Sunday, December 15, 2013

Parents' Visit 2012 - Day 8 (DMZ edition)

a.k.a. My Parents Visited Over A Year Ago And I Never Finished Blogging About It


My bad. 

I kept meaning to finish an awesome blog post about how great the DMZ was, with all these little details about and pictures of our trip... and then stuff got busy and I forgot. Then Mom reminded me and I thought about finishing it and got distracted and forgot again... then the one-year anniversary of the trip came and went... then I realized I'm going home again in a week and I STILL haven't finished this post!! Time to get on that, huh?

Hey Mom. This can be your Christmas gift! 

Speaking of pictures, it's so strange to see pictures from 16 months ago! I think my shirt looked better in person. It's got ruffles on the sides so it comes out a little weird in pictures, like I'm a flying squirrel. Don't you hate when something looks cute until you see pictures? No? Just me? 

Anyway... on to the DMZ...

Dad. Mom. Zara.

If you ever get a chance to go on a DMZ tour, I highly recommend it! We went with the USO tour - link here - which departed from Camp Kim in Seoul. We chose the tour that included one of the tunnels, the Joint Security Area, and lunch in the DMZ. It lasted from 7:30 am – 3:30 pm and cost $80 each (96,000 Korean Won), not including lunch. I think lunch cost around $10? I can’t remember, but I would definitely do the full day again!
We had to call the tourist hotline to get directions for the taxi, cause I’d left my printed directions back in Gwangju. Oops. (f you ever need English support in Korea, just dial 1330 on your phone and they’re great! I’ve used it a number of times. (Mom’s notes included “Zara woke up frustrated, but we arrived at Camp Kim with enough time to go for Hollys coffee and muffins.” Bahaha!)
The DMZ, of course, is the Demilitarized Zone at the 38th parallel which forms the boundary between South Korea and North Korea. It's is about an hour north of Seoul by bus. For the rest of the post I’ll use ROK and DPRK to talk about the two countries, so if you’re not familiar with those abbrevs, it goes like this:

ROK = Republic of Korea = South Korea = Not Communist = I live here

DPRK = Democratic* People’s Republic of Korea = North Korea = Communist = I don't live there

*"Democratic" = LOL yeah right nope. 
I live in ROK, of course. South Korea. Not the communist one. You’d be amaaaazed at how many people ask my friends and me if we live in the communist one. Hello world. 
Our first stop on the tour was the 3rd infiltration tunnel.  Over the years since the Korean War ended, North Korea has made several attempts to invade South Korea.  The south has discovered a number of tunnels where the north attempted to infiltrate. It’s really interesting to actually tour one. We had to wear hard hats, we weren’t allowed to take photos inside, and it’s a bit of a hike down a REALLY STEEP path to get to the line between the countries (underground, of course). You can peek through these little windows to see the demarcation line between ROK and DPRK. I remember there being yellow powder on the walls indicating blast points, too. Super interesting, plus the crazy-steep walkway was good exercise.
Striving for reunification 
After the tunnel, we went to a lookout for our first glimpse of North Korea. We saw the factory that’s made so much news over the past year, where North Korean and South Koreans work together. In addition to their wages, the North Korean workers are also allowed to have one choco-pie for each day on the job. This is a huge treat: a single choco-pie will sell for more than two times the cost of an entire box of them in South Korea. There are smugglers who run choco-pies into North Korea from China because the demand is so high on the black market. I thought that was INCREDIBLE. Choco-pies aren’t even that good! They’ve got this waxy fake chocolate taste with stale cake and marshmallow goo. They’re pretty significant, though, when you think about them from a sociological case study.
I’m telling you. The social studies teacher that I am was GEEEEKING OUT about this stuff. “The supply and demand of choco-pies in North Korea: How a simple confectionary good represents countless benefits which North Korean citizens are denied. A study on communism vs. capitalism” A person could write a dissertation (or a least a freaking awesome 10-page paper) about that!!! Almost makes me want to go back for an MA in History... almost. 

There it is: DPRK
See the guy in shorts to my left at the lookout station? The tour dress code officially states that you must wear long pants, no shorts allowed. We even bought long zip-off pants (so he could wear them fishing later) for my dad the day before the tour since he only brought shorts with him to Korea. Apparently as long as the shorts were to the knee, people were still allowed in. Dad doesn't own any hipster shorts, so he would have been fine ;) 

After the tunnel, we went to Dorasan Station, where trains used to run all the way to Pyongyang. The line used to connect the two countries before the war. It was restored in the early 2000’s, but it only ran for a short time before both governments closed it down. It was considered a step toward reconciliation, but... well, now it’s a tourist stop.

