A friend of mine came to see me in Seoul recently. We are both fascinated by the history and politics of the Korean peninsula. He had visited the DPRK and the Panmunjeom border outpost before, but from the North. So, naturally, he wanted to experience it from the other side. I study the Koreas and have heard the stories, so we were both seeking some kind of comparative enlightenment, and to that end we had arranged a visit to the DMZ.
We boarded a small shuttle bus that picked us up outside the hotel. I had thought was headed straight to our destination and that it'd be a cosy group. In fact, we were shuttled to Jongro in central Seoul where we boarded a much larger coach, with 30 or more other tourists. It was at this moment that I realised just how much of an attraction the dividing line of the two Koreas really is. The showcase of contrasting powers the DMZ once represented had become just that, a diplomatic anomaly, a political freak show that people in their thousands pay to witness. I suddenly felt like a part of the everyday rubbernecking crowd, and this did somehow detract from the gravitas of the area we were about to see.
As we made our way via coach to Imjingak, a tour guide explained over the tannoy, a little of the history underlying the creation of the two Koreas, and the divide at the 38th parallel. These fleeting insights, scuffing the surface of the situation, were designed for people with no real interest or background knowledge at all, and were presented in a soft yet noticeably nationalistic fashion. The classic "crazy Kims", format was adopted throughout. Just as a point of comparison, you don't usually hear the terms "silly Stalin" or "mad Mao", because of the appalling genocides and restriction of freedoms that occurred under their respective dictatorships, in the trademark USSR style. You see the tally of needlessly spent human lives under these regimes and it isn't really something the average person would class as comedic. I suppose appearing unbiased in a nation as patriotic as South Korea is akin to siding with the North, so an unbiased tour guide may not be very desirable.
Although this kind of fervent belief, that you are definitely from the world's greatest nation, is quite alien to many; deep seated nationalism is understandably important to both countries, as there will always be a steady supply of fanatical troops on both sides to fuel a military reunification attempt, from whichever direction that might occur.
Getting back to the "crazy Kims". The absence of any real power over the international community, twinned with the unrivalled belligerence we see broadcast by the KCNA is admittedly a recipe for a distinctive brand of uncertain amusement. But at times it's all too easy to forget about the terrible conditions in the North experienced by its citizens, particularly outside of Pyongyang. The draconian laws, the famines, the gross mis-allocation of food aid, huge military overspending, media censorship, gulags, thought policing, and the human rights violations that occur in what can be quite accurately described (and often is described) as the true Orwellian dystopia. I do also find some of the bellicose rhetoric erupting from Pyongyang strangely comical, but I do keep in mind how deeply disturbing the situation really is, as I chortle.
After leaving Imjingak, (where we spent around 10 minutes in the car park) we arrived at the "3rd Tunnel of Aggression". Before we descended into the tunnels, we all sat and watched a short ROK flavoured (propaganda) film, which turned out to be every bit as strange and nonsensical as what you hear from the KCNA at times, but with an altogether more, utopian, twang to it. So again, a ROK brand of nationalism had shone through on this tour, this time with an almost, blinding, intensity.
We were informed of some of the techniques used by the ROK army to intercept the DPRK workers who were digging the 3rd tunnel. Because the North Koreans were digging through solid granite, they used explosives to get through it. Although the South Koreans received some good information regarding the tunnel's location from a North Korean defector, the ROK army couldn't immediately pinpoint where to build their own tunnel that would intersect with the tunnel being dug from the North. So, knowing that high explosives were being used, they drilled long metal containers that they would fill with water, every two meters across the predicted path of the invasion tunnel. Soon after, steam could be seen spraying out of one of the containers, having been heated by the explosives. They could then keep track of the trajectory of the DPRK's tunnel and begin work on their own tunnel to intercept.
It was now time for us to don some yellow hard hats and walk down into the tunnels. It was interesting to see them, having only read about them before, and although it was a little exhausting; experiencing the trudge through the 3rd tunnel, bent double and imagining (to an extent) what it might have been like to march through, was definitely worthwhile.
