Sunday, September 13, 2009


My existence in Korea is strange one (Duh). I don't think I'm a tourist here, simply given the sheer amount of time that I'll be here. But I'm obviously not a native for approximately 20 bazillion reasons. Am I a semi-permanent tourist here? Or a part-time resident? I would like to think I'm more than just another photo-taking dweeb in Korea, but I'm clearly going to need a face transplant if I expect to pass for a native any time soon.

Regardless of how much I try to not congregate with fanny-pack wearers/guidebook toters, I find I really like dweeby, touristy things. Which is why I was super pumped this weekend to go on a USO tour of the the infamous DMZ: the Demilitarized Zone, or the heavily fortified border between North and South Korea which runs along the 38th parallel.

So why would I want to go see a border, you might ask? What could there possibly be at the Joint Security Area besides barbed wire and guard posts, neither of which are terribly beautiful/interesting things? Well, you see, I'm taken aback by how little I think about North Korea down here in Uijeongbu. I was positively barraged with worried text messages before I came here from friends/family: "Are you still planning on going to South Korea now that Kim Jeong Ill is shooting missiles into the sky?" North Americans, at home and here in Korea, are generally very aware of North Korea, more so than any Korean I've met here thus far.

I can't really figure out why this is, exactly. My hypotheses:
1) General apathy/disdain of younger, rapidly modernizing Koreans towards the problems of older generations, i.e., the Korean War/reunification
2) Widespread denial that the South and the North are unlikely to reunite anytime soon
3)Rabid nationalism which tends to discourage critical thought of government, including the current President Lee Myung-bak's opinion that reunification with the North isn't worth perusing until Kim Jong Ill halts his nuclear program

So I was curious what I'd be presented at the DMZ by the U.S. Army/ROK (Republic of Korea) Army. Which turned out to be a mixture of surreal pomp and precautions from the Joint Security Area, with some obscene optimism from the South Korean-run Third Tunnel.

So here's an obligatory bus shot, with pals Charles and Brenden

Which took us to the JSA, where we had to board official JSA buses and were briefed by the US Army about things we shouldn't do at the border (point, wave, ect.) and things that had happened to people in the Joint Security Area...we all giggled immaturely at the "Axe Murder Incident," which, as it turns out, did actually involves axes and murder. Eek.

We then signed our lives away, in the event that we might be destroyed by axe/nuke/gun wielding, Brenden considers his release form/his life.

I was feeling at home what with all the barbed wire/poo-brown signs/uniformed people/inflated military diction.

So we were then moved to the actual JSA--the point where the two Koreas geographically meet--the border is marked by a concrete slab.
Look! You can see North and South Korean soldiers standing only meters apart. The Southerners are the ones closet to us, of course.

And look! On the other side there were North Korean tourists taking pictures of us...apparently a very rare sight. They were probably Chinese, I'm informed.

So then we were taken inside one of the little blue meeting shacks on the border. This where the North and South reputedly meet for "talks," and also where hordes of tourists are taken to dork out and simultaneously say things like, "Dude, can you believe I'm, like, totally standing in North Korea right now!? North Korea, man!"
The microphone marks the Norther/Southern border.

Not to be excluded from the masses, I had to art direct a dorky "We're in North Korea!" picture.

What's that spell? DM(backwards)Z. Woot team.

Every tourist had to get a picture with a menacing ROK soldier. They stand in a modified taekwando pose and wear sunglasses to avoid "eye communication". I can't imagine having this guy's job, having dorks pose with him all day, repeating "OHMYGODHELOOKSSOSCARY" over and over.

For all of the posturing and ridiculousness of the JSA, the Third Tunnel, which was one of several North Korean tunnels into the South discovered in 70's, was something else entirely. The site reeked painfully of optimism...of a place seeking to become a historical footnote upon reunification. Witness this signage:

Flowers? What the heck?

We watched a video which mentioned the already constructed rail stations which connect North Korean capital P'yongyang with Seoul, where trains sit waiting for operation. For the day that the Koreas decide to reunite.

There was also a lovely monument, featuring brass Northerners/Southerners on the opposite sides of a rent globe.

In the gift shop, there were bags of North Korean-produced rice and soju being sold, as if to say "Look at the burgeoning trade occurring between the North and South, which clearly indicates that one day Korea will be one united nation and all of this touristy stuff will seem laughably passe!"

There were no photos allowed to be taken inside the tunnel, which was drippy, wet, and surprisingly deep under the ground. We had to wear yellow hard hats and climb up a ramp with a punishingly long, steep grade on the way out. Let me provide you with a shot of the Tunnel's mini-museum, which looks nothing like the actual thing but will do in lieu of an authentic pic.

There was also a sunny display which touted the DMZ's burgeoning ecology and the wildlife which has thrived there in the absence of people, which wiil "hopefully continue to be preserved upon reunification" to quote signage.

I've taken a really pessimistic tone towards reunification in this post. I think reunification is a great idea in theory...there are obviously families and histories and cultures that have been torn apart by the division that could stand to become whole again if reunification were to occur. But economically, South Korea has become a powerhouse, whereas North Korea is still in the third world. Not to mention Jong Ill and his nukes. If the border were to disappear tomorrow, what would happen? Millions of people would probably come rushing south towards Seoul, looking for jobs/homes. The economic burden on the South would be crushing.

Though the notions of peace and harmony really pluck at my pacifistic heartstrings, I doubt reunification will occur, merely based upon twenty year gap in development between the two countries.

Many people, obviously, have much to say about this topic: Ask A Korean distills it pretty nicely. I found this radio story on refugees. And my man Jon Stewart had Mike Kim on right before I left for Korea. He helps North Korean refugees across the border:
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Mike Kim
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests

Overall, a fun, informative trip which tricked me into being thoughtful.

1 comment:

  1. awesome post, you are very well-written! as i write that, i don't even know if it makes sense ... perhaps the post was well-written instead of you yourself. hm. i'm sure you get my point, though.

    anyway, yesssss face transplants! ahhahahaha. i already had this weird daydream about looking korean+ having a super-computer ability to speak in english and have it immediately translated to korean and what kind of weird cultural/sociological experiment that would be ... let's discuss in-person.