A trip to the DMZ only heightens the wish that one day, unification for the Koreans will no longer be a dream.
Razor wire surrounded us as soon as we reached the northern border of Seoul. Manned watchtowers lined the rivers and even tanks cloaked in camouflage stood at the ready. The proximity of this otherworldly situation to the cultural and business center of the country was staggering. Our vulnerability was quickly becoming apparent.
Three weeks prior to this, I found myself searching for destinations to pass my time in Korea. I dusted off the idea of visiting the Demilitarized Zone (better known as the DMZ) from the recesses of my mind and decided to see if it was even possible. A simple internet search, a few clicks, and I had the intriguing world of the DMZ at my fingertips.
The only way to get there is through a guided tour, and without actually going into North Korea, there are far more options and itineraries available than I had ever imagined. You have a choice of half-, whole-, or two-day overnight trips to different locales along the world’s most heavily fortified border. I ended up selecting an adventure travel company, paying roughly $35 USD for the daylong option. An hour north of Seoul we were to visit an infiltration tunnel that could get Northern troops within a hour of Seoul, the special “Freedom Bridge,” and an observatory with a panorama of the DMZ and North Korea. Despite it being labeled as one of Korea’s most popular tours, it was no problem reserving a seat. My expectations of seeing a country the world sees as part of an “Axis of Evil” were at Guinness Book proportions.
The bright sunshine made me squint as I took the final step off the tour bus. The two small United Nations and Republic of Korea army signs stood blindingly bright against the dank camouflage design of the modest building. The small rise of the pavement obstructed my view, only building my inner anticipation. Today, from the relative safety of the southern version of the DMZ, I was going to see what all those rumors of oppression and control looked like. I would lay my eyes on the most mysterious, threatening, and veiled country on the planet: North Korea.
As we approached the platform, another reminder of strict picture-taking regulations was yelled from a fully armed Korean soldier; the tension was palpable. Each step brought a new and different vision of what may greet my eyes. Will we see the Northerners chained, wearing tattered clothing, working the rice fields to exhaustion? Would it be nothing more than an undeveloped moonscape just on the other side of the fence? Would I have the red dot of a North Korean laser scope on me at any point?
I stepped foot on the observation platform where the view yawned in all directions. Mountains framed a small distant city. The barbed wire meandered along the topography perpendicular to us. There was no moonscape and no apparent forced labor camps, just a continuation of rolling hills with the barren foliage of early spring — a striking continuation of Korea.
1:15 p.m. Third Infiltration Tunnel Theater
The camera slides gracefully over a lush mountaintop meadow. Pristine distant ridges are interrupted by a Korean child lifting a flower to the heavens. A voice finishes its soliloquy. “The DMZ will be a lasting memory of the unification of the Koreans for generations to come.” The lasting memory for those inside the theater is a unification of different sorts.
Our previous stop took us to what is known as the “Freedom Bridge,” the actual bridge used by northern refugees and POW’s returning south after the Korean War. Pictures of loved ones and family members, personal notes to them, and tattered flags lined the chain-link fence and drifted in the breezes skirting the rows of barbed wire. The memorial was a grave reminder of the rift, not only between countries, but between their people. It is with this emotion fresh in our minds, that we entered the theater.
The unification witnessed in the movie was not of the two Koreas, it was that of distant family members meeting after nearly 50 years of forced separation. The screen filled with images of men weeping in each other’s arms, mobbing one another after realizing their relation. In 2000, the North agreed to a temporary loosening of border regulations allowing such encounters. This policy has since been ended.
A lady to my right leaned towards me, eyes fixed on the screen. “Can you believe that this is true?”
“No,” I answered truthfully. “I can’t even begin to fathom what those people were going through.”
Emotion lingered thick over the audience. North, South, it didn’t matter . . . they were Korean.
4:26 p.m., from an e-mail issued by the U.S. embassy
The U.S. Embassy in Seoul is transmitting the following information through the Embassy’s warden system as a public service to all U.S. citizens in the Republic of Korea. Please disseminate this message to U.S. citizens in your organizations or to other Americans you know.
North Korea has announced that it will attempt a rocket launch between 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. on one of the days between April 4 – 8, 2009, from a site in northeast North Korea. This possible event has received much media attention. At this time, the U.S. Embassy in Seoul sees no potential danger to American citizens in South Korea as a result of the possible launch and does not believe that any special actions are warranted by American citizens other than to pay close attention to local news reports during this time period.
9:32 a.m. Seoul
With proof of the staunch ideologies, again, coming to a boil on a global scale, it seems bringing the two Koreas together is further out of reach than ever before. It was only after an e-mail from the U.S. embassy, with the reality of a North Korean missile launch dawning on me, that I stopped to reflect on what the DMZ and the separation of Korea truly means.
Leaving the DMZ along the same watchtower-dotted roads we came on, there was a much different energy felt inside the bus. At that time, there were only rumors of an impending missile launch that were seemingly overshadowed. There was a thick sense of collective heartbreak for the Korean families considered by those creating this situation as mere collateral damage. They are the ones heroically fighting a daily battle.
One can only hope that soon, the fences and barbed wire, along with the oppression and control, will come down and the continuation of the Korean peninsula, as witnessed from the Dora Observatory, can be a continuation of Korea and its people.
This tour is considered Korea’s most popular for a good reason: it leaves an unforgettable impression on those that reserve a seat. The fascinating, and often terrifying strip of land labeled DMZ, doesn’t just provide the taste of undeniable tension, it makes one feel the unbelievable emotion of family. The yearning for unification creates a hope that good will conquer in the end, and allow the Korean people to one day live harmoniously again.