Student Perspectives: Day 4
Our day began early. We headed to the tour site at 6:30 in the morning and waited to board the bus that would bring us to the Demilitarize Zone (DMZ) at the border of North and South Korea. It was cold, still dark outside, and a bit of heaviness in the air. None of us knew what to expect, but we knew this experience would be one that would make a lasting impact on our hearts and minds.
After about an hour and half of driving, we arrived to one of the first camps. Our tour guide informed us that we would need to have our passports ready, as a US Army soldier would soon board the bus to check them for accountability purposes. Following the check, we headed to a lecture space where we were briefed on the history and current practices of the DMZ. While there were many historical facts and current events highlighted in the presentation, it was also full of heavily biased, propaganda-like information intended to incite fear and disdain in the audience about North Korea and its actions. Soon, the presentation ended and we boarded a special bus that was guided by the soldier. We were on our way to the DMZ.
In a few moments, we arrived at Panmunjeom, or the Joint Security Area. We exited the bus in lined up in in two single-file lines. As a group, we walked up the stairs and out into the space. There, we saw both U.S. and South Korean soldiers standing at attention and guarding the area and buildings. The energy was rigid, and the intensity was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. After standing outside for a few moments and photos, we moved inside a building where the official conversations between North and South Korea take place. The building was blue, and insider was a soldier guarding the conversational table. On the table, we saw a microphone, which remains on for 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, recording everything that is said in the space. On one side of the table was South Korean land and on the other was North Korean land. I happened to be standing on the side owned by North Korea, and I have to admit my heart skipped a beat when the solider guiding our experience informed me that I and others had official crossed over the border. Soon, we left the building, walked down the stairs and back onto the bus. What was only about 20 minutes seemed as though it lasted much longer.
Next we headed to Dorasan Station. At one time, this station was built with the hope that it would be a stop on the Trans-Asian Railway. Unfortunately, due to the tension and divide of Korea, the station stands only as a beacon of what could have been. We spent some time walking through the station, humbled by its gravity and the deafening silence. Although this space is underused and a reminder of the ongoing conflict, it is also a symbol of hope that one day Korea may reunify.
After lunch, we headed to our next destination on the tour: The Infiltration Tunnel. This tunnel is one mile long and resides only 27 miles away from Seoul. Before entering the tunnel, we watched short film about the history of this tunnel and others like it that have been found. Our tour guide informed us that this film is 8 minutes of total propaganda, and she was right; the film echoed a trailer to an 80s action movie and filled with imagery of violent North Korean soldiers juxtaposed to images of a DMZ filled with natural plant and animal life. We’d spent the entire day at the DMZ, and not once did I see flowers or wildlife or running water…the film was confusing to say the least.
When we finished the film, we grabbed hard-hats and walked down a steep, 435-meter walkway into the tunnel. It was cold and wet, and you definitely had to duck to make your way through the tunnel (for context, I’m only 5’3 on a good day…). It was eerie being in the space, knowing its purpose for being built was to get North Korean soldiers to Seoul and knowing that there were potentially other tunnels out there that were yet to be found. To me, this was one of the most impactful moments of the tour.
Finally, we made our way to our final destination. After another quick bus ride, we arrived at a part of the border where in the distance, we could see Peace Village in North Korea. Playing loudly over massive speakers was K-pop and other types propaganda, designed for the people living close to the border of North and South Korea to hear. This action was in response to the recent fear-mongering actions of the North Korea government. Here, we could use binoculars to get a closer look at the village. I felt an overwhelming sadness being in this space, as I felt I was getting a brief spectacle into individual’s real, everyday life. I wrestled, and am still wrestling today, with the privilege I had to tour monuments of this tragedy and pain, and then return to my regular life.
Soon, we were on the bus headed back to Seoul. Although of us shared in this experience, I imagine our takeaways as they relate to our own life and experiences are different. As for me, I am wondering what the future of North and South Korea can look like. I am hopeful that there will one day be peace, but I am equally hopeful that whatever solution may come to be, it will be one that will be satisfying, empowering, but most importantly, healing for the people of North and South Korea.
Student Perspectives: Day 5
Sunday was our first “free day!” I wasted no time hitting the ground running in the city of Seoul. Seoul is a very large metropolitan city. In many ways, it reminded me of San Francisco, California where I grew up; however, after having a few days to get myself acquainted with my surroundings, I feel like Seoul is better. While I do not know how to read in Korean, the streets were easy to navigate and signage for the subway lines were easy to understand. Jaelyn, a member in my cohort, and I wanted to explore the underground shopping center and one of the many marketplaces. Meanwhile, my goal was to eat as many different types of street food as possible.
Seoul had a robust and efficient transportation system. After a couple transfers on the subway, we arrived at the underground shopping mall located at the Express Bus Terminal. There, we found endless rows of shopping stalls filled with merchandise like clothing, shoes, bags, and souvenirs. I found some great gifts for myself and friends. The best part was eating spicy ramen, Gimbap (Korean sushi), and steamed dumplings (made fresh!) for only 13,400 Won. That’s equivalent to about 13 American dollars-worth of food for the two of us!
Next, we hopped back on the subway to in search for the Myeong-dong Marketplace, one of Seoul’s popular street markets. Filled with flashing lights from retail businesses, locals, and tourists, we walked through what seemed like over ten blocks of retail shops, and food carts in the middle of the street. While the market screamed consumerism, I was fascinated by the variety of street food options there were to snack on and the diverse groups of people this market attracted. I enjoyed tasty tempura potatoes (I LOVE POTATOES), and shrimp!
We ended our day with dinner at a Korean and Vietnamese fusion restaurant and met up with other members of our group to watch Jumanji in 4-D, my first 4-D movie experience! Walking, eating, and taking public transportation was the best way to explore the city of Seoul.