The Korean DMZ: Look Ma, a North Korean’s Spying Me

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IT WOULD BE AN EXAGGERATION to call the DMZ tour a waste of time, but the fact that I knew anything about North Korea beforehand definitely, surprisingly, diminished my enjoyment of the experience. One would think that, having seen the acclaimed film Joint Security Area and read the excellently crafted Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, now seeing the infamous hermit kingdom in person might fill in some gaps of tangibility inevitably created by mere words and pictures.

Wrong-o. Turns out that our tour, at least, run by Panmunjom Travel Center, assumed we knew absolutely nothing (which, to be fair, was true for the majority of tourists) and rarely provided insight beyond the basic South Korean propaganda one would expect from a fiercely nationalistic country.

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Our tour guide’s mouth was rarely smaller.

Our tour guide is fluent in English but still every bit an ajumma. Yappy, loud and with a terrifying frozen smile, she guided us through everything Korea does right and skimmed over annoyances like “historical details”. (Example: when looking at a map of the peninsula, she asked, “Who knows what Dok-do is?” to which one keen group member replied, “It’s a disputed island between Japan and South Korea,” to which our guide quickly corrected with an air of desperation, “Yes, actually, it’s Korean. Everybody got that? Yes? Dok-do is Korean! Okay?”)

The defector.

The defector.

The North Korean defector, which was the big draw for V and I, was disappointingly vague in her commentary. I still have no idea what her deal is — I assumed she would begin with, I don’t know, a 10-minute story or something about what her life was like, how she escaped, or maybe just who she is. Instead, our guide abruptly announced that she’d answer our questions at some point, and instantly the inanity piled up:

“Do you think reunification is possible?”

“What do North Koreans think of Americans?”

Her answers, from which it was obvious she was either very shy or very bored because she clearly had no interest in answering the same questions she’s asked every day, sounded copied-and-pasted from Wikipedia. V managed to elicit from her that what amazed her most about first arriving in the ROK were electricity, running water and traffic; I asked what her childhood was like, and she replied, with surprising simplicity, that she and many others were happy under Kim Il-sung’s rule.

The saddest (and only) boy at the amusement park.

The saddest (and only) boy at the amusement park.

We later visited an eerily vacant and totally fascinating amusement park at Imjimgak, near the border, built with the aim of educating children about the touchy political area. It’s been criticized by expats and soldiers here before, but to me the whole thing just felt surreal. There was only one family there, including two lone children who rode each ride together, the older girl consoling her crying younger brother.

Later we met our American guide through the JSA itself, a soldier-cum-tour-guide who’d been in South Korea only two months.

“Did you know you were going to do this?” I asked.

“Nope,” he replied.

V followed up. “Did you have a choice?”

“Not… really.”

Later I inquired how often he had to do these tours. “Every day,” he said, looking at the floor, and before I could ask him whether or not he enjoyed them, he shot me a look and repeated, with emphasis worthy of italics, “Every. Day.”

Though the area obviously bored him by now, I found it the most worthwhile part of the trip. Standing in what is technically North Korean territory allowed me the only moment of tactile connection with what I’d previously read.

Plus, the whole thing just feels cool. There’s literally a North Korean man whose sole job is ostensibly to look at foreign tourists with binoculars from afar. I’m not entirely sure what else he’s paid to do.

And, of course, witnessing the South Korean soldiers’ uncanny stillness is chilling, but mostly on an aesthetic level rather than a political one, and also due to the fact that I can barely sit through and episode of Breaking Bad without fidgeting in my seat every 15 minutes. Well done, boys. One day we’ll call you national heroes for standing so still.

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