Extract from paper stuck into travel journal: DMZ thoughts. IN BUS 8.34am. Didn’t bring my journal in case the NKoreans confiscate it…
Of course I knew that there would be no legit reason for the North Koreans to confiscate my travel journal, or even any legit reason for me to be meeting any North Koreans, but I felt considerably more at peace with my travel journal hidden under my pillow at my hostel in Seoul than in my bag, onwards on the trip towards the North Korean border… (Ironically, the object that should be considered as top priority on the list of things to avoid North Koreans confiscating, your passport, had to be carried on you at all time on the tour.)
The DMZ-tour is a trip to the Demilitarised Zone, a 250km long, 4km wide strip of land which is a sort of sulkily accepted, ‘temporary’ armistice between two countries still officially at war with each other. The area is an uninhabited buffer zone, and regular kerfuffles persist.
A minibus picked me up from my hostel at some bright, crisp early hour of the morning, where I joined my small group, consisting 85% of Philippinos, the vast majority of which were visiting Korea to get a nose job. My newest friend, who was not getting a nose job, was Philippino Andrea, currently residing in the Middle East.
It was about an hour’s drive north before we got to border control. There were a few checkpoints throughout the trip, and our passports were checked upon entering and leaving the DMZ.
Our first stop was Imjingak Park. Descriptions from travel journal:
Eerie. Haunting. Daunting.The cold, clear weather, the bare land, the crisp air. The barbed wire, the unused bridge. Intriguing. **
You could feel the history, feel the present day situation. This was an area where normal life did not persist, an atmosphere filled with sorrow, yearning and, well, discomfort. Imjingak Park was created to console people from both Koreas who were unable to return to their loved ones after the division. A powerful place.
You may have noticed the two stars I’d put, both in my travel journal and in the above excerpt of my travel journal. That, I’m afraid, is a bit of an anti-climax:
- A theme park. Wtf!?
- Hoards of LOUD picture-obsessed Chinese tourists.
Way to ruin an atmosphere…
Sigh. I guess on these organised tours you will have to accept the fact that others may not be as sensitive to the fact that there are other aspects to travelling than the obligation to take as many pictures as humanly (or inhumanly, maybe that’s the aim…) possible. Luckily, though, I eloped on my own immediately when we left the bus, finding places before the tourist gaggles, and then visiting some of the other places after most had left. We had a sadly short time in Imjingak, but at the same time, at least it made you make the most of every minute you had.
Our next stop was the famous 3rd Infiltration Tunnel or the ‘Third Tunnel of Aggression’. Since the divide of Korea in 1953, North Koreans have apparently been trying to find their way, in a reversed Prison Break (the TV-programme) sort of manner, digging tunnels under the border. At least four underground tunnels, placed in strategic places, have been discovered on the South Korean side – the newest one was discovered in 1990, and none of the people I talked to seemed to have any doubt about many more still to come. However, it’s less of a threat nowadays since the more threatening infiltration would be coming from the air and no longer from under the ground.
This tunnel was discovered by South Korea in 1978 after a detection of an underground explosion. It took them four months to eventually find, and it was incomplete, but obviously yet another sign that North Korea had in no way decided to give up on the idea of attack. The first and second tunnels had been found a few years previously, and they were all feared to ultimately lead to a surprise attack on Seoul. Originally, North Korea denied building the tunnels. Next, they claimed that they were coal tunnels. There was no likelihood of coal in the area.
The closest I got to the North Korean border was underground via the third tunnel aka the Tourist Tunnel. We all donned helmets, gave our possessions to security (hence no pics), and walked down an 11% concreted incline into the tunnel. Then we had about 265 metres to walk through the actual tunnel, most of the time slightly crouched down, before we hit a barricade. There are a total of three South Korean-made barricades in the tunnel, not sure if to prevent tourists getting into North Korea, or North Koreans getting into South Korea (or both. I wonder which one would be worse?).
In all honesty, there wasn’t much to see. You walked through a damp tunnel, got to a solid wall (with a small window, granted, where you could see more of a damp tunnel, and another solid wall), turned back, walked back. But the fact that you were there, located in a tunnel originally built by North Korea, less than a kilometre from the border, was enough to boggle the historical traveller’s mind.
Then we got a day’s dose of exercise by climbing back up the 11% concreted incline, packed ourselves into our minibus, and set off for our next destination, Dora Observatory.
Located on top of Mount Dora, the Dora Observatory is where you can _see_ North Korea. With a pair of binoculars (I got mine, for free, from my lovely hostel girl Sabrina) you could see straight into North Korea.
