Look Mom, I’m in North Korea!

Excited to introduce everyone to our daughter, Charli, AKA The Piglet!

Standing with soldiers at the DMZ Joint Security Area in Korea

For most parents, “Look Mom, I’m in North Korea!” is probably not a dream email to receive.

However, I obviously inherited a love of questionable activities in foreign countries from my parents, The GypsyNesters.

So when they received my weekly travel newsletter detailing my trip to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), not only were they excited (and a bit jealous), but they asked if I could share my experience with you, their readers.

And so here it is new friends, my first guest post for The GypsyNesters!

Looking through binoculars at the DMZ in Korea

Despite the name, the DMZ on the border of North and South Korea is the most heavily militarized border in the world.

Going there is a surreal experience.

They wisely don’t let you just roll up in your RV and head on up to the border– you have to book a tour to go. My boyfriend and I took the USO tour.

You start out by visiting a lookout tower on the edge of the DMZ that allows you to view one of North Korea’s three largest cities, the Kaesong Industrial Region, and a variety of North Korean watchtowers which photograph your every move.

Looking through binoculars at the DMZ in Korea

There is so much to tell, so I’ll just go into the things that surprised and interested me the most:

1) Kaesong Industrial Region. Just a few miles over the border into North Korea, more than 100 South Korean businesses have set up factories all together. They can pay North Korean workers five to six times less than workers in South Korea, and are able to get special clearance for a few South Korean managers to go there every day.

However, North Korea watches them like a hawk–they can’t bring phones, newspapers, anything from the other side, and people have been removed and banned for talking about politically sensitive issues with the North Korean workers.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I’m sure these workers can use the money, it’s not like there are tons of opportunities there, and I supposed any collaboration between the two sides is a good thing. On the other, it smacks of exploitation a bit as well.
Looking at North Korea from South Korea at the DMZ

2) Ridiculously Large Flagpole War. In the 1980s, South Korea put up a huge 100m flagpole near the border to fly the South Korean flag.

So naturally, North Korea immediately built on their side what was at the time the largest flagpole in the world –160m– to fly a 600lb North Korean flag. Super mature stuff.

And until 2004, said flagpole also blasted anti-Western music and propaganda speeches telling South Koreans to defect to the fabulous North. This went on up to 20 hours a day.

They stopped only because it — shockingly — wasn’t making South Koreans come.

3) Propaganda Village. There’s a “town” close to the border set up to be a shining example of Northern life– modern buildings painted nicely and with electricity (which most North Koreans don’t actually have).

Problem is, it’s fake. The buildings are hollow, no rooms, no glass in the windows, and no actual residents. The lights turn on and off on a timer. They do continue to have people come sweep the streets periodically though, as if they are fooling anyone.

4) Defector Phones. Throughout the DMZ on the South Korean side, there are phone booths set up for North Koreans to call in case they defect and make it to the other side. These were set up in 2012 after a few North Koreans made it over the border trying to defect, but couldn’t figure out where to go and WENT BACK to the North.

We know this because one of the guys was able to get over the border again (the other two died trying) and told the Southern forces that the DMZ is “damn confusing.” So far, no one has used the phones though–the vast majority of defections happen on the Chinese border.

Solders standing outside at the DMZ in Korea

The coolest part of the DMZ is the Joint Security Area (JSA).

These little blue buildings are where talks between the North and the South (along with the UN) occur– and you can see soldiers for both sides.

<–Fun fact: the U.S. soldiers call that North Korean soldier on the left side of the doors “Bob.” The actual guy changes all the time, but whichever guard stands there is always “Bob” to them.”

The stance of the South Korean soldiers is a modified martial arts pose intended to intimidate the other side.

Our U.S. soldier escort told us sometimes the North Korean soldiers will make throat-slitting or monkey gestures at them. Again, super mature.

The Joint Security Area at the DMZ in North Korea
OMG. Look Mom! He’s in North Korea and I’m in the South!

Inside one of the meeting rooms, you can also step over the border into North Korea.

This is why they make you sign a paper before you go saying you

1) aren’t drunk,

2) aren’t going to defect,

3) understand you could get shot,

4) understand you’re on your own if you run across the border.

