Too Close For Comfort...
I went to North Korea today.
Hmmm...perhaps I should clarify. I visited the DMZ (the Demilitarized Zone). Most of the advice I received from friends and family before coming out to SOUTH Korea (one of my friends actually thought I was in China...oh for crying out loud) was to be sure I didn't go near North Korea. Knowing that Kim Jong Il's North Korean territory is Communist with loads of deadly nukes and an enviable military is scary enough. However, most people don't know that North and South Korea are technically still at war. They signed a cease-fire agreement around 1953 but many violent attacks occurred since then, prompting the US and the former Soviet Union to help stabilize the peninsula. I think some common courtesies (and the fact that they are, after all, brethren) are the only things really keeping war from breaking out again. In my embryonic opinion, it wouldn't really be in North Korea's best interest to attack South Korea since the South is providing a lot of desperately needed commerce to them.
Anywho, Margot and I woke up before the sun even thought to rise, grumbling and mumbling about why in the hell we were doing this tour. I needed constant reminders during that hour long bus ride to the DMZ. Being near the most heavily armed border in the world was very....ok, I'll admit it...I was a little nervous. We had to sign a waiver that basically said, "In case North Korea attacks while we're holding this tour, uhhh, it ain't our fault!!" LET THE FUN BEGIN!!! But I wouldn't call this a fun tour despite the fact that we laughed a whole lot. It was very educational. I learned so much more about both Koreas and how they walk a booby-trapped tightrope daily. We went to the Panmunjeon (also known as The Joint Security Area), which is a neutral zone. This is the only spot where North and South Korean military comes face-to-face. Basically, inside the little blue buildings is where North Korea comes to negotiate. Split down the middle inside, one half is North Korean territory and the other is South Korean. One door leads to North Korea and the other to the South. It's kinda eery. They have a very elaborate system of securing this room for visitors after North Korean soldiers apparently dragged a South Korean soldier to the other side. Now they always have two soldiers present when they need to lock the other side's door.
(on the South Korean side)
(the North Korean side...but this is a South Korean soldier, guarding the door)
So, since it'd be impossible for me to recap everything and keep this at a reasonable length, I'll use my favorite system - LISTS!!! Oh yes, I know you like that.
MY FOUR CENTS
1) At the Panmunjeon, it was quite desolate during our tour. But that big, white building across from us is like the North Korean welcome center. Who they're welcoming, I couldn't tell you. Maybe Chinese dignitaries. But anyway, there is a guard who stands up there with his binoculars, carefully observing any and all activity. Our tour guide informed us not to pay any attention to him. Do not wave, smile, make gestures, or anything of the sort. This can be taken as a symbol of attack and they can retaliate. And sure enough, he stood there looking at each and every one of us. Just observing and we did the same. You would have thought aliens had landed. Or monkeys.
2) Speaking of monkeys (and no, they're not in my classroom), this building below is nicknamed "The Monkey House" because oftentimes North Korean soldiers will sit inside, pulling back the curtains and making faces, gesturing and taunting the South Korean soldiers. They were not present today but in general, they are also to be ignored. It all seems very elementary school playgroundish but it's real. I say why not try rock, scissors, paper to decide these things? Take it old school? I mean, it's fair, quick, and easy. What more can you want?!
3) The Panmunjeon is also nicknamed "The Truce Village". North Korea's response to this is the "Propaganda Village" of Gijungdong. We were able to see it from a distance obviously. The most notable part of this village is the ridiculously tall, 600-lb North Korean flag trying to wave in the air. According to our tour guide, North Korean propaganda is (or maybe used to be) blasted for about 13 hours a day over the speaker system. I would imagine it went something like this: "Good morning, faithful citizens. This is your leader, Kim Jong Il. Yes, yes... I am amazing, as you know. All that you have is because of ME, as you know. I work hard to make sure you have nothing. I am awesome. North Korea will conquer the world. Oh yes, as a matter of fact, I AM God...ok, that is all. Back to work." Ok, I'm sure it's not quite like that but the truth is that North Koreans' quality of life is pretty much nonexistent. Much of the aid being offered by South Korea is knowingly going to feed the President and the military. It is not going to those who need it the most. On a sidenote, there is an actual tour INTO North Korea to the industrial town of Kaesong. I considered going on this tour actually, but when I realized that it cost about $100 and $80 of that would be greasing Kim Jong Il's palms, I decided against it. Somehow, it didn't seem right. But it would've been very interesting to see. Boy, I bet they'd REALLY be staring at Black folks....
(this image is courtesy of Getty Images...it was way too cloudy and my zoom function is way too crappy to get a decent shot)
4) Sometime in the 1980s, the South Korean military discovered numerous tunnels that were being built right under the Military Demarcation Line leading to Seoul. Yup, that's right - North Korea had planned a massive attack on Seoul but never went through with it. Kinda scary right? So, part of our DMZ tour included going down into the 3rd tunnel. Unfortunately, we couldn't take pictures but I was breathing so hard and my back was hurting so badly that perhaps that was a blessing! This tunnel, which seemed interminable, was built to hold about 30,000 North Korean soldiers! It was cold, dark, and dank inside. The low ceilings meant that I was constantly stooping and the steep sloping trudge out of there meant that my hips and thighs got more of a workout than I've gotten in 7 months at my gym. Horrendous!! Next time, I'm riding the escalator back up with the ajummas.
Going to the DMZ has completely piqued my interest in North Korea. I wish I could learn some more about the people and how they live. I'm so curious. North Korea puts out their own propaganda but what country doesn't?? There's no denying that they are on the extreme end of the spectrum but I sure wish I could pick the brains (or what's left) of some of these folks. Guess that's one dream I'll have to let go. :) I can't help but wonder though - if North Korea ever did become a democracy, opening up its doors to the outside world, would the world be ready?
Oooooook, just to end this post on an upbeat note, my brother comes tomorrow!!!! Jar (rhymes with bear) is my bestest, bestest friend in the whole world! But let's be clear, I've tried to kill him many times...and I'm not ashamed to say it! My parents may or may not know that one day when they were at work, Jar taunted me mercilessly (as big brothers are born to torment younger siblings) and I lost it. I fully grabbed a knife and started chasing him around the house. He locked himself into our dog's bedroom and wouldn't come out. So, winded and weary, I gave up the fight. He'd defeated me once again. So I stuck the knife in the door, serial killer style, and went back to playing with my dolls. Since we became teenagers though, and that 3-year age gap didn't seem so monumental, we've been great friends. Well...until we were roommates and then I had my "Why didn't I kill you back then" moments. But truly, the love runs deep and I'm glad he's coming to see me out here! And we ARE leaving for Tokyo on Thursday...so many, many crazy updates to follow I'm sure! :)