By Susan Miles
My friend and host Haemee asked me “Is there anything particular you would like to see on your trip to Seoul?”. Knowing my interest in history and art, I suspect she was expecting me to mention the Changdeokgung Palace, the National Museum or one of the many beautiful Temples and shrines as desired sights on my Seoul itinerary.
This is as close as anyone can come to seeing North Korea.
I tentatively sent my reply by email, “Haemee, what I would really like to visit is the DMZ“.
Having heard years ago that visits to “The DMZ”, the Demilitization Zone between North and South Korea was a possible excursion for visitors to Seoul, this trip to visit my old friend and her new husband seemed like an opportune time to fulfill this unusual travel ambition.
As I prepared for my trip, I read the daily press reports of the growing tension in this part of the world, in particular, North Korea’s reported restart of their nuclear programme.
As the reports became more alarming, it appeared that my planned New Years visit to the DMZ would be impossible to achieve. I was therefore surprised at my friend’s very matter of fact reply, only days before my departure, that she had booked me on a day trip to the DMZ!
Four Companies offer Tours
Any illusion I was doing something daring and unusual were soon quashed on my arrival in Seoul. As I scanned the tourist brochure stand at a downtown hotel and I noted no fewer than four companies were offering this “adventure” as either a half or full day trip from Seoul. I felt like just an ordinary tourist when my Korean friend dismissed my strange request with a “Oh, everyone who comes to Seoul wants to visit the DMZ”.
So while the expert’s continued to theorize in the opinion pages the various catastrophes that will fall upon Korea in 2003, I found myself on a tour bus with approximately 20 like-minded tourists who were curious to see for themselves the 38th parallel.
I found my mind wondering to thoughts of old MASH episodes as I watched the landscape from the comfort of my cosy coach seat change from sprawling city to simple villages surrounded by snow covered farmlands. Embarrassingly this is my only source of information about the history of the Korean War. My tour guides mention of the truce village of Panmunjom reminded me of the episode where Hawkeye gatecrashes the stalled peace talks. During a later viewing of a museum display within the DMZ, I was horrified to read that the negotiations represented in this single episode were repeated over 700 times without a peace being achieved.
Barbed Wire Fences
As we got closer to the DMZ, the road skirted the edge of the Han River. What could have been any waterway in rural Asia is distinguished by the barbwire topped fencing and regular military guard stations that runs for miles between the road and the river’s edge.
Before entering the DMZ we stop first at the “Freedom Bridge” a simple wooden structure, no more than 15 feet wide that was the access to freedom for the thousands of North Koreans who poured over this tiny structure at the conclusion of the fighting.
Visitors, huddled in their winter coats against the minus 10 temperature, left the warmth of the coach long enough to retrace their steps pose for pictures in front of the message covered gate at the north end. These handwritten messages, scrawled on bed sheets, have been left by South Koreans for family and friends in the North.
It is estimated that over 5 million Korean families are dived by the DMZ. With no method of communication available for South Koreans with family in the North, this simple gate represents their only avenue to reach out to loved ones that they have not seen or heard from for over 50 years. With no chance of these messages being read by the intended recipients, this act is more symbolic than practical.
After changing buses, passing a simple checkpoint where our passports are viewed, without fuss or fanfare, we are taken into the DMZ. Here we are taken to view the newly constructed Woljung Station, the northern most train station in South Korea.
In an act of “Field of Dreams” optimism, this modern, spacious station has been constructed in preparation for the day that trains can run freely from Seoul in the South to Pyeongyang in the North. The platform signs already direct passengers to the “Track for Seoul/Pyeongyang”. With only 3 trains a day from Seoul, the South Korean soldiers on duty have little to do than pose good-naturedly for photos with visiting tourists and watch over the concrete sleeper signed by President Bush at the opening in May last year.
Next, its time to go underground. We head for the 3rd infiltration tunnel. Our guide tells us excitedly that this is one of 4 tunnels found in the 1970’s on evidence provided by a North Korean engineer who defected to the South. According to her explanation, up to 20 tunnels were constructed by the North through the DMZ as part of an invasion strategy. This 1.6km tunnel would apparently allow 30,000 invading soldiers to pass through per hour into South Korea.
To access the tunnel we are taken 75 meters below ground by an open top train so we could walk 400 of the 600 meters in the South’s side of the DMZ. Not surprisingly, a dispute exists between the two sides over who built the tunnels, with each point an accusing finger at their neighbor. As we walk along, our attention is drawn to the “evidence” of the North’s construction of the tunnels. drill marks on the walls facing the South.
Before entering the tunnel, we are taken through a detailed history display of the Korean conflict. Included in the museum is an elaborate 3 screened display on the past present and future of the DMZ. In this 6 minute multi-media presentation are heart wrenching scenes of the two family reunion events of North and South Korean families.
My guide told us with considerable bitterness that those chosen to participate in these events were from the wealthy, well-connected or academic elite. Her own family had applied and were anxiously waiting for the opportunity for her 88 year old grandmother to meet with family that she had not seen or heard from since leaving the north at the age of 36. The images on the screens of the reunions showed such raw emotion that many visitors walk away wiping tears from their eyes (myself included).
Our final stop on our bizarre DMZ tour was the Unification Observatory on Mt Odu.
After coming so far and braving bitterly cold weather, it appeared that a view-obscuring snowstorm was going to rob us of a view of the actual North.
We filled in our time at this stop by taking in the displays in the Unification Exhibition Hall, a collection of exhibits featuring North Korean produced electronic goods, clothing, food and school books. The products by western standards were simple, cheap looking and everything from the paper of the textbooks to the material of the mismatched business suit was of poor quality.
As I admired the bottles of North Korean snake wine (complete with snake!), I notice that the snowstorm had calmed enough to reveal the landscape across the estuary where the Han River in the South meets the Imjin River in the North.
I realized I was finally getting my first view of North Korea! As our guide pointed out in disgust the fake, Propaganda village with its token residents on the other side, my ears were filled with sounds of a Korean broadcast from our side of the river. When inquiring what this was, we were matter-of-factly told that this was just information to tell the few residents the wonders of South Korean life!
My visit to the DMZ greatly enhanced my knowledge of Korea’s tragic history and fragile present. I “saw” North Korea (or at least the view the North was willing to provide and the South wanted me to see).
We saw examples all through our tour of propaganda being thrown by both sides in a practiced and deliberate fashion. With over 50 years of practice, both sides are experts in this art, mores the pity.
Footnote: For my Korean friends, Haemee and Hisai, and their precious baby due in May. Little one, I pray you be born into a peaceful Korea.
Read more GoNOMAD stories about Korea
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