Panmunjom, North Korea

I stepped into what is currently the most closed country in the world, at least for westerners. I stepped into North Korea.

Before moving to the other side of the world, I heard about this tour. I heard this tour included the border offices where various negotiations occur between North Korea and South. I heard I could enter one of those offices and cross the line on the floor to the other country.

After hearing about it, I knew I wanted to go. I kept trying to gather a group and pick the perfect time. And then last month, I realized January would be my eighth month here. I realized I needed to hurry up and do whatever I wanted to do because living here isn’t going to last forever. I realized I need to go for it whether anyone else signs up with me or not.

Of course, the announcement of Kim Jong-il death might have motivated the decision too. As you know, Kim Jong-il was the guy leading North Korea, the cult of personality himself. When he died, no one knew what would happen next. We still don’t. Maybe the border will open soon. Or maybe it will close even more.

I wanted to take the tour before anything changed.

I reserved my spot about a week ago. This morning, we met at Lotte Hotel. We got on a bus, drove about an hour, passed through various checkpoints, lined up two by two, marched out in front of all the offices, and got stared at by the North Korean soldier on the other side. He broke out the binoculars and everything.

Anyway, after the group in front of us exited the border office, we got to enter. That’s when I stepped across to the other side.

Guards in blacked out, aviator glasses stood at attention around us, legs apart and hands clinched at their sides. They wore UN uniforms, but I’m pretty sure underneath they all had black belts in multiple martial arts.

The other tourists and I smiled at each other and at our cameras, trying not to smile at the soldiers, and we pointed at stuff, trying not to point at anything that would get us in trouble either. Still, the north side of the table felt about the same as the south side, though I didn’t get to chat with any North Koreans to really know.

I enjoyed the trip. It’s definitely worth it if you’re interested in history and culture, or if you just want to say you’ve been to North Korea.

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