A Road Trip to the North Korean Border

 

Let’s go! When friends come to Korea to visit for the first time, I always take them to visit the North Korean border, so I have decided to take you there today. I go there about once a year, and this is a perfect opportunity to go because Kim Jeong Un, the North Korean president, and the South Korean President Moon Jae In just signed the treaty to finish the war that has been going on my whole life and probably yours too. For many years, there hasn’t been much fighting. Lately, there has been peace, but in the beginning, a lot of Americans, Koreans, Japanese, Ethiopians, and people from all over the world lost their lives in this war in Korea, the war against Communism and for freedom. I have been here for a little over 12 years now, and sometimes, it has been a bit scary, but I never needed to be scared. I learned not long after I came here the news stations loved a story, so they always made things seem bleaker than they were in S. Korea. I learned when all the Americans were scared, the South Koreans were just ignoring what the news said and going on with their lives, so I did the same.
In the first years I came, there were drills. A siren would go off, and everyone was expected to find cover. It was just practice in case something should happen, but if you were new in S. Korea, those sirens were shocking because new people don’t speak Korean and don’t understand. Once I figured them out, if I had a friend who was new in Korea, I always called them before the siren happened because the drills were announced on the news ahead of time. I let the new people know the drill was going to happen, but just stay in the house and don’t worry because it was just a drill.
Occassionally, something did happen. I saw North Korea bomb a South Korean island that is up north close to North Korea, but part of South Korea. The people were scared then, but after one bombing, it was finished. Kim Jeong Il was in charge in the North when I came here, and President Kim in the south. There has been more than one President Kim in the South since I came. The original President Kim that was president when I came is dead. His daughter was elected after that, and she is in jail now. The reasons the Koreans went after her seemed so small compared to what some of our American politicians have done. They considered her guilty by association. She had bad friends, so she must be bad, so they caused trouble for her. One of the South Korean presidents killed himself not long after I got here, and it was probably her father. He had done things that were bad, and he couldn’t face the people, so he committed suicide. Now, they have President Moon Jae In in charge in the South, but I really don’t know much about him.

In North Korea, it was actually Kim Jeong Il’s father, Kim Il Seong, who took over North Korea during the early years when there was a lot of fighting. Kim Jeong Un is the third one in a succession of the leadership being passed from father to son. (It is important to note when you are looking at the Korean names that the Koreans always use first, middle and last names unless they are very familiar with someone. They always place the last name first, the first name second, and the middle name last.)
Usually, if the tensions took place, they took place at a particular time, and there was a reason for them. Once a year, the American military and the Korean military have joint military exercises up along the North Korean border. When that happens, North Korea is not happy at all. North Korea wanted to make a show of force and push back. One of the President Kims in the North would do something aggressive, either bomb an island or threaten to bomb somewhere. Right after Kim Jeong Un came to power, there were videos of him on the news comanding his armada of ships. They were trying hard to show that it didn’t matter how young he was, he was the strong man in charge. However, there has always been talk that he is not really in charge. When he first came to power, they said his uncle was actually pulling the strings, but he sentenced his uncle to death, so he is the face of North Korea, but you really don’t know who is actually in charge up there. (I lived in Romania right after the fall of Communism, and I know that what you see in the news is what they want you to see. Communists put on plays for the rest of the world.–That needs to be explained in another blog.)

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Okay, after that background information, let’s take our trip! We first head for Gayang bridge over in Gayang Dong on the north part of Seoul. It runs over the Han River, the biggest river in Korea. On the other side of the bridge, we take the first exit to the right. Immediately, we see the road makes a Y. If we take the right part of the Y, we head to the middle of Seoul, but we take the left part of the Y out of Seoul. The left part takes us to a highway, and there is a sign telling us that we are leaving Seoul. We head up through Gyeonggi Province straight north of Seoul 50 kilometers to Paju up by the North Korean border where they held an all night prayer vigil the night before the peace treaty was signed and where I lived my first year in Korea. Back then, if we wanted to come to Seoul, there was only a bus, and it took an hour by bus to Seoul, but now, the Seoul subway reaches all the way to Paju City, but I don’t even need the subway because I have a car, and that is even quicker than the subway when there is no traffic. It takes us about 45 minutes to get there in my car.

 

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As we near the North Korean border, we begin to see barbed wire fences and guard shacks where members of the South Korean military stay guarding South Korea. The closer we get to the North Korean border, the guard shacks get closer and closer together. Finally, we see the entrance to North Korea, but we are going no further. If we just keep driving straight, we would be in North Korea if they would even let us in. However, we make a U turn and head off on the exit that is there to Peace Park. The Korean letters on the sign actually say “Pyeongwha Land.” The “Land” part is in Korean letters, but they use an English word. However, when the Koreans speak to you in English about this place, they call it Peace Park.

