Jul 27 2010

North Korea: Handing out Marlboros on the wrong side of the DMZ

by in Asia, North Korea

“For your own safety,” the lieutenant colonel explained, “several of our soldiers will be accompanying you to the border.”

Statements like this are to be expected when visiting the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea, but when that announcement is coming from an impeccably dressed officer from the North Korean People’s Army, rather than one from the South Korean or U.S. Army, you have reason to be wary. Were the soldiers there to prevent us from wandering into some minefield, I wondered, or would they protect us if the “U.S. Imperialists” and their South Korean lackeys decided to randomly open fire? I wasn’t quite sure. Nevertheless, our tour group now had our very own North Korean soldiers to watch over us as we visited a place once described by former President Bill Clinton as “the scariest place on earth.”

Our bodyguards

We left Pyongyang around seven that morning for the three hour drive south to the demilitarized zone. Our bus traveled down the empty six-lane “Reunification Highway” at breakneck speed, passing by the occasional military checkpoint, tank barriers, and village. I spent most of the trip south downing Pepto Bismol (I think the meat from the previous night’s dinner was slightly undercooked) and writing postcards that would hopefully be approved by the censors and sent onwards to my friends in the US and Europe. (“Great trip so far. Beer is delicious. Highly recommend visiting. Cheers, Lindsay”)

A few scenes from the drive south. More photos in a later post.

Our American guide told us these were anti-tank barriers that were rigged with explosives. In case of invasion, the North Koreans would set off the explosives, creating obstacles for American tanks along the Reunification Highway.

Once we arrived at the staging area just outside of the DMZ, we hopped off our bus and stood around a large map of the DMZ while the North Korean officer gave a short talk on the surrounding area. We were then instructed to form a single file line and walk past the gated area, where our bus had pulled forward after being searched and cleared by several soldiers. We got back on our bus and drove past electric fencing surrounded by strips of landmines. We had officially entered the Korean demilitarized zone, a 2.5 mile wide buffer zone that divides the Korean peninsula in half. Home to over two million soldiers, the DMZ is the most heavily militarized border in the world.

Farm inside the DMZ

Because everything’s bigger in the DPRK, the country is home to the world’s tallest flagpole, which sports a 600lb DPRK flag. The flagpole is situated at the entrance to the “village” of Kijŏngdong, which is really nothing more than a Potemkin village built to extol the luxurious living enjoyed by DPRK citizens

Our bus stopped at the site of the former village of Panmunjeom, which is now just a set of buildings in which the North Koreans and United Nations negotiated and eventually signed the armistice agreement in 1953.

Entrance to the building where the armistice was signed. It is now home to the “North Korea Peace Museum”. The sign reads “It was here on July 27, 1953 that the American imperialists got down on their knees before the heroic Chosun people to sign the ceasefire for the war they had provoked June 25, 1950.”

The officer explained that the United States wanted to sign the agreement in a tent, but the North Koreans insisted that it occur in a building so that there would be a permanent monument to their victory over the United States. Apparently they constructed this building the night before the agreement was signed.

The officer also claimed that this is the original North Korean flag that was present when the agreement was signed.

See how much better the North Korean flag has fared compared to this discolored UN flag? Hmmm…

The “museum” consisted mainly of photos depicting Americans surrendering.

The axe from the “Axe Murder Incident” in which two US Army officers were killed by North Korean soldiers.

Ensuring our safety

Approaching the Joint Security Area (JSA)/Panmunjeom. More electric fences and landmines.

We arrived at the Joint Security Area (JSA)/Panmunjeom, where North and South Korean soldiers stare at each other from their respective sides. In the middle of the JSA are several blue buildings where diplomatic talks are held. I was disappointed to discover that there weren’t any South Korean or American soldiers visible in the South Korean side of the DMZ. In fact, the place appeared to be downright deserted.

Inside the conference room, sitting in the translator’s seat, with one leg in South Korea and the other in North Korea.

Before the officer began his lecture on U.S. Imperialism and whatnot, our North Korean guide said “I apologize in advance. I will say ‘American Imperialists’ several times.” I was pretty floored when she said this. A North Korean apologizing for calling us imperialists? Never in a million years would I have expected that.

Two guards posted at the door leading to South Korea to ensure you don’t attempt to run away.

Two North Korean soldiers standing on the North Korean side of the Military Demarcation Line. When I took this photo, I was technically in South Korea.

Our time in the conference room was limited. After the officer’s lecture, we only had a few minutes to take photos. The two soldiers stationed at the door leading into South Korea soon began clapping loudly and shouting in Korean while moving towards us. I guess that was our signal to leave the building.

