Stepping Into North Korea…Without Erin

Chances are, if you suffer from migraines, it would be no surprise that by the end of a very tiring three-week trip you would get one. Erin did. As we were walking to catch the bus for the DMZ tour, she saw a spot out of the corner of her eye. This means a migraine is coming on. She had left her migraine medicine back in the hotel room, so she and Kyle hurried back to get it while Colin, Alison and I headed on to the tour office. The bus was scheduled to leave at 8:50 a.m., and when we arrived it was 8:20. I talked to the tour guide to let her know that we might not be going, and she kindly informed me that the tour fee is non-refundable. We were going to pay either way, and it isn’t cheap. I called the hotel and rang the room. Kyle had decided to stay back with Erin. The moment before he picked up the phone, however, she told him that the spot had gone away and she thought she would be fine. So they hurried to the meeting place. After scurrying around to find each other, we boarded the bus about a minute before it was pulling out. That could be the end of the story of the migraine, but it isn’t. The migraine returned and Erin ending up sitting either on the bus or in the gift shop at the Joint Security Area while we visited Camp Bonifas and the DMZ. She missed stepping into North Korea and she threw up in the parking lot of the restaurant where the tour group ate before heading back to Seoul. I suppose every trip has its moments, and this was definitely one of them.

Heading into the DMZ was eerie. Erin waited at the Joint Security Area where it was safe with South Korean and American soldiers nearby. The moment we passed into the DMZ, everything seemed strangely still. There has been no development and no management of the area so it was a thick forest on either side as we drove toward the line that divides North and South Korea. There were three checkpoints (Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie), and when we stopped the bus to get out, we were given very strict and specific instructions: form two lines, do NOT take photos until given permission, do NOT wave or make any arm gestures. We were told earlier that if we were wearing a shirt with any American symbols on it – a flag, USA, eagle – we would have to put tape over it. Also, we were not allowed to wear faded jeans with holes in them or sleeveless shirts because if we looked “ragged” the North Koreans would photograph us and use it as propaganda to convince the people that those outside the country were poor and unable to take care of themselves. Also, we had to wear shoes with backs on them in case there was an emergency and we had to run. Really? Yes, really. As we waited inside the Reunion Building (it was built in 1998 to allow families to reunite after crossing the border from North Korea, but it has never been used because no one is allowed to cross the border), our guide told us that we would be unable to go into the MAC (Military Armistice Conference) Building. This building is shared by North and South Korea…sort of. If the North Koreans are in it, then they lock the door from the inside. A tour group never knows if it will be open and we were very disappointed that we would be unable to enter. This is where you actually get to step across the border into North Korea. When we came through the back of the Reunion Building, the door was open, and the guide was pleasantly surprised that we would get to go in.

The photo of the North Korean and South Korean soldiers standing perpendicular to one another (the North Korean soldier is in the heavy, drab green uniform) shows the MAC building on the left. Earlier, all the rules had sounded a little dramatic, but once I saw the North Korean soldiers coming around the corner, I didn’t question anything. The raised section of cement in front of the North Korean soldier is the dividing line. A table in the building is also the dividing line, and you can’t step too close to the South Korean soldier – which Kyle did so the guide had to reprimand him. I did snap a quick photo of he and Colin. Notice Colin sporting the same shades as the very serious and unsmiling soldier (and notice the soldier’s clenched fists, which is the way they all stood).

If you look carefully at the outdoor photograph, you can see a North Korean soldier standing at the top of the steps of the Panmungak building on the North Korean side watching us through binoculars. It’s hard to describe the feeling of being there and the tension that exists. American soldiers are also stationed here, and so there is an American flag in the MAC building. It is now a plastic flag because a North Korean soldier made a point of polishing his shoes with it once. We were given all this information and I’m still thinking it through. You can hear the sadness and anger in the voices of the South Koreans when they talk about North Korea. They want reunification, but they are deeply hurt by the North Koreans hatred of them. It’s very complicated. The other photos are taken from a vantage point where you can see North Korea across the Inchon River. We bought a bottle of North Korean brandy in the JSA store and will leave it unopened until reunification. I’m sorry to say I think it may be sitting unopened for a very long time…but I hope not. On the way back to Seoul, a North Korean defector answered questions. That’s a story for another post since this one is already far too long.

We came back to the hotel around 3 p.m., rested, then enjoyed an Italian dinner and shopping on our last evening before heading home. Erin was able to join us after sleeping off her migraine. What a strange day. I guess the next time I blog we will be back in Tulsa and I promise my posts will be shorter. I have many other photos to share and more stories about our trip. You can continue to read the blog if you’re not too tired of hearing about China. I will eventually transition to other subjects, but I’ll be thinking about this trip for quite a while.

Goodnight from East Asia. It’s been an incredible adventure. Life should be full of these.

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