crossing over to the dark side

in which I take a tour of the DMZ and officially step into North Korean territory, spend hours wandering a busy market area, and attend a quiz night at an expat pub. oh, and how can i forget?!? break another local heart–before 7 am!  what can i say? all in a day’s work.

Today was a very complete day.  That hardly does it justice, really.  Today was just plain intense.

From the moment I decided to come to Korea, one of my highest sightseeing priorities was doing a tour of the DMZ.  For better or for worse, the Korean War and its aftermath has dramatically altered and shaped the histories of the two countries that have developed on either side of the military demarcation line around the 38th parallel.  So, with that in mind, and with my new found knowledge of post-Korean history (thank you, Don Oberdorfer), I went ahead and requested to have my normal Sunday off swapped out for a Thursday so I could go ahead and do the official USO tour of the DMZ.  Certainly well worth the trip.

One of the hardest part of the tour, however, is the fact that you are required to report to the USO office at 7:00 am on the day of your tour.  And thus, at a couple minutes past six, I was on my way out the door, on a bus by ten past six, and on the subway by twenty past.  Bleary eyed and exhausted, I had my first adventure of the day on the metro itself.   I had gone just barely two stops when I suddenly realised the “hello” that I was only subconsciously aware of had come from the person who had just sat down next to me.  And what more!  It was aimed at me.  I glanced over, a little disoriented (it was before 6:30 in the morning, after all), and I am confronted by a fairly chipper twenty-something Korean boy, and I knew it was going to be an adventure… I can’t really piece together a coherent picture of the guy, unfortunately… mostly because I was entirely distracted by his star earring in his left ear (if there were two, I didn’t notice).  But he was frierndly and we struck up a conversation.  He asked me where I was from, told me he was going to Austrailia to study in October.  He told me he worked in a metro station (? I think?  His description in Engish wasn’t entirely coherent and I was exhausted).  We chatted a couple stops worth, and I distractedly returned to my book (The Beautiful and the Damned, F. Scott Fitzgerald–started Sunday, am really enjoying, and almost finished), and he half-heartedly listened to some Queen on his iPod, but he quickly got bored of it.  He asked if I had already had lunch.  I smiled, and he realized his error.  But I told him I could not be late for my tour.  He then proceeded to ask if I watched Gossip Girl, apparently one of his favourite shows.  No.  And then the belated exchange of names.  Anna, I told him.  He smiled and informed me his Englsih name was… …wait for it… MICROSCOPE!  Yes, I wrote that correctly.  I was hit on by a Korean who goes by “Microscope” in English.  What the heck?!?  And then, it was time for him to disembark.  He asked for my email address, which I gave to him.  And then he was on his way. But we’ll return to that story later. Anyway, a couple stops later and it was time for me to get off and make my way to the USO Office, where I signed in for my tour and boarded the bus to take us to Panmunjeom.  On the bus, I befriended a trio of teachers from Canada, the US, and Australia.  The three of them were friendly and it was nice to compare notes.  An hour or so later, we found ourselves approaching the DMZ.  Our first stop was at the Joint Security Area, where we signed releases that claimed we would not hold the government responsible if something went wrong, as well as soemthing else.  I quote:

1. The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjon will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.  The JSA is a neutral but divided area guarded by United Natioans command military personnel on the one side (South), and the Korean People’s army personnel on the other (North)… Although incidents are not anticipated, the United Nations Command, the United States of America, and the Repubic of Korea cannot guarantee the safety of visitors and may not be held accountable in the event of a hostile enemy act.

2. Visitors will comply with the follwing instructions: (…)

c. Fraternization, inclduing speaking or any association with personnel from the Korean People’s Army/Chinese People’s Volungeers (KPA/CPV) side, is strictly prohibited…

d. Visitors will not point, make gestures, or expressions which could be used by the North Korean side as propaganda material agaisnt the United Nations Command…

h. At no time will visitors stand in teh way of or interfere with military formations… Photography is permitted in the JSA but is prohibited enroute between Checkpoint A (the entrance to Camp Bonifas) and Checkpoint B (the entrance to the JSA).

i. If any incidents should occur, remain calm and follow instructions issued by security personnel.

