What has been your most memorable experience in Korea so far?…
I have traveled to other countries in Asia and have had awesome, memorable experiences. Unfortunately, none in Korea have left the same impression…until two days ago. Some co-workers and I went to the DMZ. Or the DMZed if you’re like my British peers Lu and Stu.
The USO totally exceeded my expectations. I thought we were going to follow our group through some boring museum exhibitions, look into North Korea, and stand over the line for a few seconds. This tour delivered!
We started by going down into the Third Infiltration tunnel or Third Tunnel of Aggression. Donning yellow hard hats, the group proceeding down a cylindrical slope. The hard hats became clear as we reached the real entrance at the bottom of the slope. Basically it is a roughly carved tunnel less than two meters high and two meters wide. It was impossible to walk up right. Every so often I would knock my head against the roof. After about 2oo meters or so, we reached the Military Demarcation Line. North Korea has blocked the way with multiple barricades, but left a tiny concrete window through which I got my first glance of North Korea.
The bus took us to Dorasan Station. Up until 2008, this was the last stop before crossing into North Korea. Now, it is only open to tourists. For the price of 500 won you can go out to the platform. It was interesting to stand on the tracks that at one point allowed people and goods to pass between the two countries. A station sign really put into perspective how close Seoul is to the border. It’s about thirty-five miles from the DMZ.
After eating lunch, we arrived at Camp Bonifas. A U.S. Special Officer boarded our bus to check our passports and told us of the rules. His pistol caught my eyes. It dawned on me that I had not seen a pistol up close in eleven months. It’s not something you really think about back home. Guns are part of police officers’ and military personals’ uniform. I haven’t seen a Korean police officer carrying one and the sight of a pistol really jarred me.
Our driver followed another tour bus to the briefing point. Once inside we signed a document acknowledging that we are knowingly entering a demilitarized zone, yet that injury or death is a possibility. What an opening sentence!
Another Special Officer informed us of the DMZ’s history. He also told us about two violent altercations. This is the point where I started to question if going on this tour was a good idea. Our tour went from historical and informative to a world current event.
At the South Korean Peace House, our group got into two single file lines and escorted outside toward North Korea and into the UN MAC conference room. We crowded together around a table in the middle. Our guide informed us that those of us on the left side of the table were standing on North Korean territory. He explained that the two South Korean officers inside were in a modified taekwondo stance. These guys were scary. Sunglasses and a low brimmed helmet hid their faces and eyebrows. This is a military tactic that makes the person more of an authority figure by hiding any possible facial expressions. Also, the guard farthest from us was guarding the door into North Korea.
Our stay in North Korea was brief. Our guide escorted us outside and made us fall in with our backs towards the South Korean Peace House. He explained in detail what each building meant and then gave us free reign to take photos of the North. He joked saying that they’re probably taking our photos and it was only fair that we took some of our own.
Atop the stairs of the North Korean Peace House we saw a North Korean officer. He was watching us through binoculars. They called him Fred. He stood there for a few minutes but then communicated with a peer in side though a tinted window. Fred watched us while we snapped his photo. I wonder what Fred would have to say about standing guard along the one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world.
We finished our tour by going to a check point. The view was stunning! Bright green rolling hills leading up to mountains. I expected to see concrete and exposed dirt everywhere. The scenery was amazing. It was sad to see such a beautiful landscape and know that beneath and around it were military deterrents.
Our last stop was at the gift shop. I try not be a tourist that gets herded through sightseeing and goaded into buying a trinket at the gift shop. I failed. I bought DMZ shot glasses and 1 won from North Korea. I mean come on. Who knows how this place will look in the future; if at all. It was such an amazing experience and all the workers were so positive about reunification. They succeeded in making me believe that reunification will happen.