After a tiring walk to the surface, we all once again boarded the coach and made our way to Dora Observatory. There are banks of binoculars you can use here for 500KRW (about £0.30) and you can see the Kijong-dong Peace Village (model town) over the border and the results of the Panmunjeom "flag war" looming over it, where North and South briefly contended to construct the tallest flagpole. This ended after the DPRK erected a 160 meter tall flagpole, flying a 270 kilogram flag.
Now, a word to the wise, I had brought my DSLR and unfortunately couldn't take it down with me into the tunnels, it's almost not worth bringing a large camera along, if you do, you should also bring a compact so you can actually take something down there with you. Cameras are also not ideal at Dora Observatory, you are confined to a yellow box well back from any decent vantage points, although the view you have of other people's backs is superb.
We then went to Dorasan Station, an optimistically constructed and passenger-free train station on a line which one day might run from Seoul to Pyongyang. Dorasan is currently the northernmost station you can reach on this line. There isn't much to say about this, it's a new and empty train station that happens to be in close proximity to the DMZ. Although currently pretty useless, it is a nice sentiment. The fact that South Koreans are officially still pro unification is a positive thing. I think this sentiment is what they really want to show foreigners on these tours.
So, on to Panmunjeom itself, the crowing jewel of the tour, the burden my camera had turned out to be was about to be lifted, and my friend was about to experience the famous outpost from the ROK, or so we thought.
We hadn't been informed in advance, but apparently we hadn't booked in time for the full tour, or had possibly booked the wrong one due to some misleading imagery. I assume the tour company kept quiet because the result would have been a definite tour cancellation from our end.
Instead, we ended up in a Korean ginseng outlet back in Seoul, where we were shown ginseng of varying ages in their small museum. Korean ginseng is the best in the world, apparently due to its age. It is grown for 6 years and during this time, they explained, it accumulates 32 different kinds of nutrients and adopts an almost anthropomorphic form, the last vat was almost a homunculus by root vegetable standards, and there was also a framed picture of such a specimen (minus the vat) in the next room to further demonstrate this.
We endured a short presentation and were told that this ginseng was almost a cure-all. We all had a free sample and out of morbid curiosity, I asked one of the staff the price. $210 for a single box. I didn't make the investment.
The free lunch afterwards was something we considered miss-able so we just made our way back to the hotel in disappointment. This DMZ experience was at an end. With any luck, next time we might actually reach our intended destination.
So, we learned the hard way - that visits to Panmunjeom require advanced reservation, at least 2-3 working days (GMT+9) prior to the tour date. My advice would be to book early to avoid disappointment, bring a compact camera, or both a DSLR and a compact. Also check the exact itinerary with the tour operator to avoid missing out on any must see destinations.
A large museum dedicated to the history of war on the Korean Peninsula.
A ROK Navy war veteran stands at his former post, aside the chamber of the same, deck-mounted, AA gun he operated during the Korean War. I neglected to ask his name, but he told me stories of his experiences. One such recollection, included his seeing North Korean Yak-9s, dog fighting with American P-51 Mustangs overhead; while he maintained focus and engaged priority targets.
Beondegi (번데기) is a popular snack in Korea. You can buy a cup of these fried Silkworm Larvae as street food, or tinned from a local Korean supermarket or convenience store. Personally, I find it difficult to understand the appeal, outside of some kind of survival situation.
A statue of a golden boar at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju. It's considered good luck to please the boar by petting it, and people crowd around him to do so.
Odeng (오뎅) is a processed fish product that is really good to eat. They can be bought at street food carts all over Korea. The fish cakes are usually skewered and boiled in a mild but tasty broth.
Cheomseongdae is an astronomical observatory in Gyeongju that dates back to the 7th century. According to the Samguk Yusa, it was constructed shortly before the end of the Three Kingdoms period, and the beginning of the Unified Silla dynasty.
Cairns are quite common in South Korea, particularly on mountains and around temples. Their original purpose was in the worship of the Mountain Gods, but today it's thought to be good luck to add a stone to the top of a pile.
Seoul Forest is just one example of the many green spaces that have been constructed here in recent years. Other notable green initiatives include Cheonggyecheon Stream and Sky Park.
The land that Seoul Forest was built upon was originally used as a hunting ground in the Joseon dynasty, and more recently served as a sports complex before being converted into a park.