a couple other famous landmarks. We were not allowed to take pictures during most of this time.

Logistics of the Tour

The tour was 77,000 Korean Won (~$67), which is on the more expensive side. However, this isn’t a tour you could do on your own (without risk of needing Bill Clinton to rescue you). The tour quickly became one of the more memorable days of our trip and if you can budget for it, I would definitely recommend it to others.

Tip: There are many tour options and tour companies that allow you to visit the DMZ. However, not all companies have permission to enter the secure area known as the Joint Security Area, make sure to check this before choosing a tour.

Tip: If you’re on a tighter budget, consider just visiting the DMZ. You can easily do so without taking a tour and it would be far less expensive. (Scroll to the bottom of the link for more information.)

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6 Responses to “Stepping Into North Korea”

  1. Excellent report Jason. Just wish the group picture was bigger hard to see you guys in the picture. In the future will you be displaying more pictures from the DMZ?

  2. wow! Everyone looks so happy! :) I love the detail you go into about the trip.

  3. I recently worked with a couple who taught English in South Korea. They had the opportunity to go on a tour to the North and there tales were amazing to listen too. Nice to see pictures and here your perspective as well.

  4. David - Glad you enjoyed the post! The picture is actually a picture of a picture, which is why it’s so fuzzy. They were charging almost $25 for it, so I went the really cheap and “ghetto” route instead.

    Holly - Thanks! Yeah, the tour group was pretty happy…the soldiers took it pretty seriously though. :-)

    Matt - Thanks! We’ve heard you can actually go all the way into North Korea and to Pyongyang, but we’ve also heard it’s pretty expensive. That would be a really interesting experience!

  5. No pointing, no waving, no shorts, no ripped jeans. It’s crazy that there are that many rules and regulations. It sounds like behind the tourism there is extremely high tension around that border. The price didn’t sound too bad.

  6. [...] first data point I’ll share is from early June. Sharon and I visited the DMZ, the North and South Korea border. This was only 1 and a half weeks after the investigation team reported that it was a North Korean [...]

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