North South, South North

By Sophie Bowman
Two months ago I went to North Korea. Well, as much as is physically possible for a foreign person in South Korea. I went and visited the demilitarised zone and Panmunjom, crossing into North Korea within the confines of one of the blue meeting rooms that straddles the border in the Joint Security Area (JSA).

I have been in Seoul since September, and, although I have entertained the thought that North Korea is just about 50 kilometres away from my home, it has never felt very plausible. When I travelled that 50KM… I didn’t have some sudden realisation to the tune of ‘oh god, they’re just over there!’. It was more akin to the feeling of rain slowly soaking into your clothes, even though you’re wearing a rain coat. It’s something that I already knew, a truth that has always been there, but is so easily overlooked from the bundled up life – of coffees and busy streets – that I approach it from.

The only way to visit Panmunjom, unless you are a soldier or some kind of dignitary on a diplomatic mission, is to go with a tour group. It is not cheap, nor will you see any more than you can see on television or in photographs. Still, having taken such a strong academic interest in inter Korean relations, and people’s perceptions of North Korea here in the South, it seemed strange not to go. Finally then, I signed myself onto a tour. While expensive (135,000KRW, with VIP Travel), it was surprisingly easy, which I think might have had something to do with my British passport, as tourists from places like Hong Kong were unable to arrange to get on the full tour during their holiday visits to South Korea.

Looking across the river to the civilian control zone

It was a long day, being picked up from a subway station near our house at 7:30 in the morning and returning to the centre of Seoul at 4pm. The first half of the day was a much more open tour, with Australians, Singaporeans and Brits in my tour group, and large groups of Chinese, Japanese, and overseas Koreans doing the same tour route. First we visited Imjimgak Part, a park beside the Imjin river, just before the entrance to the civilian control area; where tourists from warmer climes were playing in the snow. Even at the start of the day I began to feel uncomfortable that this was a tourist destination, and began wondering why I had come here myself.

Messages of hope…

The pristine winter sunshine and biting cold seemed to jar strongly with the clutter of barbed wire, checkpoints and bunkers that lay stretched out and scattered around to the north of the park. As our tour bus drove out of the park, and towards the next stop on the tour, we passed a small and shabby looking amusement park, more like a mini fairground; it was empty.

After Imjingak Park we visited Dora-san Station. A huge, modern building with a roof that is shaped in two waves of steel that are meant to represent a pair of hands, a greeting.

Dora-san Station, the brand new, unused, gateway to the North

205KM to Pyeongyang


The vast station concourse was empty apart from our small group of tourists,  some South Korean guards and the obligatory gift shop. Apparently the station sees two trains a day for commuters living in the civilian control zone, one train in the morning, and one in the evening which begin at the Imjingak station, just a few hundred meters away.



History of Dora-san Station

“Not the last station from the South, But the first station toward the North”

After leaving Dora-san Station our tour bus headed up a winding road toward the Dora-san Observatory. For most of the people on the bus, who would not be going on to visit Panmunjeom, this was the highlight of the tour. On top of Dora mountain the observatory looked out over North Korea, with views (through binoculars) of  the villages at the border, the buildings in the Joint Security Area, the giant flagpoles that both sides have erected, and Kaesong city in the distance.

Tourists Spying out to North Korea

The last stop on the morning tour was a visit to one of the tunnels that have been dug into the South by North Korea. After looking at a museum-type display on the creation of the DMZ and the history of the tunnels, our group was ushered into a cinema where we were shown a dated movie, summing up the history of the Korean war, the DMZ, the tunnels below out feet and more. While we had been looking around the exhibition, separate tour groups had watched the same film in Chinese.
After leaving the small cinema we were ushered to the tunnel entrance, where we were given safety helmets and sent on our merry way down the steep slope built to the tunnel. As we walked down, people passed us coming up the slope, red cheeked and out of breath, and we passed a middle aged woman sitting on a small bench trying to catch her breath.
The tunnel was narrow in places and wider in others. Damp and dark, with rough walls and an uneven floor. After walking for a few minutes, we came to a blockade, with a small hole in the middle, where we could see through to another blockade. That was it.
Climbing up out of the tunnel was not easy for some of the people in the tour group. Infact, at the point where the climbing begins, there was also a monorail, but we were told that it was more expensive and that it did not run frequently. A keen hiker, I charged on up the slope and panted up to the top, but it was quite a while before one or two of the tourists reached the top, complaining.

After the tunnel visit, our shuttle bus took us back to Imjingak Park where we re-boarded the the bus that had taken us from Seoul. After a short drive, I was dropped off, leaving the rest of the group to return to Seoul. The restaurant I was left outside was nice enough, a basic restaurant catering to tourists and some locals too. I ate bulgogi, alone, while eyeing up the new group of tourists that I had just joined, much more western than the tour group I had just left.

After finishing my huge lunch, I boarded yet another bus, a big coach with lots of empty seats. I had a seat number assigned to me, and on the two seats across the aisle from me a middle aged British couple were sat, chatting away about this and that. When we drove again into the civilian control zone, the area looked very different to the places I had seen that morning.

The atmosphere was intensely masculine. Our bus was passed by a line of young soldiers on their military service, carry guns and big backpacks. Some waved, some just stared into the windows of our bus, curious, but not particularly excited. Barbed wire, armourments and thousands of present but unseen weapons made themselves felt in one way or another. We passed a small group of soldiers performing some kind of exercise beside a small river, and then drove on, through concrete tunnels, which we were told were filled with dynomite.

