I've been interested in North Korea for some time now and it's great to finally go on a tour around the DMZ and cross the border at the Joint Security Area (pictured). Here is where you see the face-off between both Koreas in a fixed state of war they have been in for the past 60 years over their different ideologies.
Kim Il-Sung started the Korean War along with the help of the Soviet Union after World War II and Japanese occupation. This has formed North Korea which has since been run by a family of evil dictators lying to its people and spending all their money on gold statues and nuclear missiles. It's this North Korea that South Korea is faced with today, quite literally, and nobody can say how much longer for. If you are still confused here is a video to help explain some more.
I woke up bright and early in my small hostel room, and before I was going to leave I had a knock on my door from the driver picking me up to take me to the tour bus. There was a group of Japanese tourists joining us but they ran late due to a passport going astray; if you forget your passport you're not going anywhere, basically.
Our tour guide was a S. Korean woman who was very composed to begin with but as we entered the DMZ you began to wonder if she's really feeling more uncomfortable as she's making out. She told us of how she can't enter the JSA because a S. Korean woman once entered an unauthorised area and didn't leave even after being instructed to by N. Korean guard and she got shot. I don't know how sympathetic one should be as she must have known the implications and she was ordered to leave in her own language. So now, no Korean, not even South Koreans can even get a small viewing of the other half of the county they are divided from but everyone else can.
We all made our way north to the DMZ or Demilitarized Zone, which is ironic as it's all heavily armed with explosives everywhere. There were several checkpoints along the way with lots of big spiky barriers a tank would struggle to get past, along with explosive walls for exploding N. Korean tanks. As we passed the bridge over the river into the DMZ she said how "there are sometimes dead bodies from escapees", who have tried to make it across into the south. She said, "When they are found we are polite enough to hand the bodies back into North Korea". Just in case you forgot what kind of country is on the other side of the border, that's a chilling reminder.
As we got further and further towards the border, we passed a village that was used by Polish and Czechs before the Korean War and a joint village used by Koreans from both sides that is still used today. We arrived at the second checkpoint, 'Checkpoint Bravo' where we had to leave any bags behind and switch to a special DMZ bus so both sides knew it could not have been fitted with any explosives. The entire area we were in was all very controlled, every head was counted at every checkpoint, everything was monitored, and you weren't allowed to take pictures of anything.
We arrived at the Joint Security Area (JSA) and walking through the South Korean sides building and walked out to be greeted with three bright blue huts, lots of guards and then North Korea on the opposite side. These huts were set up during the Korean war by the United Nations to sign the armistice, which basically got them to agree to disagree and stop killing each other. The president at the time didn't want to sign anything to divide to countries, which he could have done when the south has control over most of the peninsula, but he didn’t, and the UN had to step in and do it for him.
There are also grey huts set up for peace talks between the Swiss and the Swedish as they are neutral nations, but I still don't think this means they can walk between the two countries as nobody cares.
It was just really strange and surreal, all the guards were there looking at each other, sometimes with binoculars across these huts and nothing was happening. S. Korean guards had their system of guarding on one side and the North Koreans had their way on the other side, but one wanted to be on the other side more than the other as you can imagine, so they did differ a little. The S. Korean guards stand halfway out from behind the huts so they are ready for an attack, and the N. Korean guards stand closer in with two guards facing each other and the other keeping guard of them.
We made our way into the middle blue hut, built and designed by the United Nations for the armistice to be signed in 1953, where they agreed to disagree on their different viewpoints, and it remains the same till this very day. Inside the blue hut, there was a large table as the centrepiece, which had an invisible but every real borderline running through the middle of it, so one side is North Korea and other and the other is South Korea. This has got to be the most unusual way anyone can ever go from one country to another.
We were lucky to be able to even go in as there was a chance that there would be a tour from the north side entering the hut like we are, and if that was the case we can't both be in the hut at the same time, regardless of nationality. You enter the hut with the guards that are from the side your tour is from so for me it was an American officer, two South Korean guards as well as the tour guide. The South Korean guards were looking very serious, one was standing to the side at the end of the table and the other was keeping guard of the door which opens out into the North Korean side. I didn't get to see any of the North Korean guards up close from looking out the window, which would have been a bonus but the whole experience was just remarkable.
