Possibly one of the most difficult countries in the world to visit, North Korea is slowly opening its doors to tourists
It was well before dawn when our bus left Seoul, and the air was tense among my fellow passengers. They were mainly elderly South Koreans desperate to return to a part of their country they’d not seen in more than 60 years. When we arrived at the checkpoint on the south side of the border, foreign passports and South Korean IDs were checked, and the air of excitement grew almost to hysteria as temporary passports into North Korea were handed out.
Back on the bus, the message was firm and clear: “No photographs are to be taken from the bus windows and it’s best if you refrain from criticising the North Korean leader during your visit.” South Korean newspapers are also prohibited.
And so the convoy of nine buses, with almost 300 faces pressed up against the windows, passed through one of the world’s most heavily guarded frontiers – the Demilitarised Zone - and into North Korea. We passed yet another checkpoint, where our bags and belongings were X-rayed and our passports and IDs checked again.
Kaesong is the first large city in North Korea opened to visitors entering from the south. The tours started in December 2007, and are arranged by Hyundai Asan, part of the South Korean Hyundai Group. It’s the group’s second tourism project in North Korea following similar tours to Mt Kumgang, otherwise known as Diamond Mountain.
Although the Kumgang mountain area has received outsiders for almost a decade now, it remains an isolated resort, fenced off from surrounding villages. By contrast, Kaesong is a real city, one that, judging from the hand-painted, wooden traffic signs, the authorities had not tried to transform into a Pyongyang-like showcase.
More than 300 visitors pass through Kaesong city six days a week, at a price of around 180,000 Korean won or approximately $200 dollars a ticket. Yet it was painfully clear that none of the ordinary folk of Kaesong would ever see any of these profits. The landscape was desolate in parts, almost post apocalyptic. The outside temperature in January was minus 7 degrees Celsius, yet there was no smoke coming from the chimneys of the modest homes there.
North Korean soldiers stood guard on the roadside, standing to attention in sub-zero temperatures. When we asked our North Korean guides why the soldiers were dotted along our route, we were told it was to ensure we had a clear path and that no other cars came onto the road. The entire day, we saw less than 10 cars in and around Kaesong.
There were five sites on the trip and the first stop was Pakyon Falls, on the outskirts of the city. We trekked up a hill to see a frozen 36-metre-tall waterfall. An elderly woman clung to her daughter and gazed at the waterfall, as memories of a school field trip come flooding back. “I was just a teenager,” the woman told me. “We had a lovely time. I took a photo just over there. But now I feel both sad and bad - it’s still so poor, nothing has changed. I don’t really feel any affinity with the people here any more. It feels longer than 60 years ago..."
The trip brought mixed emotions for those returning for the first time to the north. They were back, but they weren't free to stray from the designated course, unable to cross the street to speak to the locals and barred from taking photographs of the city's streets and neighbourhoods. In truth, the tour itself was bland. We visited the Sonjuk Bridge and the Koryo Museum, which had a sparse display of porcelain and other artefacts from the Koryo age.
In my mind, the most amazing experience was simply observing local life on the streets of Kaesong. Through the bus windows, we saw residents walking or riding bicycles. Some adults stopped to watch our bus, and excited children waved at us from apartment windows. Down backstreets in residential areas, men who seemed to be soldiers stood guard, and residents on bicycles formed lines behind the soldiers, apparently waiting for our bus to pass.
It was clearly an education and cultural exchange program for the hand-picked North Korean guides on the tours too. Simple interaction with South Koreans and foreigners, as well as being exposed to images on digital cameras, was exciting for many of the guides and North Korean officials.
As we left the North Korean checkpoint, all video recorders and digital cameras were thoroughly scanned by immigration officials. As I waited for my camera to be perused for ‘illegal’ shots, an official gasped. My heart sank, as paranoia took over. But it soon turned to laughter as I realised the guard had stumbled upon an old holiday snap of me in a bikini.