North Korea “up close”


DAY 13

(Reading time: 9 minutes)

Finally! It worked out! After all the difficulties, postponing, emailing, and one personal visit, everything indicates that we will go to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating South Korea from North Korea.

The DMZ was established in 1953 at the 38th parallel (see prologue). The end of the Korean War divided one country into two pieces. Irreparably, two completely different worlds were created, functioning on different existential principles, the results of which we still see today. The DMZ cuts across the entire peninsula, the 250-kilometer-long and 4-kilometer-wide border being one of the most strictly guarded in the world, but there is evidence of a whole series of incidents here: armed attacks, shootouts, murders, ground, sea and air battles, and lately frequent appearances of military drones from the north.

Tourists eager to visit the DMZ have limited options for getting there – through one of the specialized companies to book an optional trip (tours are operated by, for example, Koridoor tours, DMZ tours…), or through an intermediary (Google, ChatGPT or any information center in Seoul will advise you). The choice of trips is varied, and the DMZ represents a top attraction for visitors to South Korea, which is reflected in both prices and experiences. Trips are usually half-day or full-day, and several different places can be visited.

The most popular destination is Panmunjom-JSA (Joint Security Area) – literally the only contact point of the DMZ between South and North Korea. Here, soldiers from both armies stand facing each other, eye to eye, and a tourist “between them” can cross the border and enter North Korean territory. These tours are often canceled due to the volatile political situation, or for other reasons. In that case, tourists are refunded or offered compensation in the form of a trip to another location near the border.

The Dora observatory, which provides a view towards the fake North Korean propaganda village, the Freedom Bridge in Imjingak, and the unfinished infiltration tunnels also enjoy high attendance.

We purchased our trip through Koridoor tours, and we originally wanted the Panmunjom-JSA tour. Until a few days before the date, we received an email announcing that the trip was canceled because an outbreak of swine flu had occurred in the area. Whether true or an excuse is hard to say, but since we still wanted to go somewhere, it was necessary to go to a branch office and negotiate a change of location. From the limited offer, we eventually chose the Ganghwa Peace Observatory.

At 8am, our two-person unit stood in front of the branch office. Otherwise, nobody anywhere. Just before nine, another participant of the trip arrived. One. At nine, a minivan arrived. An hour later than it should have… Apparently, an internal communication error on the part of the organizer. From our original expectation of a bus full of tourists, we ended up with a minivan, three trip participants, two guides and one driver. Very intimate.

The journey to the Civilian Control Zone (CCZ) from Seoul took about 2 hours, then we passed through locations with barbed wire and armed controls. It’s hard to describe the atmosphere, it’s not cheerful, it’s oppressive, yet one cannot ignore the pleasant, tight feeling full of anticipation.

The Ganghwa Peace Observatory is located east of the demilitarized zone and is unique in its proximity to the “neighbor”. At this point, you can observe North Korea with the naked eye across the river, about 2.5 km away.

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If the eyes weren’t enough, you could use ubiquitous telescopes, although not necessarily. Some tourists or guides claim to have seen movement over the water – people riding bikes, tilling fields, walking along the river. Believe it or not? A real “free” life in the most closed country in the world observable by passers-by from the southern bank? Propaganda? Rehearsed scenes?

We saw nature and buildings, no people, but it’s enough for an unforgettable impression. After all, we were looking at North Korea! Not the “no man’s land” in the demilitarized zone, but the real North Korea from the closest possible place in South Korea.

The observatory building itself was opened in 2008 and is divided into three floors. Inside, you will find a glass observatory, audiovisual rooms (for presentations and lectures), an exhibition room (brief history of both Koreas, various objects, paintings, or even North Korean banknotes)…

…and the “Unification-wish room” – a room completely covered with papers with wishes for the reunification of the divided state.

Then the guides took us to a village, whose name I unfortunately don’t remember, but it was founded by refugees from the Korean War. At the beginning, fishermen and people engaged in hard manual labor lived here. There was poverty here, and some fled to North Korea because it was better than the South at that time. Today, the village is more of a tourist hub, where curious people come to shop and take pictures of secluded corners of abandoned huts and mural paintings.

