The Holidays are over, which normally would mean a deluge of blogging about which exotic locale I spent them in. This year, though, I was back home in Peoria, Illinois*… which either I don’t have to tell you about or you don’t particularly care.
We have three movie theaters!
So, I waited to post again until I had something worth posting about. It turns out that is one of the first things most foreigners think about when they think of South Korea, for good or ill. No, it’s not Samsung phones or the undisputedly most famous product of the land, Gangnam Style. Instead (always instead, you’ve heard enough about Psy) I will talk about my recent trip to the DMZ.
You should know about the Korean War, which was ended in fact if not name by a 1953 Truce. To maintain this haphazard peace, a 2.5 mile wide no man’s land was created between the new separate North and South Korea, and persists to this day. I hooked on with a group of friends on the USO-run tour to receive a hearty dose of history, a bit of propaganda, and a glimpse of one of the most reclusive nations on Earth.
Our tour started at the 3rd Tunnel, one of the four North Korean-dug tunnels discovered so far underneath the DMZ. We began this portion with a video narrated by a husky-voiced American gentleman who apparently either wasn’t able to or didn’t care enough to change the clearly word for word transcription from Korean. It presented some history, then veered off on an odd tangent that attempted to frame the DMZ as a monument to peace and a pristine nature preserve. Truly, if you hold your breath and listen carefully, you might hear a deer… being exploded by a land mine.
Or maybe one of these ‘squirrels’
After this, we walked the seemingly unending ramp down to the entrance of the tunnel, tapped our complimentary hard hats for good luck, then promptly bent over double for the seemingly unending tunnel, which apparently was big enough to allow the passage of 20,000 North Korean troops in an hour, which would have to be a stunningly choreographed wave of five-foot menace to be true.
Although, if North Koreans do anything, it’s choreography
At the end of the tunnel was a small metal door with a peephole in it allowing you to stare over at North Korea’s small metal door. Unless you have a vivid Cold War-inspired imagination, it’s a bit underwhelming.
Next, we headed for a lookout point where we could check out the DMZ, and on a clear day, even see North Korea. There were two vantage points, one in a glass-walled amphitheater where we watched another video but were forbidden from taking pictures, than outside on an observation deck with coin-operated binoculars and a thick green line behind which we were allowed to snap away.
The DMZ and what we could see of North Korea beyond it was fascinating in how innocuous it was. It really just looked like more Korea, albeit with a giant North Korean flag overlooking it and an ominous lack of trees on the mountains of the North Korean side, both because they’d all been long-ago consumed by the fuel-starved nation and as a military strategy clearing the line of fire of the large artillery batteries and massive weapons storehouses we were told were nestled in the brown peaks.
Within the DMZ itself was a large factory complex jointly administered by North and South Korea. South Koreans put up the money and materials and North Koreans supply the sweet, cheap labor. We were informed that they were paid as much as ten times the average wage in North Korea, and even get to horde and sell the chocopies (moon pies, basically) they got for their daily snack. This made me wonder what the economic dynamic will be when the two Koreas unite (which I’m convinced is something we’ll see in our lifetimes). It’s on a much smaller scale, and mitigated by relation and Korean racial solidarity, but essentially try and imagine if one day the borders between Mexico and the U.S. just disappeared. I can’t even imagine the complexity of the situation and the safeguards that will have to be put in place to prevent abuses on both sides and ensure a fair quality of life for all. Regardless, it’ll undisputedly be a better life for the average North Korean citizen, and one that I hope comes to pass sooner than later.
This is getting long, so check back in next week for my thoughts on ghost trains, North Korean guards, and what beer from the Forbidden People’s Republic tastes like.
* Although, I did end up sneaking in one fairly exotic vacation right at the end of my break… which I’ll blog about later. Anticipation!