If you want to have a tour of the DMZ from the North Korean side and get a very different story you can fly there via Beijing with British travel agency Koryo Tours. If you choose this option, you may well find yourself being given the tour with anything up to eight guides all watching each other and you. It will be very important that you watch what you say during your visit here so you make sure you can get back there without getting serious trouble.
The tour guide told us about two men that defected here and struggled to adjust to life in South Korea, as you have to compete for jobs and work hard in life, unlike you have to in a communist (or in this case Juche) country. They didn't manage to get jobs and spent the time drinking. They found the beer inferior to North Korean beer as it was less alcoholic and decide to smuggle themselves back into North Korea and tell everyone how behind South Korea is because of their inferior beer.
Our second tour guide was very softly spoken apart from when instructing us not to wear ripped jeans as the guards on the north side will take pictures of us and use it as propaganda to show that people outside their country cannot afford good clothing and are inferior to them. There is a clear competition going on from both sides, the most obvious thing is the flag poles. They have spent years trying to out-compete each other by having the tallest flagpole, which you have to admit is pretty funny and made a few of the tour group giggle. (For the record I think North Korea's flag is still taller.)
I have seen in the news that North Korea is opening up a rail link with Russia, but I hope that they will one day soon agree on opening up the rail link with the South. The tour went to the nearest station to the border, there was a billboard with the statement "Not the last station from the south, but the first station to the North".
More on North Korea and Reunification
Most S. Koreans (including the tour guide) feel uncomfortable with the idea of reunification as they will have to merge with a population that knows nothing about modern life in a capitalist country, which will negatively impact all the hard work South Korea has made over the past few decades. She also made reference to how Germany merged after the fall of the Berlin wall, which was not a smooth transition in many ways, economically or culturally, leaving many people feeling confused about their identity. Alongside this, you know that when that day comes the N. Korean people will be released from the control of the evil regime and can begin to live a free life where they can learn the truth about their country and eat all the food they want. The South Korean government are spending a lot of money on defence even now, so it's not like they aren't already taking a hit, but this one really will take them back a decade or two.
For N. Koreans that have made their way into the South, they receive six months training where they learn about modern life and most of all the truth about their country. Some of them will be totally brainwashed and it will be a long road to get them to adjust and get them to believe that Kim Il-Sung started the Korean war (with the help of China and the Soviet Union). When they finish training, they are given an apartment and $50,000 dollars to begin their life. Along the route North Korean defectors take many people to help them out knowing that if they help them get to South Korea, they can claim some or all of the money off of them when they get there. This obviously helps them get to where they want to be, but then they get there they struggle a lot more without having the financial backing they are given.
From knowing about the regime, they don't like people leaving they see them as traitors, so their family is punished and if they are found whilst escaping, even when in China which is their only Allie, they are returned back to N Korea as political prisoners with even worse punishment. People can even be imprisoned just because they know someone who has done something the regime doesn't like and they don't even know why.
If you're lucky escapes can go unnoticed and you can get to South Korea without any issues and start your life in S Korea with all $50,000 and work on getting your relatives smuggled out after you.
The most common routes to defect out of N Korea are to go across China and into Mongolia where you will automatically be declared as a South Korean; the other option is to travel all the way to Thailand which was an Allie with South Korea during the Korean war, or see if you can fly direct from China into South Korea. All of these options are viable but by no means easy. Here is a map I made with all the different landmarks and routes mapped out.
Many of those escaping keep poison on them because killing yourself is a much more attractive option than being taken back and taken to work in a forced labour camp for the rest of their life. The labour camps not only include people of those related to someone who had displeased the regime but sportsmen that have lost in the Olympics and also computer hackers, which were forced to hack into Sony after the film 'The Interview' was released.
The only way we both sides can ever reunify without there being another mass scale bloody war is just to talk it out and work on getting the two sides to merge slowly and peacefully. When that day comes it will make for a more peaceful world, and the border will become a symbol of peace like the Berlin Wall is today.
http://www.dmztours.com/ - DMZ Tours - Tour Guide
http://pastebin.com/EeQasjfX - Massive Leak about North Korea, Lizard Squad and Sony Attack
http://www.libertyinnorthkorea.org/empowering-refugees/ - Liberty in North Korea (A charity for rescuing North Koreans)
North Korean Rescue Stories
Defectors Living in South Korea
Hyeonseo Lee - https://www.ted.com/speakers/hyeonseo_lee
Kang Chol-hwan - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kang_Chol-hwan
How and why Korea divided