Note: If you don’t know a lot about North/South Korea, this isn’t all that historical, but it sure is a hilarious way to start your studies.  

We went on a DMZ tour yesterday.  I’m happy it finally happened, although I’m still rather confused as to how much of the DMZ I was actually in.  My (albeit confused and still searching) understanding is that we were in the DMZ, but we did not go onto the 38th Parallel (which is where a lot of the “cool” places are, like the Joint Security Area where you can technically stand on one side of a table and say you’ve been in North Korea).  We had to go through various security stops, and many of the locations we were at seem to fall within maps of the DMZ, so while for a good portion of yesterday I was convinced that we were not actually in the DMZ, I think I’ve re-convinced myself that we were.  We just missed out on the USO tour that goes a little deeper (and closer to the DANGER JONE!).

Our first stop was Injingak, which is where we had to show our Alien Registration Cards/Passports and request admittance into the DMZ.  There were many memorials at this location, and also a little kiosk which is the only place outside of North Korea where you can buy North Korean currency.  It was a little pricey, but we splurged a whole 3 bucks to buy 100 NK Won.  Also, we were surprised to find a small yet booming amusement park there.  This would be our first clue that South Korea is pumping tons of money into making the DMZ a tourist attraction, disguising their efforts by saying how excited they are that this will be many North Koreans’ first impression of South Korea when reunification happens (although I sadly do not believe it will happen any time soon, and I get the impression that the next generation of South Koreans don’t really care if it happens at all).

These were our "Suffering Together for the Great Leader Communist" Faces

From Imjingak we crossed the Unification Bridge (or perhaps the Bridge of No Return – I’m not sure which – although the names are also pretty contradictory right?  One is like, “Hey, let’s come together!”  And the other is like, “Over my dead body.”), which was scattered with road blocks and spiky metal balls that our bus had to navigate around.  A soldier came aboard our bus and checked our IDs before we were allowed to cross the river into the zone.  Once on the other side, we stopped at a village simply known as “Unification Village,” a name given to all the small towns that couldn’t help that their geographical location left them inside the DMZ.  Those living in these towns are exempt from paying taxes and the compulsory military service that other South Koreans must do (however, only families who owned the land at before the DMZ were created – and those who marry in – may live here).  We had a pretty good lunch there (although, it wasn’t “[the] best Koren food!!!” as our tour had promised), and afterward Steven bought a bottle of North Korean beer for us to share – which surprisingly wasn’t too bad!

The next stop was the museum and monuments that are found around the entrance of the 3rd Tunnel.  There are four tunnels (out of potentially upwards of 20 tunnels that have been dug by North Korea under the DMZ and into South Korea) that have been found, and we got to go down into this one.  This is one of those that had coal smudged on the walls so that North Korea could pretend that it was just a coal mine… which is totally laughable since it’s easy to prove that there is no real coal naturally found in these tunnels.  However funny it is, I guess the entire North Korean army could be in Seoul in just a few hours if these tunnels were ever used.  I’m not particularly scared, but it is interesting.  We also took a lot of touristy pictures at this location, went through a funny little museum, and saw one of my favorite short documentaries EVER.  This quotation (not verbatim, my memory isn’t that good – but pretty close) was my favorite: “The DMZ is home to many animals including elks [sic] [picture of a small deer, not an elk], birds, squirrels… and our living national fossil: the goat.”

Sitting on the Z.

We then moved up to an observatory where you could see out over the rest of the DMZ and into North Korea.  Unfortunately it was a hazy day (I think I suggested that it was a thick communistic haze covering the land… or maybe the strength of the Great Leader manifesting itself into fog in order to shroud the beauty of North Korea from imperialistic eyes).  Either way, we couldn’t see a lot.  From the diagram, on a clear day we could have seen the industrial park, and a couple of cities, including an abandoned city as well as North Korea’s second largest city.  But we could only see dark boxy structures in the mist.  However, one thing we could see poking through was, in fact, the world’s second tallest flag pole, bearing the North Korean flag.  We could use binoculars to get a better view, and as I found it, magnified, the flag waved proudly, indignantly at South Korea.  Personally, the flag creeped me out and enraged me.  It was Sauron’s eye, keeping a steady and malicious gaze on the outside and a protective, evil watch on those living inside.  It made me angry to think that the world’s second largest flag pole was built, and in this specific location, as a symbolic “F you!” to South Korea, and in absolute disregard for the welfare of the citizens (*cough* slaves) of North Korea.  It couldn’t have been cheap, and yet hunger is never far from the minds of North Koreans as the Great Leader pumps all of his money into his palace, enormous monuments, and into his huge armed forces.

The Flag was miles away, and one of the only things we could distinctively see through the haze.

Same flagpole, borrowed from Wikipedia's "Korean DMZ" page.

After hanging out looking at North Korea, we headed down to the KTX Station.  KTX is the speedy commuter rail system in South Korea, and the Dorasan Station in the DMZ is the farthest north you can get in South Korea, although I don’t actually think anyone except for authorized personnel can get tickets up to this station.  It’s a beautiful, state-of-the-art, brand new building and parking lot – it looks even better than the KTX Station in Busan.  But the only thing it’s used for, besides the transportation of those few authorized people, is a once/week train that takes raw materials over to the Industrial park in North Korea, and brings back products.  I guess that’s progress, for now.

The message that South Korea seems to be pushing about the DMZ is a contradiction.  On one hand, its gushing about their hope for a speedy reunification – one I do not actually believe their current policies and reactions leave any room for, although I’m sure that personally there are millions on both sides of the DMZ that hope that day does come quickly.  On the other hand, it seemed like the DMZ was a very special money making situation that SK is excited to exploit.  I mean, I bought in to it.  I wanted to see North Korea.  I wanted to say I’d been there.  I wanted to understand this whole situation a little bit better.  But the theme parks, the new buildings with empty parking lots, the “resorts,” and the areas where they make you feel scared and then a few meters later are sending you down into a tunnel that is connected to North Korea and not even sending a soldier down with you… it was difficult to sort out what their true intentions and motivations are with the DMZ and the future of reunification.

Back to that documentary we watched, in conclusion: I’m never going to get tired of the Konglish and the Korean-written, American-voiced-over commercials here that don’t make a lot of sense.  So I should have expected that a 20 minute documentary would be a jackpot of fun.  You can recall from the quotation about the national living fossil (the goat) that not all of the correct English phrases and words were chosen to narrate the film.  The final words, then, were as confusing as you could get (again, not verbatim, but close):

“We look forward to the day that the Koreas are reunified.  But until that day comes, the DMZ will be a national treasure and sanctuary forever.”

Until that day comes… forever.  Quite a contradiction.  Which sums up my entire emotional response to this very strange experience.