In an atmosphere maybe eight steps down from impending doom (as regards expected missile firings) and a feeling like it was any ordinary day, last Saturday I went to North Korea and lived to tell the tale. The day went sort of like this:
I got up early(ish) to get into the city center to meet up with the tour, made sure I was on the right bus, and drove about an hour to the edge of the civilian control line, a buffer zone created by the south to give the actual DMZ some extra breathing space. And yes, for your reference, all that follows took place really only an hour casual drive from the center of Seoul.
So let me explain a little of the political/military geography of the border area. The border itself is called the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) because the war is not actually over, they just signed a ceasefire and the ‘border’ became the last point of hostile contact between the armies. A small buffer area on either side of the MDL was created to keep the armies apart for the ceasefire and this is the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ. On the southern side, they added an additional barrier zone called the Civilian Control Line (CCL) within which the Korean military is basically in charge, though some normal people do live there. I don’t really understand all the complexities of it (and believe you me it is complex) but that’s the gist.
Anyway, we drove up to the CCL and got our passports cursorily checked by the South Korean army (colloquially known as ROK soldiers for the Republic of Korea–as opposed to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). Once inside the CCL, we first went to a train station. This station, on the line from Seoul to Pyongyang, served briefly as a cargo holding area while the two countries were operating the Kaesong Industrial Complex. That was a set of factories financed by Southern companies and mostly worked by Northern employees in an effort at rapprochement. It was shut down after some continuing conflict between the two but may be opened again eventually. The South would really like the rail line to be totally open because it would connect the South by land to China, Russia, and even Europe via the Trans-Siberian Railroad, among others. As it is, however, it’s an empty, though modern, station that serves as the last stop in the South.
Next up was a stop at Tunnel #3. This is a small tunnel fairly deep underground dug by the North under the DMZ in order to support a supposed invasion. It is the third such tunnel found, of four, and who knows how many others there may be, if any. Once discovered, the North obviously collapsed their end and the South put in place cameras and a great deal of dynamite. And then opened it to tourists–but more on that later.
Driving around the CCL, one encounters a great deal of dynamite. It’s typically in big towers next to the road, or else unmarked overpass-type things. These are meant to be exploded in the event of an invasion so as to bloc the road and prevent tanks from taking the highway to Seoul which, you’ll recall, is only an hour away.
The last stop in the morning was an observation post atop a small mountain/hill. From here, you could see the DMZ, the Industrial Park, and the nearest North Korean city. Unfortunately for us, we had some pretty terrible haze that day so our vision was considerably obscured. We could sort of make some things out and I guess that’s going to have to be good enough for me.
After lunch, we made a quick stop at a park just outside the CCL commemorating the bridge across which prisoners of war were exchanged after the ceasefire. Here were an abundance of prayer ribbons and mementos, tokens of families divided and a country of hopefuls wishing for reunification. Obviously, there was a quasi-fair-theme park vibe going on next door, and there were several restaurants (including a Popeye’s) and a convenience store. You could climb up to the roof and look out over the river past the CCL and, in decent weather, perhaps into the DMZ itself.
After a change of bus, we headed back across the CCL and straight on into the DMZ for a brief stop at Camp Boniface, he headquarters of the UN-administered mission along the border. There, we received a little presentation about the history of the zone, events that had occurred at the Joint Security Area (JSA), and what they do there. The JSA is a small complex of buildings that housed negotiations for the ceasefire and a number of talks since. There is a large building for each side and a few small ones in the middle. There is also the set of buildings administered by neutral country observers–the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission or NNSC– since the end of the Soviet bloc Sweden, Switzerland, and sometimes Poland (previously Czechoslovakia was also a member).
Then we hopped on a base bus which took us to the JSA, walked quietly in double file through the ROK building and over to the building in which we could actually cross the MDL and enter the North (in a technical and, let me tell you, very real sense). We took a moment back at Camp Boniface to look through the gift shop and then we were finished. We drove back to Seoul. That was it.
Just before leaving, I was talking with one of the other tourists on my bus, a German chemistry teacher, about how strange it all was. Surreal. Not only the experience itself, crossing into North Korea, but also the whole feeling of the tour. The fact that there was a tour. It somehow (not somehow, very clearly) felt wrong to commodify tragedy and what is literally a war without a peace treaty. And yet, there we both were, participating in said commodification. I even bought a small souvenir, I’m a little ashamed to admit, because I simply couldn’t not.
As much as I’m generally against capitalism (you know what, scratch that ‘generally’) and harbor moderate distaste for democracy, the tour and the numerous gift shops epitomize South Korea. The whole point of the war was Capitalism and Democracy. So it’s fitting that overpriced souvenirs are on sale less than a mile from one of the most dangerous/undangerous places in the world. It makes me uncomfortable but it also makes me marvel at the tenacity of humans who have decided what they believe.
Anyway, it was early evening when I returned, just outside Seoul Plaza. Walking to the metro station there, I saw a great deal of something which, upon investigation, turned out to be a book festival. In the stunning goldish yellow of the last couple hours of daylight, I searched for and found an English-language table of used books and walked away with the Wal-Mart copy of Robinson Crusoe which I’ve never read but think I’ll enjoy when I finally get around to it.
The end of a surreal day, crowned with an impulsive book buy. I’m still not really sure how I feel about everything. In particular, I’m not sure how I feel about the gift shop that’s practically in the middle of a frozen war, but I can’t say it’s disrespectful. It knows exactly what it’s doing.