The Crazy in September: Visiting the DMZ

I will readily tell you I had no intention of going to the DMZ when I arrived in Korea. In all likelihood, that could be attributed to knowing as much about the Korean War as M*A*S*H managed to bring to the table. My impression of that period in history was that it happened in Korea, lots of people died, and for some reason the US was involved. Yeah, really no clue, I’m ashamed to say. (Also, I generally try to avoid situations where people are patrolling with firearms and there are land mines behind the fence that’s ten feet away from me.) There’s the additional issue I have with trivializing historical events from other cultures, and this trip really felt more like a tourist destination than anything.

It’s been difficult for me to grasp how the locals feel about the issue of separation between North and South Korea. The younger generations appear to see it more as a curiosity than a traumatic experience of families being lost or separated. In that respect, I don’t feel I have the right or ability to accurately portray my experience or impressions of the DMZ without obviously coming across as a generally ignorant tourist. I would like to apologize in advance for that.

Coming from a military family, I was told several times by different people I should take a trip toward the border. I style myself as the hippie child when it comes to being an army brat twice over and then some. I dislike shooter games (unless you count 007 Goldeneye), pretty much all types of modern warfare, and would much rather hug a tree and visit temples than go anywhere near a “hostile” country. I’m pretty firm in the belief that I would be a terrible soldier, primarily because I’m regularly questioning why we do what we do. At the same time, I’m very proud of my family’s military service and heritage, so while I recognize I would be unwilling to do what they’ve all done, I’m glad they had/have the fortitude to serve.

My grandfather returning from the Korean War.

Since Ash is winding down her time in Korea, we’ve been doing a couple of things she hasn’t done since she arrived in Korea about a year and a half ago. We signed up once again for an Adventure Korea trip that would bus us to the Freedom Bridge and Memorial, into the civilian control zone, the Third Tunnel of Aggression, and Dorasan Station.

We stopped first at the Freedom Bridge, where POWs have been exchanged in the past. Remember the part where I mentioned part of the DMZ had become a tourist destination? To prove my point, I would like to mention the theme park that was within walking distance of the memorial. Yes, theme park. And there was also a Popeye’s. Aside from those two things, I enjoyed spending time at the memorial and learning more about the abandoned, bullet-riddled steam engine, the Peace Bell, and the Stones of Peace Wall. Trying to grasp the gravity of what had occurred was still quite difficult, especially considering the actual land of the DMZ was quite beautiful.

The memorial, Freedom Bridge, and DMZ.

We had lunch in the civilian control zone, in a small village that made its living from a touristy shop it ran and the restaurant that served only delicious, locally grown food. We were offered as much as we could eat and a wide variety of different foods. The people there were very nice. We were told they can only leave their homes a couple of days out of the year for security reasons, so vacation days aren’t something these people are familiar with. They also are not required to serve in the military because they are basically already living in a tense, military controlled environment.

A portion of our delicious lunch.

The following stops were at the Third Aggression Tunnel and a small museum, followed by a trip to the Panmunjom observation center. We weren’t quite expecting a workout when we arrived at the Tunnel, and I would like to warn anyone considering going that you need to be in pretty good shape if you end up walking down. The descent is hard on your knees, if you’re taller than 5’4″ you’re going to have to bend over a great deal, and the ascent will leave you rather winded with your calves burning. If you’re older, I would suggest paying the additional fee and taking the train down the tunnel and back up again. The museum was quite informative, but we were rather rushed through it to get to the documentary, which I found to not be as informative as I would have liked.

Pushing for unification.

As I mentioned above, we were slated to go to Panmunjom, but when we arrived at the checkpoint, we were not allowed through. Instead, we headed to Dorasan Station earlier than planned. Our guide mentioned we would go to the Observation Center in Paju, which she thought was better than the one at Panmunjom for views for North Korea. I was completely okay with this decision since stoic guards of any sort tend to freak me out. Dorasan Station is a railway station that is completely ready for the reunification of North and South Korea. It is equipped with customs and quarantine buildings and holds the hope of one day connecting South Korea to Europe by rail, making transcontinental travel possible on one line. Because the station is not regularly used, we were allowed to meander about on the tracks.

To Pyeongyang

On our way back to Seoul, we stopped for about an hour at the Paju Observation Center. The views of North Korea were beautiful. We watched a mini documentary about the geographical layout of North Korea based on what we could observe, and there was a cultural museum on one of the lower floors.

North Korea and its propaganda village.

At the end of the day, I’m glad I went. The trip made me appreciate the country I’m currently calling home so much more. It made me love Korea in a completely different way.