Peeking Into North Korea: Psychos Abound

I don’t want to call it “the most hostile place on earth” because I’m sure some equally hostile stuff exists:

  • The official sign warning visitors “No Passage!  Dangerously Loose Boulder!“ that is now mounted on the bedroom wall of the guy who jokingly stole it from Canyonlands National Park the day before Aaron Ralston ventured into the sign-less slot canyon and accidentally stayed for 127 Hours.
  • The hang-out/welcome room of the first hostel I ever stayed at (in Buenos Aires, Argentina) where Hostel was being proudly projected on the wall.

me (in Spanish): Hi, um.  This is my first time staying in a hostel.  Is a dorm room available?
front desk: Yes, yes, of course.  (whisper/yelling to employee captivated by Hostel: “hey! hey! turn that off!  it’s his first time!”)  Yes!  We have a lovely room that is very safe.  I’m sure you’ll love it.
me (seeing beheaded body projected on wall and Hostel dvd case on table): k 

But the demilitarized zone (or DMZ, for those who are unable to pronounce that second i, inevitably morphing it into an inaccurate and American-accented de-milit-rized zone) between North Korea and its crazy liberal, freedom-worshipping sister to its South is far from congenial.  The zone reminds me of a “Welcome to Our Home” floormat that’s been ripped, ruined, stomped on with muddy boots, blood stained, and placed in front of the main gates to an euthanization room.

Connor, Tony, and I signed ourselves onto the daily USO tour of the DMZ.  This acronym-worshipping zone separating North and South Korea(s) begins miles on either side of the actual national border and houses active minefields, protective walls and defensive fences, armed guards, and other weapons of the murderous sort.  Approaching from the South Korean side (Arriving from the North tends to be slightly more difficult.  The Northerners don’t, exactly, um, like ”their” people seeing the “other” world.) was quite an elaborate and, in my purely comical view of communist countries, embellished ordeal.  Not only were we “briefed” by an 18-year-old American army private who was fully decked out in jungle camouflage, bullet-proof vest and holstered handgun in order to adequately present his Powerpoint, but we were provided two different forms of name-tag-ification and a waiver full of nonsensical fine print to sign with a pen we weren’t allowed to keep “due to international safety regulations.”

Our tour group, consisting of 84 personifications of classic American stereotypes, was then ushered and “escorted” by a pair of teenage US Army privates.  I’m still unsure as to what, exactly, was the private parts privates’ part in the whole (profitable) communist vs. socialist charade played by the Koreas, but their costumes uniforms lent a certain air of authenticity to the tour.  Visitors were forbidden from speaking or even gesturing to Korean soldiers, specifically those of the Northern variety.  After extensive herding of the recalcitrant American tourists, our mutinous tour group was finally in sufficient order to file outside, within a grenade’s toss shouting distance of North Korea.

Quickly, the forbidding scene of North Korean soldiers staring directly at South Korean soldiers was more than sufficient to calm any pre-existing group subversiveness.  A hush came over the tour as our armed escort stepped between us and the North Korea/South Korea border.  He (let’s call him Private Ryan) explained what exactly we were looking at.  I didn’t hear a word Private Ryan said.  I was absolutely mesmerized by the power of what was in front of me.  A series of blue buildings sit along the disputed border; the area is one of the most heavily-guarded locations on Earth.  Cameras, towers, guns, and guards are surrounding the premises.  South Korean guards stand in a variation of a Tai-Kwan-Do pose, with their knees slightly bent, their arms slightly elevated, and their wrists clenched below their mildly bent elbows.  They stand half-way behind buildings, allowing an escape from gunfire as well the ability to give handsignals to their fellow guards.  If you ask me, they’re more like MLB catchers than ROK soldiers.



To placate everyone’s inner-idiot, a peace sign was flashed by the fingers of me an anonymous visitor.  Neither gunfire, nuclear fallout, nor Korean yelling matches began.  Note to self, that anonymous tourist thought to himself, some gestures are acceptable.

The blue, border-bestriding buildings aren’t technically under North or South Korean jurisdiction.  Instead, they are owned by NATO and located on international grounds where representatives from a number of countries, including one rotating position of representation, meet daily to attempt to resolve the North/South Korean disagreements.

Wow.  They sure are productive.  I wish they could run my meetings!
Seriously.  They meet every, single day to try to get the Koreas to kiss and make up.
You know what would be more productive than Korean intervention?  Absolutely anything.  Watch paint dry.  Listen to grass grow.  Attempt to ride in a city’s bike lane without getting hit by a car door.  Ask Bill Clinton to tell the truth on national television.  Try to climb three 8,000 meter peaks in a single Himalayan climbing season.  Do anything else.  Just stop killing people.

Because this is a South Korean tour (North Koreans don’t offer something similar, though visiting North Korea is possible for tourists travelers), ROK soldiers guard the NATO building’s insides (and the North Koreans are all psycho and can’t be trusted to guard anything except their own people from ever leaving their country).  Walking to the far side of the small meeting room (for the obligatory picture beside a South Korean soldier in “North Korea” put us geographically in North Korea but technically outside of any country), we were able to actually smell the sweet smell of North Korean sweat.

The border separating the countries consists of either a series of small, rectangular, yellow, “call before you dig” flags, or an 18″-wide bar of cement, sitting 5″ from the ground.  Looking out the meeting room’s window to see that cement bar on the South side is a pretty wild feeling.  I assume that is how it feels to be North Korean: everywhere one looks, a cement bar is to the South.
Perhaps not.

The tour continued, momentarily checking out the famous bridge that Koreans were once presented the ultimatum to cross, forever consigning themselves to either North or South Korea, “The Bridge of No Return.”

We heard the thrilling stories of people who defected from one country to the other.  We saw the flagpole that North Korea erected as a sign of nationalism.  Then we saw the flagpole that South Korea built–taller than the North’s–to outdo their neighbors.  Lastly, we viewed the final stage of the unrecognized flagpole-building-competition, with North Korea’s penultimate attempt.
They won.

The Third Tunnel is one in a series of underground attack mechanisms that the dirty, bad, Northern brother still denies.  We walked inside of it for a while after being yelled at for taking pictures past the take pictures behind this line-line at a “North Korean overlook.”  I proceeded to take pictures inside the North Korean tunnel, which was also forbidden from photographing.  Oops.

The tour ended just as any good Asian tour should: with a long, bumpy, hot, and miserable bus ride of a few hours, playing an overly-loud Asian martial arts movie on a small television with blown out speakers that no one except the driver was watching.

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