Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Country #105*: N. Korea. Sort of.

Before my most recent trip, I reached out to a friend with a pressing question.

 Since you are my arbiter of what counts and doesn't count in the country list, here's a question for you. My next trip goes to China, S. Korea and Japan. I've been to all of those so no new countries there but- there is a DMZ tour from Seoul that takes you into a building that straddles the border. After signing all kinds of releases, you can go and stand on the N Korean side of the building. From the pictures I have seen, it looks pretty identical to the S Korean side but I imagine there is a line of some kind painted on the ground. While technically you are in N Korea, I'm not sure that this should count because you are not really stepping onto N Korean soil. It feels more akin to stopping in an airport. Then again, unless I buddy up to Dennis Rodman, this is probably the closest I'll be able to get to N Korea. Question: Does it count?

I felt that my friend, the person who got me started counting countries, was best suited to resolving this conundrum.

His response: If this were, say, Hungary and Slovakia, I would say no way.  But it is REALLY unlikely that you will ever have a better chance to go to North Korea… so I vote YES that counts.

He has a point. What are the odds that I am going to find myself hanging in Pyonyang anytime soon? And this is indeed very much a special case, as I was constantly reminded as I tried to get myself on a DMZ tour.

First there is trying to figure out what exactly you want to do. The agencies offer both a JSA and a DMZ tour (or an all-day combo tour where you do both). To put it in the simplest terms, if you want to get as close as possible to N Korea and walk into "the building", you go for the JSA or the Joint Security Area tour. If instead you want to see all the other sites associated with the division between countries and peer at N. Korea through a telescope, then the DMZ or Demilitarized Zone tour is for you.  Suffice it to say, if you have come this far, the JSA is the way to go.

However, it is not as easy as just showing up to the agency with won in hand. You need to plan ahead. Assuming there is space on the JSA tour- they get over 100,000 visitors a year and do not run the tours if there are any military exercises planned, which was the case one of the days I was there- you need to submit all of your information, including passport #, a minimum of 72 hours ahead of time. If you are S Korean, make that 6 months prior.

If you manage to clear those hurdles, let's hope you packed well. The tour comes with a strict dress code. No torn jeans, short skirts, flip flops or anything else that looks "sloppy". The reason is that while you are looking at the N Korean soldiers, they are looking right back at you and will sometimes take your picture.  If you look like a vagabond, albeit a stylish one, they will then use the photo as propaganda to show how impoverished S Korea/ the west really is. 

Fortunately I managed to get a reservation, pass the background check, dress myself and most importantly figure out the bus system and get to the starting point on time. After signing in, we were boarded onto a disco bus and a guide began explaining how we got to this point.

Cruising by Gyeongbokgung Palace in our disco bus

Short version of the story: Japan ruled all of Korea from 1910 until the end of WWII. When the Japanese empire was dismantled, Korea ended up getting split along the 38th parallel with Russia controlling the north and the US controlling the South.  Each side had its own government which disagreed with the split and felt entitled to rule all of Korea.  In 1950, the North got grabby and invaded the South. For the next three years, the two sides battled it out with some help from their more powerful friends. They went back and forth until July 1953,  when an armistice was signed and the DMZ was created as a buffer between these warring neighbors. Prisoners of war were returned but a peace treaty was never signed, meaning that technically they are still at war.

As we drove along the Han river, the guide pointed out the non-stop expanse of barbed wire and multiple guard towers. This is due to the fact that the river freezes over in winter and there is concern that the N Koreans will simply scurry across the ice and into Seoul.

Surprisingly, like really surprisingly, there is no clear visible demarkation between North and South so one trick the guide pointed out was that if we saw trees, we were looking at the south. If the hills had been cleared, mainly for the sake of better visibility, we were looking at the North.

As soon as we approached the first of multiple checkpoints leading into the DMZ, we were no longer permitted to take photos. A S Korean soldier boarded and checked our passports, something which happened at least four more times in the course of one morning. At another stop, a soldier came on to check our footwear. For real.

We were led into the JSA visitor's center where we had to watch a short film on the history of the JSA and sign a release acknowledging that we might get killed and agreeing not to scoff at the North Korean soldiers.  Really.  Follow the link and read it for yourself. It's a trip.

While this was happening, the S. Korean soldier now responsible for us and his American counterpart tried to figure out who would escort us in the bro-iest conversation possible. "You want to take this one, bro?" "Bro, nah, I did the last one. You do this one, bro." "Ok, I got this, bro." During this conversation, I'm texting my sister "LOL, we are being led around by the leads from next summer's buddy cop movie. This is awesome." Her response was a bit more measured "Are you supposed to be texting? I can't believe you are going into N Korea. You're going to get fucking killed."

We were then boarded onto military buses and taken the to the actual JSA. This is the only spot where the two sides can meet face to face. In the past, these blue buildings have been used as a neutral point for leaders from both sides to come and resolve conflicts.  We were finally permitted to take photos, but only in the direction of N Korea.

If you look between the two buildings, you can see the line marking the actual boarder. All the soldiers pictured are S Korean, although there was one N Korean soldier standing way back by the white building on the other side. There are occasional tours led from the North and during those times, there will be more Northern soldiers present, standing closer to the border, but today it was just that guy.