We stopped for lunch inside the DMZ, which wasn't included in the trip cost but it was only about 10,000 won (~$10). We had bulgogi, rice, seaweed, the usual Korean sides, and... no joke... NORTH KOREAN BEER. It was the coolest thing!! It wasn't bad beer, either. I'd definitely say it was better than Cass or Hite*! Light and flavorful. Each bottle cost another 10,000 won (SO WORTH IT!) I wish we’d bought some more for my parents to take home to share with the rest of the family, but we didn’t think of that. That wasn't necessarily encouraged, but we saw that a few people had done that after we got back on the bus. What a cool souvenir, right?? How many people can say they’ve had beer from the DPRK? Not a whole lot. Check that off the bucket list! It'd be worth doing the tour again just for that (maybe ^.~)
*Cass and Hite are two big South Korea brands

We finally made it to the Joint Security Area. First, we had a briefing about the history of the DMZ and JSA. We learned things that I had never heard in my years as a history student. For example, the Axe Murder Incident of 1976. US troops went to trim a poplar tree for a better view of DPRK movement in the JSA. North Korean troops attacked during the outing and two American soldiers were bludgeoned to death with clubs and axes. This was followed by the retaliatory “Operation Paul Bunyan” to cut down the tree “with overwhelming force” from American and South Korean military (with which the two forces flexed their muscles for North Korea to see). North Korea had been trying to blame it on the “American imperialist aggressors” who sent in “hoodlums with axes,” but they backed down after Operation Paul Bunyan. The US camp at the DMZ was named Camp Bonifas in honor of Maj. Bonifas, one of the fallen Americans. It was a very informative briefing.

And then. 

We made it to Punmanjom.

We finally got to go to North Korea.

Punmanjom is the conference area. It is also the name of a village that used to be here, which was destroyed during the war.
"You may take as many pictures of North Korea as you'd like, but do not photograph towards the South Korean side of the JSA for security purposes."
The blue buildings themselves are not remarkable, but the official demarcation line runs horizontally through the middle of the room, marked by and a desk in the center of the space and a concrete slab outside the window. The South Korean soldiers stand at “ROK ready” (pronounced like “rock ready”), a taekwondo stance of preparedness. Just so you know, the guards in all of my pictures are not North Korean. Before we went, I assumed that all the “Hey look! We’re in North Korea now!” pictures were with North Korean soldiers, but no, they’re not allowed in the room at the same time as ROK soldiers.  During the briefing, they told us about an incident when an ROK soldier went to close the door facing the North Korean side and some DPRK soldiers tried to abduct him and drag him into North Korea. Yikes. So, yeah, basically the two sides share the space for tours, but *not* at the same time. The only times the two sides meet in the room are when they need to agree on something, like how tall the ROK/DPRK flagpoles in the JSA are allowed to be. 

South Korean soldiers standing at ROK Ready, facing North Korea
And we're in!
ROK soldier, straddling the demarcation line that runs through the center of the table, where the flag sits
*Officially in North Korea*
 As we drove through the JSA, we saw the memorial where the poplar tree used to stand, as well as the Bridge of No Return, which looks nothing like the Bridge that Hollywood uses. It’s just a little thing, nothing much to look at, but oh so significant in political/military history. The Bridge of No Return was used at the end (cease-fire agreement) of the Korean War. Prisoners were allowed to decide which country to remain in, but once they crossed they could never return. Whoa.

Our guide, a US Army MP, was animated and informative and made the trip so enjoyable! He talked about hazing new soldiers stationed at the DMZ. There are legends about landmines and horrible animals up around the border that they use to mess with each other. Pretty funny stuff if you ask me. (Not the landmines, cause those are real and not funny at all...)

The North Korean "Propaganda Village"
The memorial for the Axe Murder Incident 
The Bridge of No Return 
Later, we got to go through a JSA/DMZ museum with all sorts of history I’d never read before! [*HISTORY NERD TALKING*] I could have spent hours reading every information card, but, alas, we didn’t have very long. There were some dioramas of the Axe Murder Incident, though, that really stick out in my memory. I can’t even imagine the horror... One minute you’re following orders to trim a tree and a KPA soldier tells you that Kim Il Sung personally planted that tree, so you better stop trimming it, but you ignore him, then you’re being attacked by 20 North Korean guards with clubs. The incident happened very quickly but... I can’t even imagine.

Info about the two villages in the DMZ:
Freedom Village in South Korea and Propaganda Village in North Korea
The Armistice Agreement from 1953
No "final peaceful settlement" has been made yet, so of course we are technically still at war
What an incredible, memorable day. I can’t believe it was so long ago! Going through the pictures makes it seem like just the other day, but, wow, it has been a while! I'm amazed at what a difference a year and change can make. 

After we returned from the DMZ, we stopped off at our guesthouse to rest a minute before heading out for their last evening. We were staying in the Yellow Submarine guesthouse the last two nights since our first guesthouse/penthouse wasn't available... I love staying in hostels, but then again I *am* in my mid-twenties. Turns out it was a *little* young (read: loud) for my parents. Muaha... Oops. Next time, I think they'd prefer to spring for actual hotels. I definitely succeeded in giving them an accurate picture of my life last year! 

Mom LOVED the guesthouse.
For their last evening in Korea, we headed up to N. Seoul Tower to watch the sun set and see the Seoul skyline at night. We actually happened to run into some friends of mine from Gwangju up in the tower! I think their parents were visiting for the week also. It was a beautiful end to a fantastic trip. 



The next morning, we packed up and I took my parents to the airport. Saying goodbye is neither easy nor fun. Little did we know that I would fall so much in love with living abroad that it would be another full year until they saw me again. And yet! I’ll be home for Christmas, then I’ll begin my third year of life in South Korea. It’s hard to believe! 

See you soon! 

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