I wasn’t going to visit the Korean peninsular without attempting to get into North Korea.
Well, by “attempting” I mean “paying for a trip” and “North Korea” I mean the Joint Security Area.
The DMZ, or demilitarised zone, is a strip of land around 2km wide which covers the entire border between North and South Korea. The JSA is a tiny section of this where talks and negotiations take place: a makeshift hut slap-bang on the border, precisely half in each country, is the epicentre. It’s arguably the most interesting place to visit and an essential part of any trip to South Korea.
It was also temporarily closed to visitors.
This was due to imminent talks taking place three days later between the leaders, so I deemed it a reasonable excuse not to let me in and went on a tour of the DMZ anyway, sans JSA, and feeling rather aggrieved at their ill-timed political processes.
Sadly tours are the only realistic way to get there, so I grudgingly joined a coachload of mostly rich Americans (the sort who were too nervous to take the English-signposted metro upon our return to Seoul, despite written instructions from the tour guide) and headed for the front. At just 30km from the border, Seoul is something of a sitting duck for theoretical warheads but on the plus side it does make day-trips to the DMZ nice and easy for tourists. Its proximity is obvious; barbed wire not only lines the beaches but the riverbanks too, in case the North Koreans decide to pay them a visit by way of the Han River instead. It also gives an idea of Seoul’s size, too: the city itself has 10 million inhabitants, roughly on a par with Greater London, but with several “satellite cities” of mostly well-planned tower block complexes, the entire metropolitan area contains 20 million. Despite this, it doesn’t feel nearly so constricted nor as overwhelming as other gigantic cities, perhaps because its population has mostly gone up instead of out, which leaves room to breathe.
At some point, the suburbs abruptly halt, and the scrubby land is rife with increasing levels of barbed wire and checkpoints. The DMZ itself isn’t really much to see from the road – in fact at some points it’s not even clearly marked – but it’s notable for its total lack of human interference for the past 60 years which has allowed the local wildlife to flourish in a quite unique way. Deer are apparently a common feature. But we weren’t there for the fauna; we were there for the history . . . or so I hoped.
First stop was a museum of sorts where we were whisked through the exhibits without being allowed to actually view them, whilst our guide shouted out helpful things like “these are guns” and “that is a picture of a tunnel, yes?” whilst I tried to simultaneously read the descriptions and run after the group, thinking “this is why I don’t do tours”. We were piled into a small cinema to watch a video about the Korean War which gave new meaning to the word “concise”, with narration by a booming man I kept expecting to bellow “IN A WORLD . . .”, to a soundtrack which usually accompanies American documentaries on car chases, or Hell’s Kitchen. I listened to “duh-duh-duh DAH DAH DAH” and watched smash cuts of dead bodies and wondered what on earth was happening.
As soon as that was over, it was out of the room and off to the Third Tunnel, found when a defector disclosed its location. It had been dug by the North Koreans and given a sprinkling of coal dust, so that when the South Koreans discovered it in 1978, the former shrugged and said “it’s a coal mine” despite the total lack of coal in the area and the very obvious black paint slapped over naked rock. It’s one of four such tunnels discovered so far, all of which burrow underneath the DMZ and point directly towards Seoul, potentially allowing enemy troops to march more or less directly into the capital city. It’s estimated that a further 20 tunnels exist, as yet undiscovered.
I was excited to see this piece of modern history, grudgingly slapping on my yellow helmet and muttering about stupid health and safety, and charging off down the slope. The tunnel was hacked out of bare rock, propped up with scaffolding, cold, damp, and inhospitable. We were ushered along in single file, bent double to avoid crashing our heads on the ceiling (my helmet then did its job after I whacked mine not once but four times) to the final accessible point. From here, it’s possible to look through a tiny window in the door placed across the tunnel, to the third doorway which marks the official DMZ line. Best to avoid. There wasn’t really much to see beyond a chilly, damp, occasionally coal-coloured faux mine shaft, but it was alarmingly easy to imagine brainwashed army troops headed stooped, silently, and single-mindedly towards the city of their arch-enemies.
From there it was on to the highest viewpoint where, with the aid of 100 won fixed binoculars, it was possible to gaze directly into genuine North Korean territory. It’s a surreal experience because from that distance the terrain and buildings don’t look too different from those in the immediate vicinity, but it’s impossible to forget that you’re looking into the most secretive and inaccessible nation in the world. I saw a guard move around his hut, and a small town on the horizon. I paid another W100 and followed the process of a small truck along a dusty road. Only as the shutters closed it struck me that I wasn’t entirely certain whether the truck had been on the North or South Korean side of the border. The divisions – human, imposed, superficial, destructive – were, from a distance, and to the casual observer, utterly indistinguishable.