Driving on towards Panmunjom we passed small areas of land that were being farmed. We were informed that the farmers of this land farmed with a military escort and could only tend to their crops between 7am and 4pm. Our bus finally approached the tiny the small cluster of buildings, a village I suppose, beside where the gift shop and briefing room straddled the parking lot, and houses, a church and more ageing american style buildings stood in the near distance, making the place almost like somewhere time forgot. It was then that I thought I understood why everyone called this ‘the last cold war frontier’,  because even the homes inside the DMZ seemed to date from that era.

As our huge bus parked up and our small group piled out a coach load of Korean school girls were boarding a similar bus, having completed the tour. They waved and smiled at us, giggling and fussing over the tall soldier that had been their guide. We passed them and went into a briefing room, where we were given tags to say that we were UN guests, and told all that we could and couldn’t do, everywhere we could and couldn’t photograph, and given a slideshow talk on the history of the landmarks we were about to encounter.

Re boarding our bus, we now had a new driver, a young soldier in uniform, and an escort, a tall soldier with broad shoulders and a face to rival any Korean actor. Our guide told us how proud she was of these boys, and explained how only the most handsome, well built army recruits were chosen to serve in the joint security area, naturally, as it is where their country is showing itself to its enemy.

After all the build up, it felt very sudden when we finally found ourselves looking out at the view of North Korea that I’d seen in a thousand photographs, the blue meeting rooms straddling the border, and the North Korean building beyond, with soldiers with their sunglasses fixated on the middle distance.
Looking North

It all seemed much smaller in real life for some reason. Everything new in Korea tends to be built illogically large, but having been built in a hurry sixty years or so ago, these rooms were small and shoddy, not up to modern Korean standards at all.

Is This It?

Our tour group could barely fit inside the small room, navigating around old chairs and tables, crossing over into North Korea and taking photographs with another handsome guard. After entering the room, the old british lady who had come with her husband exclaimed: “Is this IT? We came all this way, for THIS?” I couldn’t help but laugh, in some way, I felt the same too. Even worse, I had seen all of this before, every detail, in photographs and documentaries. What did I get by being there? What could I possibly ‘sense’ in this stifling military air, other than a sense of military standoff which should be expected  even by the oblivious observer. The reactions of the tourists around me were as interesting as anything else. Some of the east asians were positively excited, feeling a thrill at being so close to big bad north Korea. Others, asian Americans and westerners took to the whole thing with a slightly more solemn tone, but none the less, cheesy photos were the order of the day. Is the DMZ a tourist theme park as much as a buffer zone?

The Bridge of No Return

After getting back onto our bus, we slowly drove past the Bridge f No Return, where we were told we were allowed to take photographs. It was at this point that I took some photographs which go me into trouble. When they told us we could photograph, I took pictures in all directions, taking in the wintery trees and unexpected natural beauty so close to the standoff. Later, in the gift shop, I was approached by the tall handsome soldier and asked to show my photographs. A little abashed and confused, I handed over my camera, “this one, this one, this one: you need to delete”. Completely harmless, not particularly well shot, photographs of trees and bushes. My tour guide seemed very embarrassed and was quite apologetic. I told her it was fine and that they weren’t good photographs anyway. Later I was kicking myself, I should have taken the opportunity to have my photograph taken with the soldier so I could show my friends and proclaim “this is the guy that deleted my photos, isn’t he dreamy”.

Worlds Worst Gift Shop

The gift shop was positively awful. It seemed like a bunch of American army guys had compiled the most tasteless pile to tat possible, militaristic thing, tacky Korean souvenirs and North Korean alcohol, and had a good laugh when they wrote the price tags. It was quite a frustrating end to what had nearly been a very profound experience, and I felt glad, in retrospect, that I didn’t have enough small change to buy an ice-cream there. Still, the rest of the group bought all kinds of tat, army hoodies, t shirts, history books and bits and bobs that I could never imagine being useful or treasured possessions.

On the bus on the way back to Seoul, I got into a long conversation with the elderly british couple. They were in the middle of a tour of Asia, with Korea as the centerpeice. They had already spent time in Hong Kong, and come on the DMZ tour after visiting Busan and Gyeongju. Next week they were off to Cambodia before heading back to midlands England. The husband had a keen interest in history and had read a lot on the Korean war, as well as Korean history in general. Also, both of them seemed to have developed a profound respect for Korea’s economic boom. It struck me as a bit of a generation thing. Being of an age where they could remember Korea as a country for sending charity donations and missionaries to, and remembering a time before the pocket computers we spend half our lives looking at in South Korea, the economic development must seem all the more amazing, and the hardship and political tyranny that brought it about, all the easier to overlook.

When we arrived back in Seoul at 4pm, my body was not tired at all. No, a day of riding on buses and taking photographs had not tired out my muscles one bit, but I was half brain dead. The emotional and mental pressure of spending a day with UN forces anxieties and the constant reminder of proximity to a very very dangerous but somehow aloof and absent North Korea was stifling. As I got off the bus and walked though the familiar streets of central Seoul, I did entertain the thought “they’re just over there!”, but, I felt far to tired, to much in a daze to worry about it.

This post was first published on Sophie’s blog where she writes about life in Seoul.

2 thoughts on “North South, South North

  1. Really interesting to read this experience. The nearest experience I’ve had was crossing into East Berlin but at least there we could walk the streets of the city and even talk to people. The JSA seems as much of a divide in time – old Korea/modern Korea as a physical barrier.

    • I don’t know how similar they would be to your experience, but there are tours of North Korea currently running. They are very tightly monitored, and tour members are constantly escorted, but I have heard that, depending on the mood in the country at the time, some tourists have been able to speak to citizens.
      It is a tricky business though, as everyone around is watching, and the exchange may have consequences for the North Korean involved.

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