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4 Dutchies


After breakfast, that we share with the two of us in the same large room as yesterday, it's time to leave. When I pick up my big backpack the driver intervenes again. He takes my backpack, but this time he cleverly directly passes it to Mr Kim and lets him carry my bag to the van. I've never been very good at accepting this sort of gallantry, and just then Mr O walks by who oversees the scene amusedly then asks me: "Is something wrong with you?".

Today our destination is the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) at the village of Panmunjom. Around the border between North Korea and South Korea, that roughly follows the 38th degree, is a demilitarized zone of two times two kilometers wide. What I never expected up front, we're going to do today: visit the border. Though the name suggests otherwise, there are off course lots of military in the DMZ. Demilitarized means that (apart from handguns) there should be no weaponry in this zone. But both sides accuse each other of having broken this deal first. We're being parked in a waiting room for a little, while our guides arrange for the paperwork. Our driver is not allowed to go in any further, and Mr Kim is driving the van now. We meet Romain, the French guy who was on the same plane to Pyongyang. We're being shown around together. But each with our own guide besides us off course. And in our own cars.

Map of Korea and border Model of the DMZ Negotiations building

An officer with and impressive hat shows us the building where the armistice was signed in 1953. According to the North Korea story the Americans asked them to erect a tent to sign the armistice. The North Koreans however, built a bog concrete hall in only 5 days, as a lasting memory to their victory. In the center of the further completely empty room are two tables with the agreements, sides by two small flags: a North Korean one and a United Nations (behind whom the United States were hiding, according to North Korea) one. The UN flag has been replaced due to old age. The original piece is completely faded and rather fallen apart and therefore lies under a separate display on the table. The Korean flag still looks perfect off course. It's almost like a tv commercial for laundry soap. A slightly bizarre one though.

Signing room The UN-table The agreement

In the room next door is an exhibition about the DMZ and it's history. While the French guy is extensively talking to the guiding officer, Mr O takes us inside for some extra information. Romain later tells us he's an officer in the French army. That's why he's so enthusiastically asking so many questions to his Korean colleague.

We drive on to the Military Demarcation Line, the actual border. The demarcation line is a concrete line, about 20 centimeters high and 40 centimeters wide. Rather modest for a border. On both sides we see buildings with soldiers on guard. The North Korean and South Korean soldiers could easily shake each others hands over this line, but they do not make the impression they would like to.

North of the demarcation line the soldiers wear army green uniforms with brass buttons and large hats and stand on guard in a neutral stance. South of the line the soldiers wear, helmets and big sunglasses. Two of them are standing guard in and aggressive, wide legged, stance that even American soldiers could learn from. It almost looks like a parody on the American army. A few others are pacing back and forth at the demarcation line. Stay stare harder at us than all the Chinese in Beijing together. One of the soldiers gets out a large pair of binoculars and looks us right in our faces through them. Rather strange, if you take into account the facts that we're a) looking like the average tourist and b) only about 10 meters away. We suspect it's the type of binoculars with built in digital camera and we just had our pictures taken. In that case we're sure to be photographed with surprised looking faces.

The Military Demarcation Line "Hand me the binoculars!" Soldier on guard

Some buildings are located right on the demarcation line: they are half in North Korea and half in South Korea. We walk towards a small blue building. Negotiations have been held here about rapprochement of the two Korea's. It's a historic place and we may enter it! Inside we see mainly tables and chairs. In the middle there's along table, placed exactly on the border between the two countries. If we walk past the table all of a sudden we're standing in South Korea. Inside off course. There are two soldiers guarding the door from the inside so make sure no one would just walk out of it and cause an incident.

We can sit at the negotiations table, at the northern side. When we're sitting there, a South Korean soldier literally presses his face against the glass from the outside to look inside. It's probably meant to be intimidating, but on that moment it just looks very funny and I cannot help laughing out loud spontaneously. This is really very weird. In Europe we're accustomed to think that North Korea are the "bad guys". And then you come here to this border, you're being treated friendly, correctly and with all honour and then the South Koreans behave, completely contrary to our expectations, perfectly according to the propaganda pictures you get painted in the north. It's a missed chance guys!

The blue buildings are half in North and half in South Korea
Now I am in North Korea The view South Now I am in South Korea!

An other attention grabbing detail is the presence of a large video camera on the South Korean side of the building that looks every visitor coming in from the North in their faces. On the northern side, there's nothing. As far as we can see, that is. We leave the negotiations building and enter a large stone building to have a look at the border from the observation deck. At the other side we see a pagoda shaped observation platform. It's full of tourists who visit the DMZ in South Korea. We see them walking towards and into the building we just were in. Things are neatly arranged in such a way that both sides can take turns getting in and out. In the distance an American soldier passes by. It seems that, even to this date, there still are about 40.000 American soldiers stationed in South Korea. Back in Holland we read that South Korea wants the operational control over its army back. Since 1994 they have the control back in peace time, but in war times the Americans are still in control. And that's 52 years later. Wow, suddenly we see the qualification "puppet army" in a different light.

