A few weeks prior to leaving for South Korea, I scheduled my tour to the DMZ (demilitarized zone). You know, that little line that separates South and North Korea.
I would be picked up near a specific subway station at 8 a.m. I arrived around 7:45, which gave me ample time to grab some coffee. Unfortunately the place I went into had no pastries, only cheese and meat types. I didn’t want to risk any weird turns of the stomach. So I stuck with coffee.
Outside, a lady came up to me and asked if I was there for the DMZ tour. I said yes and she directed me to a bus. I got on and waited for her to gather more people. When they piled in, she introduced herself as Grace and as the host of the tour. Then we gathered more tourists at another bus stop and went on our way.
THE FIRST DMZ STOP
She was a wonderful tour guide, giving us tidbits of information we wouldn’t know about and making everyone feel very welcome. The first place we visited was a park that had a bridge going across the border. There were plenty of armed South Korean soldiers, but we were only concerned with taking photos of some memorials, walls with thousands of ribbons, and an old rusted train that had been blown up and shot to bits during the Korean War.
THE SECOND DMZ STOP
We quickly jumped back in the bus and headed to our next destination. There have been four huge tunnels found by the South Koreans. These tunnels were dug by the North Koreans and were to reach the heart of the country: Seoul. According to Grace, it is believed that there are many more undiscovered. Pretty scary stuff given the brutal history between the two.
Our group went down the third tunnel that had been discovered. It was incredible to see that this had been done, and on multiple occasions. That truly signifies the difference between the proposed unification methods of the two countries: one by diplomacy and the other by force.
We weren’t allowed to take photos in the tunnel, but trust me when I say it was long. We had to wear safety helmets, and it was a good thing we did, otherwise even I would have been knocked out from accidentally knocking my head against the granite ceiling.
At each stop were souvenir shops. I grabbed a couple of things. Outside of the building where the tunnel was located was a nice sculpture of a big split sphere with people trying to push it back together. Inside the sphere was the outline of the Korean peninsula.
THE THIRD DMZ STOP
This next stop was really interesting. It was the lookout. From where we stopped, we could clearly see a small town inside North Korea. Within close proximity of each other, there is the South Korean flag and the North Korean flag. There was also a statue of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, but I couldn’t see that. Grace told us that there are approximately 39,000 statues of the Great Leader in North Korea. And I thought the coffee shops in South Korea were overkill.
It was pretty exhilarating seeing even just a small section of one of the world’s most notorious countries. Our side had plenty of armed soldiers as well. We learned something interesting regarding the difference between the two countries’ military requirements. South Korea requires every male to join the military for at least one year, most of which do this during their college years. In North Korea, every man and woman are required to participate in the military for no less than 10 years. But that’s the difference in democracy and living under a dictator.
THE FOURTH DMZ STOP
This last stop was quite eerie. A little less than 15 years ago, a train station was built on the South Korean side that would serve as a connection between the North and South. This had been agreed upon by both sides. Unfortunately it was used only one year. The reason it stopped was that during one of the times some South Koreans visited the North, an old woman inadvertently stepped over the drawn border line, When she did that, a North Korean soldier shot and killed her. And that was the end of those niceties.
So now this grand and state-of-the-art train station has been established but to no use. It is ghost-town-empty. It was very strange seeing no train on the tracks. No people waiting for a ride. No one buying tickets. Here is this large train station, but no trains. Just empty tracks that go for miles and miles into a country you can’t enter. It remains intact, and serves as part of the tour, but more importantly, it serves as a symbol of hope that one day that train will be back in use and the two will become one again.
OUR LAST DMZ STOP
It was time to call it a day for my tour. We all packed into the bus and headed toward Seoul’s City Hall. While we rode there, Grace told us of a friend she made. This friend is a defector from North Korea. She was in the military for 20 years and was a high-ranking officer. She said it took her a very long time to reach South Korea, having gone through various other countries first. Her story is quite amazing and I hope one day I will be able to discuss it further with her. I talked to Grace about that. I told her that I was a writer and that I had recently finished my second novel that dealt with the Korean War. I told her that I would love to interview her friend and she was very excited to hear that I was interested in doing so. She was obviously disheartened that I was leaving the next day, but I told her that we would be in contact. So here’s hoping to achieve a great interview with a North Korean defector.
My DMZ tour came to a close, but it was definitely thought provoking, inspiring, and saddening. I could tell from Grace that the greatest achievement, more than all that this great country has accomplished, would be to bring both sides together as one. Will that ever happen? Who knows? I honestly am not certain about the sense of urgency for that need with the younger generation. As this current generation dies off, I fear the desire to reunite may begin to die off too. Who knows? I am hopeful for the best. Sometimes, however, so much water goes under the bridge that it drowns any floating element of possibility.
On a lighter note, it was my last night in South Korea. I was planning to make the most of it, regardless of how much my foot was hurting. Yes, it has become worse. I’m afraid that I may have done something to it.