I’d be lying if I didn’t say a huge part of the attraction for me to go to Seoul hadn’t also been to go and visit the increasingly-tense DMZ (demilitarized zone – a total irony, considering how well militarized it actually is) and JSA, the famed border where blue huts for negotiations are split in half between each side.
The morning kicked off in the sense of dramatic fashion I hoped for, but didn’t realistically expect – a South Korean special forces officer storming into the hotel to pick me up. A 28-year veteran, our guide, ‘Captain’ as he liked to be known was military through and through – I can’t think of a single time where he didn’t start actively looking for us in souvenir shops or whatnot the minute we were supposed to be back at the bus (of course, with my pedantic sense of punctuality, I loved it).
Probably most of the trip out to the DMZ was spent with him telling us where he had seen action, how he was unable to disclose any opinions or thoughts on sensitive political or military questions, and how the situation has been lately in the past few years; particularly relevant now more than ever with the escalating tensions.
I have had so many guides come close to ‘tears’ even though an event has little to no relevance to them; how will I ever forget for example, the American college student guide in Berlin breathing dramatically throughout the concentration camp he showed us around and telling us “Breathe it in guys. This is a deep moment between us” – but Captain seemed to be the real deal (especially since he looked like he was going to murder one of us if we took pictures of him after he said he could not be photographed). He talked with us about finding his (also military) wife, his two daughters and how the tour was a civic duty – as well as, oddly, the price of ginseng, but there's no accounting for tastes I suppose.
Our first stop on the tour was the third infiltration tunnel. Captain explained this was only found because of a defector who had been working on the tunnels – and also, which was more relevant to the present situation, explained that this would probably be our first and last time actually wanting to go down the tunnels and we’d find out why when we went down. So, like lambs to the slaughter, off we all went! Well – to think that anyone would dig tunnels down there was some thought, but the sheer depth of getting down there, the heat, the crouching over the whole way honestly made me realise within about 5 minutes why he had suggested this would be a first and last!
Next stop on our tour was the looking point across to North Korea. For me, if the tunnel was – ultimately – a tunnel, this was one of the highlights. It was something strange bordering on surreal to be able to look over and see a city, the industrial complex and know you’re looking into one of the world’s most closed, secretive states. Compounding this sense of bizarreness, is without doubt the propaganda broadcasts happening on both sides; K-pop and dance music from South Korea, and aggressive speech from the North.
Moving along, we shuffled next to Dorasan Station. Dorasan, for me, was possibly the most iconic and strangely miserable experience on the whole tour. Effectively an entire train station built to serve trains onward into the North and to Pyeongyang, it seemed, for me the ultimate symbol of unrequited love from South to North. Imagine building a train station in full in the hopes of a reunification – and winding up instead, as we can confidently say we are now, on the brink of a nuclear war.
To be honest, at first I thought the station would just be some kind of token tourist attraction – rather than say a living, functional space that has been abandoned like Nicosia Airport, which I had the amazing privilege to visit many years back. And, ultimately, a token tourist attraction is exactly what it has become; but in this case, through no fault of its own. I cast a thought back home and imagined; how would I feel to one day go home and find the train station to Belfast has become no more than a tourist attraction?
Last stop on our tour with Captain was Imjingak Peace Park. I’ll be honest and straight here; this place was the one stop I thought ‘yeah ok’. It was effectively a huge tourist destination with a multitude of shops and restaurants, a bit of reconstructed bridge to take pictures from (if you pay for it) and a lunch sitting that was part of our tour in a restaurant of effectively only other tourists, all struggling to know when our food was ready from the hotpot and/or where to find cutlery.
The JSA was the next part of the tour and we said goodbye to Captain at this stage; to be honest, he was the best tour guide of the day and I was sorry we couldn’t take him along.
First of all we drove to Camp Bonifas. This was a decidedly stricter affair, with passports being properly validated against a name-list, plus the screening of a safety video ‘induction’ that was part-safety, bigger part-propaganda warning of the terrible incidents caused by the Northern ‘aggressors’. However, our officer (I decided he should probably remain nameless to be honest) lightened up tremendously on the bus to the actual JSA itself; to great laughter on the bus when asked how long was he serving there, he delightedly told us ‘3 more months. Can’t wait to be out of here’ as he was in the midst of national military service. Likewise on another question about what happens when tourists aren’t visiting; ‘we go back to the base and chill’. Honest, at least.
Finally; the JSA. What an absolutely strange place; the thought that you are actually standing across the border into such a secretive, dangerous state – even within the confines of one of the blue huts, is deeply unnerving and yet so accidental. In my case, as requested, I filtered into the blue hut and around the table in the middle, only to be told moments later the table represented the exactly middle of the border, so I was therefore already instantly standing on the North.
Further, the thought (as in the image above) that just going through that door behind me would cause you to be very firmly both in the North and in the control of soldiers of the North is something crazy to consider when you stop for a moment and give it some consideration. But, due to military considerations, before long it’s all over and you’re marched back out.
Overall, this was one of the whackiest and yet strangely amazing tours I’ve been on; the JSA segment is simply just too short when you want to know more, spend more time and learn more about North Korea, but made up for me by a once-in-a-lifetime tour guide in the form of Captain for the DMZ segment and the sheer amazement of at least getting to technically venture into North Korea at least once in this life.