The alarm went to wailing at 6:15 AM. As my eyes opened I instantly felt the regret of last night’s fun. I had been excited to go on the DMZ/JSA tour before we even left, but with the sun just beginning to peek onto the city outside, I wanted nothing more than to shut my eyes for a few more hours. But I somehow managed to pull myself out of bed and get into some clothes. We were out the door in record time, Kellie guiding us through the subway tunnels to the train stop we needed to be at to be picked at.
I was expecting a bus to come rolling up, its doors opening with a hiss and an old Korean driver motioning us to get on. But that was far from the case. Standing at the top of the stairs, we saw from across the street a young man in a pink dress shirt flagging us down.
"Come! Come! This way!" he yelled.
Before we could even get to him, he crossed the street, disobeying the oncoming traffic. He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and unfolded it.
"Travis and Lindsey?" he asked.
We nodded our heads. “Yes.”
"You have your passports?"
"Let me tell you guys how to get back," Kellie said.
He held out his hand to her. “Do not worry. Our tour guide will be able to do so.”
Without much of a goodbye, we were shuffled away, following this tall man down two blocks before reaching a white Scion, the doors unlocked and the keys in the ignition, the car still rumbling away.
"Get in," he said.
Lindsey and I crawled in the back. He opened up the passenger door and held his hands out to Lindsey. “Give me your trash,” he said.
Lindsey handed over her empty Paris Baguette cup and doughnut wrapper. He casually tossed it on the ground and slammed the door shut. He walked around the car and got in the driver’s seat. And we were off.
What is this? I thought. This wasn’t anything I was expecting. This was fishy. I kept my eyes on the guy. He constantly straightened himself in his seat and leaned over to look into the rear view mirror, furiously fixing his hair that didn’t need any fixing at all. Taped along the dash of the car were several different pictures of the same K-Pop star. 90s rap blasted out from the stereo system, only to be turned down when his phone rang. And every time he answered his phone I would see the same wallpaper: a picture of himself, honoring the haircut he paid more attention to than the road. Periodically another phone would ring. That one was adorned with more pictures of the Korean pop star that was plastered along the dash. It was impossible for this guy to stay still. If he wasn’t fixing his hair or answering his phone, he was pulling the long list of names from the passenger seat and reviewing them over and over, as if something had suddenly changed on the paper since the five minutes he had picked it up before.
This is it, I thought. This is where all those Korean movies about serial killers I watched come into play.
Sure, we were supposed to go on a DMZ tour. But this guy was just going to take us through Seoul’s backstreets until we ended up at a warehouse where our organs would be harvested. The trip had gone so well. Now I was in the middle of Park Chan-wook script.
The car stopped and our driver ushered us out.
"In there," he said, pointing to a door across the street.
Lindsey and I hesitantly walked forward, both weirded out by the whole situation. This is where it happens. This is when we walk through the doorway and they throw the burlap sacks over our heads and hit us with the chloroform rags. And then we wake up without any kidneys. Or do we even walk up at all?
We opened the door to a familiar setting. A Dunkin Donuts. I guess the D in DMZ stands for Dunkin, I thought. We were sat down at the first unoccupied table we came across.
"Stay right there," the organ harvester said, laying down a info card about the DMZ tour on the table.
Lindsey and I watched as he paced around the Dunkin Donuts, finally grabbing a tray and filling it with a few doughnut holes. He ordered a coffee and sat back down. The doughnut holes were packaged up in plastic. He sipped his coffee and flipped over the info card to reveal a map of Seoul. He explained to us how to get back to where we came from after the tour was over at the end of the day and then handed the map over to us.
Don’t toy with me. I know you’re just trying to give us some peace of mind—some hope to hold on to. Put us in this comforting, public setting to ease our minds and then that’s when you slit our throats.