Here is my depiction of it along with captions…
In a nutshell: With good eyes you could make out the North Korean flag amidst the quaint-looking, sky blue-coloured village. This village is proof to the statement of never judge a book by its cover, as it is a ghost town, the famous propaganda village. No people live there, no anything lives there, apparently not even floors exist. At night time, at a certain time, all the lights come on in the houses, but it’s floodlit – a big light in each building, turning on when the clock strikes it’s-dark-o’clock. (This information I gained from eavesdropping a conversation between a charismatic American officer and a couple of tourists.) This village was built to demonstrate to South Korea and the world the wealth and success of North Korea.
On the horizon, amidst the mountains, you could also see a group of skyscrapers – this was Kaesong, the third biggest city in North Korea.
Another demonstration of the wealth and success of North Korea (please do note my sarcastic tone of writing) was their flag. This North Korean flag pole is amongst the biggest in the world, thanks to the Korean Flag Wars – the two Koreas were constantly outsizing each others flag poles, until, for now, South Korea got bored of the competition and North Korea boasts The Bigger Flag Pole.
You could also see Kaesong industrial complex, the only place, then, in the world where South Koreans work alongside North Koreans. South Korea got cheap, skilled, Korean labour, and North Korea got valued foreign currency. As proof of the contemporary issue of the Koreas, when I visited in December 2015 this was the daily work place for nearly a thousand South Koreans. As of February 2016, it is no longer, due to dodgy North Korean action in the form of satellite launches and claimed hydrogen bomb testings. Descriptive of their whole relationship is their constant attempts to outperform the other. As with the Flag War, trying to prove to the other side that they are in charge, North Korea “expelled” all South Korean workers from Kaoseng only a day after South Korea “recalled” all their own staff.
Thinking back to this moment of gazing over into North Korea with my binoculars on that crisp December morning, where situations have now changed, you do feel a part of history.
Our final stop was the nearby Dorasan train station, the northernmost station in South Korea. One single train terminates and starts here, the DMZ-train. South Korea are completely prepared, however, to open up the doors to the North Korean immigration area and restart the trains going to and from Pyeongyang.
Dorasan station, too, made a lasting impression. Everything is ready for unification, when trains will recommence between the two Korean capitals, when an immigration area is needed for passport control and normal mundane border crossing procedures. The immigration area is visible, clean and ready, as if it’s just been shut down for the afternoon.
The signs to Pyeongyang are shiny and modern, pointing their way to routes that don’t exist, that have never existed and, in all personal opinion honesty, will not exist for a wee while still. (There was a brief stint in 2008 when there was a legit cargo train running from South Korea to Kaesong Industrial Complex, but after a year North Korea decided that South Korea was being too confrontational, and train travel ceased.)
South Korea is yearning for the possibility to get Dorasan Station into action again, to have trains go from Korea to Korea. If you walked into the station with no prior knowledge about the Korean situation, you could easily be tricked into believing this is a joyful station, finally celebrating reunification between two bickering countries. We have the modern signs, the beautiful unification piano, and the station is surrounded by banners celebrating reunification. That, I guess, makes the whole real situation significantly sadder.
The whole day, culminating in Dorasan Station’s arty signs, was an eternal internal fight between my inner tourist, of “omg lol I’m nearly in North Korea, so cool, selfie!!” and my inner serious historical human being, thinking mournfully “what a meaningful, sorrowful, harrowing experience. Let’s silently respect the fact we’re here and not succumb to superficial photos of oneself.”
Well, I succumbed to one photo – my inner tourist won this one in the sense that
a. the picture exists
and b. I got to semi-triumphly point to the Pyeongyang sign.
However, my inner serious historical human being didn’t completely lose the game either since I made a point of
a. posing but not smiling widely and toothily – I don’t want to appear too thrilled about being here,
and b. pointing triumphantly, but in a shy, controlled manner. I am merely stating the fact that I am here, I am obviously not ecstatic about being in this controversial, world-famous world travel destination. (…)
In conclusion, everyone knows about the tension between the Koreas. Experiencing the border for myself was still an eye-opening experience. It’s not just a question about an unfortunate squabble between two countries that used to be one. And North Korea is indeed not the friendliest country in the world, so there’s not much point of getting reunified today. But all these places we saw, the joint sadness and the hope, and trust for a reunification, made a lasting impression. It is history. But, more significantly, it is future possibilities.
Dorasan Station, and especially its map, made me realise the grand significance of train travel between the Koreas. “In the future,” one of my guide books promised, “Dorasan Station will play an important role in realising the Iron Silk Road that will connect through to the main continent via Gaeseong, Pyeongyang and Sinuijiu.” Think of the implications of railways through North Korea. Think of how isolated South Korea is right now. Think of how far you could get from South Korea by train if you could travel via North Korea. (Paris to Seoul by train, anyone!?) Think of the Trans-Siberian Express!
“So, basically South Korea is like an island?” I asked our guide in what I hope didn’t seem like too much of an insensitive manner.
“Yes, I guess…” was his reply, “An island which is actually the tip of a great continent…”
You could hear the sadness in his voice.
Definitely a day I will never forget.