Gone to North Korea… in Namyangju
I’ve lived in Seoul for six and a half years and still haven’t made it to the DMZ.
I’m not sure why, but I just haven’t felt the urge to get up there. That and it seems every few months North Korea does something to ruffle the feathers of South Korea and then I think, do I really want to go up there now? The answer was always no. However, some time back I read about an exact replica of Panmunjeom on a film set that was open to the public and that made it onto the list of must-sees. This past week, a friend and I decided to really look into it and see if we could find it ourselves.
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I was pleasantly surprised when the directions led us to Ungilsan Station. I had come here before to go hiking with the teachers hiking club at my school. The station has only one exit and from there it’s either right, up into the mountains, or left, to the main road. We had just missed one of the few shuttle buses that are offered and decided to try a local bus. Helpful Koreans directed us to cross the street and catch bus 167, which stopped at the base of a road that led up to Namyangju Studios (남양주종합촬영소). Across from the bus stop is a very large brand new looking building with a Tom and Tom’s coffee inside. Past this building the road ends and another helpful woman told us to turn right and follow the road all the way up. If it’s the middle of summer or winter, I suggest getting to the station in time for that shuttle bus, but as it was a pleasant 50F the other day, we huffed it up the mountain road for 20 minutes and found the studio. A nice old man at the gate gave us a ticket for W3,000 and let us in. The pamphlet provided was all in Korean, but it didn’t seem like we could get lost all that easily.
Walking around the complex gave me a rather eerie feeling. It’s not often you go someplace in Seoul where there are practically no people. Always being put into lines or having to follow the crowd made this quite the adventure without the lines and the crowds. That and it was like walking into North Korea as if there’d been some sort of zombie apocalypse. There were no signs saying don’t touch and no one watching to see what we did. It was just us and the sets. Of course the first set we visited was Panmunjeom, the very reason we’d gone. It’s exactly what you’d see if you went to the real place… a decade or so ago.
The first thing visible when walking up to the set is the Freedom House where you can get a good view. This is the old version of the Freedom House. The real one was reconstructed in 1998 and has changed. So like I said, it’s like going to Panmunjeom 10 years ago. The main building, Panmungak, sits central in the back overlooking the four smaller buildings on the set. Originally built with two stories as this replica shows, the real one now has three. I’ve seen other photos in which people could walk into the buildings, but on our day they weren’t open. It was still interesting and worth the trip on the subway to get there. Photos of JSA are scattered around to remind us of the movie and where the actors stood. Cardboard cutouts stand in the center for visitors to have some fun with.
“Welcome to North Korea,” the South Korean cutout seems to say, while the North Korean cutout isn’t having any of that.
Next up, there’s an old folk village set that was originally built for the movie “Painted Fire”, but has since been used in other films. The buildings were all open and you can climb in and around at your whim. It’d be a nice place to play hide-and-seek with some friends. There were bowls and cups and the like scattered around as if the people who had once used them had mysteriously vanished before putting things away. Wandering through the area you can find a mixture of straw thatched roofs and poorer looking hovels as well as houses with nice window coverings. Some buildings are clearly meant to look like homes while others restaurants.
One of my favorite parts was when we walked back down into the warehouse and went through peering at the stock of goods to be used in films. A phone from any era, suitcases stacked to the ceiling, necklaces, posters, books, spears, knives, vases, they had it all. My friend even found an old Japanese porn magazine in a stack in a back corner. Wouldn’t it be a cool job to go around collecting odds and ends for a place like this? Also in the building was a film museum, but all of the signs are in Korean so it’s only worth 20 minutes to view some old photos.
Afterward, we started our trek down the only road up to the studios. The old man at the gate came out and met us and laughing said he couldn’t believe we walked up and were about to go down by walking. He said to wait just 10 minutes and we could catch the shuttle bus back down, so we did. It was free and was a very pleasant ride straight back to the station. Near the station is a collection of places to grab some food. They’re all set up for hikers that come off the mountain, so expect some Korean pancakes, makkoli, soups and the like. All of it is delicious and the whole trip was a good day out in some fresh air. If you’re looking for something different to do, this is definitely the place to see.
경기도 남양주시 조안면 삼봉리 100
100 Sambong-ri Joan-myun, Namyangju, Gyeonggido, Korea
How to get there: Out of Ungilsan Station catch the shuttle bus (departs at 08:50, 11:25, 13:25, 14:25, 15:25; just a ten minute ride) OR cross the street from the station and catch bus 167 to the Namyangju stop and walk up the road.
March ~ October 10AM-6PM;
November ~ February 10AM-5PM
Closed on Mondays and some sets may be closed if being used for filming.