The Dunkin Donuts door opened and another well-dressed man stepped in—obvious friends with our pink shirted organ harvester. He greeted us and then the two went out for a smoke. It wasn’t long before our driver was back inside, nervously sipping his coffee and springing from his chair to pace around the building.
I see what’s happening here. You’re just the driver. You just deliver the product. Then the big guns come out. The guys who slice us up. I’d be nervous, too.
Finally, outside the window, we saw a bus pull up. The fancy-haired driver for the organ harvesting operation ran outside. When the Dunkin Donuts door opened again we were greeted by a younger looking guy.
"Hi," he said, extending his hand for a shake. "I’m Phillip. I’ll be your tour guide."
We introduced ourselves and then followed “Phillip” to the bus. I watched as the organ man placed the pack of doughnut holes in the hands of the bus driver. Perhaps this was all part of the tour operation. This is just how it works in Korea. But if you ask me, Phillip saved me and my organs.
When we got on the bus we were cramped. There was only about 12-13 other people on there, but it was less of a bus and more of an overweight minivan. I had to pull down one of the extra seats and keep myself from falling into the laps of those next to me as Phillip sat in front of us, explaining the history of the division of Korea, the state of North Korea, and the history of the DMZ. As we advanced down the highway, things suddenly changed. Typical roads are abruptly bordered with barbed wire and guard posts. Just across a fortified guard rail is a stretch of land narrowly divided by water. Beyond that water is North Korea.
When the bus finally stopped we were let off in a small area where we could use the bathroom, grab a bite to eat if we were quick eaters, and gaze at the monument erected in the memory of all those that died while aiding South Korea in The Korean War, as well as The Peace Bell, a bell constructed in 2000 to show South Korea’s hopes for reunification with the north.
We were given fifteen minutes to walk around before we reported to another bus and headed for Dorasan Station. As we neared the train station, Phillip explained to us that the surrounding bridges and overpasses were packed with explosives in case they needed to be collapsed if North Korea attempted an invasion. The distance between North and South Korea isn’t something you really find yourself thinking about too often, it’s one of those things you don’t realize until you’re there, facing it. But they’re right there, squished against one another.
Dorasan Station was a reminder of this—a country divided by little more than a river. On one side you have a nation rich in culture and prosperity, on the other a society restricted from truly living by the iron grasp of a totalitarian government. We weren’t given long to walk around there—there’s not much to see—but standing and looking up at a sign that reads “TO PYEONGYANG” feels a little strange. Lindsey got a photo with one of the guards positioned in front of the station’s turnstile. I refrained. The poor guy probably has to do it day in and day out. I figured I’d give him just a little bit of relief.
After that it was time to get back on the bus again. Before we made it to our next destination we stopped at out first security checkpoint. With passports in hand, a South Korean soldier boarded the bus, and with a rifle dangling from his shoulder, he inched down the aisle and inspected each person’s passport. Once he was off the bus we snaked through a series of metal barricades set up along the road and continued down the highway. When we stopped again we were able to peer into North Korea.
Just below a balcony’s view was one of the most infamous countries in the entire world. With a 500 won deposit you could peer through a pair of binoculars and look out on North Korea’s uninhabited city, Kijŏngdong. From behind a yellow line you can lift your camera into the air and snap a blurry photo of the "Powerful and Prosperous Nation." On the bus someone asked Phillip why there was a photo line and why we couldn’t take pictures beyond it. His response isn’t something I’ll quickly forget:
"Well," he said, "North Korea will shoot you."
A few people on the bus laughed.
He waited until the laughter died down. His face straightened less in anger and more in sadness.
"Yes," he muttered. "I wish that was a joke, but it’s not."
I watched as a woman ran over and grabbed a wooden stool placed in front of one of the binocular stands. She dragged it back behind the photo line and began to step up on it. Before she could plant both her feet on it, a South Korean soldier was already yanking the stool out from under her and waving his finger in her face.
