Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Visit to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in North Korea!

Believe it or not, despite many visits to South Korea, I've never been to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). I thus found it exciting that my first visit to the DMZ would be on the North Korean side!

We left Pyongyang quite early for the roughly two-hour trip south to the border in what used to be the village of Panmunjom. Today, it's where the Joint Security Area (JSA) is located. The JSA is the place where you can technically cross the border without getting into trouble. And that's where all tours will take you.

On the way, we had to pass through several checkpoints. We were always advised to keep our cameras down since taking photos of the military and military facilities was strictly prohibited.

The group finally arrived at the visitors center where we received a briefing from Korean People's Army (KPA) personnel. There is also a souvenir shop where you can purchase DMZ t-shirts and propaganda posters among others. As soon as we were done, a KPA soldier boarded our bus to escort us into the DMZ.

Our first stop in the DMZ was the North Korea Peace Museum, the very buildings where the Korean Armistice Agreement was negotiated and signed in 1953. The first building we entered was a small hall where the negotiations took place. We were invited to sit down around the table as our guide explained on which side the North Koreans and Americans sat.

The next building, the larger of the two, was where the agreement was signed. The table, chairs and copies of the agreement are still there. Inside the building are photos and memorabilia from the Korean War and the signing Armistice Agreement. The visit was really quick. And the KPA personnel will make sure the last person from the group has exited before the next group is allowed in.

We boarded our bus again to proceed to the Joint Security Area. Ironically, despite the extremely tight security, this is the only place in North Korea where you can take a photo of or have a photo taken with a KPA soldier! So we did!

At the JSA, you will notice main buildings on either side – Panmungak for the DPRK, and Freedom House for South Korea. You will also see the iconic Freedom House Pagoda to the left to the building.  In between these buildings are small conference halls where both sides meet. Those colored blue belong to the DPRK. While the silver ones are those of South Korea.

We entered one of the blue conference halls. And yes, we crossed into South Korea! If you loom out the window, the border is marked by a low concrete boundary. I asked why there were no South Korean soldiers, and our guide said that practice is they disappear when the North has tourists. While the KPA does the same when the South has visitors.

Before leaving for Kaesong, the YPT group went up Panmungak Building to take more photos of the border buildings. Of course, we didn't miss the opportunity to have our photos taken with the soldiers! Lunch was in Kaesong, a North Korean city that was not bombed by the Americans. This explains why its historical core is still intact. In fact, the Historic Monuments and Sites in Kaesong is a World Heritage Site. I'll write another post about that.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Exploring Pyongyang, North Korea

To those who are surprised that I got to visit North Korea, the DPRK is not as isolated as one may think. There are regular tours that leave from Beijing, China allowing you various options to get there. I took a 24-hour train ride (that was delayed for about two hours) from Beijing to Pyongyang. We arrived at the Pyongyang Train Station early in the evening and went straight to our hotel. So the real exploring started the next day.

After breakfast at the hotel, our first order of business was a visit to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where the embalmed remains of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il lie in state. There are six world leaders whose embalmed bodies are in perpetual display — Lenin in Moscow, Mao Zedong in Beijing, Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, Ferdinand Marcos in Ilocos Norte (Philippines), and the two Kims. The mausoleum accepts visitors only on Sundays and Thursdays.

Before we left for the DPRK tour, we had constantly been reminded to bring dress pants for the visit to Kumsusan. They are very strict with the dress code – no jeans, no shorts, shirts should have a collar, preferably button-down, dress shirts and ties recommended; for ladies, modest dress is expected.

All guests are subjected to tight security checks before entering the mausoleum. We were not allowed to bring anything, including pens or small items. Pockets literally had to be empty, only wallets. The group was told we could bring cameras down the bus to take photos in front of the palace after the visit. But these were to be left at deposit counters before we entered the palace itself.

We went through a machine that cleaned dirt from under our shoes, followed by a metal detector. Then they frisked us and checked again to make sure we had nothing with us. From there, a really long moving walkway that took us to the main building.

