I’ve never planned on visiting North Korea. The idea has always seemed far-fetched on my mind. But in recent years, they may be opening up more to the world. I’ve seen rare videos by travelers who got a glimpse of the country’s capital, Pyongyang. Even better, the country’s leader has met with a handful of world leaders and visited other countries, too. Much to my, and million others’, delight given the trip to the north centered around the reunification of Korea.
This day trip can not be DIY-ed. You must book your trip through an accredited travel agency. We had ours through Koridoor for approximately 4500 in Philippine peso. We arrived at Camp Kim USO, the meeting place, before departing at 7:30 in the morning for about an hour of bus travel. The tour comprises of three points, JSA, Dorasan Station, and the DMZ.
Joint Security Area
Our travel guide decided to have JSA as our first stop, but I know other travel agencies stop by DMZ first. I’d like to think they’re in communication with each other to control the crowd in each point.
When we arrived at the JSA Visitor Center, we were ushered to a room along with other tour groups. A brief history and guidelines were discussed by an American soldier, emphasizing the do’s and don’ts. As well as, signing of document stating that you acknowledge entering into a hostile area with a possibility of injury or death. After which, we boarded the bus and drove to a different building where we quietly stood in line and walked towards the (in)famous blue buildings.
Stepping on North and South
We were allowed few minutes inside one of the blue building, a conference hall where North and South Korean officials may meet. This is the only time visitors may freely step on both North and South Korea territory, albeit limited, without repercussions (assuming you only do what you’re allowed to). So, technically, you get to step in North Korea but only in a controlled, guarded and timed scenario.
This same area is where South Korean President Moon Jae-In and North Korean President Kim Jung-Un met and crossed the Military Demarcation Line together on April 27, 2018.
In 2003, construction Kaesong Industrial Park started. Within years, 250 South Korean companies ran in the park employing around 100,000 people in 2007. They were primarily using Gyeongui Railway, particularly the Dorasan Station, as transportation for materials and workers to the park. The various companies in the park employed 53,000 North Korean and 800 South Korean workers by 2013. However, both governments recalled all their workers due to rising tension and conflicts. This led to the shutdown of the railway.
When we visited, we were told that the station and railway were still being maintained in the hopes for Korea’s reunification. It was peaceful and quiet in the Dorasan Station, and you can clearly observe how clean the area was despite it being unused.
After we visited both JSA and Dorasan Station, we had a buffet lunch nearby. I believe it was set up to cater the thousands of tourists visiting everyday. They have a vegetarian and non-vegetarian option. I chose beef bulgogi and various side dishes. You may pay at the cafeteria, or you can opt out and eat your packed lunch.
Dora Observatory and the Third Infiltration Tunnel
Our final stop was at the DMZ Pavilion including the Dora Observatory and the nearby tunnel. We had a brief film showing inside the pavilion, reiterating the history of Korea’s divide, as well as depicting the discovery of infiltration tunnels. We also went through a museum with displays of weapons and stories.
After, we were brought out to get a closer view of Pyongyang, through binoculars, at the Dora Observatory. On a good weather day, you can easily make out where the so-called propaganda village is and the pole North Korea built because South Korea has one. This story was told by our guide with appropriate humor, I must say. You may also observe how South Korean music loudly blasts from the observatory, solely for the North Koreans to hear.
Down the Third Tunnel
North Korean defectors told South Korean officials of multiple tunnels existing underneath DMZ (demilitarized zone). These tunnels were dug to allegedly invade South Korea. Soon after, 3 tunnels were discovered, one of which can now be visited by tourists.
Be warned, if you have claustrophobia, anxiety or get panic attacks frequently, I suggest you do not go down the tunnel. We were not allowed to take photos, but it was horrible going down and while being down there. There’s a steep walkway before you get to the actual tunnel with exposed stones that you have to dodge and crouch at times. At the end, you get a peek, through a tiny window, of the North Korean side of the tunnel. Then you return back and climb the steep walkway. All these while being with many other tourists.
All in all, the trip was highly enlightening. There was so much to learn about the current divide but the most precious takeaway was the fact that South Korea hopes for a reunification. It is sad but heartwarming to learn of the activities they do, or stations they maintain, in preparation for the reunification. They even talk about it like it’s the inevitable. I felt hope and I couldn’t be happier with the seemingly improving relationship with North Korean’s president. I really wish Korea the best.