North Korea…(n border)

OH MY GODDDD today is the day I get to go to North Korea! Well, the border, but it’s basically the same thing.
I could barely fall asleep last night I was so excited!
I wake up at 7am in order to be ready for pick up at 7:30. I run downstairs at 7:20, and see a van pulling away from the hostel parking lot. NO! Come back!!! I run after it like a total loon. Thankfully, my running isn’t for nothing and he does actually stop. I can’t imagine what would have happened if I had come down at 7:30!! Another fortunate thing, is that there’s no one else in the van. No one who could have seen me running crazily after a vehicle. That’s a plus. The driver checks my passport and informs me that he has three more pick ups. Sweet! What a small tour.

One girl who boards the van is wearing knee high socks over fishnet stockings, and a short little skater skirt. Umm I don’t know how to break this to you honey, but you can’t just roll up to North Korea wearing whatever you want. There’s a dress code.

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I seriously think about telling her but she looks like someone who might punch me, so I don’t.
Instead, I ask if everyone is going on the JSA and DMZ tour, but everyone else says they’re just doing a half day DMZ tour. I hope I’m on the right van?

We get driven to a big fancy hotel downtown Seoul, where I am separated from everyone in my van and lead into a big conference room with lots of other people. I guess the tour wasn’t as small as I thought…
How will I ever know if the girl in fishnet stockings gets denied from the tour now?!

I meet an American guy about my age, (we can call him Hottie Marine or we can call him Cameron. I think Hottie Marine is more fun.) and an older American lady who are both coming on the same tour as me. At least now I’m sure I’m in the right place!
We get our passports registered by the tour company at the hotel, and are given a seat number for our bus. My seat number is 32. That means at least 31 other people are coming with me on this tour. It’s a little disappointing, but my own fault for hyping this up so high for myself. I’m sure it’ll still be sweet!

Our tour guide sits at the front with a microphone, giving us our itinerary details for the day and some background history on the split between North and South Korea. He repeats everything a lot, but I feel like I learn a good amount about the history. I hardly knew any before! The bus to the border takes just over an hour.

We start the day at the JSA (Joint Security Area), after driving through a village of people who actually live within these de-militarized boundaries. They are exempt from military service here, and do primarily agricultural work. The JSA is the only place along the entire 250km de-militarized zone where North and South Korean soldiers stand face to face.
We get to take a walk through Panmunjom, which is where an agreement between both North and South Korea was sign during the Korean War in 1953. It’s an area within the JSA, which I learn the United Nations and U.S. Military also occupy with soldiers. Before going to Panmunjom we are taken to a little theatre room to watch an information video on the history of the Korean War, the United Nations involvement, and some other info on the JSA. We are told not to point or make any hand gestures during our visit, and are told to only take pictures straight ahead. Any photos taken side to side will be deleted from our cameras or phones. Intense!
We line up in two single file lines, escorted by South Korean Military guards, and are lead through a United Nations building and outside to where we can literally see across the border. Sure, it’s not technically North Korea, but it’s North Korea’s side of this de-militarized zone, which is still pretty cool.
Apparently, North Korea runs very expensive tours a few times a week to the de-militarized zone too! Only very high-up government officials (and maybe a foreigner lucky enough to get into the country) can afford to take these tours. We are there at a time when a North Korean tour is happening simultaneously across the yard, so I actually get to see some civilians!

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It’s kind of weird to see people on the other side of the border taking a casual tour when I’ve only ever pictured North Korean people as poverty stricken, in labour camps, or serving their military service. I never thought about anyone hopping on a bus tour for their day off.
I wonder what the tour guides on the other side are telling their guests.

We get to step into the blue Panmunjom portable building, where 4 military soldiers are there escort us. It’s really just a room with a few tables and chairs, but some really important people have sat in these seats! Many political discussions between North and South Korea (as well as many other involved counties) have taken place in this room. The little building straddles the line between North and South, but because it’s a United Nations Building, it is safe for us to step into the North Korean side. Again, with a South Korean Military escort.

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This is me “in” North Korea.

We are ushered back out to our tour bus, where we take a quick spin around the JSA grounds. Sometimes, when permitted, we take some photos through the windows of the bus. I feel like such a silly little tourist when we all jump to one side of the bus to take a picture, but alas, if I hadn’t come on a tour I wouldn’t be here at all.