The group entered the first hall, which had two larger-than-life statues of the two leaders, which I believe was made of white marble. Every group is expected to bow in front of the statues to pay their respects to the great leaders. One of the things stressed to us before the tour was if we were not comfortable bowing, we had to stay at the hotel to avoid creating a scene. From there, we were ushered into large elevators which took us to the grand hall that housed the remains of Kim Il-sung. Before entering the hall, we had to go through large blowers that removed dust from our clothes.

The body of DPRK President Kim Il-sung at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang in a July 1994 photo (Korean Central News Agency)
The hall was grand. Lights were dimmed. And all focus was on the embalmed remains of President Kim under a glass sarcophagus. In groups of four, we made our way around the sarcophagus, bowing before his feet, then moving on the the left side and bowing again, then walking over to the right side and bowing again before finally exiting the hall. In the next room was a display of all the decorations, medals, citations and honorary degrees of Kim Il-sung from around the world.

The body of DPRK President Kim Jong-il lying in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang on December 20, 2011 (Korean Central News Agency)
We then walked down to the lower floor where the hall with the remains of Kim Jong-il was located. It was the same ritual bowing around the embalmed body before proceeding to the hallway with his own awards and decorations.

It was difficult to explain our thoughts when we entered the halls that followed. The vehicles of the two leaders were on display inside the palace as well. Cars were no surprise. We first saw the Mercedes Benz of Kim Il-sung. But in the next room was his train car, yes the actual train car he used to travel around DPRK, Asia and Europe! This was followed by a room with the vehicle of Kim Jong-il, and then his train car as well. I was floored when we entered the next room. Kim Jong-il's yacht was also on display inside the palace! We obviously didn't see that coming!

After the visit, we had our photos taken outside Kumsusan before boarding our bus.

Our next stop was the Revolutionary Martrys' Cemetery, which honors anti-Japanese revolutionary fighters of the DPRK. Near the entrance is a set of sculptural tableaus commemorating the anti-Japanese struggle. Like in Kumsusan, we also had to do our bows.

Each hero's grave features a bronze bust of the hero laid to rest within. One of those in the first row, we were told, is the younger brother of Kim Il-sung.

At the top of the cemetery is a large red marble flag where more prominent martyrs are honored. The central position is for Kim Jong-suk (1917-1949), guerrilla leader and first wife of Kim Il-sung, the mother of Kim Jong-il.

In between our visits to the monuments, we got to walk around with our guides, especially during the lunch and dinner stops. A typical sidewalk in Pyongyang is wide, tree-lined and extremely clean. While many citizens use a bike or simply walk around, Pyongyang has a public transportation system which includes two subway lines, trams, electric buses, and taxis!

We had a traditional shabu-shabu lunch before proceeding to Kim Il-Sung Square, the central square of Pyongyang.

Kim Il-sung Square is where the large parades and celebrations we see in the news happen. Walking through the vast square was surreal, the square having always been shrouded in mystery among us outsiders. If you look down, you will notice place markers that are used to create the large human formations during these celebrations.

Across the river was Juche Tower, completed in 1982 for the 70th birthday of Kim Il-Sung. Built to celebrate his Juche ideology, the tower is 170m high. That was our next stop.

The tower has an elevator that bring visitors up 150 meters to the base of the torch. We had to shell out an extra five euros for it. But is was worth it since we got to see Pyongyang's residential and institutional buildings from a different vantage point.

Another interesting view from the top was that of Kim Il-Sung Square and the Grand People's Study House, the central library of the DPRK.

In front of the tower are large statues of a worker, farmer and an intellectual, symbolizing the spirit of the Korean people.

To end our day, we went to the Monument to the Party Foundation, built in 1995 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Workers' Party of Korea. The large monument features the party's symbols – the Communist hammer and sickle, with a traditional Korean calligraphy brush to symbolize the working intellectual.

Under the large monument are relief panels that tell the story of the party.

We still had some time, so the tour group was brought to a bowling alley to see locals, and play a game as well. After the game, instead of taking the bus to our dinner venue, we decided to walk to see more of Pyongyang. That was an interesting first day. The next day's itinerary was even more exciting since we were visiting the North Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone or the DMZ!

