When does the weekend actually start? After work on Friday afternoon? How about 3am on Friday morning? That's when ours did. The buses arrived at 3:30am, and we boarded them in the midst (or perhaps in the mist) of heavy morning fog.
|The Night Bus... its headlights illuminated quickly-moving drops of water vapor from the fog. It felt like SF.|
|The first thing I saw in Seoul!|
Our schedule for the day was packed. We had an official USO tour at the Demilitarized Zone, followed by a visit to the American Embassy, followed by an important briefing on our Fulbright contracts in the Fulbright office building. Even though we arrived in Seoul at six in the morning, we wouldn't be able to check into our hotel until nine in the evening.
First stop: The Demilitarized Zone. The DMZ is the border running close to the 38th parallel that separates South Korea from North Korea. The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) was established in 1953 following the end of the Korean civil war; the DMZ extends for two kilometers north and south of the MDL. It's a heavily guarded territory on both sides and is a constant reminder that there has yet to be real peace in the Korean peninsula.
Fulbright was privileged enough to gain access to a USO-led tour of the Joint Security Area, the only point along the entire DMZ where North Korean and South Korean troops actually face each other. There is a lot of complex history surrounding the JSA that I didn't quite take in, but we were able to see a lot of interesting things.
|ROK soldiers standing guard at the MDL. In the background you can see a DPRK guard in his dark green uniform (the only North Korean I have ever seen).|
|I took this photo of the MDL while standing in North Korea...|
We were then allowed to enter the blue barracks on the left, which was the Military Armistice Commission Conference room for peace negotiations, although meetings were suspended in 1991. The room was small and we crowded in around a large conference table to make room for everyone. When I looked out the window, I got a better look at the concrete slab that marked the MDL. I was then shocked when our tour guide informed us that those of us who had crossed to the farther side of the room had already inadvertently stepped into North Korean territory, or at least their side of the Joint Security Area.
Also inside the conference room were two ROK soldiers in uniform, standing as still as statues. I immediately felt awkward when I saw them. What must they have thought about all these weird Americans barging into such an important area with their cameras, taking photos with them and being as touristy as if they were in Paris? I was really reluctant to take a photo with the soldiers, although many other people did, so instead I took a photo of them. I felt badly for them even as I focused the camera and tried to frame a good shot.
South Korean freedom village within the boundaries of the DMZ. I know that they need to make a living and sometimes rice farming isn't enough, but the very existence of the souvenir shop just baffled me. You could buy North Korean currency, postcards of the DMZ, t-shirts and American camo, and also a bunch of random novelty items and traditional Korean objects like fans, masks, and hanboks. It was weird...
|The JSA souvenir shop, with ETAs milling around in slight confusion.|
Still, what struck me most was how the site was just as crowded at the mountain hiking park I'd visited a few weeks ago. There were tons of tourists waiting in line just to walk down to see a wall, and also get a nice thirty-minute workout in the meantime. (The tunnel was actually pretty steep, so it really was like an actual hike...) It was a total tourist trap.
|Who wants a photo with a happy ROK soldier? I did, I guess. (taken by Ammy)|
In conclusion, although I enjoyed visiting the points of interest around the DMZ and got a chance to see things that many people will never see, overall I thought that the commercialization of the tourist sites was a shade inappropriate. We were learning some very important things about Korean history and its current political situation, but it also never felt as solemn as I had expected. I was intrigued and uncomfortable at the same time. And because the DMZ sites are not just mementos of history but technically still a war zone, traipsing around on a tour of a highly dangerous territory also felt absolutely surreal.
Unfortunately, we didn't have much time to process everything that we'd taken in that morning. After a quick lunch, we had only an hour-long bus ride before we were back in Seoul in the afternoon. Everyone was exhausted from having been up all night and we just conked out, and next on our itinerary was a meet and greet with the American ambassador at the U.S. Embassy.