Staring Into The Face of North Korea: We’ll Never Be The Same

with 21 Comments

40 minutes after boarding the bus from Seoul we started seeing the guard towers.

As we approached the North Korean border they became increasingly frequent. The spirals of razor wire only added to the tension we felt growing in our stomachs with every mile. Today, we would be directly defying the orders of our concerned parents. “You know, they’ve been known to grab American tourists from the south side and take them hostage!” Sorry mom, but that’s just not true. 


We’ve had a fascination with North Korea ever since we spent an entire year living within range of Kim Jong Un’s missiles.

What was REALLY going on up there?! We’d heard great stories from friends about staring across the border at the lines of North Korean soldiers ominously staring back at you from the other side, and the eerie silence broken only by the footsteps of the South Korean soldiers around you. Not visiting the DMZ turned out to be our biggest regret from a year spent teaching in Korea. There was no way we weren’t going there this time around…

WELL…as it turned out our “make no plans” travel style ended up biting us in the ass on this one…sort of. The classic DMZ tour was entirely booked up for the month we were spending in Korea, not to mention it was a bit cost prohibitive for our minimalist budget. With our hopes slightly dashed we began to search for alternatives. After a bit of further googling, we realized that there’s a lesser known way to catch a glimpse of North Korea, some might even say a better way.

There’s the observatory up on the hill, North Korea off in the distance.

Odusan Unification Observatory sits right on the Han River, the physical border between North and South Korea.

With an admission fee of only 1,500won it was a no brainer! At it’s widest point, the water border is 2km across, with it’s narrowest point being less than 500 meters. As the river is tidal, you could actually walk across in waist deep water at low tide…and it would only take you 10 minutes, that is if you actually made it across without being shot.



The observatory has 4 floors above ground and offers a decent amount of information on the conflict inside.

They also have a brief, yet interesting, film that explains the structures you can see. Tip: Head to the 4th floor for the english version, unless you happen to understand Chinese! Outside, you can use any of the numerous FREE telescopes available to get an up-close look at the North Korean “village” on the opposite side of the river. Even though it was a hazy day, we were still able to see so much. What we didn’t see were any North Korean soldiers staring us down from the other side, and luckily no one was grabbed and taken hostage either!


Staring into North Korea was easily one of the most surreal experiences we’ve ever had.

We could easily see the “propaganda village,” a set of empty 5 story apartment buildings that were haphazardly built when the North Korean government realized they were being watched. The apartments were never finished, and some don’t even have roofs. You can also see the clay brick homes the people actually live in. You can see the fields where they grow their crops. Sometimes you can even see people, real life North Koreans walking around, going about their daily lives.

Unfinished “propaganda houses”

We couldn’t help but wonder what their lives were like.

As weird as it was for us to look across at this kind of poverty, it was even weirder for us to imagine their feelings. What would it be like to spend your days working on a farm with no fertilizer and no gasoline powered equipment, all the while staring across a river at high-rise apartments and a highway packed with cars?

On this side, a highway with cars!

Time seemed to slip away from us as we glued our eyes to the binoculars, placing ourselves in the shoes of the people walking around over there.

Waves of gratitude for our privileged lives washed over us. How different we would be after seeing this place. Once the sun began to set we headed back to the bus. It was a quiet ride back to Seoul, each of us lost in the whirlwind of emotions that followed such an incredible experience.


For more information on getting there, check out this great blog post by What-a-waygook

North Korea

21 Responses

  1. Sounds like a touching, memorable experience, how cool to see in person

  2. Michele says:

    What a fascinating post! North Korea is such a strange and forboding place

  3. I was just talking about this to my dad the other day. We head to Seoul in February and definitely want to do this trip but I agree with you, it must be bizarre. Like being on the wrong side of the Berlin War! Great to know there is a cheaper way as I am all about avoiding typical tours. Will be saving this to my flipboard for February.

    • LocalNomads says:

      That’s awesome! This is a must see. You can easily combine it with a visit to the Heyri Art Village. Just don’t go on a Monday, everything is Heyri is closed on Mondays…goes from Heyri to eerie pretty quick.

  4. This is a very interesting post! I recently watched a documentary on North Korea and how people tried to escape with smugglers’ help (who sometimes were selling women to pimps). If they succeed in crossing the river they have to hide and travel all the way to Thailand in order to reach South Korea… This was quite saddening to watch.

  5. Priya says:

    I don’t think I’m brave enough to do this, but thanks for taking us on a virtual trip! It is fascinating to see they are just separated by that water but yet worlds away

  6. This was a really interesting post, but I’m very pleased you didn’t try to wade across at low tide!!

  7. Annie says:

    Holy cow, this looks insane. I think my heart would be racing the entire time, what a way to spend a day, looking at people walking by and unfinished roofs. Great story!

    • LocalNomads says:

      Thanks, Annie! After living in South Korea for just over a year, I can honestly say I felt not a single drop of fear. South Koreans don’t worry about North Korea, they just feel sad for their lost brothers 🙁 Glad you enjoyed it!

  8. What an incredible opportunity and experience. I’m also fascinated with the way of life in North Korea and would love to see the country from this spot, too. Thank you for sharing!

    • LocalNomads says:

      Thanks for your comment, Brittany! This was truly a transformative experience! You should definitely check it out sometime if you’re into getting of the beaten path!

  9. Tyler says:

    What an interesting place and really cool memory for you!

  10. Maya says:

    This is such a strange place. Even from the telescope it looks kind of scary and deserted. Good for you guys you have found another option to see North Korea.

  11. This is a really fascinating post, thanks for sharing!

  12. This sounds super interesting and weird at the same time! We’re sure it was surreal in real life!

    We feel like you guys will be exploring parts of North Korea in no time!

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