Sunday, June 23, 2013

A Visit to the DMZ

Since the DMZ is a little bit of a sobering subject, here's a less upbeat song: Expired by Tablo.

On Saturday I went with Anna, Annie and Janet on a tour of the DMZ, including a visit to one of the tunnels that North Korea made underneath South Korea as an attempt at infiltration in the 70's.

I'll start first with arriving at the tour center. Though I've been here only three weeks, it was still odd to see so many foreigners all on one place. Even weirder was being able to eavesdrop on the conversations of people you didn't know. It felt like everyone was talking so loudly, but it might have been just that I could actually understand it that it seemed so intrusive.

One of the most interesting parts of the tour for me, though probably the most tiresome to actually see was the tunnel. It would have been pretty boring I think, except that I just finished reading The Orphan Master's Son a week ago and so the images of Jun Do in the tunnels were still fresh in my mind. As I walked through in the cool underground air, hunched over to avoid the low hanging ceiling dripping with water, I could imagine the way the character describes his experiences in the book.  I wished that they could turn the lights off for just one short moment to feel what it was like down there in the dark. We could see the holes where dynamite was places to blast through, and also the black marks painted onto the solid granite walls by the North to make it seem as if they had been mining for coal.

The most intense part of the tour was when we arrived at the joint security area near the actual division line, the one that you see so often in BBC photos. The ROK soldiers stand around in the first stance of Taekwondo,  so still they look like wax figures, eyes fixed on the North Korean soldier watching us all from his side. We were repeatedly reminded that behind the windows of the large building facing us, other North Korean soldiers were monitoring us, so we should not gesture or wave or do anything that might be misinterpreted. It was almost eerie. The three short blue buildings along the center were divided in two, so that if you went inside and stood on one side, you were technically in North Korea. We did have the chance to do that, so I can say that I have stood on both South Korea and North Korea at once.

In some ways that was kind of symbolic of the underlying sentiment I got from a lot of these tour stops. There are definitely bad relations with the North, almost like a family member that is acting ridiculous enough that everyone is not sure if they will end up hurting themselves or others. There isn't much respect there, but there is still a bond. Every time the South and North were mentioned together, it was with the language of "when reunification happens," not "if." The difference in meaning in those two words is powerful, and it is a way to hold onto hope in a situation that seems pretty much stagnant, at least to the eyes of an American looking from the outside. I wonder if I will be alive to see it happen. I hope so.

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