How I Unexpectedly Ended up in North Korea

Under the unflinching eyes of five armed soldiers I was led toward the world’s most hostile room. The room straddled the unmistakable physical boundary, the Military Demarkation Line, the border that separates North and South Korea. The tension between the enemy soldiers was palpable. Each avoided eye contact and stood at full attention, fingers on triggers. My better sense told me to turn back. Instead, I took a deep slow breath and irreversibly stepped over the line.

Earlier this week I boarded a flight to Seoul, the capital of South Korea. I had no agenda, contacts or prior knowledge of the country. It was to be an Airdrop Day, a day where I drop myself into a foreign country with virtually no prior planning and see what I can learn from the experience. My first impression of South Korea was that it was cold. I mentally rummaged through my small carry-on suitcase, all solid colored t-shirts.

I booked a random apartment via Airbnb and sloppily navigated the foreign train system. Without speaking to another person, I found the apartment, entered the key code and laid down on my temporary bed. Secure and with Internet access, I was ready.

My first night in Seoul was fantastic. The bustling city was lively, young and full of high-tech gadgetry. As I walked down empty hallways, the lights just in front of me turned on while the lights behind me automatically turned off. My apartment key code was synced with my phone number and the floors, apartment-wide, were heated. The Internet was fast and there was two bars on every corner of the neighborhood I was temporarily living in. I quickly learned that many restaurants will only serve pairs of people (not solo eaters) but managed to find a local chicken and beer place that was willing to make an exception. I spent my first couple days eating and exploring the LED filled city.

On day three, I noticed that I had an appointment on my calendar. Visiting Seoul was a Life List item so a mischievous version of a younger self (from months ago) had locked down a special event. (For Life List items I book the airfare and occasionally the lodging well before the trip. In this case I had booked the airfare and a mystery event long before I had come to Asia.) The only note I had left myself was to show up at a specific subway exit at a specific time with both my passport and camera. I had no idea what to expect but trusted the earlier version of me to secure something amazing.

I woke up early the next morning and navigated the subway to a part of the city that I had not yet visited. 15 minutes later a bus pulled up with an LED sign, “DMZ”. It appeared that sometime in the past I had booked myself a DMZ tour and then promptly forgotten about it. Sweet!

I hadn’t done any research on the DMZ but knew that it stood for Demilitarized Zone and marked the border between South and North Korea.

The first part of the tour was like nothing I had ever experienced. The DMZ is far from demilitarized. Instead, it is the most heavily militarized region on the planet. At the same time, it is unmistakably touristy. There was literally theme park rides in-between functional tank traps and land mines. Tour buses full of fanny-pack touting tourists have to drive in zig-zag patterns in order to obey wartime traffic barriers and military checkpoints. Tours are scheduled down to the minute and strict dress, timing and identification rules are enforced by armed military personnel. It was as if someone had built Disneyland within a prison.

Korean Theme Park

While Korea has an signed ceasefire (The Korean Armistice Agreement of July 27, 1953), tensions are high and both sides are prepared for all-out war at any moment. This important detail is apparently not deterring tourism.

It was the strangest amalgamation of capitalism and war that I have every seen.

DMZ T-shirts

The highlight of the first part of the tour was the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel (or the Third Tunnel of Aggression as it known my locals.) According to signage at the tunnel, in October 1978, South Korean troops, tipped off by a defector from North Korea, discovered an invasion tunnel 240 ft (73m) below the surface of the ground. The tunnel was dug in order to surprise attack South Koreans on their side of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). After breaching and sealing off the tunnel, South Koreans opened it to the public 10 days later. Four such tunnels under the DMZ have been found by South Koreans but it is estimated that there are more than 20 such tunnels of differing sizes.

I was shocked and delighted by the tunnel. It was incredibly deep below the surface (almost 23 stories! That is freaking crazy!), small (about 5 ft/1.5m) in diameter and carved through solid granite. It started in Communist North Korea, continued at a slight angle for 1.1 miles (1.7 km) and went right under the DMZ. It was so deep that the dynamite explosions used to carve it could not be heard by the South Koreans at the surface. The tunnel itself was wet, jagged and incredibly exciting to explore.

If that would have been all I had seen, I would have gone home happy.

no photos

(They were strict about not taking photos near the tunnel. I only took one :-p)

As we re-boarded the bus, the tour guide separated about ten of us into a special section of the bus. The rest of the tourists were going to return to Seoul. Those that remained (myself included) were to continue the tour into an even higher security zone.

The DMZ itself is not a line, it is a buffer. It contains the roughly 2km on either side of the actual border, the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). The MDL roughly follows the 38th parallel (it is strategically eschew based on the geography) and divides Korea into rough halves.