As soon as one group leaves the building, the next enters. You get about five minutes to walk back and forth "between countries" and take photos with the S Korean soldiers.

The microphone cables make up the dividing line within the room.

To me the most surreal part of what was already a surreal visit was watching these guys standing in a martial arts stance, pistols at the ready, looking all serious yet being essentially treated like Mickey and Minnie Mouse on a break from the Electric Parade. Behind them stands a door leading outside of the "safe zone" and into a country with an unhinged leader and a propensity for weapons testing but within this room, people (myself included) clamored for selfies in front of the S Korean Hans and Frans.

As soon as we were done, we were led back to the Welcome Center and given some time to peruse the gift shop. Yes, that is correct. This strip of land dividing two nations technically still at war has a gift shop. And a temple..

"Joint Security Area. In Front of them All"
At this point, the JSA tour was done but I was still trying to process what I had just seen. I've been to plenty of historic places after the fact, including the DMZ in Vietnam, but never something like this. I wanted to see more so I asked the guide about upgrading my tour to the full day version.

After lunch,  we began the DMZ portion of the tour.  Our first stop was at one of four known infiltration tunnels dug by the North Koreans in an attempt to launch a surprise attack on Seoul. It is believed that there are many more but since the emphasis these days is on long range missiles, the mystery tunnels are not a major concern. This particular tunnel was discovered when one of the engineers responsible for its construction defected to the South and told them of its approximate location.  Even with that information, it took several years of testing to discover its exact location, mainly because it lies 240 ft beneath ground.  Once it was found, the North Koreans initially went with  the "It's wasn't me" defense. When that didn't fly- the placement of the explosives used to create the tunnel reveal the detonations were from north to south- then they argued that they were mining for coal and must have accidentally just kept going into the DMZ. Problem there is that there is no coal in the area.

After putting all of your belongings, including cameras and phones, in a locker you can either descend via foot or tram to the tunnel itself.  Once you reach tunnel, you can walk up until the border itself which has been walled off. Along the way, the constant thunking of helmets against the low ceilings by the taller members of our group provided an amusing enough soundtrack.

The tunnel, along with every other DMZ site we went to has been turned into a well-commercialized tourist attraction. According to our guide, at one point the N Koreans asked if they could get a piece of the tunnel action only to be told "But I thought it wasn't your tunnel...."

Next up, we went to the Dora Observatory. From here, you can view N. Korea and listen to propaganda radio broadcasts coming from the South.

Through telescopes you can view the Kaesong Industrial Complex.  This was a joint project established in 2004 in an attempt to improve relations between the two sides. Companies from S Korea were manufacturing goods in N Korea, with workers able to go back and forth between the two.  This continued until last year, when the North launched one rocket two many and the South shut the project down. 

On a clear day, it is also possible to see one of the North's propaganda villages. This is a basically a giant movie set meant to look like a prosperous city to any S Korean observer but upon closer observation, there are no people there, just lights sets to a timer and buildings with no windows or doors.

Bizarre shows of dominance seem to par for the course. Our guide told of the contentious battle over which side has the most beautiful women. The North tried to one up their rivals by bringing some of their prettiest girls and having them bathe by a river in view of the South, which I'm sure the Southern soldiers just hated. Not to be outdone, the South gathered up their lookers and threw a beauty pageant in the damn DMZ itself!

In another questionable military maneuver, prior to a meeting in the JSA, the South took a saw to the chair legs of their opponents' seating in order to make them look shorter. When the Northern soldiers discovered they now had childrens' chairs, they stormed out enraged.

During the time of Kaesong Complex, when relations were better and S Koreans were even able to vacation in the mountains of N Korea, there was hope of eventual reunification. This led to investment in the restoration of a railway line that unites the two sides and that would eventually allow S Koreans to travel all the way to Europe via rail. In 2007, a freight train began making the journey carrying materials to Kaesong but soon after, the North shut it down and since then the train has not gone any further north than the Dorasan station.

I know this is the traveler in me speaking but this is the site that I found the saddest. It felt like the station was built with such high expectations and the whole thing was dashed, leaving them with this sparkling new building and nowhere to go. As our guide explained, during her entire lifetime, S Koreans have been isolated with ocean in every direction but north and for a while they were able to dream of transcontinental travel.

Our final stop was to the Imjingak village, which is the site of the Freedom Bridge built for the purpose of returning political prisoners to their homes after the signing of the armistice. Today, the bridge is blocked off but families who were separated by the division come to this spot to honor and leave symbolic messages for their relatives on the other side.

A train that was destroyed during the war  sits on display, while across the parking lot, a full on amusement park is taking place.  This was as fitting an ending to the JSA/DMZ tour as any, one that reveals both the horrors of war and its absurdities.

As for the initial question, whether this should count as my 105th country. I'm honestly not sure. I did step foot on the N. Korean side and that is most likely as close as I will ever get.  I got my friend's blessing and an informal facebook poll leaned heavily towards it counting. (Yes Yale, I know you disapprove). It probably should count but I'm still not certain which way I'm going to go on this. Hopefully, the dreamed-of reunification eventually takes place, making it all one country and rendering this all a moot point, once and for all.

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