Two weekends ago we celebrated Buddha’s birthday with a long weekend. Itching to leave the island, Renee, Angela and I put our heads together to come up with a plan. Travel to Fukuoka, Japan by ferry? Sold out. Quick trip to Hong Kong? Too expensive. Any other chance to leave the country? Not really.
So, that’s how we settled on going to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The DMZ is the most heavily militarized border in the world, dividing North and South Korea. Sounds relaxing, eh? Most people back home would freak out if I had told them where I was going, so I told no one until the trip was over.
We met up with our USO tour group Saturday morning and headed for the border at about 9 a.m. After an hour on the bus we arrived at our first stop, the third incursion tunnel, which is about 1,600 meters long and about 1,150 feet underground, discovered by the South Koreans in 1978 crossing the DMZ border. It’s an intense slope down, and then narrows so much that we needed to wear hardhats as we crouched the rest of the way to the end of the South Korean border. We eventually hit a bunch of barbed wire about six feet back from the North Korean side of the tunnel, which is blocked off by a wall with a small square cut out to see into the North Korean side. As we were lined up to take our turn looking through to the other side, a guy passed by saying, “you just look into a hole.” with a tone of annoyance and disappointment. Thankfully, an older man in front of us said, “yes, but this is the most heavily guarded area in the entire world. Do you even know how many landmines are above us right now?” Needless to say, I had more respect as I peered through the cutout to the other side. Heading back up to ground was no joke either. Remember that steep incline I mentioned? It’s so much more intense to go up, and it left my ankles, legs and butt sore for a good two days after.
We then headed to the Dora observatory, which looks out over North Korea. Unfortunately, the weather was very cloudy and hazy, so we did not get a clear view of the area. It was quite surreal, though, overlooking the land of a forbidden country.
After the observatory we went to Dorasan Station, the train station that never was. This railroad was built to connect Seoul, South Korea’s capital, to Pyeongyang, North Korea’s capital. It really looks like a working train station, and once you get your “ticket” with North Korean stamps, you can go out back and play on the tracks.
Finally, after eating lunch, we went to the Joint Security Area (JSA), the most highly anticipated part of the trip. We were briefed and toured around the area by a U.S. Army officer who lives there, and he explained, as we were heading to our first stop, that this road had a few different traps to prevent attacks. First was a wall that narrowed the road that was to block tanks from getting through.
“And to your left” he said, “is a field with two million landmines. Sometimes in the middle of the night one of them will go off because of a deer, but you get used to it.”
THERE ARE TWO MILLION LANDMINES IN THAT FIELD??? That was information enough to make me draw away from the bus window.
The bus stopped outside of Freedom House, and as we walked up the stairs, there it was – the view I had been anticipating the whole time.
South Korean guards just a few feet away from the North Korean guards, all standing strategically on their own sides. I didn’t think that it would be, but this was a seriously intense situation! You could not step off the top step, you could not point your fingers or really gesture whatsoever, and you had to be very careful where you pointed your camera. I didn’t even want to speak at a normal volume for fear of pissing off one of the North Korean guards or someone inside the building with many guns and cameras pointed at us the entire time. What I was looking forward to absolutely the most was going into a conference room, one of those blue buildings right in the middle of the two countries. That meant that I would actually step into North Korea, even if just for a second. Just as I was getting pumped (and calming my nerves) for this amazing opportunity, this happened:
Admittedly, it was hilarious. Here we are, standing in one of the most intense places in the entire world, and suddenly a piece of machinery that looks like a little clown car with a flag rolls on by. However, because North Korea was doing construction on their side we could not enter the conference building; therefore, I could not officially step into North Korea. Dammit! I was so close! My mind was desperately searching for ways to make it happen, but every scenario resulted in death, so I had to just let it go.
After we left that area we looked out over Propaganda Village, which is basically a fake village. The North Korean government built up the area with a lot of buildings and houses and roads to make it looks impressive to those looking at the village from the South; however, we saw no sign of life, and we were told that all of the buildings were most likely completely hallow inside with the windows and doors painted on the outside.
Our last stop was The Bridge of No Return. After the signing of the ceasefire in 1953 (the country is still technically at war today), each side brought POWs to this bridge and each soldier chose whether they wanted to live in the North or the South. Once they crossed the bridge, they could never return to the other side. There was something really sad and haunting about this bridge. These soldiers had to make a decision, and most of them did not know where their families were or if they were even alive. You realized, looking at that bridge, that many families were divided and were never able to see one another again.
Going to the DMZ and the JSA is super important to do if you’re an expat living in Korea. Everything you know about the conflict between the North and the South (especially these days) comes to life here, and you’re surrounded by people who are in it day in and day out.
After a day filled with history, guns, cameras and soldiers, Renee, Angela and I met up with some friends in Hongdae, one of my favorite areas of Seoul. You have to find the balance in life – you can’t be ignorant to the stresses and realities of the world; however, you can’t focus on them all the time because that takes the joy out of living. Our solution to finding the balance? Dinner, drinks and dancing.