To the south, there is another line, the Civilian Control Line (CCL) that further delimitates normal life in South Korea from the warzone. (Sadly, Seoul, South Korea’s capital city, is only 27 mi/45 km from the DMZ which puts it at a strategic disadvantage.) The CCL acts a further buffer between the DMZ (a buffer itself) and the 10 million people living in Seoul. This buffer of the buffer is strictly controlled and is where we spent the majority of the first tour (besides the tunnel).

Warzone

For the next, more specialized tour, we would be penetrating the CCL, DMZ and going right up to the Military Demarcation Line (the true border) itself. This was something I had not expected and didn’t really understand. (Why were normal civilians able to go right into the heart of the warzone?!)

After having our passports checked multiple times and going through a strict briefing, we were led to the Joint Security Area (a United Nations Command controlled secure area) where we were given yet another briefing and our group was assigned an armed military escort. This point of the experience was very nerve-racking as it was made abundantly clear that this was the turning point of the visit. More often than not, visitors were sent back at this point due to any number of military reasons. Despite having the group before us sent home (due to enemy activity), our group was given clearance to proceed.

Our small group received another briefing, was asked to sign paperwork stating we would not hold the UN, South Korean or American government responsible for injury and then were asked to board a military operated bus.

The rest of the experience was completely surreal. I had an overwhelming feeling that I should not be where I was. It was like every zombie movie I had ever seen. Looking out the window of the military bus, all I could see was barbed wire and warning signs for active land mines. (There was more than 1 million land mines in the area.) There was military personnel, heavy ammunition and artillery in all directions. I felt as if I was the fictitious president you see in movies as he is being taken to the site of an alien body.

South Korean Soldier

After passing several more military checkpoints, our bus left the JSA post and went in the direction of Panmunjom, the highly militarized complex that houses negotiations between North and South Korea. It is the only man-made structure on the DML (actual border) and the only area occupied by soldiers of both North and South Korea. It is also a common location for skirmishes and deaths.

We exited the military bus and were forced into lines of 2×2. After undergoing one more security check, we marched straight to the center of the complex. In the middle was the unmistakable concrete slab that marked the de facto border between North and South Korea.

On one side (my side) stood armed American and South Korean soldiers facing the north. On the other side, stood armed North Korean soldiers facing slightly eschew of south. The enemy soldiers purposefully never directly faced each other as they didn’t want to provoke any unintentional actions.

They were brutal enemies and they were standing less than 5 feet (1.5m) from each other. Both groups stood at absolute attention with blank but somehow fierce expressions on their faces. As instructed, we avoided eye contact and kept our movements predictable and measured.

Our armed escorts led us between the South Korean soldiers and into the very tense Military Armistice Building, the only room that straddles the North and South Korean border. Inside the small room was two additional armed soldiers and the conference table where negations are held. The table is placed strategically on the DML (actual border) itself and the walls are almost entirely windows. It was impossible not to feel uneasy having soldiers from both countries peering in.

As soon as I entered the negotiation room, my first thought was to cross the threshold of the border. I took a deep breath and slowly made my way toward the North end of the room. I made eye confirmation with my armed escort, and took my irreversible step. Looking out the window I could see that I was now on the other side of the concrete Military Demarcation Line. I was in North Korea.

North Korea

I walked further into the North, took additional photos and soaked in as much as I could. Through the numerous windows I could see the American soldiers looking at me from behind the concrete slab that marked the country border.

I peered out the windows to the Northern soldiers who were peering in at me.

It was both exhilarating and frightening.

I took more photos and and tried my best not to show my excitement.

As quickly as we had entered the negation room, our armed escort told us it was time to leave… NOW. Getting back into formation, we followed his orders.

Back on the south side of the border, we lined up and watched the North Koreans. In a rare moment of mutual curiosity, visiting officials on the North Korean side peered over from an adjacent balcony and eyed us through their binoculars.

It was tourists watching tourists. Completely alien yet at the same time, oddly similar.

North

When I look back on this experience, I am humbled, exhilarated and befuddled. I am confused but unalterably patriotic. I have absolutely no idea how or why I was given access to this incredibly sensitive military location. I have absolutely no idea who the people were that were peering at me from that balcony. Most of all though, I have no idea why I am lucky enough to be able to fill my life with experiences like these.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Oh mannn! How exciting! That sounds like quite an experience. Korea really wasn’t on my list. Still isn’t, save for this outlandish “tour” of the DMZ! How did you even get to know about this?!
    Wow!
    .
    .
    .
    Wow!

  • mike vallano

    woah! that sounds like a hell of a time. thanks for sneaking in the photos and for the awesome post.

    • You know, I do what I can :-p (Thanks Mike!)

  • I love that you make appointments ahead of time and then forget about them. Nice way to surprise yourself!

