Hey, I’m just hanging in my hotel room after a day devoted to the DMZ. I’m listening to Les Miserables on YouTube because I’m sick of CNN International on TV. I had a Snickers bar for dinner because I’m too tired to function.
The day began, as usual, with the delightful Egg Chef Lady making me laugh. I asked what part of Korea she was from, and as it turns out, she’s half Filipino and half Korean. I told her that I was born in the Philippines, too, and our love fest grew exponentially. Her Filipino name is Rose and she cooks 80-100 eggs a day for the guests at Hill House Hotel. Turns out there is a DMZ in her too. Her Korean husband left her for another woman a few years ago and she’s had to make do on her own. Hence, the egg work six days a week.
At 8:45, a driver from dmztours picked me up and drove me to the Lotte Hotel to catch the big tour bus. In addition to myself, there were six on the bus: a young American man who has spent the last year working on clean water in India; a young Taiwanese woman who came for a winter holiday; a young couple from Panama (where I was in November); and two Japanese men. Everyone spoke English except the two Japanese men, who had their own interpreter. The rest of us had the delightful “Laura,” who turned out to be an absolutely hilarious and astute host.
Our first stop, much to my surprise, was the Korean War Memorial where I had been the day before. While the others walked around the grounds, I ran to the bench in the hopes of seeing my elegant Chinese Medicine Man friend again. He wasn’t there and I burst into tears. I will never see him again. Gone. But somehow always with me. The very definition of mysterious–the word he asked me to pronounce.
Back on the bus, Laura entertained and frightened us with tales from her DMZ trips. She said things change on a daily basis, for obvious and good reasons. We could get all the way to the Joint Security Area and be turned away at the last second. Our names and passport numbers had been faxed to the UN Forces at Panmunjom the day before. We’d have two passport checks. After the second one, a member of the military police would ride our bus as we entered the DMZ and stay with us until we left.
“What is the name of the border?” she quizzed us. “It’s not actually the 38th Parallel.”
“The Military Demarcation Line,” I responded.
“How do you know that?” she asked. “Many Koreans do not know.”
I suppressed the urge to tell her that I have the coordinates of the MDL at the Joint Security Area tattooed on my ankle. It’s just shy of 38-degrees latitude. In fact, it is N 37.57.36
Good thing I didn’t mention it because Laura launched into a list of all the things that are unacceptable to do, wear or say while at the MDL facing North Korea. By the way, the DMZ is the 2km south of the MDL and 2k north of the MDL. This area is also known as no man’s land and its filled with land mines.
The list of no-no’s includes: NO TATTOOS, no pointing, no shorts, no slippers, no talking on a phone, no sleeveless shirts no strange movements, no photos until given permission…
Why all these no’s? Because the North Koreans, who will be watching our every move, might take pictures of us and use our images as propaganda. Behold the belligerent barbaric foreigners.
We stopped for lunch a traditional Korean restaurant in the South’s northern most town. I, of course, had bibempap. Our Japanese tour pals were seated at another table entirely. I tried very hard not to read into that situation.
Japan colonized Korea from 1910-1945. The Japanese withdrew from Korea at the end of WWII, and the country was controlled by the US below the 38th Parallel and by the USSR above the 38th Parallel. On June 25, 1950, backed by Stalin and Mao Tsedong, the North Invaded the South. The Korean War lasted a long and horrific three years before the United Nations decided enough was enough and signed an Armistice Agreement, officially dividing the country through a ceasefire. The DMZ was created and the MDL is now what marks the Peninsula as two separate places. Technically, the North and South are still at war these some 60 years.
On the drive into the DMZ, I became obsessed by one thought and one thought only.
What if the bibempap upsets my tummy? Why did I eat bibempap when that food and I have a rough history? When I lived in Seoul in 1988, it gave me a stomach every time I ate it. This trip, I have been lucky. But what if, right now, I get stomach cramps at the MDL where there is no bathroom? I’ll be doubled over in cramps, or worse yet, lose control of my bowels. The North Koreans would have a field day with that image. I could see big giant posters–of big giant me acting like a sick ape–hanging on the streets of Pyongyang.
We arrived at Camp Bonifas inside the DMZ for a briefing where we learned, again, to mind our manners. I couldn’t help but wonder why there is a tourist trade here. Why are we visiting a place where military personnel are on active duty and on guard every minutes for a North Korean invasion? Of note, Laura always used the term “when” for an invasion not “if.” Some say we are propaganda too (think reverse psychology). Some say war tourism is simply enlightening. I say the history of the place is simply irresistible. So much so, that I had it tattooed on my person to represent my own wars.
I was delighted that there was a bathroom at Bonifas. AND A GIFT SHOP. But no Wi-Fi, which makes total sense.
Around 2:30 p.m., we were escorted by a US soldier to the Joint Security and the MDL. We had to walk in pairs, like “schoolchildren” said Laura. We were told not to speak or take pictures until we had lined up facing the line and North Korea. I have to say the experience is extremely intense. And brief.
Afterward we entered the blue building on the left, which is the UN conference room. We were able to walk around the conference table which technically took us into North Korea. We were guarded by South Korean soldiers who stood as still as wax figures at Madame Tussauds. They stand in a Tae Kwon Do position with hands close to their weapons. We were told not to invade their space. Why do they wear glasses? So as not to make eye contact with North Koreans should be in the room or arrive unexpectedly.
I was just happy that my stomach was cooperating. And even happier that I was having this once-in-a-lifetime experience for the second time in my life.
Our bus took us to another spot in the Joint Security Area–the Bridge of No Return. We were not allowed out to get out of the bus. The Bridge is where, after the Armistice Agreement was signed, POWs had to make a choice about which Korea they wanted to live in. Once the decision was made to go North or South, there would be NO turning back. Ever.
A chilling image. A haunting site. And the very crux of the divide. So many families have been separated for so much longer than they ever imagined. Some never seen again. Generations torn apart. The tragedy of the split Peninsula.
As we headed back to Seoul, Laura had one last thing to say. Actually two.
First she thanked us for our “fine cooperations.”
But her last words were “Pray for unification of our country one day, to end the suffering of so many people.”
Then she sat down.
To me that’s the reason to see the DMZ. To understand the suffering of Laura’s ancestors. To better understand the suffering of the elegant Chinese Medicine Man on the bench in Seoul. Ultimately, to understand our own man-made divides.
I am sorry for what this extraordinary place has had to endure, including the relatively minor and frivolous antics of one Nancy Stearns Bercaw in 1988 who didn’t know a God Damned thing about suffering back then.
Until Carolyn was killed, a crime for which I blamed Korea. But it was American who crossed the line and murdered her. A civil war in the midst of a cold war.
Thank you DMZ, for bringing me some sense of peace.