We visit the last train station in South Korea, which has been built in a way that could connect it to the North, should the reunification ever occur. It’s never been used, but the people who built it are confident that it will be of use someday soon.

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Lunch is at a Korean restaurant that serves us traditional bulgogi, which is different from the bulgogi I ate for lunch yesterday. I think yesterday I had some kind of bulgogi soup, but this is legit bulgogi now.
Some of the people on my tour bus are a little cray cray, so Hottie Marine and I avoid sitting with them over lunch. One tiny (but very loud) woman from New York just can’t stop talking, is always the last one back to the bus, and is really pissing off this vegan hippie couple from New Zealand. They confront her about it. Why are people so intense? It’s pretty entertaining…but they all need to take a Xanax.

After lunch we are driven up a winding, land mine covered, mountain road to the “observatory” which is, again, not what I expected.

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(I don’t think I was allowed to take a picture, and it failed miserably, but that little red triangle smear there has a skull and cross bones to symbolize a land mine.)

It’s a relatively clear day here at the DMZ, but the observatory has so many rules that I can’t get any good photos of North Korea. From the edge of the observatory deck, I get a clear view of North Korea’s obscenely large flag pole in the Propaganda village, but it doesn’t work in pictures. We are only allowed to take photos from behind a big yellow line, which is a good 10 feet or more away from the edge. So all I get is this.

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A bunch of people’s heads and a KINDA visible view of the flagpole. I pay W500 ($.50) to use the binoculars and go in search of North Korean people in the village, but I see no one. Apparently, until 2004, this propaganda village used to have a loud speaker that blasted messages like “Welcome to Paradise!” and other garbage to encourage South Koreans to defect to the North. Obviously that didn’t work, so in 2004 they gave up, but name “Propaganda Village” stuck. The central flag pole is pretty funny; standing at 160m high, it used to be shorter than that of South Korea’s, which is 100m, but the North felt it was necessary to build a bigger and better one. So it’s been visible from pretty much everywhere we visit on our tour.

The most exciting draw of this tour for me, was the promise of a North Korean defector to accompany us. This does happen, but she sits at the front of the bus, 31 seats ahead of me, and we don’t get a very long question and answer period. All I know about her is that she escaped North Korea by taking her two children an sneaking off, leaving her husband behind because he worked for the government. Her uncle lived in China and paid to bribe some border guards for her escape. Our tour guide keeps saying that he knows all of her stories and we can ask him later. I don’t want to ask him later. I want to ask her now. We are given a short opportunity, but I, regretfully, shy away from my questions which were things like, “Do you ever miss home?” At the time, I felt that this was too personal a question to ask in front of 40 other people. Now, I wish I just knew the answer. She only comes with us on our tour for half of the day. I think it’s so incredible that she isn’t afraid to be this close to the border on a regular basis. If I escaped from North Korea, I feel like I would stay as far away as possible. South Korean passport or not. You can tell just by looking at her that she is a strong, smart and very brave woman. I’m disappointed that I don’t get more time to learn about her story, but I still feel pretty honoured to have even briefly met someone so brave.

The last stop is a place known as the “third tunnel”. No photos allowed. Over the past 60 years, South Korea has discovered four passage ways along the DMZ line that North Korea has built in secret, to set them up for a surprise attack on the South. When South Korea discovered the passages and confronted the North, they responded by painting the walls of the long granite tunnel black, and claiming that they were coal mining. Black paint. Fool proof, really.

Since it’s been discovered, three thick stone wall barriers have been put up and each shielded by a layer of barbed wire for extra security. It is now a pretty safe bet that the North Korean Army won’t be coming through this tunnel anytime soon. So now that it’s secure, we get to go down and see it! We also get to wear sweet yellow construction helmets to protect our heads from the rocky cave ceiling, which is only about a meter and a half tall through some sections. I have to duck for most of the walk to the end, where we get to see one stone wall barrier before turning around.
Climbing back out of the tunnel is not what I’d call fun. It was built 75 meters below ground, and the long, steep incline is hard on the calf muscles. At least the South Koreans can take pleasure in knowing that if the North ever DOES attack via one of these tunnels, they’ll be exhausted by the time they arrive.

We get back on the bus and head towards Seoul. The huge bus pulls over on the side of the road, and about 10 of us are sent to get in a small van instead. I think it has something to do with different tour companies? Hottie Marine, the loud lady from New York, the New Zealand couple, and a few others and I are all sent to this van. The drive back to Seoul is only about an hour from here and the van will be dropping us off in Itaewon.
I don’t think that’s super close to where I’m staying, but I figure the lovely Seoul subway line can take me anywhere I need to go.

