DMZ Day Part Three: Into North Korea

This is the third of many blogs from the most eventful day I’ve had in Korea, in nearly eight months since moving here. October 6, 2012…you were a beast.

He’s there. He’s literally right there. I’ve been farther from the players on the field during a football game. He’s pointing the binoculars right at us. I can see the red stripes on his shoulder without any.

The actual border is a spookily quiet place, with very little movement of any kind. Ahmed keeps politely reminding people that their involuntary gesturing is a form of fraternization. He must get frustrated by the tourists who can’t remember to keep their hands at their sides.

There is no sound of traffic. There are no buses roaring past. There are no planes running military drills. No ajummas laying on their horns. There might be a few birds, but we all seem to be listening for something else. Waiting to be shocked and surprised.

Ahmed tells us about the history of this area one more time, but I have to admit that I’m not paying much attention. I am taking photos of the North Korean soldier across the border, past the ROK soldiers who stand at attention in special uniforms at the corners of the blue conference rooms. I catch something about their aviator glasses being meant to prevent them from showing any emotion to “the enemy.”

The enemy. I’ve grown up lucky, having never seen war with my own eyes. I’ve only felt the fear and oppression that war inevitably brings vicariously, through the stories of my own family and the media (transporting me to Syria with FRONTLINE a few weeks ago, for example). I…I don’t see him over there, doing what he is told, as an enemy. I can’t. The alienation of war is brought home in one fell swoop; that man is just a man. He’s breathing, seeing, digesting breakfast just like I am. Had circumstances been different, I could have beenhim.

Extra protection. An ROK marine battalion following us around.

I stifle the intense desire to wave. To “brother-ize” him. I refrain.

Someone else is peeking through the curtains above the soldier, two people pulling them back and looking at the strangely subdued and unmoving, nongesturing groups of capitalists in front of them. Oh shit! One comes through the window, almost tripping as he does. He appears to be dressed as a World War One flying ace. It perversely reminds me of Snoopy. He too looks across the 150 meters separating us, maybe criticizing our clothing like I’m criticizing his. Ahmed is telling someone else to quit gesturing in the direction of the observation tower on the other side.

Our fearless leader, Ahmed.

I don’t take in most of what Ahmed says, because it’s a lot of the same history he gave us in the powerpoint presentation rehashed with lame jokes. I wonder what the North Koreans are thinking about our chuckles. Just then, a small group of North Korean soldiers appears at the edge of the building, goose-stepping from the right side into the main doors. It seems terribly theatrical. I mean, we have a small contingent of ROK marines following us around in addition to the US soldiers and the special teal-uniformed human statues guarding the border. 

It’s time. Go into the blue conference room, the place that talks happen between the two sides and the moderators. Ahmed explains that the Czech/Polish delegation was expelled by North Korea after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the USSR. We pass through the door, and walk the short length of the room toward the border. 

The MDL looms outside the window, and we wander across…remarkably unimpeded. I must be within 50 meters of the man on the stairs outside the building on the North Korean side. I’m shaking as I step over the 17.5 inch threshold, not marked at all in the blue conference room, unnecessarily filled with tables and fancy chairs.

Our feet, inside North Korea.

“Can I have a picture?” I ask Russell, holding out the camera. My voice is quiet, as if I were in a church. I do not dare raise it above a soft and mellow tone, for fear the man with the binoculars might hear me.

Camera passed. I step toward the door, watching for some unwelcome movement of the doorknob. Ahmed is explaining that the ROK soldier near the main table is actually tied to the South Korean side, to pull us back in case a North Korea soldier tries to pull us through the door to the other side (Yes, this has happened.). I notice the nonsequitor Samsung air conditioner just behind the man, standing so still he might as well be a model. Fake.

I hesitate. I’m still watching the doorknob. Nothing.

With a thrill of nerves, I turn my back on North Korea.

Just beyond that door lies North Korea.

If I look uncomfortable…it’s because I am.

5 thoughts on “DMZ Day Part Three: Into North Korea

  1. I thought this line was particularly insightful. “He’s breathing, seeing, digesting breakfast just like I am. Had circumstances been different, I could have been him.” Your post on your ‘border experience’ reminds me of my border experiences in Cyprus and to a lesser extent Northern Ireland. It is interesting how space holds memory, or serves as a visible symbol of a cultural divide. Yet the only reason borders exist is because we support the idea that they need to be there (and sometimes they do). I wonder what frontiers will be torn down in the next decade and which ones will be constructed and defended?

    1. In all seriousness, I don’t really see the point of international borders. As they are currently conceived, and especially in the case of the DMZ, there is no difference between their demarcation and the lines drawn across playgrounds that children create.

      I don’t know that they truly need to be there. Especially the abstract, immigration bureaucracy ones that invade my life often.

  2. Thanks for writing about me. I was your tour guide i.e. Security escort. I hope you enjoyed it. I enjoyed my posting at the DMZ.

    1. Hey, thank you so much for getting in touch. You were great, and we were so grateful to have all the support from you guys to see such an interesting place. Have you left the DMZ at this point?

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