Saturday, August 05, 2006

North Korea and the Demilitarized Zone

Well, I've officially walked into North Korea and taken pictures of North Korean soldiers and cities. After taking the highly-regulated but very comprehensive USO DMZ tour, I am exhausted and filled with wonder over the way that geopolitics, history, and propaganda have split a people in half.

As astounding as the sites were, the tour guides were alternatively funny and a little odd. Our Korean guide, pictured below, is the Lawrence Welk of DMZ tour guides (that was my name for him, not some official designation). One of our companions simply referred to him as "a dandy," and that he was! He would say things like "What do you think of ginseng chicken, eh? Perhaps you will eat some...perhaps you will eat some tonight. Yes? Yes, I think you will." And this in the middle of what he kept referring to as "the most dangerous place on earth," all the while smiling smugly (or seductively). He was much more entertaining than the American soldier who took us through Panmunjeom and seemed incredibly amused with his own self-perceived studliness and occasional subtle racist jokes about North Koreans.

The trip through the Third Infiltration Tunnel was comparable to some of the toughest hiking I'd ever done, but definitely worth it. The entire tour was a combination of the harsh reality of "peacetime war" and the ineradicable cheerfulness of Korean tours. But at least I got to walk into North Korea for a few minutes. It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Our tour guide, AKA Lawrence Welk, Korean-style.

Below are three shots of North Korean soldiers in Panmunjeom. They were taking a bunch of pictures of us as we were taking a bunch of pictures of them.

Charming bunch, really. They seemed genuinely excited to see us...

The building in Panmunjeom where peace negotiations were held in 1953, and where communication occasionally takes place now. I am taking a picture of the South Korean side from the North Korean side.

Kijong-dong "propaganda village" in North Korea. We were told that only soldiers live in the city.

North Korean guard tower.

A monument to the 1976 Poplar Tree Axe Murder incident, which nearly triggered a second round of the Korean War.

The Bridge of No Return

Portion of the Southern Demarcation Line. I was constantly amazed at how close we were to everything.

Below are photos of a sculpture whose meaning is obvious. The close-up shots reveal a lot of personality in the faces. I enjoyed walking around this and investigating its characters.

The old man is especially compelling.

Finally, no tour in Korea (including, apparently, of the DMZ) would be complete without cheesy cartoonish characters. This is a theater near the Third Infiltration Tunnel. The movie was a 10-minute long South Korean propaganda effort that left my companions and me wondering which side of the border we were really on.

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