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Eight hours in North Korea: a cold reality check

November 23, 2008

Yesterday, Saturday, I went to Kaesong in North Korea. I have no evidence that I visited North Korea; no visa, passport stamp, tourist card or photos that you wouldn’t find outside a tourist pamphlet.

I only have insight and words. Eights hours may sound a short time, but to someone who lives in freedom, it’s an oppressively long time.

Kaesong is North Korea’s southern most city, an ancient capital of the once unified Korea. A city full of historic relics; and crumbling buildings. Historically Kaesong was a city for learned scholars, religion and I guess wealth. In an odd way it probably still is compared with other places in North Korea. But to the outsider, it’s a city of worn out buildings, dirt laden paths, bicycles, and an eery quiet. Kaesong has to be the epitomy of a poverty stricken communist country.

The last time I experienced communism on this scale was Yugoslavia (a long time ago). When I went through Kaesong, the images of rural towns in Yugoslavia came flooding back. A patina of sadness, an era of dilapidation, all in the name of paranoic-communism.

Kaesong has potential

Surrounding the town there is beauty, peaceful, non-industrial, smogfree beauty. The small mountains and rocky outcrops are smothered in forest, which I could picture as being gloriously colourful in autumn, and lush in summer.

There are also waterfalls and mountain paths that have potential, that is, if the country opened up. Being on a strictly controlled (escorted) tour group from South Korea, I was taken to one of the region’s famous waterfalls -Bakyeon.

Bakyeon has sheer cliff faces, bleached white and worn smooth from water and weather. Arriving at the falls and walking around the trails was welcoming relief after the reality of Kaesong town.


Of course now that it’s winter the falls were only a trickle and partially frozen over. Not much to photograph. But still worth admiring from an ancient pagoda on top of a hill.

by Cate

by Cate

Bakyeon Falls has history written all over it. From the fortress walls, pagodas and rock faces:

by Cate

by Cate

 Communist Korean and ancient Chinese:

by Cate

by Cate

Anything but normal

Travelling around the Kaesong area was anything but normal. There were seven tour buses, mostly full of elderly Koreans wanting to see their old country before they go. My group was a mix of Koreans and incredibly curious non-Koreans: Japanese, Canadians, Americans (yes!) and one Kiwi.

Escorting the buses were four black, shiny SUVs. Inside these SUVs were escorts aka secret little spys. Their job: to ensure we don’t harm ourselves. And to zealously watch over the non-Koreans wherever they went.

As the bus convoy drove through the countryside, the only other life outside were soldiers – standing to attention on the roads; and in the fields. Soldiers spaced 50 -100 metres apart. Soldiers looking on suspicously. But not all soldiers held an intense dislike for us. On the rarest occasion one or two gave us a cautious smile. One even gave us a warm grin. If only that shot could have been captured.

Where were the locals?

Outside of Kaesong town the fields and roads were devoid of humansThe tour was full of aging pensioners, some with limps and a lot with heart problems. Not a good formula for danger. 

Were the North Koreans a danger? From what I saw of them, they looked timid and in fear. Who was protecting whom?  Did we need protecting from ourselves?

Unable to shoot the reality

Unfortunately all shots I tried to sneak were deleted at passport control. The patient guard went through my entire collection (300 shots). All in the name of security!

I’ll be posting more on my short excursion to North Korea over the next week.

I hope you found this post interesting. Let me know your views.

(Bakyeon waterfall photo courtesy of  ‘go and see korea’)

Caffeinated Traveller

  1. November 23, 2008 1:12 pm

    You are lucky to visit old city of KOREA, which was a dynasty right before Chosun dynasty. Did you visit the Sun Juk bridge at Gaesung?

  2. Bear permalink
    November 23, 2008 3:12 pm

    Too bad you were so restricted and had you photos edited 😦 Too good that you were able to see what you were able to see. With the ending of the Cold War we can see more countries than ever before … but there are some caveats it would seem. All in all … seeing culture and country without smog and industrialization had to be a real treat.

  3. MonnyQ permalink
    November 23, 2008 5:00 pm

    My goodness … to think that still today there are people who live in fear and inprisoned in the walls created as you said to protect who? What are they or were they afraid of? Did you manage to get any sense of what drives them?

  4. November 23, 2008 7:01 pm

    It is so great that you did this! This little North Korean excursion has been on my list for quite a while.

    There’s another legal-yet-visa-free foray you can make into North Korea too–on a train between China and Russia. The train goes through the PDRK and stops at a train station there. You aren’t allowed to leave the larger station area. Still, every glimpse into North Korean life is a fascinating one.

  5. November 24, 2008 3:13 am

    MonnyQ – hard to say what drives them (the people). Survival I think. Everything was observed from either inside the bis or on the otehr side of the road. We just couldn’t make any form of contact. But in some instances the people were trying to make contact without being obvious. The small hand wave, the eyes and smiles, and as we drove by the apartments you could see people waving from within the safety of their homes. A lot of people just tried to ignore us and get on with their lives. It truly was a sad experience to see them living in fear and prison.
    Spot Cool Stuff – I had to take this trip now because the N Koreans are closing the border on the 1st December (stroppy as they are).
    But things change all the time. I’ll blog more about this during the week. And thanks for the heads up on the other trip. Three countries with a common past – Russia, China, and DPRK – all looking very different these days. And I agree with your last comment. Fascinating for us and educational.
    Ji – yes I did see the bridge – over 900 years old. Hopefully I have a shot I can use which doesn’t have a North Korean personal spy in it. These guys were annoyingly close.
    More later and thanks for your comments

  6. Zowie permalink
    November 25, 2008 12:27 am

    You are very lucky to have been able to go to such a place. Perhaps it has changed the way you see the world around you everyday. I Imagine it is a beautiful country as it seems as though industry has sort of stopped there. Still, its so dishearting to know that there are governments that do not care about the people at all.

  7. Jas permalink
    November 25, 2008 1:09 am

    I visited Souel back in October, 2003. At the time, I had a chance to visit the DMZ, albeit on a guided tour. We were allowed to stand at the bridge and walk along the fence separating the two sides. Most of the group, however, didn’t share my curiosity. So I spent most of my time alone trying to get a sense of everything. But the town directly across our position was a fake. More of ghost town really. I couldn’t feel anything from that vantage point. Your trip sounds more like what I was looking for. I’m sure you really can’t put into words what you felt during those eight hours. A long time indeed.

  8. Erin permalink
    December 3, 2008 10:00 am

    Hey you! now if you where shooting film you could of got away with it, shot a roll and hidden it, where the posted shots, ones you took? how did you get to keep those ones?…..errrr you can see where my interest lies, don’t travel with me ever!!!

  9. July 17, 2009 10:46 am

    Wow, Security went through your photos? Fascinating! Did you feel a little bit like a spy ? 🙂 Kidding aside, thanks for sharing your adventures in North Korea.

  10. July 20, 2009 5:12 pm

    Absolutely fascinating – curious, how did you try to sneak the photos?

    • July 21, 2009 9:40 am

      I tried to sneak pictures when I was walking ahead of the guide and when I went back to the bus before the rest of the group did. Generally there wasn’t much to sneak, you couldn’t take any photos while the bus was moving because, like I think I mentioned this in my post, there were soliders posted everywhere including in the empty fields. It has to be one of the most oddest trips I’ve done.

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