The next stop was the last stop for the DMZ tour. Another short drive brought us to a building where we were equipped with hard hats and sent down the Third Tunnel of Aggression, a tunnel blown out and dug by North Korea to use as a means of performing a surprise attack on Seoul. It was discovered 1978 thanks to information provided by a North Korean defector.
The tunnel is a deep, dark climb down. Cool air snakes up between the narrow rock walls, but that hardly stops the sweat from flowing. Just when you think you’ve reached the tunnel’s end, you realize there’s still a ways to go. Even with the hard hats on it was impossible not to bump your head. I guess North Korea didn’t really accommodate for western height. I couldn’t help but grin as I passed little, old Korean ladies on their way back up that stood at full height without any danger of even coming close to bumping their heads.
The end of the tunnel is eerie to say the least. The stark metal door at the end of the downward trek looks like it was ripped straight out of a horror movie, sitting against a dark backdrop of jagged rock, offering a view into the second tunnel. There’s a darkness in this tunnel that doesn’t come from the low light or the leftover black paint on the rocks—something unsettling. The haunting presence of discarded memories of war, violence, and bloodshed that refuse to leave.
Once you reach the end of the tunnel there’s not much else you can do. A railway for mine carts sits in the darkness, as well as a fountain that pours water safe for drinking from the tunnel’s well.
The climb back up was a little difficult for Lindsey. We had to stop once so she could catch her breath. But it was hardly an inconvenience. Plus, I’m sure the group of freshly-made Korean soldiers didn’t mind the slow Americans getting out of their way.
When we finally got back to the top we were given time to take a water break before we were quickly herded through a small museum that mapped the history of the DMZ, and then taken into a small auditorium where we were shown a short video that expanded on the things we had just seen. It was a good thing I read all those info cards outside the auditorium and closely listened to Phillip, because I could hardly understand the narration of the video. It was like getting yelled at by a choking Kiefer Sutherland.
After the video we were taken back onto the bus and to a small restaurant. This is where the group split. Those of us that signed up for a full day were ushered into the restaurant while those that only signed up for half remained on the bus while Phillip bid us farewell.
We were served an unmemorable beef with onions and peppers. All the little side dishes were more satisfying. Lindsey had listed her meal preference as vegetarian and got served bibimbap. Finally, she experienced bibimbap in all its glory.
The two guys that sat across from us turned out to be Floridians as well, hailing from Miami. I wish I could have been more enthusiastic about meeting them, but they exuded that look-at-me-I’m-so-cultured attitude a little too much. However, the other guy across from us from Norway was great to talk to.
After the lunch we were greeted by a new tour guide, this time a lady. I didn’t catch her name. She loaded us up on a new bus, where I ran into the same woman I had talked to at the Biwon Secret Garden a few days back. It was really surprising—"what are the odds?" and all that—but it was nice to see her again.
After a quick SNAFU dealing with a guy who mentioned one too many times he was from the Netherlands leaving his passport back at the restaurant, we were off to the Joint Security Area. As we throttled down the road, the Imjin River flowing next to us, our tour guide explained that the JSA is the most hostile area in all of South Korea. I looked out the window as we advanced towards our stop. Lining the roads were fences of barbed wire, signs dangling from them that read “DANGER LIVE MINE FILED” under a picture of a helmeted skull and crossbones. Our tour guide pointed out Freedom Bridge, the bridge where North Korea’s prisoners of war were brought across and freed back into South Korea. I remembered my grandfather telling me how he was there that day, how he walked across the bridge and escorted the American POWs across to go back home, some of them relatively unharmed while others were withered to the bone. It was mildly strange to look at, weird to think that my grandfather once stood there, once occupied those same grounds, and now here I was all these years later in the same place. I already wrote of connections to the past, but this was the strongest link yet. The past is always calling us, luring us in some way. If it is a drain, the present is the water that circles it, the future the basin holding it all together.
