Different from my normal backpacking adventures, there are elements of a trip to South Korea that you have to plan in advance for. For example, walking routes and other directions aren’t available on Google Maps, for security reasons. Because North Korea. So you can’t look ahead of time to figure out how far between your hostel and such and such a place. And even when you’re there, there are no walking directions available.
Also, you can’t just roll up to the DMZ and walk around and give yourself an uninformed tour. Despite the “de-militarized” part of the name, it is very much still an active war zone in the eyes of Koreans and rightfully so.
When we were planning our trip, we knew the DMZ was something we wanted to go see, although it’s hard to articulate why. It was the same sort of sense of respect for the fighting, the dead, the ideals, and the morbid curiosity that always compels one to visit war museums and monuments on any trip, I guess. The difference being that this one feels and yet doesn’t feel very real and very in-the-moment present.
Once our dates for our trip were settled, we had to send in our passports a few weeks in advance to be checked and cleared by the government before being cleared for the DMZ tour. We organized for a private tour (read: we waited until the last minute and then most things were booked and so we had to take a private van tour). We were picked up at our hotel by a very nice, if not exactly very fluent guy who took us on a ten hour tour of various points of interest connected to the Korean War and the ongoing struggle for reunification. It was an education.
We cruised by the Korean Blue House, which is the presidential house, and is blue, and learned about how in the 70s there was discovered a tunnel leading back to North Korea, and the plan to blow up both this presidential residence and also the American embassy. We stopped at a few lookout points, one of which was the closest you could get to North Korea, and through telescopes were able to see North Koreans farming, riding bikes, and living in a tiny village. The only major buildings were a school and a community center and a museum dedicated to the country’s leaders. They can see South Korea from that side; the tall buildings, the highways with cars screaming down, the electricity at night. You have to wonder what they’re thinking on that side.
There was a steep walk and then train ride into the Third Infiltration Tunnel, hard hats included, and not for the claustrophobic, which takes you on a ride into the last known place where North Koreans were found trying to tunnel a way into South Korea for warfare. The tunnel is big enough to ride tankers through. They found it because a defector, who had been an engineer, confessed to helping build it. After three something years of looking for it, they were finally able to find its location. When they opened into it, North Koreans dropped their tools and ran. At this same site, we saw some really compelling, more than a little propagandic videos about the war and its effects on both sides.
We went to a train station that hopes for the day it can connect between South Korea and North Korea, and drove through the military barricades, and saw the lookout towers on the North Korean side, where Chinese and Russian tourists go on tours to look over at South Korea. We also visited another lookout, more famous, because it looks out to an entirely fake city constructed to . . . impress the UN? Put on a good story? Who knows. There are no people living in it. We also learned that at night, South Korean trucks with speakers blast Kpop music and real world news close to the border so that people in North Korea can hear it.
Part of the tour was on a military base that allows a limited amount of visitors every day. I think it’s 24. We had to hand over our passports and they kept them the entire time. We walked through bunkers, talked to soldiers, saw footage, heard stories of what defectors go through. We saw peace monuments, and people praying for reunification. There were no pictures allowed until the end. I got such goosebumps all over – looking out through bunkers, seeing North Korean military posts staring right back, from not exactly far away.
The men are all conscripted to the army for compulsory service, and I couldn’t help thinking about what that does to boys, just 18, no option but to be in that military service before you can start your life. Women may enlist, but are not required. And actually South Korea as a country is experiencing a huge population dip, so extreme (for various reasons, like the fact that men work until 1am every night) that the government has had to create laws making it illegal to work after 7pm on Wednesday so men will go home and hang out with their wives in a reproductive way. Daycare is free to all children, trying to help make it easier to have more. I think this military thing creates the bro-culture that we saw so much over Korea that makes it hard to say no to a boss, to a party, to a happy hour that might help you climb the ladder.
At the end, we received a certificate and a military patch that we had visited the DMZ. We were also made to take pictures with some soldiers, looking nervous and about 120 pounds soaking wet and not older than 20 years old. We didn’t know what to do so we just took the pictures and accepted the certificate, uncomfortable as we were.
For a late lunch we went to a North Korean barbecue spot, which was delicious. Smoked duck, veg, lite beer, kimchi, unnamed spices. I can still taste how happy I was to eat that food in that moment.
And after Peter dropped us off and some resting in the hotel a bit, we went back out for more barbecue, soju, and then I talked Amie into Korean karaoke! Because I’m just a girl trying to karaoke in every country in the world. We got our own room and I sang 90s hip-hop to my heart’s content. I feel like my rendition of “No Diggity” was especially strong. And something light-hearted was truly needed after such a day. I’m glad we could indulge in such a way.
Next time – animal cafes, Jjimjilbangs, and my Korean travel tips.