So, with that, I signed my life away and watched the short presentation.  Somehow, at that point, I managed to leave my camera in the conference room, making me excessively happy I had befriended my tourmates, who have promised to send me the JSA photos (the rest of the tour was appropriately documented on my camera). And then, we boarded the JSA bus and went to the actual demarcation line.  From there we saw the frighteningly serious officers of the KPA across the way.  The North Koreans took all sorts of pictures of us, most certainly, which is sort of creepy to think of.  And we entered into the UN building where the two sides come together.  It was in this room that I officially stepped onto North Korean soil.  But of course, only technically (no new country for me), in the safety of our South Korean guards, trained in taekwondo, among other things.  No North Koreans were in the actual building. And then that was that.  And it was time for the rest of the tour, but not before I bought some North Korean blueberry brandy and a 100 won note (about $.68) in the JSA gift shop.

The tour continued on to an overlook where you look out onto the DMZ, with two North Korean villages in site: Kaesong and the infamous Propaganda Village, site of the infamous North Korean flag that is raised 160 meters above the ground (actually a hilarious story–see the last paragraph of the Wikipedia page).   The former, Kaesong, one of North Korea’s largest villages, houses a South Korean factory, which employs North Koreans.  The North Koreans receive $5-6 of the $82 they make per month (the government takes the rest).  And while that seems cruel, it helps (a little bit) to know that the average North Korean makes around $2.50 per month…

I even got to snap some photos of enemy territory.  Check it out:

Kaesong sits just barely on North Korean territory.

Kaesong sits just barely on North Korean territory.

Propaganda Village and its famous flag(pole)

Propaganda Village and its famous flag(pole)

This last picture gives a better sense of what the area was like:

DMZ Tours, All Around!

DMZ Tours, All Around!

We took a break for lunch at a Korean restaurant before continuing onto the Third Tunnel.  Long story short, following the armistice, the North Koreans began digging a series of tunnels in an attempt to infiltrate South Korea.  The first such tunnel was discovered in 1974, the second in ’75, the third in ’78, and the fourth in ’90 (yes, that late), and it is suspected that there are more.  We went deep into the ground and traversed along the path that would have hypothetically transported North Korean troops.  Kind of creapy, really.  There were no pictures allowed, but the site was decorated with all sorts of absurdity outside.  See?

In the DMZ?

In the DMZ?

Piecing Korea back together?

Piecing Korea back together?

And then it was back to Seoul.  I made plans to meet my new friends for trivia night in expat-central Itaewon, and headed over to Dongdaemun Market, theoretically looking for a number of small items–a small hiking backpack for daytrips (mostly for my plans to hike Fuji!  But also for assorted longer hikes around Seoul), a belt,  some buttons to replace some on a shirt, and some warmer clothing for Fuji.  I was actually extremely successful, and it was pleaseant to wander in and out of market shops.  The biggest item, the backpack, was obtained, along with a long sleeve hiking shirt (in the Korean style!) and some hiking socks, for 40,000 won (about $32, which was much better than I expected to do!), which was a pleasant surprise.  And I obtained a belt, although not entirely sure I was satisfied.  And found buttons.

A picture from Dongdaemun:

The busy streets of Dongdaemun

The busy streets of Dongdaemun

And then headed off to Itaewon, where we did miserably in trivia (one of the sections was sports, so it is hardly surprising), but had fun in the process.  And, then, in the gloriousness that is free Wi-Fi and an iPod touch, I logged into my email to get the following gem:

From: cutews@—.net
Re: hey! anna! we’ve met on the subway^^

hellow! anna nice to meet you today on the subway!
in this morning when i saw you taht i’m very happy.
i lived in Mia station If you have time, i wanna see you again!

my phone number is 010 3223 —-.
any time welcome to call me^^
have a nice day!
thank you
take care!

ah i will waing for your recive mail all day long^^

Oh Microscope!  How can I take you seriously with a name like that?  And with that star earring…

And of course, I laughed.  Because between North Korea and a South Korean, a short night sleep and 17 hours of activity, it had been a very, very long day.  And I was exhausted.

Tomorrow, another long day greets me, in the form of a long hike, since I have the whole morning off!  Excessively excited.  Taking my camera this time, and will be excited to share some great views of Seoul…  Which means we shall conclude here for the evening.  The pictures from the JSA (including ones where I am technically on DPRK soil) to come when I get them from my new friends.


One thought on “crossing over to the dark side

  1. O! M! G!

    I never realized that destiny made a misstep in pushing you and Microscope together. It should’ve been me–I would have been THRILLED at the news of his Gossip Girl fixation.

    Ahh… Why did the stars misalign?

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