Being Detained in North Korea


North Korea customs by Dandong, China-NK border

The North Korean customs official narrowed her eyes. She looked down at what could be described as electronic mecca for North Korea on her table: my laptop, my flashdrives, Bank of China USB stick, Iphone radio transmitter, portable headset mp3 player, a dvd rom drive and a Captain America dvd that I accidentally grabbed (of all movies I had to bring that.).

We were going to board a train to Pyongyang. Right now we were standing by the NK-China border at the end of the bridge connecting the two countries. Due to bringing what could be described as ‘sensitive’ material, I was the last person in North Korean customs from China to NK. The rest of the tour group was waiting for me in the bus.

She inspected each one as if they were a curious piece of alien technology. It was obvious she’s never ever seen them before. But in the end none of those mattered. What she was really after were booklets and badges featuring Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il that I managed to buy at a souvenir shop at Dandong. These badges were famous for being pinned on every North Korean shirt to show their loyalty to the state.

She opened them and looked at them. After closing them carefully, she pointed at me. “You stay here. Everybody else can go.”

I wanted to cry. I was the one who organized our NK group, liaising with the travel agent and I was the one who got detained for buying innocent souvenirs. NK was known for jailing innocent bystanders suspected of toppling their government. My mind spiraled to dizzying heights of paranoia- will I see my family again? Would I be questioned in a cell? Would I be sent to labor camp?

Wordlessly, I handed a notebook where we wrote down all our family member contacts to my Kiwi friend, Brendon. “Call my family if I don’t make it back,” I whispered.

Brendon looked at me and saw my agitation. “I’m not leaving you,” he said. He gave my arm a friendly squeeze. “I’m staying.”

“You should go,” I protested.

He ignored me.

Meanwhile, the NK official clipboard at hand approached me. “I have a few questions,” she said.

“’Okay,” I said weakly.

“Where did you buy these?”

“At a Chinese souvenir shop by the river.”

“Who sold them?”

“Chinese peddlers.”

“How much?”

“RMB25 per badge.” Later I would find out shops sold them at 2rmb each.

The officer became visibly upset. “Where did you buy them?”

“It was a Chinese shop by the area where the gap of the river between North Korea and China is pretty narrow.”

“And there were no Koreans there?”

“None,” I confirmed.

She seemed satisfied. She swept up the booklet and the badges. Guess I won’t be seeing them anymore. “How dare the Chinese sell these?” she said. She jabbed her finger at her own badge depicting the Great Leader and the Dear Leader. “It is a grave offense against our culture. Our dear leaders are very close to our hearts.”

At this rate, I was prepared to bow and pay homage to the leaders.

She lazily flicked her portable hand scanner at my box which contained my birthday cake. The she returned my electronics and waved me away.

I dragged my suitcase with me and alongside my Kiwi friend, exited the NK customs building into the sunlight and into freedom.

Read the rest of my journey to North Korea

The Strangest Phone Call Ever

My National Geographic Moment with North Korea


6 thoughts on “Being Detained in North Korea

  1. Sara says:

    I’m so glad everything turned out ok and that she just took the badges. I had a friend get detained like that in SOUTH Korea and the customs official took her camera and computer for some reason that she couldn’t understand (she thinks he just hated Americans). Someday, remind me to tell you my harrowing Canadian border story or when I was question for an expired visa in Chile.

    • Kate says:

      I know! Whew! It was such a scary experience for me. That’s weird that South Korea would detain your friend. Cannot wait to hear about the Canadian border story! Visa stories are thrilling to listen to.

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