On my last trip to Asia, I stopped off in Seoul for an important side-trip.
I’d been to South Korea three times before, and each time I’d tried to make this side trip—but each time, something came up to block my way. A public holiday was announced, or I came on the wrong days of the week, or hostilities between neighbors had erupted that derailed the plan. Each time I flew back to Hong Kong or Japan, resolving that the next trip would be successful.
After three failures in three years, I was getting tired of going back and forth, so I tried to plan better this time. I made a reservation two weeks in advance with this company (there are others and they all seem to be fairly similar). I followed up several times by email, and again by phone after arriving in Seoul. Then on a Saturday morning, I walked over to the Lotte Hotel and checked in with my passport.
I was going on a field trip to Panmunjom, the village that serves as the dividing line between North and South Korea. For about $72 USD, non-Korean passport holders can go on a carefully escorted tour which guides who explain the history of the conflict. And for a few minutes, you can enter the conference room where both sides meet (always with international mediators) and wander over to the North Korean side.
The only other way to visit North Korea, aside from being kidnapped when wandering too far from the South Korean side, is to schedule a real tour that leaves from Beijing. I’d actually like to do it at some point, but I also wanted to get this “sort of” visit to DPNK out of the way first. It’s not ideal, but if I have to count the side trip as a country visit, I can do so.
I was worried that the tour would be boring or kitschy, but in fact it was well worth the effort and expense. I left with a group of other foreigners in a bus from the Lotte Hotel and rode 40 minutes out of the city, stopping for lunch at a restaurant. They had one vegetarian choice, a non-meat version of some nice Bibimbap, which I enjoyed with a Diet Coke.
Back on the bus, we heard more about what we would be seeing that day, and were given multiple reminders of the rules during of the tour. Photos could only be taken at specific points; all other times, the cameras had to be stowed out of arm’s reach. A dress code was enforced. You must obey the soldiers at all times, etc. All of this probably sounds fairly basic, but when you tour the DMZ, you quickly realize that the atmosphere is tense. When we arrived at the first of several checkpoints, a guard came on the bus for a second dress code inspection, and reminded everyone that we are entering an area where we would be closely monitored. When we got off the bus to go inside for another briefing, we had to sign a waiver stating that “injury or death may occur during a visit to an active military conflict zone.”
After all the briefings, we went on a separate bus and rode through the village. South Korean passport holders aren’t allowed to go on the second part of the tour; they have to wait at the earlier checkpoint for the rest of us to return. Sorry, guys! The group going the whole way included other Westerners, Japanese, and some second-generation Koreans from the U.S. and Canada.
The South Korean government wanted to encourage citizens to settle in the village, our guide told us, but it was a hard sell. Not only was the village an hour away from the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts in Seoul, the North Koreans also had a bad habit of coming across to kidnap villagers. The govenment decided to offer a big list of incentives for families who agreed to stay: first, they pay no taxes, second, the rice they grow can be sold at a subsidized price for higher profit, and third, their sons are exempt from the mandatory two-year military service that every other 19-year-old male has to complete.
The upside of this arrangement is that some farmers make $80,000 a year thanks to the tax waivers and subsidies. The downside is that the farmers could be captured or killed by the North Koreans at any time. Hmmm… tough choice!
We also heard about some of the incidents that have taken place since the DMZ has been in existence in 1948. In 1976, North Korean soldiers murdered two American soldiers who came to trim the branches of a tree obstructing the view. (We saw the area where the incident took place, but not surprisingly, the tree has long been removed.)
We drove past the bridge of no return, where Korean prisoners of war of both sides were once allowed to choose where they wanted to live—but only once. In 1984, a Soviet defector ran across the bridge in pursuit of freedom. He made it, but four soldiers were killed in the ensuing firefight. Non-conformist that I am, I had the strong impression that it was probably best to follow orders on this tour.
Finally we came to the high point of the visit—the actual military and political space that divides the countries, and where they meet whenever they agree to talk shop. Soldiers from both sides of the conflict stand guard, watching each other warily. The Republic of Korea (ROK) soldiers from South Korea stand motionless in a neutral Taekwondo stance, wearing heavy gloves and dark sunglasses, never shifting their gaze in a way that is obvious to anyone watching. From time to time, we were told, the North Korean soldiers provoked them by making faces or extending a middle finger, a gesture that has made the cross-cultural adoption to the communist world. The South Korean soldiers are not allowed to respond to the taunts and must always remain neutral.
We were then given yet another briefing by an American soldier, who led us into the conference room. In the room itself, one ROK soldier stands upright and motionless, watching over the area. This soldier must also be a good mime, because he has to tolerate all of the tourists coming to stand next to him and get their photos made.
A table divides the middle of this room, with one side belonging to South Korea. The other side is given over to representatives of the “Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army,” otherwise known as Kim Jong-il. The door leading to the promised land is locked to prevent anyone from North Korea coming in (and the soldiers with automatic weapons help too), but once on the North side of the table, you’re officially in enemy territory.
I took a deep breath, sidestepped the lady who kept trying to get me to take her picture a dozen times, and crossed over to the DPNK side. I made it! I was in North Korea… sort of. True, it wasn’t really North Korea, but it was probably as close as I was going to get for a while.
Here’s a short video of one of the many briefings we received. The conference room building can be seen in the middle left. Across the way, North Korea stands on watch.
On the way out we rejoined the South Koreans who had been waiting for us as we went on the second half of the tour. I avoided the gift shop, where visitors can buy Kim Jong-il lighters to go with duty-free Marlboro cigarettes. The gift shop was probably the only kitschy thing about the tour; everything else was more interesting than I expected. I would have preferred not to travel on a group tour with 40 other visitors, but that’s how it works when visiting an active conflict zone—take it or leave it. I was glad I took it.
If you ever have the chance to spend time in Korea, I definitely recommend you set aside a day for this side trip. I know some of our readers have been to “real” North Korea as well, by traveling through Beijing on an official, week-long visit—my respect and congratulations to all of you. I hope to get there for a longer stay at some point, but for now, I’ll take what I can get.