After another security checkpoint and passport check, we were given forms to fill out that, among other things, read "The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action." A little unnerving even if you know you’ll be perfectly fine.
It wasn’t long before we arrived at the Freedom House, passing by a baseball game of South Korean and American soldiers in progress. An American soldier boarded the bus once we stopped and checked over our passports again before unloading us off the bus. We followed him and our tour guide in a single file line through the building to the other side. As you step through those doors, you are instantly faced with North Korea. Panmungak—North Korea’s equivalent to the Freedom House—stands in the distance, a North Korean soldier standing at the top of its steps, periodically raising his pair of binoculars to gaze over into the south, looking upon the faces of all the curious tourists and the ROK soldiers that stand perfectly still, their fists clenched in a Taekwondo stance. One between two blue conference room buildings, staring directly upon Panmungak and the sole North Korean soldier. Two others stood partially obscured by the buildings, an intentional position to offer less of a target to North Korean troops and to signal to the South if need be.
We followed our tour guide into one of the conference buildings. The building was populated with more ROK troops. They didn’t flinch a muscle as we filtered into the room, staring into an unknown distance, unfazed by all around them as if we were all invisible, as if the words coming from our tour guide’s mouth were muted. As she talked, I peered out of the window behind me. Between a stretch of concrete and a bed of gravel was a stone slab. And that was it. That was all dividing these two countries—nothing but a raised platform of smooth rock. Seeing just how close they are, it makes you think for a moment that the north and south becoming one again isn’t so hard. But it isn’t a matter of distance. It’s a difficult dream. And as you look upon all the monuments and landmarks, as you listen to the tremble and hesitation in the voice of the tour guides as they speak about it, you realize more than ever the prospect of reunification is something deeply instilled in the hearts of many Koreans. And you find yourself hoping for the same. If not for the benefit of the world, then for them. For Korea.
After the conference room we were taken back to the steps of the Freedom House, where we were given some brief photo opportunities. They stressed many times before hand to not do anything crazy when taking a photo. No fun poses, no jumping around—arms at your side will do. After that we were taken back into the Freedom House for a short break in the gift shop before getting back on the bus. As we boarded, I talked to the woman from the Biwon Secret Garden again. She told me what her and her son had been up to since we had last seen one another, and Lindsey and I updated her on all we had done.
Our tour guide informed us that the ride back was “nap time.” I followed her directions. I wanted to stay up and keep my eye on what was outside the window, but it was too hard. Exhaustion has really caught up with me. When I woke back up we were in the center of Seoul, just in time to see a protest demonstration of Korea’s construction workers. What seemed to be thousands of people swarmed the grounds of Seoul City Hall. It was a spectacle to say the least.
"It’s been a very busy week for Korea," our tour guide smiled.
Once we were left off the bus, Lindsey and I caught the subway back to Kellie’s apartment. We got all our things together and packed them up. As we zipped the last suitcase closed, the door opened and Kellie walked in. We went with her for a trip to Home Plus to grab some snacks for the journey back home, and a pair of headphones to make up for the pair I left behind in Busan. We also browsed for some shirts with badly translated English on them. Lindsey made a score, but I came up empty handed. So much for my A Youngster Stays Forever shirt. Oh well.
We got back to the apartment, grabbed up our bags, and jumped back on the subway, headed for Incheon Airport.
We really cut things by the grit of our teeth, getting to the ticket desk with 20 minutes left to board. But we made it. And now I’m writing this from a seat on an airplane bound for Japan. Together Lindsey and I watched as Korea shrank away from us as we climbed farther and farther in the air. All we wanted was to go right back—to never leave.
I can’t fully describe my experience in Korea and just how incredible it was. There will never be enough words, ink, or paper. This trip changed me. I don’t exactly know how, but I can feel it. Having watched those city lights fade away beneath a blanket of black sky, I can’t say I have an eagerness to return back home.
I just have the eagerness to go back. Back to Seoul. Back to Korea.