As promised: the thrilling conclusion to the great DMZ tour of 2013.
After the Third Tunnel, we headed to an incredibly optimistic train station: one built and utterly prepared for the reunification of the Koreas (or at least the legalization of travel between the two nations). It’s the northernmost point in South Korea, and lays on the only transportation avenue between Seoul and Pyeongyang- two railroad tracks. These are actually in use ferrying workers and materials to the factory complexes I mentioned in last week’s post, but taking a look at the massive station built around it, you can see there are much higher hopes than that at play.
There probably aren’t many nicer train stations anywhere in the country
While we were there, a train came in, and I got to hop on and take a look, contemplating the dumbest defection attempt in recent history at least. The most interesting aspects of the station were the shuttered subway entrances that would connect the Seoul system right up with this station, and the large map of an ambitious railroad system connecting all of Asia that would get most train buffs salivating. Don’t hold your breath, though.
After that we went to a buffet-style lunch of typical Korean beef or bibimbap (rice and fresh vegetables). The thing to report here is the one of a kind opportunity to buy some true blue North Korean beer.
Photo courtesy of: Pale Lager
I had heard the tale of Kim Jong Il purchasing an entire English brewery, disassembling it, and shipping it back to his country to be rebuilt exactly as is. I have a buddy who actually went to North Korea during the only time permissible for U.S. citizens- the Mass Games, who got to try it and proclaimed it to be pretty damn good. Well, I don’t believe that this batch was from that mythical brewery, as it had nothing in common with the English beer that I’ve had. Instead, it’s a lager with a high rice content a la Budweiser, which was a touch disappointing. It was far from bad, though, and if I have to be honest, probably better than the vast majority of South Korean beer I’ve had so far.
Although their ad budget is a bit smaller
After lunch came the main attraction: the Joint Security Area (JSA). This is the patch of land directly inside the DMZ hosting two visitor’s centers, and three simple buildings where South and North Korean leaders can directly negotiate. A U.S. soldier took over tour guide duties, and after signing a waiver and being instructed on dos and (mostly) don’ts, we were bussed through the various defense barriers to Panmunjom (the name of the former village whose space the JSA now occupies).
The JSA was exactly what I was thinking of when envisioning the DMZ. After walking through the large, empty visitors center, built in order to host reunions of families split by the border (reunions that have never been permitted by the North), this is what we saw:
The large building we were facing was the NK visitor’s center, usually empty but sometimes hosting official brass that wish to see the South, as well as the occasional tour group of their own. Yep, North Korea also hosts tours, which must be fascinating to take part in just to see their take on the whole experience.
After taking in the view, we entered the main conference room, at present guarded by two intimidatingly silent South Korean soldiers, whose height seemed to confirm the 5’7 minimum requirement I’d heard of earlier (in order to tower over the generally much smaller North Korean soldiers).
When we moved to the far side of the room, we were actually in North Korea.
Just past this concrete barrier bisecting the building
After this, the rest of the tour seemed a bit anticlimactic. We visited two areas. The first was a guard lookout that was technically surrounded on three sides by North Korea, with a better view of the massive North Korean flag (apparently atop the third largest flagpole in the world) that had been built in response to South Korea putting up a less ostentatious flagpole on their side of the DMZ.
That this thing was flying at all shows how windy it was
The second was the Bridge of No Return, over which prisoner of war exchanges took place back when there were prisoners of war to exchange. Especially in light of the latest saber rattling by the North, here’s hoping there won’t soon be more to swap.