All that was left was to pay a quick visit to the northernmost train station in South Korea. Technically the train line runs on into North Korea, and indeed was active until only a few years ago, at least for freight, until the North Koreans cut off this final method of communication. Now, Dorosan Station remains with somewhat forced optimism that one day, the right-hand side doors shall open once more and trains will continue north of the border.
In fact, this train line had initially been intended to join the Trans-Siberian railway. Vladivostok, as I knew from personal experience, lies not too far from the North Korean border, so it would have been a relatively easy task to lay these final pieces of track and extend the train line all the way from London to Seoul. Instead, thanks to the bitter and protracted fighting, to all intents and purposes South Korea is an island.
The tour, which I had taken as a matter of curiosity and the feeling I “ought” to do it, was more emotional than I had anticipated, having met several Koreans in my travels who had casually mentioned having relatives across the border; uncles, aunts, cousins, who they’d likely never see again. These palpable sights of a fractured nation, so similar, so close, was desperately sad. The lonely train station, with its promises of Trans-Siberian connections, and roped-off corridor “to Pyeongyang”, were remnants of an ongoing war which these days has been largely forgotten by the west. Our tour leader thanked us for showing interest in this conflict by taking the tour, and caring enough about the Korean people’s suffering to learn about their painful history. I felt immediately guilty that I had joined it for so superficial a purpose as idle curiosity (as, I imagine, had everybody else), but departed with perhaps a clearer sense of the driving force behind South Korea. I saw another side to their progress; a sadness, like a phenomenally successful businessman with an estranged, troubled younger brother who would give his fortune if only the two could be reunited.
My final day in Seoul was spent exploring the local palace, Changdeokgung, and its “Secret Garden”.
Built for the royal family and their carefully-selected guests, it remains an incredibly tranquil area, and can only be visited on a guided tour. It was quite fascinating to learn about the Chinese influences in Korean architecture, and see where the Japanese had added their unwanted touches during their occupation in the mid-20th century.
Thankfully this tour allowed for more exploration than that of the DMZ, and we were given plenty of time to roam the grounds and admire the silent buildings in the wintry coolness of their lush, slightly overgrown surroundings.
It was my final chance to appreciate the fiery autumnal colours and the archetypal Korean attitude towards their history: fierce yet restrained pride, and an unshakeable conviction that they’ve reached the pinnacle of sophisticated design.
On my final night in Korea, I was lucky enough to meet up again with Gina, my AirBNB host from the first night. I tell you, AirBNB brings people together! Knowing my interest in the theatre, she suggested we take a trip to Seoul’s most popular home-grown show, filled with local talent, she promised. I happily agreed, imagining a fringe play of cultural magnitude, a post-modern self-analysis, a challenging yet absorbing treatise on the Korean psyche. In fact it was four comedy performers who made music using kitchen equipment – like Stomp, but with added slapstick. The theatre studies graduate and intellectual snob inside me threatened to leave in disgust but my inner child, a far greater influence, sighed with gratitude and settled back to enjoy the show. Happily, it was great fun; ridiculous, silly, but wonderfully easy to get swept along and a welcome relief after an intense few days of politics and history. Of course, there was audience participation, and of course, I was selected to go on stage. It’s a curse. Anybody who has ever been in this situation with me will attest with some bemusement that I am absolutely guaranteed to be chosen.
I was pretty incensed by the fact that the three male performers got to wear regular chef’s whites, but the woman had to wear a sexed-up version: a tight cropped top and miniskirt over black yoga pants. After careful consideration I decided that now was not the time to release my angry feminist, so I kept a lid on it for the purposes of diplomatic relations. But hear me now, Korea: PUT YOUR “COOKIN’ WITH NANTA” LADY IN SOME PROPER BLOODY CLOTHES.
Afterwards, Gina and I went for dinner, an opportunity for me to find out all of the ways I’d been going wrong for three weeks, and the names of various foods I’d enjoyed without knowing what on earth I was eating. It was a fantastic way to finish my time in the country, and gave me the opportunity to share what I had discovered and learnt along the way. Gina had been the recipient of my first anguished email the day before I was due to arrive, and I suspect that after three weeks in the country she had been expecting to see someone cowed by the stresses of travel and dissimilarities between our cultures. Instead, she was greeted by a flurry of excitement about how much I had enjoyed my time in Korea, willing to sample whatever new dish she suggested (and responding “I’ve tried that and loved it!” to every suggestion).
As we talked about all the things I’d done and shared our news, I pointed to various condiments, asking their names and raving about ssamjang sauce. Gina approved of my chopstick skills (in fact forcibly honed many years ago in China but I accepted the praise nonetheless) and noted with some admiration the ease at which I wolfed down the spicy dishes.
“I think you’re half-Korean!” she announced.
I can’t think of a better way to end three weeks in a country which I found so unexpectedly compelling.