Observation point in South Observation point in North The officer explains

When we're done at the DMZ we visit a tomb for a change, but I forgot the name of this particular king. Even though these aren't old remains but yet again rebuilt statue's from the 1990's, it's still a spectacular sight, these large warriors and tigers, made out of white stone. In the beginning there's a local guide with us to tell us the story of the king and his tomb. We've been there for about two minutes when I fall behind just a little bit to take some pictures. The guide looks back too see where I am. There's a brief exchange of words between the guide and Mr O, and when I've caught up with the party, she's suddenly gone. Mr O leads the rest of the tour, and he allows us to take lots of pictures and take a relaxed look at everything.

Tomb Macho warriors Macho tiger

After that we visit the tomb of king Kongmin and for the first time we see real old statues. The difference with the rebuilt versions is clear. The new statues are much bigger that the older ones and cannot entirely shake of the social realistic style that everything else here has been designed in. We see two tombs here, one for the king and one for his wife. A dramatic story is attached to this location. When his wife passed away, the king gave orders to find the perfect place for her and his grave. The person who would find the right spot would be rewarded royally. But, as often happened in ancient times, every one proposing a wrong place would be beheaded. One day some one claimed to have found a good location. King Kongmyon climbed the opposite mountain, so he would have a good view on the proposed location. The man had been right, this was the perfect spot. But the walk up had been heavy and the king got out his handkerchief to wipe the sweat of his brow. His servants, who were standing on the future site of the grave with the guy who found it, took this as the sign that the location was not approved and instantly beheaded the poor fellow. The king, who realized what he just had done, exclaimed "Oh my!" (but then in Korean we may assume) and ever since the mountain opposite of the grave site has been called "Oh my Mountain".

Duo tomb with sheep Oh My Mountain Sas and Mr O on the stairs

Back in Kaesong we have a look at and old city gate, the Nam Gate, built in 1391. This gate was destroyed in the Korean war and was rebuilt later. As Keasong has off course grown since 1391, the gate is now located at an intersection in the middle of the city. In the gate is an enormous bronze bell, from the Yongbok temple. The bell was made in 1346, weighs 14 tons and is decorated with figures of a dragon, turtle and phoenix. After the Yonkbok temple burned down in 1563 the bell was moved to the city gate. Some bullet holes from the Korean war are visible in the massive bronze.

Old city gate of Keasong Big bronze bell with bullet hole from the Korean war

For lunch we go back to the Folk Hotel where we stayed last night. In a dining room there are two tables set up: A long one for Sas and me and a very small one, for Romain. Well, that's kinda cozy! When the waitress sees us moving the small table she quickly moves his food to our table. It's not much anyway, because Romain just recovered from quite a case of food poisoning. He's been very ill at his hotel room for two days, and he was even taken to the foreigners hospital in Pyongyangs embassy district, where he was given medicines.

After lunch we visit the Koryo Open Air Museum. We see old houses, temples and nice grey porcelain from the Koryo dynasty, decorated with cranes. The local guide gets into a discussion with Mr O. He thinks she's going to fast and wants to walk slower and give more information. At the souvenir shop we buy some boxes of ginseng tea. Ginseng is called "insam" in Korean, and it's said that the best insam in the world is from Keasong. We will test this at home!

The Koryo open air museum Murals from tombs Old figurines

At the end of the tour I head for the bathroom. The local guide is chatting and laughing with our guides. Sasja notices they're talking about him and asks for a translation. It turns out the guide thinks he's a handsome man: tall and broad shouldered, that's how real men should be. When she finds out that it has been translated, she starts giggling and looking away, that was not supposed to happen! And since we're talking about looks anyway, our guides joke Sasja should become a movie star in North Korea. He doesn't feel like it though. "So I can play the American villain that gets defeated in every movie?" Hmm yeah, there's a point.

In a good mood we drive on to the concrete wall. We are now really driving through the country side. We see farmers work on the land or passing by holding cow's on ropes. We see people washing their clothes or their hair in a small river. We see lots of corn and red peppers being dried at the sides of the roads or on the roofs of houses. It looks very colorful, but one wonders what deposits from car exhaustion pipes and cow manure from passing ox carts get deposited on it. Good to make you stronger, we'll assume. Everywhere we see corn and peppers laid out, even in the middle of the road, laid out in such a way that it neatly fits in between car tires and wagon wheels. Mr Yu, who has a habit of blazing past pedestrians and bikes in Pyongyang, drives past very carefully. You wouldn't tell by the copious dinners we get served every day, but food is a scarce item in this country and it should be treated with respect. Following an unpaved road we drive up a hill and reach a observation post of the army.

