In 2010, I took a Diplomacy class and learned about the Demilitarized Zone, the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and all things North and South Korea for the first time. This class changed my life. It inspired me to move to South Korea and now, five years after taking the course, I’ve visited the DMZ and the Joint Security Area (JSA) in person.
We booked our tour through KORIDOOR about a month before our trip at 96,000KRW/ USD$92. On the day of, we left our hostel with everything we had. Our plan was to stuff our things in a locker at a train station but we couldn’t find a free one and ended up just keeping things on the KORIDOOR bus. Maybe a little less secure, but it worked out just fine.
Most South Koreans have no interest in their border with North Korea. A few even asked my friend why she wanted to go; it was mystifying for them. After spending so much time in Korean-dominated spaces, the KORIDOOR office was unsettling with the amount of foreigners in it. Everyone on the tour was a foreigner, though I did see some Korean student tour groups and Korean soldiers taking in the sights.
In my head, I imagined it would take at least an hour to get to the DMZ. It took 30 minutes.
First, we were taken to the Dora Observatory where we got our first glimpse of North Korea.
It was a cold, clear day, with wildly vivid blue skies and equally vivid yellow and brown fields. I’ll always think of the border that way. The lack of clouds meant you could see pretty far into North Korea. You could see mountains and the jamming tower North Korea used to keep South Korean airwaves out.
We were then taken on a tour of the Third Tunnel. First, they showed us a short film on the tunnels North Korea dug under the DMZ to invade South Korea. South Korea has discovered four, though it’s perfectly possible there are more.
We put on our yellow hard hats and went down a steep passage to reach the Third Tunnel. There was a small mineral spring you could drink from at the bottom. Then there was the tunnel itself. It was narrow, low, and hard to breathe in: my six foot tall friend had to take it at a bow. I managed to get away with just tilting my head in a few areas. The tunnel was made with dynamite and the South Koreans had painted the marks yellow so that everyone could see them.
The Third Tunnel was some pretty hard work. My friends bought snacks at the souvenir shop, including the chocolate-covered soybeans the area is famous for.
We ate lunch then visited Dorasan Station. It’s meant to be connected to the train system in Seoul and perhaps someday to Pyongyang.
(Promisingly, they tell you the distance to each capital.)
Finally, we were ready to visit the JSA. This was the point where the US Army took over the tour and the rest of us got very quiet. They gave us a presentation on the history of the JSA (including all the crazy stuff like the Axe Murder Incident). They told us when we could and could not take pictures then took us on a strictly controlled tour of the area.
We took pictures of the demarcation line where you could see the lone North Korean soldier standing near their building. We were present for a shift change so briefly, we saw two North Korean soldiers. The US Army calls both of them “Bob.” On the South Korean side is a fairly strong presence of 헌병 or military police who stand in modified taekwondo stance the entire time to look intimidating to the North. I felt so bad for them; knowing more about the Korean military now, it’s crazy to think that they are about my age or younger.
(Squint and see two Bobs!)
There were two more military policemen standing inside the conference building as well. In the conference building, if you walk around the table, you are considered to have been to North Korea. (So that’s 3 out of 10 countries this year for me!)
They took us to see the Bridge of No Return and a few other spots, always strict about the picture taking. The US Army tour guide seemed to find it amusing that we were so quiet. But we had just passed our fingertips through an ongoing war, why would we share the jokes we were making on the down low with Mr. Serious-not-fun-Pants?
We went back to another souvenir shop and ate ice cream. (I know it’s the middle of winter but it felt like a good idea. Tasted good too.) Then we took the short ride back to Seoul and it was over.
After five years of looking forward to this moment, it was over. I don’t know where this leaves me and my relationship with North Korea. I’d still like to make my contribution to peace on the Korean peninsula, though I’m feeling less sure about doing it as a negotiator.
It’s such a funny feeling to have a dream die… because you accomplished it. This past year has felt like that quite often, like my life is getting cleared out to make room for other dreams, bigger dreams that I was afraid to chase before.
After we traveled to the northernmost post of South Korea, we flew to the southernmost point of South Korea– and that’s the next post.
Thanks Robby and Fran for coming with me on my dream trip to North Korea!
[This post was originally published on February 5, 2015. It has been backdated for the sake of tidier, chronological organization.]