We then entered the large building on the North Korean side so that we could have a nice view of the JSA. I have read several accounts of tourists who toured the JSA from the South Korean side and were told that the North Korean building is nothing more than a façade. I can assure you, it is indeed a real building.

Smile, you’re on camera. The Freedom Building in South Korea.

Of course I had to have my picture taken with one of the soldiers

Our visit to the DMZ complete, we headed back north for a visit to Kaesong. First, though, we stopped at the staging area right outside the DMZ to hand out cigarettes. Specifically, genuine American Imperialist Marlboros straight from the good ol’ US of A. One of the things you are told before coming to North Korea is to bring along a few gifts, specifically cigarettes for the male tour guides and soldiers at the DMZ. We pooled together our packs of cigarettes, handed them to the American guide, and watched as she quickly passed them out to the North Korean soldiers. At first, some were reluctant to take them, but they eventually gave in and sheepishly accepted these small tokens of thanks for ensuring our “safety”.

More photos here.

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19 Responses to North Korea: Handing out Marlboros on the wrong side of the DMZ

  1. From Erica:

    So did your friends get their postcards??? Also, as a US Imperialist I would like to thank you for your covert work of slowly killing the North Korea border guards by providing them with a fine American tobacco product.

    Posted on July 23, 2010 at 1:05 pm #
  2. From Lindsay:

    Yep, they eventually received the postcards…and it only took a couple of weeks (I was expecting months, lol).

    Posted on July 25, 2010 at 2:53 pm #
  3. From Thomas:

    What was inside the north’s building?

    Posted on November 2, 2010 at 11:55 am #
  4. From Lindsay:

    Nothing, really…it was basically empty except for a few chairs…well the part we saw, anyways.

    Posted on November 2, 2010 at 10:07 pm #
  5. From Sean:

    Wonderful post! Love the great photography

    Posted on December 11, 2010 at 3:41 am #
  6. From dara:

    is it really possible to go “technically” to south-korean side for making pics like yours ?

    Posted on February 1, 2012 at 2:42 am #
  7. From Kirk:

    I have to be somewhat vague, but I am a member of the U.S. Military. I’m planning a trip through the USO to the JSA for a short vacation. Me being me, I like to know both sides to every story. Are there any regulations or laws stating that ANY DoD personnel not on official business may not travel to North Korea? Any feedback would be appreciated.

    Posted on February 28, 2012 at 10:48 pm #
  8. From Lindsay:

    Kirk, I can’t speak for military regulations, but keep in mind that if you want to visit North Korea you will have to fly via Beijing.

    Posted on February 29, 2012 at 11:05 pm #
  9. From Kirk:

    Well, after watching a documentary on Joe Dresnok, I have decided that I should perhaps put any plans of visiting the DMZ from the north on hiatus until I retire or if North Korea becomes a non-communist country. Don’t plan on being a propaganda tool for the DPRK. Thank you for the response, Lindsay!

    Posted on March 1, 2012 at 2:05 am #
  10. From Dana:

    I can’t help it but your guide, the Lt. Colonel is cute.
    …got a thing for Asian men 🙂

    Posted on April 27, 2012 at 8:15 pm #
  11. From Mike A:

    I would love to thank you for this site! Between this and Chernobyl you have seen first hand 2 of the things that fascinate me most!

    Posted on July 4, 2012 at 9:34 am #
  12. From Lindsay:

    Thanks, Mike! Glad you enjoyed it!

    Posted on July 4, 2012 at 2:04 pm #
  13. From Alistair S:

    I have read everywhere that photography is difficult all over the country, especially around military. Your photos seem to be the opposite. They are great! I am going to the DPRK In August. could you tell me what sort of camera you had, and could you just carry it around all the time until instructed to put it away?

    Posted on January 2, 2013 at 2:56 pm #
  14. From Rob:

    Enjoyed this! Interesting!

    Posted on January 11, 2014 at 7:29 pm #
  15. From Joe M:

    Hey Lindsey,

    I love your site and the levity in your posts regarding North Korea. It is not only fascinating but had me laughing for hours exploring your trip. I will definitely be sharing!!!

    Posted on January 13, 2014 at 11:33 am #
  16. From Fr. Ian Adkins:

    I’m headed to the JSA tomorrow from the south (I did the Third Tunnel tour earlier this month), and I found this article immensely instructive as well as a counterbalance to whatever I’ll hear from the guides.

    Posted on July 14, 2014 at 2:33 am #


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