Korea: Visiting Our Northern Neighbors

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Many years ago, Billy Joel wrote a little-known song called We Didn’t Start The Fire. Some of the lyrics go like this:

Rosenbergs, H-Bomb, Sugar Ray, Panmunjom

Brando, The King and I, and The Catcher In The Rye

I remember when we were learning this song in my middle school social studies class, no one knew what Panmunjom meant. That probably includes a few of you, too!

Panmunjom is the area set up by the United Nations joint forces, in cooperation with North Korea, that straddles the border between the two countries. Normally, the nations are separated by a Demilitarized Zone that spans several miles. However, at Panmunjeom, one can literally stand across a line in the cement and look out the other side. It’s a very surreal experience, especially when you lock eyes with a North Korean soldier and you realize that he will probably never, ever, get to talk to anyone outside his country. And you also realize that that soldier, with his drab brown uniform and thousand-yard stare, is your fellow countryman.

It’s very hard for Korean citizens to visit Panmunjom; they have to go through tons of bureaucratic hurdles to get permission. Fortunately, as I was an American citizen, the process was a lot easier – just a verification of a visa and a reservation with one of dozens of tour groups and I was good to go.

I was herded onto a tour bus with about two dozen fellow tourists, and we made the hour-long drive up north. (It’s kind of freaky just how close Seoul is to the North Korean border. If war ever happens, the city is going to be screwed.)

There’s very little to anticipate the fact that you’re getting closer and closer to one of the most dangerous countries on the planet during the drive; everything seems tranquil, and the pastoral view out the window dulls your sense of excitement just a tad. Most of the area north of Seoul, until the border, is farmland. To the left, the Han River winds its way toward the Pacific Ocean. It’s the perfect view… except for the razor-sharp barbed wire fence that starts to run alongside the highway, separating the river – and its direct access to the North – from the civilian area behind it.

Soon enough, the bus stops at a military checkpoint, and we’ve arrived at Camp Bonifas – a few kilometers away from Panmunjom proper. From here on out, we switch from our civilian bus to a military one. It’s actually quite a bit nicer, ironically.

We wind through a nice, quiet, forested area. It would be a perfect place for a picnic, except for the occasional tubes of TNT and tankbusters waiting to fall on the road at the slightest sign of attack.

And then, with very little warning, we’ve arrived. We’re herded off the bus, and we can finally see the border. In front of us is a series of blue longhouses; beyond that, the North Korean side beckons with its Soviet-era administration building.

The actual complex is… well, it’s what it is. The saying goes something like “pictures don’t do it justice”, but in this case, they totally do. It’s not very big, and as tourists, we were herded from one place to another so quickly that we barely got the chance to stand still and really take in the fact that we’re merely steps away from the world’s most reclusive nation.

We did, however, get the chance to stand inside one of those longhouses and be, technically, in North Korea. (Although, officially speaking, the interior belongs to both nations.)

That's the demarcation line just outside the longhouse window. I'm standing on the North Korean side.
That’s the demarcation line just outside the longhouse window. I’m standing on the North Korean side.

After the brief visit, we were herded outside once again, lined up into rows on the steps facing North Korea, and given precious few seconds to take some souvenir pictures. We also took a group photo; the guides were selling them later for $20 a pop. No, thanks.

Me and my official-looking badge.
Me and my official-looking badge.

And that was it, really. Back onto the buses we went, back to Camp Bonifas (where they had set up a neat little gift shop – I bought some North Korean currency as gifts for myself and my friends), back to Seoul.

This is probably the closest most people will get to actually visiting North Korea. For such a grandiose sentiment, the tour itself is disappointingly brief. We were constrained to our military buses for the majority of the tour, only getting a brief peek at some of the better-known monuments – The Bridge of No Return and the site of the Axe Murder Incident – and herded like we were a bunch of clueless, fanny pack-toting tourists. (Hey, wait a minute…)

Obviously, Panmunjom is an active military zone, so all of this is understandable. I guess I’m just wishing for the day where we – from the entire peninsula – can visit these sites without a 24/7 military detachment. It’ll happen someday, and when it does, I’ll be on the front lines, eagerly taking my first step into a land that belongs to all of us.

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