Peeking into North Korea from the safety of the South is eye-opening.
I think you are the bravest tourists in the world," says Jeoni, our guide for the day. We're on a packed tour bus, heading out of the South Korean capital Seoul in the direction of communist North Korea. Jeoni jokes that we could be spending the day shopping for K-beauty products or singing karaoke. Instead, we've signed up for a tour that will bring us within a few kilometres of the totalitarian country ruled by Kim Jong Un.
On the drive from cosmopolitan Seoul, Jeoni lets us know what we can expect from the day's itinerary. We'll be visiting Dorasan Peace Park, Freedom Bridge and the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
From there, we'll have the opportunity to peer through binoculars in the direction of North Korean citizens working in the fields and guarding security posts. Jeoni shares her theory that the village where the North Koreans live on the border of South Korea is for propaganda purposes only. They know they're being watched and they put on a good show of looking happy and productive.
"I've been to the lookout hundreds of times and the people in the fields are always smiling and wearing black," she says. "I think they're actors."
The one place we won't be visiting today is the Joint Security Area (JSA), the only part of the DMZ where soldiers from the North and South stand face-to-face. Previously open to the public on organised tours, the JSA has been indefinitely off-limits since July 2023 when Private Travis King, a United States Army officer, illegally crossed the border into North Korea while on a tour. Security is now extra tight; our passports must be produced several times at checkpoints manned by handsome young soldiers who resemble K-pop band members.
The people in the fields are always smiling and wearing black. I think they're actors.
As we approach Dorasan Peace Park, Jeoni tells sad tales of families forever separated when the Korean peninsula was divided into North Korea and South Korea at the end of World War II. Thousands of ribbons are tied to a barbed wire fence, each one a reminder of a person who is missed, just out of reach on the other side of an impenetrable border.
In the DMZ visitor centre, we watch a short documentary about the secret tunnels built by North Korean forces planning a surprise attack on the South. Today we have access to the so-called Third Tunnel of Aggression, a mile-long underground corridor that runs through bedrock 73 metres below ground. It's estimated 30,000 men per hour could march through at military pace.
Signs warn visitors not to attempt the steep tunnel descent if they have asthma, claustrophobia, knee or heart problems. Phones, cameras and backpacks must be stored in lockers; hard hats must be worn.
"If there's anything you want to say to North Korea, shout it out at the end of the tunnel," Jeoni says. "It's so close, they might hear you."
Off we trot, practically skipping down the concreted walkway at a 90-degree angle until it dawns on us ... what goes down, must go back up. There's no lift or escalator, just the heart-pounding punish of a steep climb back to the entrance. We sweat, we pant, we pause to give our lungs a chance to catch some oxygen. So this is what they mean when they say watch out for Kim Jong Un's revenge.
I know what I want to say to the North Koreans on the other side of the blockade: "I really must get to the gym more often."
Visit klook.com to book DMZ tours from $30.
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