South Korea has built a concrete wall along the whole border with North Korea. They say it's an anti tank wall, to protect themselves from attacks from the side of the DPRK. North Korea however, thinks it a kind of an apartheids wall and that it's a shame. On this observation post are telescopes for us to look at the wall. It's rather hazy today however, and I cannot really decide if I'm seeing a wall or a road. I can see the army post with the UN flag in top at the other side of the border. A young soldier shows us a video about the concrete wall and sincerely thanks us for being here to listen to his story.

Looking through the telescope de Concrete Wall The story on video

We drive back to Pyongyang, enjoying the view we're not allowed to take random photographs of. One of the things we were told before we came here was to not just take pictures out of the bus of from people. It's also not advised to take pictures of poverty, even when we might think it's romantic or picturesque. Because we want to keep up a good relationship with our guides, who's job it is to give us the pretty picture of this country, we behave decently and we always ask before taking pictures. But if this country will ever be united, we'll be on the first plane here with our camera's to photograph until we drop. One of the pictures we "missed" today was a guy transporting a large wooden door on the back of his bike and an other guy who attached his cow to his bike with a rope, like it was a dog on a leesh.

In Pyongyang we have diner on a boat restaurant. We get two tables on the deck, one for us and one for out guides and river. Not my idea of having dinner together! We're a bit lat and a soon as we board the boats sails of. We pass the Juche Tower, what a suitable view for a dinner on the Taedong river! Shortly thereafter the boat turns around. And again. We make three circles between Kim Il Sung square and the Tower of the Juche Idea and then we dock again.

Off course the food is once again great. We have Korean fish soup, that's boiling at our table, and lots of small dishes around it. The other dining guests are a Chinese tour group. A Chinese guy on the other side of the deck sees how I hold my chopsticks and rolls over from laughing. Well, dammit, this is the second Chinese who's laughing at me in my face. He gestures to me with his own chopsticks, but that's really not helping much, from the other side of the boat. As soon as we dock the Chinese all get up and get into their tour bus. There we are, on an almost empty boat. I think there may have been some people left at one other table. All of a sudden the atmosphere is a lot less cozy, so we leave soon too.

Diner on the boat restaurant at the Taedong river, with a view of the Tower of the Juche Idea

Back in the Yanggakdo Hotel we get back the same room, so it feels a bit like coming home. In the lobby we meet Manuel, the Spanish guy, who turns out to have been living in the room next to us all the time. He's been to visit Mt Paektu, the holy mountain for the Koreans and the birth place of Kim Jong Il, by helicopter. We are massively jealous: a helicopter and a volcanic lake, if we only had known about his…! (When we later find out about the price of this trip we're suddenly a lot less jealous.) Manuel shows us his photo's. To our surprise there are only two pictures of the famous lake we see portrayed everywhere. Two? We would have taken at least 200! Per person off course.

We invite our guides for drinks in the Tea Bar. I have tea and the guys have beer, with which Mr Kim orders a plate of dried fish, that get munched away enthusiastically. This seems to be a regular thing to order in North Korea: beer goes with dried fish. I try a piece, but I decide that tea, on the other hand, goes very well without fish.

During tourist season the guides live at the hotel, in the winter they live at home. Then they study tourist information so they are well prepared for the next season. Its nice to have a chat with the guides without any sites that need to be seen or information that needs to be given. After us, Mr Kim had two big Dutch groups in september, so we promise to write down some things for him to show of with.

My knowledge of Korean isn't very extensive yet. I explain my personal language theory: In my opinion, in every country you go to, you should learn at least three words in the local language, just out of respect. These words are hello, please and thank you. But Korean is difficult and I haven't come any further than hello, thank you and bathroom, something the guides think is rather funny. It turns out that the word for bathroom on the Koryo Tours list, "pyonso" is not the most decent word for bathroom. However, the real decent word had many syllables extra, so I stick to pyonso. It has proven it's use in real life already and nobody looked offended, so I guess it's ok.

The guides think that the group of Dutch people we saw at the airport are from a protestant organization. Every year they come to North Korea with a group, bringing two of three bibles per person, to visit the two churches (a protestant and a catholic one) in Pyongyang to pray with the Koreans. Ah, a remarkable news story. It could be, the group we saw at the airport had kind of a Christian vibe about them. Hence maybe the singing in the embassy. We mention that we've also seen an small Russian orthodox church from the highway. Really small, but unmistakably with an onion dome and a Russian cross on top of it. The guides think it might be on the terrain of the Russian embassy.

Two links with info on the Korean language for anyone who's interested: