Click here to go to Part Two of this photo essay.

Charles Wetzel's Geumgangsan, North Korea Photos: Part One

In April, 2007, I had the privilege to go to a place where few Americans have ever been -- North Korea. Everyone who's read the Lonely Planet guide for Korea knows about the Pyeongyang tour, but it seems that far fewer know about the one that I went on -- Geumgangsan. For the tour, Mijung Song (my South Korean friend) and I crossed the DMZ on a bus and spent two days and one night in Geumgangsan, the scenic mountains of southern North Korea. I first set foot in South Korea in 1988 (as a baby, or perhaps a toddler) and had always been told something along the lines of "us Americans can't get into North Korea" so finally getting to travel there felt truly unbelievable.

When I went to North Korea, I brought three cameras with me (my digital camera and two disposables), and Mijung brought one of hers. I knew it could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I wasn't going to risk going in there with just one camera. I ended up using two of the cameras I brought, and getting some pictures from Mijung's digital camera, and scanned some things I brought back with me, and the result is the photo essay you see now: 40 pictures.

Your trip to the DPRK starts here, in the Hyundai Asan center. People here are STERN -- the parking attendant was barking at Mijung like we were in a war zone. Technically, as the two Koreas never signed a peace treaty, we actually were, so I guess I can understand this!

This is a map of Geumgangsan, taken in the Hyundai Asan center.

When you leave and re-enter South Korea, you get stamps in your passport (showing Goseong as the port of exit/entry in South Korea). Fortunately, these stamps are only in Korean, so no US border guard will probably be able to figure out where I went -- I can just tell him "I was in Korea." The North Korean visa itself is affixed to a special card that you surrender upon your exit from the DPRK.

Incredibly, there are FOUR Family Marts in North Korea, and possibly more. I was fascinated that this Japanese chain of convenience stores (very popular in the ROK) also existed in North Korea. I asked the staff inside the Family Mart some questions, which they happily answered, as they are Joseonjok (ethnic Koreans with Chinese citizenship) who can have slightly looser tongues than their North Korean brethren. So I guess that's how Family Mart addresses the issue of politics in their stores -- don't hire actual Koreans, go with the more politically-neutral Joseonjok. According to the girls at the cash register, there are four stores and two more are under construction. Perhaps at the time of this writing, the number of Family Marts in North Korea has expanded. I'm really not sure.

I wonder if this badass North Korean chipmunk has to compete with humans for food?

Geumgangsan has lots of pools of transparent turquoise water. It's my conspiracy theory that it's dyed to that color, kind of like some cities dying their rivers green for Saint Patrick's Day. I've never seen water that looked like this anywhere else in my life. Of course, it's possible that it's natural.

This is known as "Guryong Pokpo" (Guryong Falls). Note the engravings of hanja done by the North Korean government. Mijung felt that this detracted from the natural beauty of Geumgangsan.

Here's another shot with some jade-colored water.

Here's me in front of one of those rock engravings, which just says "Geumgangmun." Note my huge name tag. Held inside that plastic sleeve around my neck is my visa and a bunch of brochures. At all times in public places, you are expected to wear it, or you can face a $100 fine (in US dollars, of course). Oh, and according to the tour guide, you must not point your finger, because a North Korean soldier might think it's a gun, and shoot you!

Long after I completed the trip and got this picture, CNN did an article on Geumgangsan where they had a picture of one of their reporters crossing this same bridge, taken from the same angle. However, this picture appeared on my site first!

Take a look at the guy on the left. He's a North Korean. I'm not kidding. I was talking to him on the top of the mountain (just thought he was a South Korean tourist in our tour group) and then, I realized that he was wearing a Kim Il-sung pin! Immediately, I was like "WHOA, CAN WE TAKE A PICTURE TOGETHER?" and he refused, probably for his own safety. You see, he had to worry about his partner ratting him out. However, fortunately, Mijung was hiding behind a boulder and got our picture anyway. :-)

Look at the nice picture of me in front of pink and yellow flowers!

Okay, even if you think it's fouling the sanctity of nature, you have to agree, some of the rock carvings look pretty cool.

South Koreans in Matching Pink Hats in Front of Jade Water

This is neungi mushroom soup and rice, a North Korean dish that is not widely available in South Korea (if it is available there at all). It was purchased in the cafeteria, where, incidentally, Madonna's "Die Another Day" was playing (the song that is played in James Bond's "Die Another Day" while the North Korean guards are torturing James Bond). So whoever picked out the song for that Geumgangsan food court either made one hell of a mistake, or had quite a sense of humor. Anyways, the food was, at that time, $10 (yes, US dollars).

This is the neungi mushroom soup itself. The neungi mushroom is large and flappy and brown.

