Day two in South Korea: The DMZ and the Cheong-gye-cheon

IMG_5715Were it not for the unparalleled kindness of strangers here, we’d have missed out on our scheduled tour of Panmunjom and the DMZ I’d scheduled weeks ago, which would have been a huge shame. Jack wrote a blog yesterday alluding to that kindness (and has since said something about Koreans being the Canadians of Asia, which was as accurate as it was clever), and I’ll expand upon this morning’s adventures in a later blog. Otherwise, this entry would be way longer than necessary.

As far as the tour goes, I have to offer a shout out to Jen and Ted of Thrifty Nomads, who were a great resource, and whose advice I took in booking the same company, the Panmunjom Travel Center. There is no other way to visit the DMZ except through such a company. Those wanting to participate need to plan in advance. The tours do sell out, and even if they didn’t, all of those wanting to join the tour need to go through a multi-day vetting process beforehand.

The bus ride to the DMZ from Seoul took just under an hour, and I’m sure the scenery was beautiful, but I was paying more attention to our guide and her Q&A session with Packchinstu (whose name I’m certain I’m spelling wrong, even phonetically), a woman who defected from North Korea with her daughter in 2011. The primary reason I chose this particular tour was this interview. It’s the only company that offered such an opportunity.

Packchinstu came to South Korea by way of China (and a Chinese uncle who could pay the $10,000 per person fee to fellow defectors who would aid in her escape with her 19 year-old daughter), and then Thailand. The entire operation took three years of planning and five months for execution. Defectors from North Korea are given a settlement by the South Korean government and significant aid after undergoing a six-month investigation and three months “re-education” process (as ominous as that sounds, no one asked our guide to expand).

Packchinstu later heard through that same cousin that her husband had been detained for ten days and later released when officials realized he knew nothing about her departure. We weren’t allowed to take her picture because of the continued threat to defectors, which hangs on even years after their leaving.

Packchinstu said her greatest shock coming to South Korea was the number of cars on the streets and the fact that women are allowed to drive. In turn, she said the world’s impression of North Koreans as impoverished and fearful is, if anything, understated. There are layers upon layers of spies, and reports of revolutionary talk can result in the execution of three generations of the family of the accused. She said she believed in general that North Koreans are aware of their leader’s tremendous failings, but too fearful to speak out, even among family. She said there was no single thing that provided the impetus for her leaving except a desire for freedom.

From the bus ride and interview, we visited the Unification Observatory at Odu Mountain where we were able to look through binoculars at the shoreline of North Korea across the confluence of the Imjin and Han Rivers. The rain had stopped by then, but a low fog lay across the foothills on the opposite shore, so there wasn’t much to see.

IMG_5663From there we went to Imjingak Park we saw the Freedom Bridge, a railroad bridge crossing the Imjin which was once used by repatriated POWs and soldiers returning from the North. It is now blocked and the chain-link fence is festooned with prayer ribbons inscribed with messages from South Koreans dreaming of reunification.

Colin took this picture, straddling the North and South Korean borders.

IMG_5668From there we went to the Joint Security Area, which straddles the North and South Korean Borders. We were warned that this is a “first-come-first-served” area, and that if we arrived when North Koreans were touring the building, we would not be allowed in. It seemed pretty unlikely that would happen, though, since such tours by North Koreans hadn’t happened in recent memory. I wondered if the warning was mostly for effect. Ultimately, we were able to visit the famed blue buildings (blue for “peace” we were told), straddle the border between North and South Korea and take selfies with stone faced soldiers.

Freedom Bridge

During the tour there were restrictions on where we could take photos, which was a bummer, or else you’d see a picture of a 160-meter flag pole topped by a 600 pound North Korean flag that has to be lowered during monsoon season lest it topple. We also had our passports checked at South Korean and United States military checkpoints. On the bus ride, our tour guide pointed out fields where thousands of landmines were buried, and bridges we went under where caches of explosives were set to detonate in the case of a North Korean invasion.

There was a dress code for the tour. They didn’t want anyone on the North Korean side taking photos of tourists with ripped jeans or low cut blouses and using them for propaganda pieces illustrating the poor manners or poverty. For our visit into the Joint Security Area, we signed agreements that we wouldn’t scoff or behave in any way that would be construed as insulting, and that we’d refrain from socializing with any member of the Korean Peoples Army (the North Koreans, or KPs).

Since the KPs were opposite the border and half way up the stairs to the building on the other side, I wasn’t sure how socializing would be possible, but okay.

They have their best “oh, I pose with an armed Korean every day” faces on.

I was enthralled with the whole thing, but I have to say the best part was traveling with a 13 year-old who’s studying Asian history in seventh grade social studies, and knowing the lectures and interviews were of particular interest to him. Colin said the tour was the highlight of this trip so far. I’m so grateful to his teachers and school administration for giving him a pass on his last two weeks of classes. I think we’ve made good use of the time.

IMG_5762After the tour, we were bused back into Seoul in time for a stroll around the downtown area and dinner. We realized we were mere blocks away from the Cheong-gye-cheon, which wasn’t high on my list of “must sees,” but the thought of a stroll was nice when we didn’t have any place to be for the rest of the night.

The Cheong-gye-cheon is an urban renewal project, a recessed stream bordered by art installations. It was pleasant, and seemed popular with the locals, as well as some wildlife (we saw two herons land and fish for a while, which seemed a remarkable thing in such a dense city).

IMG_5782Afterward we walked back toward our train station and found a patio restaurant along the way, serving pizza and beer, both of which seemed right up our alley.


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