(for Part 1 of the trip, click here)
|not one for touristy shots, even I couldn't resist|
After lunch, we got on the bus again. Another 20 minutes later we entered the joint security area, or what is known as the “Demilitarized Zone”, a 40 km wide, heavily guarded area around the border of North and South Korea. At the first checkpoint, a soldier boarded our bus to check our passports and explained that it's not allowed to take pictures from now on.
Ironically, over the past 20 years, this has developed into a green belt with almost untouched nature. There are quite a few farms on the South Korean side. As you can imagine, farming here is heavily subsidized – there's no shops, no public transport, but a 11 pm – 5 am curfew, and yes, the fact that North Korea is just on your doorstep. Our guide estimated that the farmers here earn double of what top business men make in Seoul.
Our next checkpoint was in front of the JSA building, which is part of a complex that houses the room where conferences and talks between North and South Korea are held (and attended by other UN members – the US, and confusingly also Poland and Norway). Here, our passports and also our fashion sense was checked once again – jeans, t-shirts or anything with English text on, military style clothing (d'uh!) or anything deemed too sexy was forbidden. Equally, we were told not to make any gestures or pull silly faces toward the North Korean side.
The reason for this, according to Laura, was that if North Korean soldiers in the building opposite feel provoked (or you look too hot ;) ), they will take a picture of you and use it for propaganda in North Korea, so they can say “Look at those American savages! They have no decency. We've got it so much better here!” I kind of enjoy the idea that picture of me waving in a gay pride shirt will be used for propaganda North Korea, but well... rules are rules (and you shouldn't mess with them here! One girl tried to take a picture of the outdoor area while on the bus and the soldier sacked her camera. Indefinitely).
Next, we entered the front building, which looked like a nondescript, grey university or school building. We were given a 10 minute slide show presentation on North/South Korean relations and other countries involved and had to sign a paper stating that we accept that the UN doesn't guarantee for our safety, and that there is a chance of death (we got to take this home). From here on, we had to walk in orderly kindergarten style rows of two people. Oh, and walking fast or jumping was also forbidden, lest someone mistakes us for a North Korean deserter and accidentally shoots you. There's not end to the fun in the DMZ.
Finally, around 3.30 pm, we made is to the part that we had come there for – the border and conference room between North and South Korea, with North Korea in front of us. We could walk into the conference room and over the border within the building, not over the outside border. Actually, the North Korean soldiers (they don't come out when tourists are there apparently) face this border in a group of three people, while there are only two on the South Korean side. Why three? Two of them face south and one North – this way, they can control the situation should one of the North Korean soldiers decide to desert (as they are literally standing a metre away from the border). If the country can't trust it's highest ranking military officials, imagine the kind of control they exercise over common people. It's also hard to believe that the soldiers of both countries face each other for hours, every day, share the same language and never even utter a word to each other. The atmosphere there is insanely tense, in a way I am not sure how to describe. It's somewhere between completely hopeless, life threatening and ridiculously silly.
We got to take some pictures but where in and out of this whole area within 5 minutes. There's 500 – 900 tourists coming here each day, the schedule is tight. Afterwards, we got to spend 20 minutes in the souvenir shop, where quite a lot of chatty American soldiers (who also guard the border, alongside South Korean soldiers) were hanging out and you could buy liquor made in North Korea (I have to admit I was tempted, but then remember stories about Chinese liquor that made people go blind), as well as North Korean soldier action figures and all the military tourist crap you can imagine. After that, it time to go back to Seoul – which, by the way, is just a little more than an hours drive from the border.
So, was the trip worthwhile and would I recommend it? Is it a tourist trap? To some extent, yes, but the gravity of the situation means it's not cheesy or predictable. You won't learn anything dramatically new if you already know a bit about Korean history (when in Seoul, the History Museum is my recommendation over the overwhelming and slightly tasteless War Museum). The tour is heavily regulated, and you actually spend a fraction of your time (as in, 45 minutes, of which half the time is in the souvenir shop) in the DMZ that you don't spend on the bus. I wouldn't exactly say it's an “enjoyable” tour. Yet, I feel it's an important experience where you get a feel of what a total lack of freedom and human rights might feel like. If anything, it will make you appreciate Seoul's superficial, consumerist culture a bit more.