While in the cafeteria, I got some unauthorized pictures of things going on outside the cafeteria, which was risky, but ended up being worth it. This is a North Korean pedestrian walking outside the fence that separates the Geumgangsan resort from a real North Korean village.

Ah, it may appear fuzzy, but this is one of the prizes of my illegal photos. This is a North Korean soldier patrolling the perimeter of Geumgangsan Resort. Soldiers were everywhere, some on bikes. When I crossed the border, they were standing on the tops of mountains as North Korea's national anthem played, but I didn't dare to take a picture, then. North Korean soldiers also staffed North Korea's "Immigration Office" and confiscated my PDA, because it might have a modem (but later returned it, fortunately).

A Side View of the Neungi Mushroom Soup

An Abandoned Building in Geumgangsan

Me, Sitting in Front of the Sign for the Geumgangsan Hotel

If you click on this picture, you can view an enlarged version -- you need to do so to see the fine details. This picture was taken from the balcony of the hotel room (at the Geumgangsan Hotel) that Mijung and I shared. Note the cherry blossoms (beot-ggot) and the North Korean flag.

Oh man, story time! Basically, near our hotel was this picture of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. Even though it was not a permitted photo, no one seemed to be around, so Mijung tried to take my picture, and succeeded, but then, out of nowhere, a North Korean guard approached. Oh no, I'd been busted. However, he was pretty cool. He just asked to see the photos on my camera, and didn't delete any. He asked if he could take the picture instead of Mijung, to make sure the heads of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung weren't cut off. I guess that would be a sacrilege. Then, he proceeded to ask Mijung, who is 40, if I was her son (keep in mind that I'm red-headed and 100% white). That gave us a good laugh...

This is the room at the Geumgangsan Hotel that Mijung and I shared for economy's sake. No beds, just mats on the floor. No North Korean TV, just South Korean TV. It was a pretty clean and nice room, but there were strange pieces of postage stamp-sized wallpaper on the walls. Bugs, perhaps? I suspect that they moved us into a bugged room, because when we first arrived in the DPRK, we were informed that we could not enter the hotel we had originally booked, and been "upgraded." I have a hunch it was because I was a US citizen, and they wanted to move me into a bugged room. It sure would have been funny to spend the whole night drawing plans for missiles and telling Mijung about nuclear technology...

In the northern part of the DMZ (which we are able to walk around in) there is an area called Haegeumgang (Ocean Geumgang). This is an outlying island in Haegeumgang.

Here is one of Haegeumgang's beautiful rocky shores.

Me at Haegeumgang

Here is the tour group at Haegeumgang. It was raining.

Here is another view of Haegeumgang.

For any of you know-it-all university students who say "no one is actually starving in North Korea, that's US propaganda," just take a look at this cow. Yes, that's right, it's a cow, not a dog, but so emaciated, you'd never know.

This is me standing in front of a boulder proclaiming "Kim Il-sung dongji manse," a communist slogan encouraging the comrades of Kim Il-sung (and Kim Jong-il).

This is me and Mijung standing in front of a nice view at Samilpo Lake.

This is me in front of Samilpo Lake.

This is me, sitting in a building in the Geumgangsan resort, trying to get as much of the trip down on paper before I forgot it. We had little else to do, as we'd finished our scheduled tours, and I declined going to the hot springs, where I knew everyone would stare at me in envy (since I probably would have been the only foreigner). So I was sitting there writing about my experiences, and Mijung snapped a picture. She made a nice pencil drawing of the mountain out the window, which is currently on display in her office in Golden Pond Guest House.

In case you didn't believe there were Family Marts in Geumgangsan, here is proof -- I took one back with me and scanned it. Yes, that's right, in Geumgangsan, you spend US dollars instead of North/South Korean won.

This is a shirt I bought in North Korea, showing an artistic rendering of Manmulsang. Unfortunately, the shirt was extremely poor quality and nearly the entire image has flaked off! Therefore, my advice to you is to never wear your Geumgangsan shirt, as every time you put it through the wash, the design flakes off a fair bit more...

This is one of the things that's provided in the hotel room, labeled "comb" in both English and Korean just in case you forget what it is.

A Mountain in Geumgangsan

This is the brochure for the various Geumgangsan hotels, activities, etc. If you click on it, you can zoom in. This is one of the numerous things that is stuffed in the giant plastic holder (that holds our ID, visa, etc.) that you're supposed to wear around your neck at all times while in North Korea.

This picture was taken as we rode the bus through the DMZ and back into South Korea. DMZ pictures are prohibited, so I had to be discreet. At one point, the tour guide thought someone was taking a picture and yelled "PUT THE CAMERA DOWN" but it turned out that tourist was simply drinking from a water bottle that looked vaguely camera-like. Well, you have to be careful around such a sensitive border...

Click here to go to Part Two of this photo essay.

Copyright (C) 2008 Charles Wetzel. All rights reserved.