More photos in Instagram! Don't forget to follow @ivanhenares!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

North Korea: Train ride from Beijing to Pyongyang via Dandong

Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Few people realize that North Korea or the DPRK, as they prefer to be called, is not as isolated as we perceive it to be. There are regular tours that leave from Beijing which almost anyone can join. It was an exciting prospect that I've been wanting to do for several years now. This year was it!

North Korea visa
North Korea visa
I made inquiries and a booking several months in advance. You need at least a month to allow the tour company to process your visa applications. All nationalities need a visa to enter, except for Malaysians, and Singaporeans on a business trip. You get issued a Tourist Card for your visa. That's also where they place entry and exit stamps. And unfortunately, you don't get to keep it. There will be no proof in your passport that you visited the DPRK unless you have a local North Korean embassy in your country which will place a visa sticker.

The cheaper option to get in is to take a 24-hour train from Beijing to Pyongyang via Dandong. But for those who can't stand long-distance travel, there are flights from Beijing to Pyongyang, which cost about €100 for a round trip ticket.

Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Since taking a train would allow me to see views of rural North Korea, and since it was also the cheaper option, a hard sleeper it was! The train left the Beijing Train Station at 5:27 p.m. and arrived in Dandong, the border city of China, at 7:17 a.m. the next day.

If you arrive in Dandong on time, there's a nearly three-hour stopover, enough time for you to take a walk around the city to see the Yalu River Bridge, which was bombed by the US Air Force during the Korean War, and the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge which connects Dandong with Sinuiju, North Korea on the other side of the river.

Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
The train for Pyongyang leaves at 10:00 a.m. But you'll have to go through China Immigration first before leaving. They have different procedures here. First you'll go through the usual Immigration counters where they will collect your passport and place the exit stamp. They won't return your passport to you yet. You'll have to board the train and drop off your stuff in the cabin, then exit again and wait outside the train car. Once all passengers have gone through Immigration, the officers come out with all the passports which have been sorted out by train car. They call your name and give you your passport, after which you have to enter the train. I realized they do this to make sure that the passenger is actually on board the train after the exit stamp had been placed in the passport.

Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Once everyone is on board, the train departs for Sinuiju just across the bridge. Make sure you look outside on the right side of the train while crossing the bridge since you'll be able to see the end of the broken Yalu River Bridge.

Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
The trip across the bridge is just ten minutes. But you arrive at 11:10 a.m. because of the one-hour time difference. This is where the long wait inside the train begins since Immigration and Customs procedures are done on board. We were given two forms, the Arrival Card and Customs Declaration which you fill out with the help of the tour leader. In the Customs Declaration, you will be asked to list down all your electronic devices, especially cameras, computers, and mobile phones, publications you may have like travel guides, and the amount of money you are bringing in in various currencies. They are very strict about GPS. If your camera or mobile phone says GPS, that will get confiscated. You'll be able to get it when you exit the DPRK. Also, while you may bring in books for personal reading, you may not bring publications that are religious or political in nature.

Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
First, the Immigration Forms are collected. The officer then asks you to present all your mobile phones for inspection since they jot down the brands in your Immigration Form. Then the Customs Declarations are collected. The officers go from one cabin to another searching every bag to make sure prohibited items are not brought it. The whole process takes close to two hours before the train finally departs for Pyongyang.

Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
From Sinuiju to Pyongyang, the scenes are mostly rice and corn fields, and small villages and towns. It was nearing harvest, so there was a beautiful glow as the rays of the sun hit the green and golden stalks of rice. The rural views were immaculate, like posters from the social revolution.

Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
The train was traveling at a slow speed. And for some reason, we made a really long stop at one of the train stations along the way. We should have arrived in Pyongyang at 5:45 p.m. But it was nearly 7:30 p.m. when we finally exited the train to set foot on North Korean soil! Our local guides were eagerly waiting for us.

Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
We went out of the Pyongyang Train Station amidst revolutionary music. The pictures of the two former leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were displayed in a place of honor and prominence above the main entrance of the train station. A large LED screen was showing clips from cultural performances. Indeed, we were in North Korea!

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