Should I still push through with the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) tour? I asked myself over and over again as news of the North Korean soldier who defected to the South replayed in my head.
What is it about risky places that draw us to them? My friends and I did decide to continue with our trip to Paris a week after the city was under a series of attacks in 2015. That’s another trip that deserves its own entry.
Paris, November 2015
I threw a lot of caution to the wind when I signed a waiver stating that my visit to the Joint Security Area (JSA) of North and South Korea could possibly entail serious consequences should there be any unexpected incidents. It was too late to turn around now; the bus ride to Panmunjom from Seoul took more than an hour plus the extra time that I spent finding the travel agency from the Samgakji Station. Yes, it is possible to technically be in North Korea but you have to book through an accredited agency to facilitate the tour. I recommend arranging your DMZ Tour with Koridoor. Feel free to contact me for walking directions to the meeting place should you decide to take the subway. Trust me, you might need it.
Things started to feel serious when we were transferred to another bus escorted by an American soldier who informed us right off the bat that we could absolutely take 0 photos unless stated that we were allowed to do so. We were also asked to leave behind our belongings except for our cameras and phones. Imagine being inside the only vehicle on an unfamiliar road with strangers, without your purse, in an area where landmines have made amputees of soldiers and North Koreans that have been shot as they defected to the South.
DMZ, December 2017
The tension was palpable as soon as we were led to the JSA. The two sides facing each other with their respective soldiers taking watch. There were cameras from the North observing us and we were reminded constantly not to make any derogatory actions towards the opposite side. As soon as we were confirmed to take the tour, we were made to understand what we could and could not wear as this could be possibly used as propaganda against South Korea.
With our Military escort who also served as our tour guide, North Korea right across
A closer look at the North Korean side; some of the cameras and a North Korean soldier keeping watch
This Republic of Korea (ROK) soldier shown below was the only person standing in our way towards officially entering the North by way of the door behind him. There was a time and space limit in taking photos and selfies were allowed with the soldiers who remained in Judo Fighting Stance. We were also made aware that they could attack anyone who might be considered a threat.
Technically standing in North Korea, guarded by this ROK soldier
Part of the DMZ Tour included visits to the Dorasan Station, Dora Observatory and the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel.
The Dorasan Station, at a time, linked North and South Korea.
The Dorasan Station
One of the eeriest places that I have ever been is this station. Literally waiting for a train that won’t arrive, maybe for a long time.
Inside the Dorasan Station
Seen below is my view of North Korea from the Dora Observatory. It felt surreal hearing propaganda from the North blasting in the South. At the time of my visit, the South returned this favor by blasting Christmas and K-Pop songs to the North.
North Korea from the Dora Observatory
I initially wanted to skip the tour of the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, which was dug by the North Korean army to spy on the South. I didn’t know what to expect but I’m glad that I went ahead in spite of my fear of uncertainty and the closed space underneath. We weren’t allowed to take photos and were made to wear hardhats. I talked myself into pretending that we were walking down towards a very steep wine cellar that never seemed to end, in between bumping my head on the roof of the cave-like structure below. The fun part started when we had to walk back upwards. I won’t recommend this to anyone with severe asthma, heart ailments, knee and back problems; and claustrophobia.
The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel
(Photo courtesy of Paju Culture & Tourism and http://www.imagineyourkorea.com)
So what is it about risky places that draw us to them? Is it the bragging rights that come with it as soon as we emerge unscathed? Is it the stories that won’t escape us, like, “We’ll always have Paris?” Or in this case the DMZ?
At that time, it was the number of moments that I had to stop and catch my breath. From being present in a time and place where tensions between both sides could possibly erupt and realizing how much of a privilege it is to live within reach of most people that I care about with zero to a few restrictions. Not to mention making it alive between huffing and puffing after that far from a dream of a trek underneath.
Was it worth it? I believe I earned this treat afterwards.
The balm that completed that day; near one of the exits at the Myeongdong Station