First, we stop at an Amethyst shop with “special prices” but I stay in the van because I know how easily persuaded I am, and I like sparkly things. Best not to tempt myself…even with the “special prices”. I also feel pretty annoyed by the fact that they bring us here. This is just another reason why I don’t usually do tours. The couple from New Zealand are apparently really mad about having been brought here, and apparently throw a bit of a fit inside the shop. I’m only sad that I missed it.

Hottie Marine asks me if I’ve tried Galbi yet, which I have not, so he asks our tour guide if she can recommend a Galbi place near to where we’ll be dropped off. She offers to show us one of her favourite spots. Perfect!! Everyone else is dropped at one location in Itaewon besides me, Marine, and the loud New York lady, who basically refuses to get out of the van. She has somehow managed to buy something at every tacky tourist gift shop along the way, and is carrying at least 4 bags of stuff. Apparently she can’t carry this all on her own and wants to be dropped off somewhere she can buy a bag. Our tour guide stops at multiple luggage stores but none suit the needs of this crazy lady from New York. After fighting with our tour guide and whining for at least 15 minutes, she finally gets out and just carries her stuff like a normal person.
Hottie Marine says he’s embarrassed to be from The States when people like her give it such a bad reputation. He’s totally right.

Our tour guide is a little angel and not only drops us off at this Galbi restaurant, but takes us inside, recommends her favourite dish, and orders it for us. She really goes above and beyond what I would expect of my tour guide once the tour has ended!
She orders us two kinds of Galbi, which is like raw rib meat from (I think) beef, which we cook on a hot coal fire at our table. Our waitress cooks it for us, but I notice she doesn’t do this for the Korean people in the restaurant. Not sure if this is pity or preferential treatment. We also order a bottle of Soju, neither of us having tried it before. I expect it to be like a beer, but instead we get a bottle of 18.5% rice wine. Thank god we only order one.

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She motions for us to wrap our meat in a piece of lettuce and throw some rice and kimchi in there with it. I do this on a plate, which is apparently NOT what you’re supposed to do because she rolls her eyes and comes over to me, slaps a piece of lettuce in my hand (and slaps my hand a few extra times for emphasis) picks up a piece of meat, throws some sauce, rice and kimchi in lettuce hand, rolls it up, and stuffs it in my mouth. All the restaurant staff watch her stuff food in my mouth, and all smile at me for encouragement. Hottie Marine tries to follow suit with what I’ve just been taught, but apparently he messes it up too, because he gets a lettuce hand slapping lesson next.
“These poor, useless white kids” they must be thinking. It’s all we can do to keep from coughing up our food we’re laughing so hard. From then on we try to be sneaky and eat when no one is looking, for fear of getting more lettuce slaps.

The meal is fun AND delicious. I’m so happy I got to try Korean barbecue before I leave! Today’s tour was not at all what I expected it to be and in some ways it was a bit of a let down, however, I have no regrets about doing it and am still excited to know that I’ve been about as close to North Korea as one can get. I also learned a WHOLE lot about the history, and the South Korean view of the situation. For another point of view, you can read
a Lonely Planet author’s review of the your here.

I go back to my hostel quickly to shower and take a nap, before heading to the Gangnam district to meet Hottie Marine again for drinks. I meet him at an Expat bar called Whiskey Weasel, where we sit at the bar and chat with the owner. The owner, Leo, has lived in South Korea his whole life and served 7 years in the army before opening the bar. He closes down a bit early and offers to take us out for some Korean food and drinks. Obviously we accept!
He orders some Mak Ju Li, some spicy pork, mussels, and some kind of pizza thing. It’s WAY too much food, but I eat some anyway. I can’t say no to delicious local cuisine. The pork is literally the spiciest thing ive ever eaten in my life. My mouth is on FIRE. I don’t even really like spicy food so I’m holding back tears as I eat; trying to play it cool. Even Hottie Marine and Leo are struggling with the spice. It’s that intense.

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I order a glass of milk. I only eat a few pieces before I give up and just stick to the mussels and pizza. Leo teaches us to say, “Kom-bé!”, which is Korean for “cheers”.
Bars in Korea don’t really have an official time for last call, so we are out far later than I should be with a flight to Vietnam tomorrow. Luckily it’s not until the early evening!

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