Wow. Where do I even begin?
“Hey Rachel! What did you do today?”
“I went to the DMZ and saw North Korea!”
Since there were places that I was unable to document and take photos during my tour today, I am currently writing this literally hours after the tour so that I have a record of this day. I hope this blog post will be insightful for those who are unable to visit there.
While it’s a general consensus that North Korea is “bad and evil,” I was surprised at the language used in the video at the museum. “They did this to us, they did that…” It took on a more propaganda-like tone instead of a more neutral and academic tone that I expect from a museum. Here are some more memorable lines from the narrator of the video:
“[cue happy music] The DMZ is a paradise for wildlife! [shows montage of flowers blooming and goats eating]”
And the final line of the video: “Until the Korea reunifies, the DMZ will live on FOREVER!”
After lunch, we visited Dorasan Station, the last train station in South Korea before entering North Korea. Dorasan Station is technically not an operating train station although it serves one daily train from Seoul for tourists. The building represents the hope for reunification; right outside of the station, there is an enormous donor wall of those who contributed to the construction of the building (some who still have family in the North). Once the Gyeongui Line Railway Connection is in operation, people can travel from South Korea all the way to western Europe via trains. (It’ll take 3 weeks though.)
As part of my tour, I decided to visit the Joint Security Area (JSA) that is operated by the United Nations Command (UNC). This would give me the opportunity to get as close to the North-South Korean border as possible as a civilian. If you read the news recently, you will know that this is where the North Korean soldier defected to South Korea in mid-November. The JSA is the most difficult way for North Koreans to defect considering that it is highly secured and monitored.
While inside JSA, we were escorted by 2 US soldiers (PFC McDonald and PFC Carroll) serving as part of the UNC. First, we had to sit through a briefing at the JSA Visitors Center (alongside another tour group). The briefing was super quick but very information heavy on the history of the JSA area, including information on Axe Murder Incident and the North Korean Propaganda Village.
From the JSA Visitors Center, we had to switch to UNC buses to enter the more secured portion of JSA. We passed through multiple checkpoints and were not allowed to take photos or record during this portion of the drive. PFC McDonald led our tour group and managed to talk about the JSA the entire 10 minute bus ride to Freedom House (refer to map above). Here are little snippets of his stories:
Petty fights? South Korea was the first to build a flag tower on its side of the border. In response, North Korea built one that was ridiculously taller than South Korea’s tower. Since it was really windy today, the North Korean flag stood out and was really easy to spot.
There are actually civilians who reside inside the DMZ permanently, although the total number of residents is in the 100s. Because these citizens live under heavy restrictions (curfews and checkpoints), they are exempt from many things (such as property taxes) and have special privileges (children can attend any Korean university).
Overall, this trip was much less intimidating than I thought. Of course, it is a bit scary to be in the presence of the military, but I actually was more in awe that I was standing in such a politically tense location. (It also help ease nerves if you know international law 😀 )
Being able to visit multiple locations in the DMZ gave me so many emotions. The messages and images shown at Dorasan Station are filled with so much hope and optimism. Many people often forget that the division of the Korean peninsula is still pretty recent (1950s) and that many families are split apart.
Being at Dora Observatory and seeing a bunch of ROK soldiers taking a break after a meeting and seeing soldiers do their afternoon run gave me a glimpse into the daily lives of conscripted soldiers.
After the end of the JSA tour, I actually chatted a bit with PFC McDonald and Carroll along with another ROK soldier that’s part of the UNC. Although our lives are worlds apart, we were able to find common ground in talking about what we missed from home. (PFC McDonald is from Washington state and PFC Carroll is from Florida). I also managed to converse with our tour guide, Lina, from Koridoor Tours. I always find it fascinating to listen and hear about other people’s lives- I really think that humanizing everyday people sometimes puts things in perspective.
And while the JSA and the political situation between the two Koreas is a whole different ball game, I’m grateful for the chance to see a place that is so monumental, emotional, and significant in Korean history.