Wednesday, February 14, 2007


I took a USO tour of the JSA and DMZ the other day. I had to be at the pick-up point by 7 am which meant I was groggily wandering around pre-dawn Seoul, lost, when I saw a foreigner and said, "Excuse me, do you know where the USO is?" and she said, "Didn't you used to work for MuchMusic?"

Turns out Heather worked at CHUM, too, a long time ago. Small world (it always is, for tourists). And it's a good thing I ran into her because she took me straight to where we needed to be.

I have mixed feelings about our day-long visit to the 38th parallel. I don't like being overly dramatic, but it kind of feels like a big deal to visit the living result of a war that affected both my mom and my dad's families. It also devastated the entire country (countries). On the other hand, I realize that I paid $42 USD to get on a big tour bus (you can only visit the DMZ with an organized tour) for a day-long visit that 150 000 people do every year. It's a tourist pit stop, a curiosity.

Our volunteer Korean tour guide who prepped us on the bus ride was a retired bank manager. His name is Young ("Look at me. Guess my age. You'll never guess. Always remember my name."). He was being kind of funny which dispelled some tension anyone may have been feeling through their sleepy haze. There's a dress code - no words, photos or logos on your clothes. There are photography bans in certain areas. We signed a waiver saying that the UN and the military officials who take us around are not responsible for bodily harm in the case of hostile enemy aggression. Plus, when we got there we clipped a little tag on our jackets TO BE WORN AT ALL TIMES (the American army sargeant who greeted us ONLY HAD ONE TONE OF VOICE - ARMY). All these things serve to build up the tension...

...but our JSA tour guide, an baby-faced American army sargeant with a penchant for bad jokes (he was actually pretty funny while riffing) had us laughing and really, after a few hours with him, I felt like we were just being driven through a theme park where people wear army uniforms instead of plush animal suits. That's not the way that I want to feel about the DMZ but that's what it started to feel like. It's also not like I wanted to be heart-thumping nervous, skittering around, wondering if a bullet would whiz by, but I'm not sure I liked the mood of our tour being so flippant. What would I want it to be like? What should it be like? I guess there's no real answer for that. North Korea, South Korea, the war, the DMZ. There is plenty of tragedy involved but also plenty of the absurd and I guess I wasn't prepared for the latter.

The ROK (South Korean) army guys we saw up close were intimidating. They wear dark Ray Bans and stand in a taekwondo pose that does not look comfy. They do not move. They stand partially obstructed by the buildings of Conference Road as to not be targets. They put their arm up behind the building any time they see movement on the North Korean side.

We didn't see a North Korean soldier up close, only in the distance, standing in the entrance to a North Korean building. Beside him, in an open window, there was a soldier taking photos of us for security. Creepy.

Because it was a foggy day, we couldn't see well in the binoculars over to Propaganda Village. Still, you get the point. The North Korean flag that flies there has a dry weight of 600 pounds. Once, a soldier who was holding part of it dropped it while they were mounting it and he was shot dead on the spot. That's a tidbit from our American tour guide, but again, you just get the feeling of "Is that true? What's real?"

We also went down to the 3rd tunnel, which is a tunnel that the North Koreans dug (discovered in the late 1970s) which could move 30 000 soldiers per hour in the event of attacking South Korea. The tunnel leads directly to Seoul. North Korea denies they dug it. Yipe! You wear a little yellow hardhat (useful) and descend 70+ m below the earth. I felt claustrophobic, especially as we just continued down a long, monotonous, drippy, rocky tunnel. Tall people had it bad. Even I had to duck most of the time.

Apparently you can youtube a tour of the DMZ that the North Korean side gives. Also, you can Google Earth all the sensitive areas that we were not allowed to photograph in the DMZ. Computers!

After we returned from the trip to the DMZ, I crossed the street to the War Memorial Museum since I'd been meaning to visit and it was right there. It was a little much for one day but I was glad to do it. After the tour of the DMZ feeling so absurd, I liked being by myself in the museum, wandering and watching footage from the Korean War, to remind me what was real.

Then my cousin Jungjoon took some rare time off from work to take me to Apgujeong for a fancy sashimi dinner. A nice way to end a day that included a visit to North Korea. What a day.


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