60 years ago, Korea was one of the poorest nations on earth. After ongoing bloody battles between the North and South, much of the nation was demolished and littered with debris, turning much of the country into rubble like this:
It is the beginning of a story that initially seems all too familiar for poverty-stricken nations. Take destruction, abandonment, and war and bam – you’re now one of the too broken, too complicated to fix places with the added title of “one of the poorest nations on earth”.
Except something remarkable happened in South Korea, which now has the world’s 12th largest economy.
In just decades post-war, that nation swiftly addressed the physical and emotional debris of the war. It re-planted the foundations of buildings which eventually blossomed into shiny skyscrapers. An infinite rainbow of neon ads for the city’s obsessions: beauty, food, and beer, hover everywhere. Smartly dressed people in wool coats with neatly groomed hair zip about like bees in the worker hive that is Seoul.
Korea has arguably one of the most fascinating success stories on earth. Yet what shocked me most as we continued our DMZ tour was the shocking contrast to its Northern counterpart, which hardly seemed to have progressed at all (and arguably, regressed) since the 1950s.
Continuing our tour, we were escorted to Mt Odu Observation point. My eyes widened upon spotting a row of binoculars against the enormous floor-to-ceiling window. Before us ran the Han River in a moody shade of brown. On the other side gaping back at at us was North Korea, loud and clear. I eagerly stuck my eyes up to the binoculars and gasped aloud.
There on the other side, a few tiny people moved about like ants on a hill. Plain houses stood on flat yellowed grass.
Panning the binoculars right to left, I had that feeling I used to get visiting zoos, eying animal pens and cages; a wish-wash of inner conflict. I knew on such visits that what lay before me was not an ideal setting for animals, but maybe they didn’t know it. And if they did, what could I do about it?
That notion hovered over me once more. The people on the other side walked about in their caged up life. The Han River created an invisible glass wall, not dissimilar from ones at the zoo. And there we were, peering in from the outside.
My thoughts were interrupted when our guide ushered us along. “Come now, we have to leave”. Our next stop was the Freedom Bridge.
With a name like that, you’d hope for an ounce of cheer after the abundance of gloomy statistics shared. Indeed though, it is nothing more than a name embodying a hopeful future. Once connecting the two Koreas, the bridge remains bordered up at its angular bend. The Southern side dangles with South Korean flags and colourful scraps of material flapping prayers and hopes in the wind. Our ever-optimistic guide stated that when the two Koreas are united, this bridge will be opened and people will cross freely from one side to the next.
Back aboard the bus, we drove parallel to North Korea’s mountains opposite the Han River.
Barbed wire, fences, and hoards of military vehicles suddenly replaced the hilly backdrop. We were at the Joint Security Area, known as the JSA.
A U.S. military officer stepped aboard our bus to inspect our passports. Next we were escorted inside the JSA Centre to sign a waiver which verbatim opens with the following line, “The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjim will entail the entrance into a hostile area and the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”
Mildly concerned, but understanding that it would be impossible for our safety to be guaranteed here, we signed our waivers.We couldn’t help but laugh when our guide handed the forms back to us later on the bus stating, “Here, you can keep these now for souvenirs!”. We boarded a second bus and made the short drive to the border.
If you’ve watched the VICE documentary or seen footage of the notorious DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), then this next scene will be familiar. Small sky-blue buildings nestled side by side with one large concrete building in front of them (belonging to North Korea) and another opposite behind, belonging to the South. The middle point of these blue buildings is the dividing point between the two nations, otherwise known as the North and South Korean border.
Being a Demilitarized Zone means that although both sides are armed, they are in an agreed ceasefire. Military on both sides are only allowed to carry smaller weapons so as to prevent a mass battle, though I was not entirely convinced that this was an assured safeguard of that.
Repeatedly we were reminded not to point, gesture, or make obscene expressions once facing the North side. We also had to adhere to a strict dress code that day, including no ripped clothing, sandals, or umkempt hair. The reason for this is that North Korean soldiers on the opposing side often take photos of tourists and use them for fake propaganda. Wearing or doing the wrong thing can be used to further reinforce North Korean falsities, such as the notion that other countries are visibly inferior or poorer than theirs.
Once completely facing North Korea and its one lone soldier staring back at us, we were permitted to take photos. I wished so badly I could have used my zoom lens, but this was not permitted by the tour’s restrictions.
As we stared ahead, I continually chewed on something our guide had said earlier.
“Do not step over that border. They’ll be more than happy to take you prisoner and say to you, ‘Welcome to Paradise’.”
What felt like a lifetime passed by. Our group of about a dozen people stood quietly in awe and nervousness. It was staggering to think of the world that lay on the other side of the simple cement block.
We were escorted into one of the small blue buildings. In this room is where meetings between the North and South take place. Our guide pointed to the part of the room that actually crossed the border into the North. We were permitted to step over it and take a photo with a South Korean guard.
As we gingerly walked over into North Korea, our guide reminded us, “Do not step out that door. If you do, no one will be responsible for you. You’ll be alone, and in North Korea”.
I felt safe in that room, but my stomach had that tingly feeling, like before you make the vertical drop on a roller coaster. Perhaps it was a twinge of nerves, knowing the very real danger just steps ahead of us. I’m one of those strange people who walks through museums and thinks, “What would happen if I just knocked over this vase right now?” or “What if I just hurled this million dollar painting out the window?”. In that moment, all I could do was replay in my mind the events that would ensue if I burst out that door into North Korea. Beyond that doorframe laid corruption, lies, and the 4th largest army on earth.
Just as I was caught in my own terrifying daydreams, we were asked to leave. Gratefully, tensions were not high that day, which meant everyone in the tour could have a photo taken in North Korea. This is not always the case, as growing conflict and security fluctuations can change on the flip of a dime and tourists may not even be able to enter the DMZ.
We boarded the bus back and were shuttled over to another border division. Four short wooden posts stood, signifying a much more basic North/South Korea border. Though appearing unmanned, the watchtowers galore and a nearby memorial to innocent US soldiers killed with axes decades ago marked the real danger surrounding this seemingly simple border.
Driving back to Seoul, my eyes remained glued out the bus window. Several military vehicles filled with South Korean soldiers flickered by. I was especially captivated by them blurring past, with the enemy line so close in the background.
Normally I am not one to enjoy tours. The last one we took was two years ago in Galapagos, another place where sightseeing is only possible with the presence of a guide. With no hesitation, I would say this was one of the most informative and enjoyable tour experiences I’ve ever done.
In the days after the tour, I continually thought about the fishbowl of a world that existed just hours from where we stood now. Bumping shoulders in the subway, I wondered if any of the people passing by were one of the 26,000+ refugees here in South Korea. Adjustment to the lightning-speed, neon life here would be hardly different from abrupt submersion into a pool of ice water for someone coming from the North.
This reality is highlighted in the incredible but horrific story, Escape From Camp 14, which is the only documented escape from a North Korean prison camp. Further digging led me to a rather insightful read on the struggles of young refugees who are stigmatised at school in South Korea, and have high drop-out and unemployment rates.
The more I travel, the more I reflect on the fact that I just happened to be born in a safe and developed place. My woes are minuscule to the bleak fate that many are born into in a place like North Korea. Why this is so simple to regularly forget is shameful and unknown. One can only hope that we get better at remembering.
Note: if you haven’t already, you may be interested in reading about our Q&A with a North Korean defector, or our how-to guide on booking a DMZ tour.