The residents of the village are descendants of refugees or their relatives. It was strange to think why these people live here – out of habit, tradition, melancholy, or for business? Anyway, we met a lady here who was preparing the best hotteok in the world. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, an international hotteok lovers’ meeting took place, where everyone unanimously voted that this is the hotteok culinary experience focal point.

The whole trip was created as a substitute for the Panmunjom-JSA tour, but we appreciate it even more for that. We experienced something unique, exceptional, and we will not forget the intensity of the feelings there.

Upon returning to Seoul, it was necessary to catch up on the missed parts of the previous stay – Gyeongbokgung Palace. Closed at that time, now it lured crowds of tourists with its gate wide open, and they came. Well, we had to, too, there won’t be another chance.

Gyeongbokgung was the main and largest palace of the Joseon dynasty, now mainly serving as a museum. There are several gates (-문 / gate, door) leading inside the complex, inside you will find the throne hall…

…residential quarters for the king and queen, administrative buildings, pavilions, and the National Folk Museum presenting replicas of everyday objects (entrance to the museum is included in the palace ticket price).

On the roofs of the buildings, you can see small figurines in rows. These are called “Japsang” and are mostly found on the roofs of traditional Korean buildings, especially those associated with the royal family. The figurines are meant to protect against evil spirits and misfortune, while the dragons in the back protect against fire (buildings were made of wood, often burned, with or without a dragon).

The palace complex is also a place for a hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) parade. Many people associate their visit with an opportunity to choose from one of the many hanbok rental shops and walk around in it. Girls and women wear a long wrap skirt and a short jacket of various colors. Gentlemen wear an outfit consisting of loose pants and a jacket, occasionally complemented by a transparent hat with a wide brim.

It is no problem to spend hours in the complex, and if you don’t have enough, visit the nearby traditional Korean Bukchon Hanok Village.

After saturating ourselves with history, we went outside to Gwanghwamun Square, where the Seoul Music Festival was taking place. Although we didn’t stay long, as the evening was approaching and we still hadn’t packed, we managed to see performances of trainees dancing covers of famous songs (young boys and girls training under a kpop label with the hope of becoming idols someday). A nice ending to our stay in South Korea, evidently proud parents and fans were cheering from the stands. In a few years, they will say “we were there when they started.” And so will we. 🙂

We slept well that last night.

The typhoon had already passed, so we didn’t worry about the flight being canceled.

We were traveling with Korean Air, and we really like this airline.

Most of the things we wanted to do/see/experience worked out.

And what we missed, we’ll manage next time, because we will definitely return to South Korea.



– Many South Koreans consider the division into north and south temporary, they perceive Korea as a whole, apart from the “Unification-wish room,” this could also be seen, for example, on magnets sold as souvenirs, most of which depicted the peninsula as a whole with the eloquent name “Korea,” and history proves them right, the current situation has only lasted a few decades, but fragmentation and reunification have been going on for over 1000 years, “our” problem is that we evaluate the situation from the perspective of a person living right now, we perceive the past more personally, at most a few decades ago, given the length of life, we perceive the future similarly, in 100 years none of us will be here, but that doesn’t mean the situation will remain unchanged, it won’t, we just won’t find out… (but encourage intergenerational thinking at a time when more than a small number of people think in cycles framed by elections, in our country, for example, up to 4 years ahead…)

– On the photographed banknotes, notice the values of 50, 10, and 5, respectively, the working class, armed forces, and intellectuals at the very bottom of the social ladder

– In 1953, South Korea was at the shorter end, and for many, for a good reason, fleeing poverty to the rich north seemed reasonable, let’s turn the clock forward by less than three generations, and we’re completely different

– Examples of brands/companies covering kpop singers -> JYP, SM, YG, or HYBE (formerly known as BIG HIT ENTERTAINMENT)

– Andy “was there” when ATEEZ started, in Budapest in 2019, she attended their concert and then went backstage with a few other people to meet the singers, today ATEEZ are among the top kpop groups, achieving a similar experience would be much more difficult, especially in Europe, so it’s good to support even those who are not yet famous 🙂



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