"Do not veer off the tour. If you do, you may encounter a North Korean soldier and they will take you away with the promise of "paradise"."
When I tell people I travel alone, I get one of two reactions:
- Pity: this often comes from people, likely women my age, in the beginning stage of building a family with a mate whose habits haven't quite yet met the threshold of annoyance. Small children may be involved, in which case Disneyworld is the only vacation they can fathom. The reaction is rarely subtle.
- Awe: this often comes from people, likely women older than I, who've surpassed the threshold of annoyance with their mate and have grown increasingly bored in dealing with domestic predictability. Children may be older and in the "why did I have them?" stage. Vacations centre around whatever all-inclusive Mexican resort has the lowest price or, worse, a "staycation". The reaction is rarely subtle.
During my time in Korea, I went on two tours throughout the DMZ region. One was private (which I will get to later), while the other was the standard public tour that most visitors go on. This was my first introduction to the area that is often described as the most volatile in the world. At day's end, however, I felt like I had just been whisked through the world's most surreal theme park.
The day started with a 50-minute bus ride to Imjingak Park, a place built for reflection, prayer and expression of hope for reunification of the Korean peninsula. There are numerous monuments and memorials that provide a sobering reminder of the human suffering during this ongoing conflict. Also located here is the Bridge of Freedom, where prisoners of war were traded after the Armistice was signed in 1953. What really piqued my curiosity though – and which came with no explanation whatsoever – was the on-site amusement park. The faint sound of a merry-go-round carried over the air of an environment one would expect to be carnival-free.
Continuing on, the tour visited the 3rd infiltration tunnel. Discovered in 1978, it was dug by the North Koreans as a passage to secretly invade Seoul. It is stated that over 30,000 soldiers could pass through it every hour. Dark with tight spacing, I was forced to adopt a hunchback gait while exploring its depths before meeting a barbed-wire roadblock, the underground, sedimentary border of North Korea lying just beyond. I felt like Alice down the rabbit hole.
This site very clearly remains provocative and a lightning rod for reminding the world of North Korea's evil. I couldn't help but notice the aggressive, accusatory language of the signage in the area but the American-produced propaganda film we had to watch upon surfacing went beyond over-the-top with its finger-pointing and self-rightousness. During the group bulgogi lunch, it was a hot topic with nearly everyone commenting on how off-putting it was.
The Dora Observatory, offering an initial glimpse of the barren landscape of North Korea, and Dorasan Station, a train station built in hopeful preparation for the future reunification of the Korean peninsula, were also visited on this group tour (most stops allowed for a very condensed 15 minutes of study) but the last thing I will write about is my visit to the Joint Security Area (JSA). This location is often the backdrop for visiting world leaders and other dignitaries and is also where the Korean Armistace Agreement was negotiated. This is the one place where people can technically state they've entered North Korea (although passport stamps were expressly forbidden).
Before officially visiting this iconic landmark of modern history, we were made to sign a waiver indicating our acknowledgement that we were entering hostile territory and wouldn't hold anyone accountable for bodily harm or death (!). We were also given another slideshow – hosted by an American military general stationed in the region – on how evil the north is and reminded not to make any obscene hand gestures or facial expressions, lest our image be used in North Korean propaganda on how the west is littered with imperialist bastards with low morals. As someone who collects communist propaganda art, I must say I was intrigued at the possible meta-ness of it all (but am proud to state, still international incident-free as of April 11, 2015).
A fellow tourist asked the obvious question: "why is this called the demilitarized zone when it is one of the most heavily fortified in the world?" The general wasn't sure. We carried on.
Exiting the building, we were met with a face-to-face showdown with the "enemy" … and the sole soldier standing guard on the steps opposite. Someone in the group excitedly exclaimed "look, a North Korean!" and the entire moment went from being full of intrigue to comically depressing. This was theatre. This was a zoo. I felt like a huge asshole. While people starved and lived an existence of obscurity just miles inland, the climax of our day was gawking at a minion of one of the most repressive regimes in history as though he were a unicorn. I hoped the tour would provide more insight on relating the struggle of the average citizen imprisoned in the north rather than brandishing an entire nation as iniquitous, but that probably doesn't sell.
At the end, we even exited through a gift shop.
The quote from the top was reiterated as a warning by both tour guides I took through the DMZ.
To book this DMZ tour, click here.