You visit a variety of other sites– including inside one of the tunnels the North Koreans blasted under the DMZ in attempts to sneak attack.

Tunnel under the DMZ in Korea that was dug for a sneak attack and covered in coal

They covered the walls in coal in case they got caught so they could pretend it was a coal mine. Even though there’s no coal in that area.

So clever these North Koreans.

Weirdly, there are a number of North Korean tours that go through the DMZ too (on the other side).

Our soldier escort said it’s mostly Chinese and Westerners though. This is partly because it’s very expensive to go on the North Korean tour, which is mostly propaganda. Interestingly, when tours go through, the North Korean soldiers actually turn to face the visitors so if any citizens on the tour do try to defect, they can stop them easier.

Final point– I asked our soldier escort why either side would allow civilian visitors to come here? It’s not safe; the North Koreans photograph everyone– so why risk it?
He said it’s rare to be able to see democracy and communism face-to-face this way– and if people want to take the risk, and if it could educate people, they should be able to come and see it for themselves.

Solid answer I thought.


Have any questions for me? You can email me, or tweet me at @charli and follow my travels too!

YOUR TURN: Isn’t she just fabulous? How would you react if you received an email like this? Would you go to the DMZ?

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43 thoughts on “Look Mom, I’m in North Korea!”

  1. Wow I thought I was adventurous, but don’t think I would ever think of North Korea for a millisecond as a possibility. I would be worried if I received a e-mail from my daughter that she was there or going there, but at the same time I would be proud. Fascinating post and good for Charli. I am in awe!

  2. Wow! Looks like you had quite the experience! I don’t have a desire to visit North Korea at the moment (I’ve never heard anything about Korean chocolate!) but it certainly does look like a fascinating place.

  3. Our children become so adventurous when their parents aren’t couch potatoes. I learned some new things about North Korea from Piglet’s tour. Thanks so much for her insights.

  4. Fascinating post. After reading it, I can understand why you said the experience was surreal. I know it is a heavily militarized border, tensions are high, and you’d need to be careful to stay safe, but some of things you pointed out just make the whole conflict and differences sound ridiculous and childish.

  5. Someday you’ll have to share how you picked the moniker “Piglet” because she’s not the least bit chunky. I wonder what Mr. “TheWorldOrBust.com” would say if I asked him if he wanted to do a guest post on Boomeresque. I suspect the resultant eye rolling might even create a breeze. 😉

      1. She also is one of the enviable people that can eat a ton and still stay slim – she is now on a two-huge-ramen-bowls-a-day regime in Toyko. Her Instagram feed is KILLING me! -Veronica

  6. Great post! Lucky you got to see the other side! We went last year but it was so foggy we couldn’t see NK at all through the telescopes. Even still it was a fascinating experience.

  7. Great first time post. I cannot get over the propaganda the North Koreans are fed every day – but nonetheless would love to follow in your footsteps.

  8. While visiting North Korea would not be a fun or relaxing vacation it would be such an interesting experience and I’m so jealous! I think your comment “surreal” would have to sum the visit up because North Korea seems to be a mix of the bizarre, the ridiculous and, any times, flat-out heartbreaking!

  9. Like mother like daughter is right. How fun to have Charli as a foreign correspondent! I’d go in a second, and being a political nut, my husband would be right behind me. What an exciting opportunity for her. Great coverage of the scene.

  10. Glad you are all liking the post, and I hope you do get the chance to go! Especially if you’re a politics geek like me, it’s really interesting. Highly recommend the USO tour if you do. It costs around $90.

  11. This is incredibly fascinating. I think I’d be worried the whole time that I’d be accidentally shot, yet I’d also be insatiably curious about everything. Thanks for this little peek inside.

  12. I’d love to go to the DMZ, but more so it’s my ambition to go into North Korea itself! I’ve got Spanish & British passports so I know it’s possible – just nobody will come with me. That, and I hate going anywhere you don’t have free roam to do what you like – why see what they want to show you? Saying that though, the place fascinates me.

  13. Wow! Very interesting post!! My youngest daughter will be studying abroad spring semester next year in Seoul and I plan to visit. Hope to do the DMZ tour when I am there but as I understand it they fill up quite quickly.

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