We had decided to book our trip to the Demilitarized Zone on our first full day in Seoul because it was the only reservation time the USO still had at the beginning of our trip and we figured it would be less busy off-weekend. We had been told by several people that the USO tour was the best one and watching other tours that day I felt that we had been given the right advice. It was certainly worth every penny of the $86 we paid (each). You arrive quite early in the morning to the USO offices in central Seoul and from there you are with the tour staff all day – we got back to the USO offices around 3:00pm.
The bus takes you about 1 hour from the downtown of Seoul and as you take the highway you drive along the boarder of the DMZ and you can see the checkpoints and barbed wire fence on the SK side. For miles and miles. They show a video on the bus and a guide explains what the first part of the day will be like. We were told that a US solider would escort our group, there was to be no gesturing or comments aimed at North Korea, no pointing even, nothing that could in any way cause alarm. Photographs could only be taken at certain times and only pointing towards the North. Our bus passed through two highly guarded check points on the way into Camp Bonifas. We signed a waiver that said we were signing away our rights to sue in the event of injury or death and that we were entering a hostile area (the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom) – signing off on this document followed very serious instructions from our US military escort and by this time I was already feeling sick to my stomach. I was starting to feel anxious even with the knowledge that hundreds of people pass into the DMZ on these tours every week.
Standing on the SK side of the DMZ staring at the North Korean side – armed soldiers from both sides guarding their posts was probably one of the most bizarre feelings I have ever had. I am not certain that I can even describe it. But at the 2nd stop, at one of the guard posts overlooking the NK “propaganda village” we were told by our US military escort that North Korea had enough artillery aimed at SK to level all of the city of Seoul in 8 minutes. I think that was the moment that I realized I really wanted to get the hell out of there.
The other stops along the tour (the underground tunnel that South Korea discovered in 1978 and the train station where the KTX ends) were less chilling – only since they were more removed from heightened reality of the situation at Camp Bonifas.
The South Korean campaign (their own “variety” of propaganda) to make the DMZ into a symbol for peace and a push towards what the future could be post-unification is really interesting and being that close to the two opposing sides really put all of the complicated relationships between Japan, Korea, China and the rest of Asia into perspective for me in a way that I had not fully comprehended.
In the afternoon we checked out of the Hilton, picked up a basket of delicious plums at the mini-stop, and took a taxi with all of our crap over to the Mapo-gu neighborhood in Seoul. Our AirBNB apartment was a short 15 minute walk from the Hongik Univ subway stop and in a cute neighborhood. Elena, our host, met us for check in and her apartment where we would stay for 4 nights was totally cute.
After we got settled in we went to the University area to battle crowds and crowds of coeds out on the street for Friday night. We were meeting up with a woman that I was close friends with in high school. It had been over 20 years since we saw each other last and she had been teaching in Seoul for years. She picked a hopping joint known for their pork barbecue – 갈비. It was delicious and great to catch up with Jema but we smelled like we had been barbecued ourselves by the time we got home!
An aside: this was fascinating in the Hilton parking lot in Seoul: