My Dad digs military history.
He lived through the Cold War.
One of the last vestigial tails of that tense time remains the most heavily armed border in the world, the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.
I figured this would be the highlight of Dad’s trip to South Korea. I made sure to go through the USO which is the only tour that permits visitors to cross into North Korea (for about four metres and ten seconds). We didn’t have time, or inclination really, to try to go to North Korea, ten seconds would suffice.
Turns out that while Dad really did enjoy the day, his highlight was the trip to Korean Folk Village. Looking back on it nearly a year later I can understand why; there was nothing unknown for my Dad at the DMZ, his memory is better than mine, at the Folk Village there were all sorts of things he’d never contemplated because while he knew Cold War History, he didn’t know Korean History.
Yet again, we’re up early, and of the eight days in South Korea this day dawns dreary and overcast. On the way to the USO office in central Seoul, the skies open up and a sudden squall of a rainstorm rolls through, from before we find the unobtrusive and easy-to-miss gathering point until nearing the DMZ the rain lashes against the windows of the bus and threatens to make this a very gloomy day.
Fortunately by the time we reach the border the rains have mostly ceased and eventually the sky brightens to a slate grey colour, but still hangs low over the zone.
The USO doesn’t mess around.
The first stop gives the basic history of the DMZ, the Korean War, the countries involved. It’s a bit like a high school assembly, only the numbers being bandied about are dead, casualties, tonnage of bombs dropped, amount of dollars spent and number of rounds fired. It’s pretty staggering. But it is, really, just some slide on a screen.
More important we get split into groups and assigned our Military Liaison. Ours happens to be a loud-bellowing Mid-Westerner with a Nordic name. I’ll call him Storröstson (which is something for translation geeks to figure out). He was intense but almost in a comical manner, not that I was going to joke around with him, but I couldn’t really take him seriously because he was so LOUD and SERIOUS.
After the slideshow the group split in two, our group went to stand on a concrete platform to stare across the short distance to look at the North Korean buildings and the guards watching us, watching them. Sargent Shouts-a-lot barked at us, “Keep Inside The Rocks! Don’t Go Past The Rocks! If You Do, You Will Be Shot!”
I look around, curious where these rocks are, I want to know how far I can wander before I have to duck, roll and scream like the coward I am. There are no rocks.
“Again! Do Not Go Past The Rocks!”
What fucking rocks?
“Uh, Sarge… where are these rocks we can’t go past?”
“The Republic Of Korea Soliders. Either End Of The Platform.”
A collective groan of understanding goes up. I know, after a year on the border, that the military are abbreviated RoK, but I would have though Sarge Shouts-a-lot would have twigged after the eleventieth time he was asked that question that using an acronym that not everyone knows is a good way to get a tourist or two killed.
Naturally, we all remain solidly on the platform, between the two RoK soldiers staring across the short expanse until its our groups turn to enter the infamous blue peace hut.
It should be noted that there is no peace treaty between North and South Korea, technically the hostilities are not officially ceased. Something which flares up now and again and makes Canadians teaching on the border rather nervous.
In what can only be a testament to ritual, a formalized way of viewing the North Koreans emerged from the various threats and counter-threats and truly tragic, expensive trees as now a RoK soldier stands half-hidden behind a blue hut to keep watch on the North. Reflective aviator sunglasses in place, should he need anything; from reporting suspicious activities to requesting permission to scratch his elbow to asking about the new 2NE1 single, he must do so by motioning with the arm hidden from his northern counterparts.
It’s a like a lonely knight of honour.
We enter the blue hut and with everything, including the sinking of the Cheonan by a North Korean torpedo, to the shells fired across the straight over the disputed marine boundary, within the last year, the tension is palpable. This hut where the peace treaty continues to not be worked on sits astride the border. For a few brief moments and steps I cross into North Korea to pose beside a RoK solider, there, I think for the photo op and to keep anyone from doing anything epically moronic.
The table sits dead centre of the room, equally in North and South Korean territory.
And then we’re out, following Sargent Shouts-a-lot back into the coach for a tour of the rest of the DMZ.
We pass the most expensive stump in the world, where US, RoK and North Korean troops clashed over a popular tree that blocked the line of sight from one UN watchtower to another. In the short melee, two American officers were killed, the US responded by mobilizing special forces; army, engineers, air force and an aircraft carrier to ensure that tree was felled. And it was. And it remains the most expensive timber in the history of the world.
We roll past the Bridge of No Return, apparently named by North Korean captives who did not want to be exchanged and returned to their home country and military.
Then we loop back away from the border with North Korea, back to a safer, securer part of the DMZ. Even though it is structured to be imposing, after the year I’d had on the border, I can say I wasn’t the only one breathing a little easier when the bus curled back from the border, away from the lingering tension and unresolved resentment of a peninsula too long fractured.
Of note, especially for Mom, not all gift shops in the DMZ are equal, the best shelved store is the first one visited, shop accordingly.
Now it was time to get down. Way down. Third Tunnel Down.
Now, in addition to the ongoing, above ground game of brinkmanship and sabre-rattling, the North Koreans opted to go subterranean too. So far four tunnels have been discovered through various means but many more are feared and the military constantly searches for new infiltration methods. Under 50 kms from Seoul, the Third Tunnel could have wreaked major havoc upon the South if it had not been discovered. Now it is a tourist destination.
We hike down… and down… and down. My poor parents, they’re going to have earned lounging away their cruise home, I’ve made them walk so far on this trip. Wear your hard hats, North Koreans are a short people, I even smacked my head a time or two during the long, windy trek to a… set of double steel blast doors.
My Dad added a slew more scratches to his well used helmet.
I’ll say this about the Third Tunnel. It’s worth doing once. To see what the North attempted, the pick marks scarring the stone, the determination and manpower it must have required impresses. But not enough to make that long walk down and longer hike back up twice.
Remember how I said this was the first day of inclement weather? Well, that kinda ruined the visit to the hilltop observation station. It doesn’t take long for everyone to look at the mounted binoculars and the cloud bank directly limiting visibility to about 4 metres of grey and we all turned around to find lunch.
Lunch in the DMZ mess hall for tourists. Better food than the soldiers likely received back during the aftermath of the war.
The tour concludes leaving the DMZ but stopping at Dorasan Station. Seoul Central it is not. There are about two trains a day. It has been built should reconciliation ever occur, so the South can link up with the North via a high speed rail system. If the North gets its tracks in order. Now, stands as a monument to one of the things I learned most about South Korea as a country and a people.
It’s not always apparent in how they act with foreigners, or even each other, and the whole country can seem infuriatingly rigid basing things on format and regulations. But they do dream. I learned that from the students I taught, and the teachers I met. These people dream big, not by accident did this half-a-peninsula with limited natural resources and 40 million people become one of the industrial leaders of the world.
To me, that’s what Dorasan Station represents.
If the day comes with the North and the South can find a way to mend fences long broken and left to rot, then the South wants to be prepared for that day, to help and assist their northern kin.
With that, it was time to depart the DMZ and head back to Namdaemun. Mom and Dad felt exhausted so instead of venturing into Myeongdong for one last shop, with the rains threatening once more, we simply popped across the street from the Ramada to a Vietnamese place.
(Who knew the foreshadowing that held.)
More importantly, after a week in South Korea, Dad finally managed to use chopsticks to get food into his mouth!