My flight from Seoul back to Fukuoka was at 6:30 pm, so that meant I had until about 2:30 to 3:00 to do something on Saturday morning. At one of my friend’s suggestion, I decided to go on a guided tour of the DMZ, the border with North Korea.
During my short trip there I was constantly seeing things that reminded me of Japan, but there is one way that South Korea is totally unique: having a border with North Korea. It’s strange to think that after 50 years the war is still technically ongoing, i.e. there has never been a formal peace accord, just a cease-fire. As the tour bus slowly approached the DMZ, there were obvious changes that the tour guide pointed out to us: fences topped with razor wire along the Han river (the river starts in North Korea and becomes the border as it flows south and then west, so it has been an popular method for saboteurs, commandos, etc. to try and slip into South Korea), guard posts and pillboxes every 500m with ROK soldiers standing guard. Another method that the North Koreans set up was tunnels, and one of the discovered tunnels was the first stop on the tour. Before we got there though, we had to pass a checkpoint at the entrance to the army-controlled zone. Though still outside of the actual DMZ, no one goes in or out without the soldiers checking your ID (passports for all of us on the tour bus) and that you have a reason to be there. Although farms are maintained in the area, there is a curfew so that the farmers there can only work during the day and have to leave before nightfall.
The third tunnel is pretty interesting, although the tour of it is quite claustrophobic. Although the tour brochure said it was 2m x 2m in size, there were only occasional spots where I could stand up straight, and I had to stoop or bend my knees to walk. Making it more difficult was the fact that it was packed with tourists. You pretty much had one line going to the end of the tunnel (actually a concrete wall built by the South Koreans at the actual border line after they discovered the tunnel), and another line going back. Unfortunately everyone wants to stop at the end and look around, so you have to wait in a crowded line, not able to stand up straight for about half an hour. After seeing the actual tunnel, there is (of course!) a convenient gift shop.
The second area we was a lookout command post, which was on the top of a hill overlooking the border area. Unfortunately it was very foggy that day, so you couldn’t even see to the DMZ border fence less than 1 km away. Although you can take pictures in the parking lot, as you approach the lookout area there is a yellow line beyond which you are not allowed to take pictures. There are ROK soldiers everywhere, strictly enforcing the policy. Again there was a convenient gift shop before we went on.
The third area we saw was the Dorasan (都羅山) train station. It’s the last train station going North from South Korea where the line stops, unable to continue up into North Korea. It was here the tour guide explained some of the strangeness of the current relationship between North and South Korea. Despite sharing the most heavily fortified border between two countries in the entire world, there is some economic exchange between the two countries. Specifically there is the Kaesong Industrial Region, where basically South Korean companies have been granted special permission to build factories there. The reason why South Korean companies would do this is economically pretty obvious: North Korea is so destitute that they only have to pay workers about $60/month, which is half that of an equivalent job in China, and less than 1/20th that of the equivalent in South Korea. Currently there are 50,000 North Koreans working in the factories there! There are some difficulties, however. Since there are small numbers of South Koreans that must work there to oversee the production, special arrangements have to made for their transportation from and back to South Korea, housing, etc. Also Any interaction between the South Koreans there and the North Korean workers is overseen by the North Korean military police: they don’t want the South Koreans spreading any capitalist propaganda, encouraging or helping to defect, etc. Also North Korea obviously doesn’t have the power grid capacity or infrastructure to run all the factories there, so South Korea had to build a power line into the area from South Korea.
The train station itself though, is what I would best describe as a ‘propaganda train station’. Even though it only has a few trains a day for workers that need to go to or come back from Kaesong, the station itself is gigantic, complete with facilities waiting for the future day when free travel and trade between the North and South is allowed. There are a large number of platforms, complete with unused platforms for the nonexistent trains going and coming from the North. There is an entire section for customs and immigration, roped off and standing there silent, empty. Next door there is a huge warehouse for freight customs, sitting completely empty. Interestingly enough all these facilities were actually used on a small scale a couple of years ago. When things were starting to warm up a bit with North Korea, including allowing the South to build factories in Kaesong, they even allowed them to complete a train line there so workers and freight could be easily and cheaply shipped to and from there. However in 2008 a South Korean housewife that was visiting one of the few sites open to tourists in North Korea was shot and killed, and North Korea refused to cooperate on any investigation of the incident. South Korea in response immediately suspended all tourism to North Korea. North Korea in response cut off the train line to Kaesong, forcing the South Korean companies to ship people and supplies to Kaesong by truck and car, at a much greater expense then doing so by train.
And so now the giagantic Dorasan station sits almost entirely empty, except for one small ticket window where you can buy a 50-cent ticket to just go stand on the platform where imaginary trains go to and from the North. … and of course a convenient gift shop.
The attitude of the South Korean government and people reminds me a lot of the Southern Dynasty during the Northern and Southern Dynasties period in Chinese history from 420 to 589 AD. After the northern territories were captured by barbarian invaders, the Jin fled south and established a new dynasty at present-day Nanjing. Despte the fact they were there for 150 years, they always maintained the attitude and culture of a ‘government in exile’, and the poetry and artwork of the period continually pines for the lost territories of the North, waiting for the day when China can be whole again, and they can return to their ancestral home.
Similarly, despite the fact that North Korean regime seems as strong and entrenched as ever, and the impoverished, starving, repressed, and suppressed North Korean people become less and less capable of revolting against the regime, and the regime continues its belligerent attitude towards the South and the rest of the world, the South Korean government maintains a Ministry of Reunification, and the people of the country seem to think of reunification as a ‘when’, instead of an ‘if’. Well, hope isn’t a bad thing. China was separated into different kingdoms for multiple centuries, but because Qin Shi Huangdi successfully unified all of China in 221 BC, it’s been a hope and a romantic ideal for the Han people ever since, and has laid the foundation for every Chinese nation since and the modern Chinese state. Looking at a divided Korea, what’s a few decades of separation? China endured centuries of separation and civil war, and is now unified and strong as ever.
After the train station, we went to eat Bulgogi, a traditional Korean dish, at local restaurant. At this point I had to leave the tour early because of my 6:30 pm flight back to Fukuoka, so I switched tour buses and went back to Seoul with a group of Japanese tourists that I chatted with on the ride back.
It was a bit of a whirlwind 24 hours, but it was a lot of fun. I hope to be able to travel there again and spend some more time there someday.