KAESONG, North Korea (Reuters Life!) - Hermit North Korea allows a tiny backdoor entry for tourists where almost anyone who pays 188,000 South Korean won ($141) can enter what is probably the world’s most closed state.
The South’s Hyundai Asan offers one-day trips to Kaesong, just north of the heavily armed border and about 70 km (45 miles) northwest of Seoul, where visitors can see ancient Korean history and take a glance at life in Asia’s only communist dynasty.
The tour runs under a strict set of don’ts that are spelled out before crossing the heavily armed border such as no newspapers, no religious ceremonies, no picture taking unless in an approved spot and no talking to ordinary North Koreans.
And if you want to go, be quick. This week North Korea, saying it had had enough of the South’s conservative government, said it would close the border from next month.
8:00 a.m. or when the North Korean border guards give permission - Buses roll out from a staging area on South Korea’s side of the 4-km (2.5-mile) wide Demilitarized Zone that has divided the peninsula since 1953. The convoy of buses pass a hill strewn with landmines, an idle train station that one day may take passengers to the North’s capital Pyongyang and past razor-wire fencing.
The actual border crossing from South to North Korea is probably the most uneventful part of the trip. There is no clear marking, just a couple of signs saying the bus has left one city and entered another.
8:10 a.m. - Some ten minutes later, the buses stop at immigration in North Korea, housed in a sleek building constructed by the South. A music loop plays a song that repeatedly intones: “Very glad to see you.”
Visitors receive a stamp in their temporary visa, which must be displayed in a plastic envelope hung around the neck during the visit. It includes the list of don’ts.
10:00 a.m. - Arrive at 37-meter (121 ft 5 in) high Pakyon Falls, considered one of the three great waterfalls on the Korean peninsula. There are trails to walk and plenty of time visit kiosks where young North Korean women with Kim Il-sung lapel pins sell instant coffee, fizzy drinks and snacks for U.S. dollars.
The falls are about 25 km (16 miles) north of Kaesong and the drive offers visitors their best glance at the impoverished state’s countryside, where oxen plow fields, tattered clothes dry outside homes of cracked plaster, and a propaganda poster shows founder Kim Il-sung calling on farmers to bring in a bountiful harvest. There are few trees left on the mountains and fewer vehicles on the roads.
12:30 p.m. - Lunch at the Kaesong Folk Hotel. The gate is closed behind the buses in case visitors decide to wander out, or locals in. The meal consists of 13 small dishes and more white rice served in one sitting than most North Koreans may see in a week. The food is an exceptional mix of regional specialties.
The compound has a book shop but South Korean guides warn their charges that to take back any books — mostly extolling communism and the North’s cult leadership — would violate the South’s national security laws.
2:00 p.m. - Take a trip through the center of the city of 300,000 where scarcely a car can be found. See wide avenues dotted with propaganda signs. Stop at Sungyang Lecture Hall, where one of the great scholars of ancient Korea lived.
2:45 p.m. - Sonjuk Bridge. Legend has it, the small, stone bridge was the site where the last royal retainer of the Koryo Dynasty was assassinated by the son of the founder the Chosun Dynasty in 1392. Outside the area is a park where visitors can take a look at North Korean children with red bandanas around their necks returning from school and workers scurrying about on bicycles.
3:45 p.m. - Arrive at Koryo Museum. The 2-hectare compound was the highest seat of learning in Korea about 1,000 years ago. It holds well-preserved pagodas, ancient ginko trees and a collection of ancient ceramics. The museum also holds a large gift shop where tourists can spend more U.S. dollars to buy items such as North Korean liquor, postage stamps celebrating its “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il and dried mushrooms.
5:00 p.m. - Head back to North Korean customs where soldiers scroll through all pictures taken by tourists. Only digital cameras are allowed in Kaesong. Pictures of Kaesong residents, parts of the city not on the tour or anything concerning the military are deleted. There is no music this time as the soldiers stack up the temporary visas on departure.
(Tours for non-South Koreans can be arranged through agencies such as GOnSEE at Website www.gonseekorea.com, U.S. Tour & Travel at Website: www.ustravel.co.kr, or JoongAng Express Tour at Website: www.jabus.co.kr)
Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Miral Fahmy