    The DMZ and line between North and South Korea is fascinating. So arbitrary and yet not something we can ignore.

    I’m still in South America and not sure when I’ll make my way to the Koreas, but this most definitely sounds like something to try.

    • > I love that you make appointments ahead of time and then forget about them. Nice way to surprise yourself!

      I rely on my own inabilities in order to guarantee I have a good time. It is fool proof! (Or something like that :p)

      > The DMZ and line between North and South Korea is fascinating. So arbitrary and yet not something we can ignore.

      Agreed. Interestingly enough, South Korea never actually directly signed the ceasefire. Instead, they wanted to finish the war then and there. It was the UN (signed by an American General) that signed on their behalf. It is interesting to think how differently it could have played out. (Although having looked into it, my personal opinion is that the UN made the right call given the situation at the time.)

  • The DMZ will soon turn into Disneyland Militarized Zone if you keep reporting your adventures like this :) The last photo looks straight out of a Bond movie!

    • > The last photo looks straight out of a Bond movie!

      lol, it totally does! Good call :-)

  • Simon

    Damn! I want to do this now! Worth it? I’ll be there after Hong Kong…

    • Totally worth it Simon! Also, Seoul is fun even without the above experience. I could totally live there.

  • Himanshu

    Your Korean experience appears to be straight out from a Hollywood movie. Did you understand all the briefings there? Were they in English? Did you face any language problem?

    It is not uncommon at the enemy borders for firing to start at any time without any notice, without any apparent provocation from either side. Were you informed about this in one of your briefings and was given the option to go back during any briefing/checkpoints. Man you could have got killed there.

    • > Did you understand all the briefings there? Were they in English?

      Yes, I understood them. They made them very VERY clear. They had translators and visuals to make sure everyone understood exactly what was being communicated. They were not messing around!

      > Were you informed about this in one of your briefings

      Yes many times. We were also asked to sign paperwork waving our right to sue in case of enemy fire.

  • Dawn Shepard

    Wow Danny! Incredible.

    You are the real life Most Interesting Man in the World. You managed to time-travel AND get into North Korea with one trip. Bravo!

    • > You are the real life Most Interesting Man in the World.

      I don’t know about that :-p The guy in the commercials is old :-)

      > You managed to time-travel…

      I guess I sort of did! (I didn’t think about it that way) Now I just need to figure out how to play pranks on other people with these new found time traveling tricks

      You rock Dawn!

  • Dad

    Danny, Great post. Quite spellbinding. Is the picture of the formal looking soldier from the North or the South? I’m thinking South since there is some English on his shoulder. He looks so young. Such a contrast from the other pictures in the blog.

    Be well and be safe. Love ya.

    • > Is the picture of the formal looking soldier from the North or the South? I’m thinking South since there is some English on his shoulder.

      Nice detective work. You are right, he was from the South.

      > He looks so young.

      All physically capable men in South Korean are required to do at least 21 months of military service starting at age 18.

  • Wow! That trip to N.K. must be an exciting yet dangerous (in my own opinion). I heard N.K. seldom gives a tourist visa and very strict foreigners coming in to country. You’re one lucky man! Thanks for the share!

  • Hey Danny, I like how you dare going off the beaten track and explore unexpected places. This one is on the top of the list to me. Sounds like a life changing experience.

    Fell across this video earlier today, a must-watch: http://www.vice.com/the-vice-guide-to-travel/north-korean-motorcycle-diaries

  • 2 years ago, I was obsessed with North Korea and watched every documentary I could find on Youtube. I’ve never been there, but I know exactly what that blue room looks like. :D

    By the way, I love that you booked the trip ages ago and had forgotten what was on your itinerary. That sounds like a great way of giving your future self an awesome surprise. I might have to steal this idea…

  • Great report! I loved my time at the DMZ. The best was to fire up my iPhone ‘AroundMe’ app to see all those Wikipedia articles with the incidents over the term of the last 60 years.

  • Wow, that’s one suspense filled experience Danny! My grandfather fought in the Korean war and I have pictures from when he was there. I would love to visit the place where he once occupied. The DMZ tour sounds like an exhilarating experience.

    • :-) Thanks Brian. Good for your grandfather, it sounds like he was the one that had a real adventure. Hopefully he made it home safely. The tour was an exhilarating experience, I hope you have the chance to do it at some point.

      Cheers!

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  • Mike

    Good adventure, good story, Danny. Note that the soldiers are all handpicked. The NK guards, while smaller than SKs, are the biggest specimens available. Most NKs are rather tiny, due to starvation.

    I took the “tour” before cell phones were invented, when I was military. It’s possible to penetrate the DMZ (accidentally) all the way up to the MDL at other locations that are not on any map and that are closed to the public. The NK soldiers there weren’t sure what to do about me.

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