When we say that we went to Korea, people often quip: ‘North or South?’ Well, I can snarkily reply that I actually have been to North Korea. So suck on that.
It was really a momentous occasion for R and I because we hadn’t been apart more than 3 or 4 hours at a time during the past 10 months, but we went our separate ways for and entire day on this one. R was supposed to go off to do an overnight temple stay, but it didn’t really come together so he just bought a few bottles of soju and watched American sitcoms on the laptop. I, on the other hand, paid US$120 to get up with all the morning commuters and make my way to the office of Tour DMZ, where I was put on a bus with about 50 other tourists to make the 35 mile trip from downtown Seoul to the DMZ- the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
The DMZ tour is pretty much at the top of the Things To Do list for any visitor to Seoul. It marks the contentious border between two countries that are still technically at war- one in which the US played an essential part. The United Nations Command now officially monitors the DMZ, though US troops are still a very visible presence and both North and South Korea have their own soldiers securing their respective sides of the border. Political importance aside, a trip to the DMZ is pretty much the only way the average American can ‘step foot’ in North Korea. And the only way to get to the DMZ is to be shepherded by an official DMZ tour company, which is why I shelled out a ton of dollars for the privilege of posting these photos on the blog.
All kinds of crazy things have happened in the DMZ over the years: axe murders, defectors making run for the border, and the kick-off of the Cold War. The tour was ripe with all kinds of stories about life in North Korea, villages that still exist in the DMZ, and the follies of observing protocol at DMZ sites. One man in my group snapped a few photos on his digital camera when we were out of the ‘photo zone’ and was instantly descended on by soldiers who scrolled through and erased the offending photos.
The tour took us through highlights like the dank and creepy 3rdTunnel, the sterile Dorasan Train Station, and Freedom Bridge, where an old train engine sat all twisted and shot full of holes- a testament to the violent history of the place. The main event was our 15-minute visit to a conference room in the Joint Security Area, a room that technically straddles the border between the two Koreas. We all took obligatory photos of ourselves standing with one foot on each side of the line, then were ushered back on the bus for Seoul.
For $120, I had to ask myself ‘was it worth it?’ The tour was short on thrills and excitement and photo ops were heavily restricted- which is totally reasonable- but the importance of the place really sank in after I left. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle called the DMZ ‘partly kitschy, partly creepy and wholly compelling’ which totally sums it up.