This isn’t something that happened a long time ago. This is something that is still happening.
Simple, but true.
There’s a lot of hype that goes into a tour of the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas and, as much as you want to pretend you’re immune to it, you’re not. There were a couple of genuine “What the F!” moments today. It’s not the Colosseum or Angkor Wat or Easter Island. It’s like the Berlin Wall, in that it’s a long standing symbol of a national divide that, if it ever is bridged, will make news around the world (and definitely get a display in a Teddy Bear Museum).
I’d even liken parts of it to my visit to Chernobyl, in that it all seems to be kind of frozen. Nothing seems to move on the human front, but after decades of harsh conditions, nature has taken the area over in a way nobody would have predicted.
It’s a chance to see history as it exists now.
I don’t know if I can give a blow-by-blow of the day and capture the true feel of it, but I’ll try.
After loading everybody onto the USO buses in Seoul, our first stop was the Third Infiltration Tunnel. The South discovered four tunnels that basically led from the North to the doorstep of Seoul, some of which were large enough to get artillery through. They still think that there are more out there, although nobody knows if the North would actually use them. You can head down into the tunnel down an 11 degree slope and walk a back and leg straining walk to the demarcation line’s underground equivalent. Actually a more physically straining way to start the day then I though, as I basically had to walk bent over or with a squat walk to make it from one end of the other for a distance of well over 500 meters. I can’t imagine anybody getting troops through there. Maybe the North Korean first strike force is really short.
Next came a stop at the Dora Observatory, where you could see across to the North, including their unoccupied propaganda village, which used to pump announcements for twelve hours a day trying to convince South Koreans to defect. Don’t think that worked out, so they don’t do it anymore. There’s also the Kaesong Industrial Region, a city where North Koreans and South Koreans actually manufacture goods together, though a lot more North Koreans work there than South Koreans and part of their daily payment is chocolate moon pies. I’m not making that up.
After snapping some shots behind the yellow safety line (and a few not behind), I had my first real “What the…” moment of the tour. There is a train station, Dorasan Station, which was used to link freight for Kaesong for a few years before the North Koreans decided they didn’t want things crossing the border. What’s left is a nearly brand new train station that looks like it could be fully functional, yet is completely abandoned. For 500 Won (50 cents), you get a chance to walk around the station, onto the tracks, past a sign that tells you the distance from Seoul to Pyeongyang and an ad proclaiming that it was “Not the last station from the South, but the first towards the North.”
WHY IN THE HELL WOULD YOU NOT PAY FIFTY CENTS TO SEE THIS?!?!?!?!
It was a definite mind trip and they even give you a “train ticket” that gives you entry to the station. Welcome to my forever collection, train ticket!
Once I picked my jaw up off the tracks, we were off to the main attraction, Camp Bonifas and the Joint Security Area, where the North and South hold talks on various issues, if not reunification. Unfortunately, two of the tour highlights – the Bridge of No Return and the Axe Murder site – were off limits due to bad road conditions. Apparently, there was a lot of rain and the roads to these places were washed out. Alternatively, there are joint US-ROK exercises in the area tomorrow, so maybe that had something to do with it. Who knows.
Now, they line you up two by two and wander you out to these blue (for the UN) and beige (for the North Koreans) buildings where you’re basically starting smack at North Korea. It would take all of five seconds to run there and all of three to get tackled to the ground or, if you were nimble, maybe all of eight to cause an international incident. Two North Korean guards stand there staring at you and – get this – take your picture. Really creepy, really intense, and all I could think is “What have they been told about these tour groups that they need to photograph us?”
You’re not allowed to point at, gesture towards or ridicule the North Korean guards because – true story – you might be used in North Korean propaganda to show how disrespectful the South and their allies are. So I hope I didn’t make any funny faces.
We went into one of the rooms where they hold the joint negotiations and the north side of the room actually put me in North Korean territory. Does that mean I can put North Korea on the list of countries I’ve visited? I don’t know. Still, mind was blown. Again.
Topping the whole experience off was the gift shop. I know that sounds dumb, but I bought some legitimate North Korean blueberry whisky and some North Korean money. Apparently one Canadian dollar is worth about 128 North Korean Won, although who knows what that would actually buy you up there.
I don’t want to say that I don’t usually feel lucky to do all this travelling. I know I live a blessed life and I’m able to do and see things that a lot of people in the world – a lot of people in Canada – cannot do. Today was something different. I really felt like I experienced something special. Not sure what it was exactly. Maybe just the idea that, someday, if the North and South ever do get back together, I can tell people that there’s a picture of me taking a picture of a North Korean soldier somewhere in Pyeongyang.
And that soldier won’t have to do stupid shit like that anymore.
One more day in Seoul, then back home. Different kinds of amazing, but already starting to feel the travel withdrawal.