back to top

I Stepped One Foot Inside North Korea And This Is What It Was Like

You can literally take a tour to the border of South Korea and North Korea, so I did.

Posted on

Hey, I'm Lauren and recently I was in South Korea. While there, I decided to go on a tour to the DMZ and the JSA, AKA the border of South Korea and North Korea. North Korea is a pretty hot topic right now, and even though my mom would have preferred I didn't, I figured this might be my only opportunity to actually step a foot *inside* North Korea. So, here is what it's like to do just that.

There's still technically a war going on between North and South Korea, and the countries are divided by a border called the Demilitarized Zone, aka the DMZ. If you've ever watched a documentary about North Korea (or a thousand like I have) you might recognize this area with the blue buildings. It's called the Joint Security Area (The JSA) and people say it's the world's most hostile border.

It's quite literally where North Korea and South Korea meet, and if you visit there, you can actually step ~inside~ North Korea. Butttt, South Koreans aren't allowed to visit the JSA unless they've made special arrangements months in advance, and numerous other countries have to go through a thorough application process to visit.

Advertisement

However, as a citizen of the United States, all you have to do is submit your passport a couple of days in advance and book a tour. So I did one leaving from Seoul, about an hour south of the DMZ. We were told to dress respectably — no sweatpants, ripped jeans or flip flops — sooo I tried my best to not look like my usual disheveled self and then it was time. The day had arrived.

Once on the bus, we met our tour guide. On the way to the DMZ she told us about the history Of North and South Korea and how her father was from North Korea and escaped to South Korea during the war, never seeing most of his family members again.

video-player.buzzfeed.com

The story was heartbreaking, but she was amazing and also really funny. I loved her.

The first stop of the tour was a place called Imjingak Park, which is a village and tourist site that serves as a memorial and promotes peace (it also has souvenir shops that sell DMZ swag. I regretfully did not buy any).

But more importantly, it's where Freedom Bridge is, which used to serve as a passage over the Imjin River. It's where over 12,000 South Koreans and UN soldiers were freed after being captured as POWs during the war.

Advertisement

Now it's unused and at the end of it where it's closed off, literally tons of Korean flags and little notes are left to pay tribute to those who died in the war, and to send messages of peace.

By the way, DMZ rice is farmed by South Koreans who live in a settlement called Freedom Village. It literally lies within the DMZ area and is under UN administration. There are less than 250 residents who live there, and they have a curfew because of its risky location.

Lauren Yapalater

Also, our guide told us it was the best and most expensive rice in Korea. I was not disappointed, but I will say rice is one of my favorite foods and it's hard for me to not love any rice.

After lunch the journey to North Korea started to get reallll. They gave everyone a badge, and we were told they were "no bully badges" or "no shoot badges." Basically this badge was to signal that we came in peace and... UMMM, TO PLEASE NOT SHOOT US??!?!??!

video-player.buzzfeed.com
Advertisement

Even though it may seem dramatic to have us wear these badges, safety is obviously a number one priority and no joke. Since 1996, 16 Americans have been detained in North Korea. Whether for illegally crossing the border, or for "hostile acts" committed while actually visiting the country. One of the most recent and notable detainments was when American Otto Warmbier was arrested while visiting North Korea. He was detained for over a year and then released to the U.S. while in a comatose state. He died only a week after being returned home.

Back on the bus, as we headed north, we went through two passport checkpoints where DMZ soldiers came on, checked our passports, and also did a shoe check. Literally they checked everyone's shoes to make sure they were up to par. Everyone seemed to have followed directions and did not wear flip flops. Also, if you plan on going and want to know what shoes are acceptable, I was wearing these and I passed.

Also, at this point we were instructed that we absolutely could not take any photos or videos unless we were explicitly told it was okay. If we were caught then the entire tour would end immediately, and we'd be sent home. So yeah, I didn't take any photos for a bit. Instead here's a pic of some puppies that I saw along the way.

Advertisement

Let me zoom in for you. The first line literally says, "The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjeom will entail the entrance into a hostile area and the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action."

Lauren Yapalater

And then there's also a part that says, "Visitors will not point, make gestures, or expressions like scoffing, abnormal action which could be used by the North Korean side as propoganda material against the United Nations Command."

Lauren Yapalater

It was at this point I got actually kind of nervous and wondered if I should have listened to my mom. But, it was too late for that. I signed and we got back on the bus and actually made our way to North Korea. AND THEN WE ARRIVED.

Advertisement

Back to the three minutes of pictures that we were allowed to take: when they first said we could take photos no one really moved. I basically became a robot and didn't even want to risk blinking wrong. But then when the soldier accompanying us said, "ONE MORE MINUTE OF PHOTOS" everyone started taking a lot of pics and selfies. This is me. I'm not scoffing or smiling or doing anything.

Advertisement

And this is one of the South Korean soldiers facing North Korea, basically standing with his head almost up against the wall of the house. I never found out why this was happening, but a post is a post!

After the three minutes of photos were over, we had to put our phones away again while we walked across the road to this building (where the red arrow is pointing). It's called the Military Armistice Conference Room, and it's the only building that visitors are allowed in, and where once inside, you can actually walk across the room into North Korea.

When we got into the room our soldier made a joke about how the people standing on the south side of the table were safe, and those on the north side of the table were in North Korea and that sucks for them! Ha Ha... good one? Anyway, then we were allowed to take photos inside this room for a few minutes.

Sidenote again: the microphones on the table are monitored and recorded 24/7, and mark the literal border between North Korea and South Korea. We were allowed to freely walk around the room, except for crossing in front of the guard in this photo...

Advertisement

And then, for about 30 seconds of my life, I was actually *in* North Korea. This was the moment that I had been waiting for and also something I'll probably/hopefully never experience again in my life. I was standing a few feet inside North Korea..even if it was just inside a building.

video-player.buzzfeed.com

😱😱😱

I felt nervous and excited and then, before I could really even process what was happening, we were told to put our phones away once more and leave the building. The tour was over. BACK TO SOUTH KOREA WE WENT.

Advertisement

After we got back on the bus all of the ~tension~ our tour was collectively sharing disappeared, and all of a sudden everyone was having a good ol' time. The soldiers that were with us were crackin' jokes, and also I finally unclenched my jaw. Also for some reason we could take pictures now at places we couldn't before. So we did, and I kinda smiled!

And that was that. We handed in our "no shoot" badges, and got on the bus and went back to Seoul.

Obviously the timing is ~interesting~ considering just months before the Olympics — where North Koreans and South Koreans walked as one Korea in the opening and closing ceremonies — North Korea was testing nuclear missiles.

But still, some Koreans are all for unity. After talking to dozens of South Koreans, a lot of them are hopeful for reunification and peace with North Korea in the future.

Lauren Yapalater / Via buzzfeed.com

"I wish the reunification comes true as soon as possible. Go Korea!"

I'm no politician, so I literally have no idea how that will happen. But in the words of a pageant queen, tbh I just want world peace. So yeah, that's what it's like to step a foot inside North Korea, and now you know what shoes you can wear on your visit. Bye!