I had taken a shower and was changing into a fresh pair of clothes when my hostel room door opened and the manager, puff eyed, wearing red underwear, told me that a van was honking like crazy outside his room. I hurried down the steps, slinging on my backpack. It was really early. I saw people peeking out of their rooms, disturbed by the honking, as I dashed out of the building with my boots (#goodoldboots) in hand.
The van sped past the streets of Itaewon that was still hung over after the party it witnessed the night before. Every night Itaewon plays host to travellers, US army personnel, the rich and the wealthy. Take a walk down its streets at night, and you will see people wearing expensive clothes, flashing shiny watches, talking loudly and obnoxiously on their high end cell phones and reeking due to an overdose of expensive perfumes.
The driver, who was dressed in a tuxedo with a headset attached to his ears, put on some Korean tunes as I laced up my boots. All the shops were closed and the roads were empty except for the occasional sweeper, cleaning up the sidewalks with brooms that were big enough to reach their chest.
We met the rest of the tour group outside a fancy hotel and while we were waiting for some of the other guests to join in, I decided to grab breakfast from the nearby food truck which was selling some Korean version of hot dogs. Outside the truck, a guy dressed in a white jacket, was talking on his cell phone, smoking. He turned out to be our guide for the day, Adam.
The DMZ is basically a long stretch of land that separates the North and South Korea. Even though it is supposed to be “de-militarized”, it continues to be the most heavily guarded border in the world. Bill Clinton described it as the “Scariest place on earth”. Also, since no peace treaty was signed between the Koreas, it is officially still “at war”, something that our guide reminded us many times. The DMZ is a major attraction for anyone visiting Seoul and on my third day in the city, I had booked a half day trip to the DMZ and the Fourth Infiltration Tunnel.
Adam was a good talker and he made sure we did not have a dull moment. He talked about the Korean War, ginseng, jimijillbangs and baseball as we whizzed past the morning traffic. A few minutes after we left Seoul, he asked us to keep an eye on the hills that had started appearing in the distance. The brown ones are in North Korea, he said. The villagers of the North cut off their trees for heating and cooking purposes, making them appear earthy brown.
We started off the tour with a short stop at the Dorasan Railway station, which serves more as a tourist stop for souvenir shopping these days. This station connected South Korea to the industrial complexes of the North. However, trains services to North Korea are currently suspended, indefinitely.
At the entrance gates, we were required to board a bus operated by the good folks at the DMZ. The bus was inspected by an American soldier, who asked for passports from some of the tourists. As the bus drove along the winding hilly roads to The Observatory, Adam told us an interesting story.
Years and years ago, the North Koreans installed speakers all across the border, which would announce communist propagandas all day to entice the South Koreans into defecting to the North. The South too installed speakers and returned the favour by announcing how awesome it is in the South. This went on for a while until the South Koreans got sick of it all, and started playing songs by the Backstreet Boys. Few days later, they mutually agreed to stop the announcements from both sides.
I could not verify the story, but it is not hard to believe. Backstreet Boys are total garbage. (I say that as I tuck away my “The Backstreet Boys-Greatest Hits” cassette.)
Our bus reached a shoe box shaped building, where we were educated about the DMZ through an orientation video. (Similar to the one in Lost).
I remember someone saying, “You cannot hide a building this big by camouflaging.” So true.
From the observatory, we saw the North Korean ideal village of Kijong Dong, where the buildings were constructed to entice the South Koreans into defecting. It is, apparently, a ghost town, the buildings are hollow and no one actually lives there.
Next, we headed off to the Infiltration Tunnel. As we passed military buildings and vehicles, Adam told us stories of how a man got his arm blown off on a land mine, and how a villager, miraculously, carried a live-bomb to the nearest police station, telling them to diffuse it. There are areas in the DMZ where live mines are still being discovered.
“How would you feel about living in one of the villages in the DMZ?” He asked us at the end.
The South Korean government in order to compensate the villagers for the hostile living conditions exempted them from paying taxes and waived off their mandatory two years of military service. Some of the richest farmers in South Korea are from the villages of DMZ.
The fourth infiltration tunnel was dug by the North Koreans by cracking solid rocks using out dated equipments. So naturally, it took a LONG time. When the tunnel was discovered their excuses ranged from “We didn’t do it” to “We were digging for coal and lost our way!”
(Got to love the North Koreans!)
According to the South Korean intelligence agencies, there are potentially many more such tunnels in the DMZ, still waiting to be discovered. They say that Kim had ordered each one of their army regiments to find a way to infiltrate the South.
We entered the tunnel, after locking up our valuables inside a locker and a helmet. The tunnel initially was quite broad and airy, but as we went deeper, it got narrower, and became uncomfortable. It was wet, dark and every now then, I would bump my head on a sharp rock. Thankfully, the helmet worked. Even though, tourists have restricted entry to the tunnel, it is quite easy to imagine how difficult it must have been for the naughty North Koreans to dig it.
Outside the tunnel, as most of the guests were shopping for souvenirs and I was busy clicking pictures, Adam came up to me and asked me about my camera. He took a few clicks and was impressed by it. (Yay!).
During our conversation, he let out another interesting story. He told me that even though the North Koreans never officially admitted that they dug up this tunnel, their officials once asked the South Koreans to split the tourist earnings with them. After all, if they were using the good North Korean name to promote it.
That afternoon, as the van sped down the highway heading back to Seoul with most of the guests dozing off in their semi-comfortable seats, and my eyes looking out for bald, brown North Korean hills that seem extraordinarily mundane after a while, I could not help but think that the two Koreas are like two twin brothers who have chosen very different ways to live their lives.
Even though, the North and the South could not be further apart in terms of ideologies, administration, infrastructure, lifestyles, and economic parameters, there are optimists out there who still believe that reunification of the two countries is still possible.