July 23, 2012
by Shoko Oda
Friday, July 13th—Our tour today was slightly different. Much of our tours so far focused on viewing various locations in Korea, such as the urban Seoul and rural Kangwon Province. We also gazed our eyes upon ancient artifacts and art in museums and galleries. However, the tour today shed light on one of the most discussed political issue of today: the North and South Korean divide. On Friday the 13th, we took a trip up to the Demilitarized Zone (known as the DMZ) and Panmunjom, where we were able to see the Joint Security Area (JSA) under strict surveillance of our tour guide, as well as American and Korean soldiers.
The tour started with a rather surprising appearance by a small, middle-aged woman who the tour guide introduced as a North Korean defector. She was present at the tour to provide us with answers that we might have about North Korea. The lady explained to us that she defected with several members of her family as they found no hope left in the North; they first fled to China, then to Thailand, before arriving in South Korea and legally obtaining citizenship there (which, according to the tour guide, can be obtained by defectors after months of investigation and an education period). We were most shocked when we found out that she had left her husband in the North; her husband was a government official, which made it even more risky for him to defect. Unfortunately, she had lost all contact with her husband after the North Korean authorities took him into custody. She has no idea if he is alive or not to this day.
As the tour guide explained, there are about 8 million Koreans who are separated from their families due to the divide—the guide herself explained that her father’s family could not flee to the South and thus remained in the North. Due to the lack of communication methods between the two sides, her family is still unaware if her father’s family is still alive in North Korea. This appearance of the North Korean defector and a tour guide who was personally affected by the divide definitely changed the tone of the tour to a rather more serious one, as we were confronted by the fact that many Koreans who lead ordinary lives are affected by such political strife between the two sides.
Much of the tour was, in my opinion, hybridized to portray the border as rather calm. As I conversed with others, it became clear that we were all extremely surprised how ordinary and unmilitaristic much of the things seemed before arriving to the DMZ and Panmunjom. The Dorasan station, which connected the two railroads between North and South Korea and once was under operation, was very modern and clean; the tour guide emphasized that the station will definitely be used if reunification were to happen in the near future, shedding a light of hope upon the abandoned train station.
In addition, we were also taken to visit the Third Infiltration Tunnel, which was created by the North Koreans in order to secretly infiltrate Seoul. Like at many places of importance near the border, photography was not allowed. We were boarded on a small train that took us down about 240 feet below the ground, much like a rollercoaster ride. The tunnel had a rather extensive museum, where we viewed a short movie about the history behind the tunnel. It clearly stressed multiple attempts by the North Koreans to infiltrate into the South through multiple tunnels, as well as other incidents—such as the Axe Murder Incident and the Soviet Defection Incident—that have occurred at the JSA, resulting in gunfire exchanged between the two sides. To me, it seemed as if the movie was made to make tourists feel fearful and anxious towards the North. However, the movie suddenly changed tone as it proclaimed the possibility of talks between the two sides, as well as hopes for future reunification. The tour at the tunnel and its short movie were thus extremely conflicting—the hybridization of the ride down to the tunnel brought about feelings of excitement, like the ones felt on amusement park rides; while the tunnel was made by the North Koreans in attempts to infiltrate the South, feelings of anxiety, nervousness, and fear hardly crossed my mind as we descended down the tunnel. The museum appeared as if it wanted the tourists to be engrained with negative images of the North, but also proclaimed that future reunification was desirable. The hybridization has made the two aforementioned locations rather conflicting; everything looked so peaceful, calm, and exciting, while parts of the tour obviously tried to engrain into our minds the dangerous characteristics of North Korea. However, we were soon made to feel unhybridized, true anxiety as we approached the DMZ and Panmunjom.
The Joint Security Area, located in Panmunjom at Camp Bonifas, is a military base shared by the American and Korean soldiers under United Nations authority. Here, the tour guides became even more emphatic about the fact that we were to obey every order that our American soldier escort gave us. Our passport was checked thoroughly multiple times. We were taken into the visitor center where we signed an agreement form that we were to obey orders and were responsible for all our actions. In addition, we were made to view a PowerPoint on historical incidents of defectors running across the border at JSA, creating unnecessary instability and even resulting in shootings and victims from both the North and South—clearly they wanted to get the point across that one person could provoke the North and seriously harm—even kill—innocent soldiers and visitors alike.
At this point, realization struck that we were actually at JSA, at an area that could easily turn unstable if one side provoked the other. The first part of the tour definitely did not prepare us for such sudden realization. For the first time in our lives, North Korea was within a few feet from us; we were visible to them and vice versa, as a North Korean soldier periodically scrutinized us through his binoculars. Our feelings of shock and anxiety reached its climax as we went inside the conference room, where we were able to technically cross over to the North Korean side of the room. Yet the whole tour of the JSA—from getting into the room, to lining up in 2 lines, to taking pictures only at certain locations at a given time—made us realize that the tension between the two sides was very much real. We realized at this point that this was, obviously, not like any other tour we’ve had so far.
Our tour of JSA was preceded by a film viewing of JSA: Joint Security Area in our class, as well as a tour of the movie’s Panmunjom sets in the Namyangju Studios. In the end, the two locations—the fake JSA set and the actual JSA location—were completely incomparable. The set in Namyangju Studios was very well constructed to mimic the real JSA in Panmunjom, but in the end, it was not the materialistic aspects of the site that allowed us to understand the political tension and instability that is portrayed in the film JSA—it was the whole process of getting to the location, learning what behaviors are acceptable, as well as seeing live soldiers patrolling the area that allowed us to better understand the political tension that grasped the film. They may have called the DMZ a Demilitarized Zone, but in reality, it was one of the most heavily militarized locations in the world, with both North and South Korea posting their soldiers and weapons at the border, ready for an attack. Tensions run deep between the two sides to this day; while an armistice has been signed, the Korean War is not over. Only time will tell if the two sides can be reunified, especially in our lifetime.