In Front of Them All: Our Trip to North Korea

Ever gone on an incredible trip? I’m talking about can’t-sleep-before-Disneyworld, run-all-day, begging-for-more-time trips that just get your mind churning and your spirits up. The kind where you fall into bed every night exhausted but wishing you were more used to walking around for 10+ hours a day. The kind of trip that makes you just want to live where you were. Remember it? If not, think of something close. Got it?

Now, what was it like when you came back and someone asked you what it was like? If you’re like me, all those amazing stories, sights, and experiences blur into one whirlwind of disconnected sentiments and story snippets. One would think that you could think of something interesting for your well-meaning friend who’s blinking wide-eyed back at you?

I’m usually not so fortunate. I usually end up saying something like, “It was amazing! I ate a really good peach…So yeah. How’re you?” (True story)

And later, when I’m done beating myself up for my lame response, I realize that I really don’t remember as much as I would like to about my experiences. Sights that had such a dramatic impact on me blur and distort into vague impressions by the time I get over the jet lag.

That experience I just described is part of the reason why I’m writing this blog. I’ve been here barely three days and it’s already one of the most varied, unexpected, and meaningful trips. So, I’m writing my adventures down and sharing them while they’re fresh in my mind. At least, as fresh as they can be when you’re writing in the semi-dark with your brothers snoring loud enough to wake up Russia.

One these things I definitely want to remember while is our trip to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). After our typical ride through the metro, we loaded up onto a tour bus and rode towards the border.

Dosan Train Station

The bus stopped at multiple areas, each one successively closer to the border. Our first stop was the Dosan Train Station.

Photo May 20, 1 45 45 PM

This train has never run, though the engine was on even when we took the picture. The whole station is an eerily vacant, impeccably clean place with a lonely gift shop and a handful of vending machines in a corner. It was built by Chung Ju-yung, the founder of Hyundai. Ideally, the train would run through the Koreas and connect Seoul to Europe as far as Portugal. It doesn’t run because North Korea hasn’t agreed to let it through, but they’re hopeful about it, hence the tours and the constantly-running engine.

We also stopped at a few lookout places along the way, which educated us on the history on the place. Our second to last stop was the Third Tunnel. Discovered in 1978, this is one of four North Korean tunnels uncovered by the South Koreans. This one is only 27 miles from Seoul, and it’s believed that it was going to be used in an invasion. Our tour guide said that about 30,000 men could travel through these tunnels in an hour.

Illegal

Technincally, we weren’t supposed to take any pictures of the 400-meter tunnel that sloped at thirty degrees the whole way down, the yellow-painted dynamite holes, or even the lovely yellow hard hates, but thankfully, my brother doesn’t read signs. The photo above is at the end of the tunnel that’s open to the public. The whole thing is about a mile long.

North Korea

My absolute favorite sight, however, was in Camp Bonifas, the military camp that sites right at and on the Military Demarcation Line (DML), the official boundary between the Koreas. The first row of buildings you see above us are part of Conference Row, which are for joint meetings.

Photo May 20, 4 59 17 PM

This picture is proof that I’ve technically been in North Korea. We took this one inside one of the conference buildings. The flag and the South Korean soldiers are right on the DML. If you were to jump out of the window behind us, you’d be right on top of the concrete slab that officially marks the DML between the soldiers. At times, soldiers from both sides stand toe-to-toe there, just staring at each other. I’m told the North Koreans also sometimes make faces.

Photo May 20, 5 01 57 PM

The big building behind the conference row is Panmungak (Panmun Hall) which faces its sister building, the South Korean Freedom House. The soldiers, practically statues in their motionless tae kwon do stances, literally watch each other all day.When we first came out there were about a dozen North Korean officers on the balcony.

Important: The DML and DMZ were not agreed upon by the South Koreans. The truce in 1953 was decided by the United States, China, and North Korea after 785 negotiation talks, but the South Koreans have never signed any peace treaty. Though there hasn’t been outright war for over sixty years, their constant vigilance for North Korean invasions and their anticipation of reunification indicates that in many ways, they don’t quite consider the Korean War over.

Photo May 20, 5 28 30 PM

Finally, we drove to the Bridge of No Return. We weren’t allowed to get out here because apparently some North Korean soldier once pointed a sniper rifle at President Bill Clinton, but we stopped to take pictures. This sight was where the two Koreas exchanged prisoners at the end of the war in 1953. The prisoners were given their choice of which Korea to go to, but if they chose North Korea, they could never return.

These sights are important to me because they throw history in my face. My life could’ve been drastically different if my chinjo-halabugi (great-grandfather) hadn’t been a dean in a university in Seoul and gotten a heads up about the incoming invasion, or if my halabugi‘s fake communist badge wasn’t convincing enough to get him over the bridge out of Seoul, or  or or or. I wasn’t even born yet, and already the Lord guided the trajectory of my life by the critical decisions of my grandparents and their families.

Observations of the Day: We make a big deal here in America about the ability to make yourself whatever, whoever you want no matter your background, but I wonder if we don’t appreciate our upbringing enough. I may not be the sum of my parents or my grandparents, but I can tell you for sure that I wouldn’t be writing a blog about my travels if even one of those events hadn’t worked out.

Then again, we’re not all that different, are we? I have the benefit of being able to talk to those who experienced a war that changed, maimed, and reconstructed millions of lives. I watched the North and South Koreans continue their decades-long staring constant. I may be at an advantage when it comes to learning about it, but I’m certainly not the only child to come out of generations of courage and goodness, nor the only child the product of God’s guiding hand of protection.

I encourage you to consider your own heritage, and then consider ways you can appreciate it. I think and subsist on words and stories – hence the blog and my long-winded paragraphs. Thankfully, not everyone is like me.

Next Post: My lovely cousin Michelle shows us Korea University, Cheongbukgung Palace, and some of the best food of my life. Oh, and we meet more relatives too!

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