Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Stepping into North Korea (Seoul Weekend pt. 2)

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!
Earlier -- after the talent show -- I decided to watch the second Pokémon movie with Katelyn and Jason, which was a good way to keep me awake. I then began my morning by playing some lively rounds of Contact with peers who had also decided not to sleep. Our plan was to conk out during the three-hour bus ride to Seoul. When I woke up, the first thing I saw was a very, very tall building. And then more tall buildings. And lots and lots of cars. It was much bigger than Goesan... Welcome to the Capital!

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).
First, there were the three ROK (Republic of Korea = South Korea) soldiers standing guard. The two blue barracks on the sides are conference rooms where peace negotiations have taken place. The gray building in the background is the North Korean "Panmungak", where North Korean tours of the JSA take place. You can see a DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea = North Korea) soldier standing in front of the door on the left. His job was, apparently, to constantly watch soldiers and visitors on the ROK side, while the ROK soldiers' job was to watch the DPRK side. It was very quiet and tense, with the exception of our American soldier tour guide, who kept cracking jokes in between his very well-rehearsed comments at each site.
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.
On the left, an ROK soldier. He's wearing sunglasses and standing in a specific TKD posture to denote attention but also neutrality toward North Korea. He is also standing precisely on the line that separates ROK from DPRK. On the right, Tracey is standing in North Korean territory.
The feeling of awkwardness only increased after the tour was over. Did you know that there is a souvenir shop at the DMZ? It's run by locals who live in the 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.
After touring the JSA, we continued to some other spots along the DMZ that were of historical interest. However, at all of these areas, we found that the historical interest was overshadowed by purely touristy interest. One site was an infiltration tunnel created by the DPRK that the ROK discovered in 1978. We donned hard hats and walked 73 meters (240 ft) underground to walk through a tiny, wet tunnel and see... a wall. A wall that separated the North Korean side of the tunnel from the South Korea side. It wasn't much, but it was interesting. You could even see the drill holes for dynamite and remnants of the coal powder that the DPRK sprayed all over when they made the excuse that the tunnel was for coal mining.

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)
They even had these little statues of ROK soldiers. Is this ridiculous, or what? I was just incredulous that the Korean tourist industry would actually make the DMZ into any other tourist trap. I could only ask, "Why?" I mean, it's important that the Korean government keep the memory and knowledge of the events of the Korean war alive, especially for younger generations of Koreans who have grown up mostly unaware of how far their nation has come in sixty years. But the signs, the souvenirs, the overwhelming number of giant tour buses, and even small things like the fifty-cent fare for looking at North Korea through big binoculars from the top of a hill... it all seemed very contrived, and I didn't know what to make of it.
Left: Ben, Jaeyeon, Bridget, Taxi, Jessica, and Susie at the DMZ. I really like this cute group photo, but why is the giant Hollywood-esque sign there in the first place? It's just odd. Right top: We visited a train station that runs only twice a day. It used to connect cities in South Korea to cities in North Korea, but the tracks that cross the MDL are now blocked. Still, the direction is toward Pyeongyang (the capital of North Korea), and from there the railroad continues to Russia and beyond. Because of the DMZ, the southern half of the Korean peninsula is isolated from the rest of continental Asia and Europe. Right bottom: Binoculars to look across the border and into the closest North Korean city, Kaesong.
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.

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