The intense Asian heat that we have enjoyed and sometimes suffered disappeared during the four hour flight from Da Nang to Seoul. The air in Seoul is clearer, thinner and fresher, just cool, crisp and refreshing, we were already enjoying South Korea.
We stayed at the brilliant Beewong Guesthouse in Seoul’s city centre. The Guesthouse was comfortable but our room was tiny housing nothing more than a bunk bed, a desk and a television.The adjacent bathroom saved us from the misery of certain claustrophobia. The staff at the guesthouse were young, friendly and helpful. There was a real Asian feel about the place, most of the other guests were from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
We spent a lot of time in Seoul at the immigration office. We desperately wanted to obtain a Russian visa so that we could travel back to Europe on the Trans Siberian Railway. Sadly, the rules now require UK Nationals to apply in the UK unless they have official residency elsewhere. We were so determined to get the visa, we even attempted to blag an alien registration card. The card would have given us enough residency status in Seoul to allow us to apply for the Russian visa. After a five hour wait, we were duly despatched from the immigration officer’s desk. It was the pitying shake of the officer’s bowed head that confirmed that we were not going to be given residency status in a country where we had arrived less than 48 hours earlier, not to mention we didn’t have jobs or a permanent address!
We consoled ourselves by taking a hurried decision to book a tour with the United States Army into the demilitarized zone on the border of North and South Korea. At its most intense, the trip would take us to Panmunjeom, here we could stand face to face with North Korean Soliders on the other side of the world’s last real frontier. We were a little anxious about safety before booking our tickets, we didn’t really know what to expect. The US Army was conducting its ROK drills whilst we were in South Korea and North Korea had fired a missile into the sea just a few days earlier to signal its disapproval. We had to balance the dangers against my deep fascination with the closed kingdom. The chance to see and step foot in the the country that the world knows so little about trumped any potential harm and so we travelled to Camp Kim to book our tickets. The next day we were on a North bound bus.
The barbed wire fences with wooden look out towers are there to spot North Korean defectors who might sail down river and they began well we before we entered the DMZ. As we drove into then DMZ through the first security checkpoint we noticed massive concrete boulders ready to be moved into the road to prevent tanks from moving South in the event of a North Korean attack. Security was extreme and it made us quite nervous as we drove further towards the border. It felt like we were entering a war zone and we began to wonder what we had let ourselves in for. We had even been given a strict dress code. I had to wear a pair of black trousers because my only pair of jeans are ripped. Ripped jeans and shorts are not allowed because the US Army believes that the North Koreans would take photographs of my tatty clothes and then use the photographs as propaganda to show to the North Korean people, to illustrate how the poor people of the West can’t even afford decent clothes.
We arrived at the Joint Security Area, the place where South meets North and where North and South Korean soldiers stand face to face with each other across the border. A United States soldier boarded our bus and thoroughly checked our passports to prove our identity. The solider fitted his stereotype, a broad man made broader by the padding from his extensive Army uniform. He wore a cap and a pair of dark sunglasses that completely obscured his eyes. He didn’t take the sunglasses off during the entire tour and his direct military form of speech in sharp, direct, assertive bursts completed his authoritative demeanour. I was glad that he was our chaperone, he looked handy.
We drove into the JSA and entered the visitor centre where we watched a film about the conflict (the countries are technically still at war). We then had to sign a disclaimer absolving the United Nations, the United States and South Korea of any blame in the event of us getting our heads shot off. The etiquette was drilled home to us – there would be absolutely no gestures of any kind with the North Korean’s, photographs were permitted only in a forwards direction and only when the soldier said so. It was likely that when we approached the border, North Korean officials would come down the steps at the other side to take pictures of us. One member of our group asked if we could take return pictures of them at that point. Soldier Cherrybon, in his assertive American accent replied “Sir ,if they point theirs at you, you point yours straight back at em”. I couldn’t help but wonder if the solider had realised that the question was about a camera not a gun.
We made our way through the building where we would go outside to the border. At one point the solider stopped our progress and asked us to line up in double file. We were to move through this part of the building quickly and not stop, even to tie a shoelace. I was last in line and I noticed a South Korean solider ahead waiting to open the door that would take us outside. My heart was racing a bit now, there was no doubt the security of the visit was serious but i never really doubted that we would be safe. Another South Korean solider ‘fell in’ behind me as our procession walked outside, his presence behind me was further unnerving.
Our group of approximately ten people lined up to face the border. It was so intense but so fascinating to stare across at the lone North Korean soldier who stood rigidly at the other side. We noticed movements behind the tinted windows on the North Korean side and it was explained that that it was behind the windows where the North Koreans would be observing us and taking our photographs. The US soldier and two of his collogues faced us the whole time to make sure we complied with the rules that had been drilled home to us earlier. Behind the US soldiers there were a handful of South Korean “ROK” soldiers standing in menacingly tight takwondo poses, staring towards the solider on the other side. The soldiers closest to the buildings stand with their bodies half behind the concrete walls to ensure a hasty retreat in case of enemy fire and when a South Korean soldier has to open the door of the building which leads to the North, a colleague holds on to their trailing arm to make sure they are not pulled across the border. It was disappointing that the North Korean officials did not come down to visit us but the experience was amazing nonetheless.
We stared across the border for about 5 minutes until we were directed down the steps towards the border itself. There are buildings with single rooms which straddle the border where peace negotiations have infrequently taken place, half of the room is in the North and half in the South. We entered the South facing door and were able to pass freely to the other side of the room – at last we were technically in the North Korea. Another intimidating ROK soldier stood guarding the North facing door in case any of us decide to defect to the worlds most secretive state. We were told that despite his steely, silent stance the ROK solider was there for our own protection. The entire place was intense but incredibly interesting.
After leaving Panmunjom we retreated back through the peace building to the bus. Later in the day we visited Dorsan Station, a station which has been built ready for the day “when – not if”, the country reunifies. We also visited viewing points where we could look across to North Korea through powerful binoculars. I was able to watch lines of North Korean people working in the distant fields, it was amazing to gaze into the regressive state that is so closed to the outside world. I completely got lost in my thoughts as I looked across towards the mountains and when my voyeurism finished, everyone was else was almost back on the bus.
We spent the rest of the time in Seoul exploring the city, visiting the Palace, eating food off personal grills and drinking Sojo, strong rice wine. One night we couldn’t get served in a bar for being ‘straight’. Seoul, in my view is a fashion conscious, cool, ordered city of fun. Seoul’s style transcendences the district of Gangmam, everyone seems dressed in fashionable clothes, the night life is bright and plentiful and a definite feel good factor abounds. It is difficult to reconcile how such a modern, hip, happening city can exist so close to the world’s most regressive, closed state but there is no doubt South Korean’s aren’t phased about the threat of the North, when you spend time in Seoul you forget that a regime which threatens global security is but 50 miles up the road.