Have you ever had the experience of seeing an image dozens of times in the media, so many that it doesn’t seem like a real place, and then you seize the opportunity to experience it in real life?
I am fortunate enough to be employed and able to shell out the 92,400 won (about $90.00) to visit the Korean Demilitarized Zone, the DMZ. I’ve watched several documentaries about North Korea (Inside North Korea, a great National Geographic Documentary, available on Netflix, and the Vice Guide to North Korea, an off-the-beaten-path style film, available online) and have spend lots of Google time reading about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and so to finally visit the DMZ fits perfectly into that category. Seeing the DMZ gets its own spot on the list of the coolest things I’ve ever done.
I booked a trip through the USO (United Service Organization), which is an American non-profit that provides morale to soldiers based all over the world. The Korean USO organizes a trip to the DMZ for any foreigners in Korea, tourists or temporary residents, and it was very well done. We visited four different spots on our tour: 1) The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, 2) The Dora Observatory, 3) Dorasan Station, 4) JSA (Joint Security Area).
1) The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel
In the 1970s, South Korea discovered a series of tunnels coming from the North that were blatantly designed as a means of attacking their southern enemies. They are located all along the border line, and we visited the 3rd tunnel located due north of Seoul, discovered in 1978. The South Korean military believes there are more tunnels yet to be found. I heard a story that in order to cover up their intentions of attacking the South, the North Korean soldiers painted the interior walls of the tunnels black, and claimed that they were mining for coal. Smart thinking. Anyway, we walked through the tunnel, which was dark and crowded with tourists. Probably the least interesting part of the tour, although pretty scary that more of these tunnels may exist. We weren’t allowed to take photos but I snuck a few.
2) The Dora Observatory
The next stop was at the top of Dora Mountain, where there is a perfect view of a valley in North Korea. When looking from afar, I noticed lots of buildings, a massive flagpole, some roads, gorgeous mountain ranges, and a few trees. But once I got a little closer, and took a look through the binoculars, I was immediately struck by the lack of people. This is because these “towns” and buildings are all a facade. They are there for show, as a display to South Koreans and it’s tourist population. There is, however, a South Korean factory which operates in this valley, but my tour guide explained that because it was Saturday there were no people in the town. Still, quite eerie. South Koreans have nicknamed this town “Propaganda Village” because they used to literally broadcast propaganda to the South, telling them that “North Korea is a paradise. Defect to the North!” We were not allowed to take pictures at the edge of the deck, we had to stand back about 15 feet. I tried taking a picture and a soldier immediately rushed over to me and watched me delete the picture from my camera. It was crazy to take a look at this country that few people in the world are allowed to visit, and even fewer who want to visit.
3) Dorasan Station
The concept of North and South reunification in Korea is a controversial topic. For moral reasons, some people are in favor of reunification, but for economic reasons, many are not. One co-teacher in my school told me that most young people do not want reunification. In Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, she explains that reunification would be an enormous economic burden for South Korea. The cost of integrating millions of people who have lived in an oppressive, Communist country, would be around $3billion. It would include medical treatment, social education – residents of North Korea do not know how to pay rent, go shopping in a store, buy their own clothing – building infrastructure, and much more. Dorasan Station is the subway stop that would be the public transportation point because the North and the South. I got the impression that although it’s a fully-functional train station, it’s more symbolic than anything else.
4) The JSA (Joint Security Area)
This is that image I was talking about before. The only spot on the Korean peninsula where North and South officials meet, the JSA is the most militarized area in the world. (Which is why the name Demilitarized Zone is the most ironic name ever.) There were 6 South Korean guards standing in a position called “ROK Ready” (ROK = Republic of Korea), with their fists clenched and half of their body hidden behind the building so that less of their body is a target. This place did not feel real – there was such a heightened sense of tension in the air, it felt like I was watching some bizarre performance art. When we were there, only 1 North Korean guard was standing outside. (When important officials or media visit the DMZ, more N.K. soldiers come out to play.) This soldier had binoculars and was looking at each and every one of us. At this point of the tour, we had a soldier as our guide. He told us that inside the building there was another N.K. soldier snapping photos of us. I guess I’ll be tagged in a North Korean’s Facebook album sometime soon.