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The North Koreans don’t like the location of Peace Park. However, it is there to send a message to North Korea. The South Koreans are happy and prosperous without Communism, and they want North Korea to join them. The South Koreans still love the North Koreans. They have family in the North. The older ones know the family, but the younger ones don’t. The older ones have called for reunification, but the younger ones don’t want it. They know the time has been too long and they have no emotional ties like the older ones do. The language is still Korean in both the North and the South, but language is living and changes with time. They can still talk to one another, but their languages are different now, probably like the difference between American English and British English. We can communicate with one another, but we have different spellings, different vocabulary choices, and different pronunciations. To an American, a boot is a shoe with a long leg part. To someone from England, a boot is the trunk of the car. North and South Korea have the same kinds of differences. South Korea is right in the middle of the technology hub of the world, but North Korea won’t let the internet in. There is a true difference between these countries now.

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As we enter Peace Park, we are astonished at how many people are there! The parking lot is completely crowded. We barely find a parking place. The picnic areas are crowded. The field is full of people flying kites. People are everywhere! We have never been here when Peace Park has been as crowded as it is today. We speculate that Children’s Day was a few days ago, so children have off school, so they would be there for that, and it could also be because of the signing of the treaty that ended the war was also just a few days ago.

 

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We begin by heading for the shops that sell snacks and souvenirs because we know there is a way behind there to go to see the bridges. However, when we get there, it has changed. We usually come here about once a year, but South Koreans are always changing everything whether it needs changing or not. Everything has to be updated and new. There is a building in the way, and we can’t go the way we usually go. We walk around the building. We notice that it is a tourist information center and a place to buy tickets to see the tunnels that North Korea built during the fighting to get into South Korea. The tunnels were secret, but now, they are tourist attractions. If you look at the sign, it says, “DMZ,” this means Demilitarized Zone. There is a section of land between the North Korean border and the South Korean border called the Demilitarized Zone. No one goes there. The ticket booths are closed, so we will have to go there on another trip.

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We walk around the building and head toward the bridges. On the right, you can see a huge Buddhist bell. On the left, they have added something else new. They have posted pictures of South Korean soldiers during the war, a North Korean soldier, Korean school children in hanboks (the national dress), American and South Korean soldiers walking together, etc.

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We walk on toward the bridge, and on the left side, there is a wire fence full of ribbons. The South Koreans write messages of love, reunification, peace, etc., to North Korea on these ribbons, and then tie them to the fence. Most of them are written in Korean, but I took a photo of a couple that are in other languages you may recognize.

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There is an old rusty, beat up train on the bridge. There are pictures of the workers trying to restore the train. This bridge used to go all the way into North Korea, but it no longer does. The train also used to go from the South into the North, but also it no longer does. There is another ticket booth on the other side of the train. If you want to go any further, you have to buy a ticket. This is new too. They won’t let you take pictures if we buy tickets and go further,, so we decide no to bother going any further and turn around.

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We head for the next bridge, Freedom Bridge. This bridge has a fence at the end of it too. It is newer than the other one and only built half way. It is a foot bridge, and there is no train. On the fence, there are many ribbons with wishes of the South Korean people for reunification, love, peace, etc. from the South Koreans again. Across these ribbons, someone has posted a banner welcoming North Korea to come to South Korea saying, “We are one,” with the picture of a map of the Korean Peninsula.. Among the pictures we saw earlier, there was a picture of a man kneeling in prayer in front of these ribbons. We turn around and begin to walk the other direction and look off the bridge. Under this bridge, there is a big pond in the shape of the Korean Peninsula that has included both North and South Korea. We can’t get a shot of the shape because it is too big. We decide to walk down the path to the bridge. At the bottom, we see a South Korean soldier out for the day with his family.

 

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Every man in South Korea is actually considered to be in the South Korean military. Every man in Korea must do two years of active military duty before he is 30 years old. After that, they are considered in the Military Reserves for the rest of their lives. It is not like in America where the men choose to go to the military. They are all compelled to go. Their salaries are not as good as the American soldier’s salaries, and the G. I. Bill doesn’t exist for them to go to school because they have been in the military. They usually go two years of college, then go away to the military for two years, then come back and finish their B. A. They grow up a lot in those two years in the military. It is almost like a right of passage into manhood. Even the men who are not as physically able as the others must go to the military. They are given desk jobs. If they are overseas studying which is very normal for Koreans who all want to study in America, Australia, England, Canada, or New Zealand, and they begin getting close to 30 years old, they are expected to quit their school, come back to Korea, and do their active military service. If they don’t, they are banished and not allowed to come back to Korea.

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We continue around the pond and see the carp coming up the the edge to be fed, then we decide to go back up. When we go back up, we see the building where you can get on the top and look through scopes to see North Korea. I have looked through them and seen a guard shack on the other side. We head up to the top of the building. I decide to stay at the coffee shop and just sit outside for a while. While I am sitting there, I realize that I am looking at the bridge where the train was, the green bridge in the picture. The bridge once continued all the way across the river, but you can see where the bridge was torn off the pedestals that kept it up as a if it is a symbol of what has happened to these two countries, ripped in two by Communism. The North wanted Communism, but the South chose freedom and prosperity, so the country was ripped in two.

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We come out of the building on the bottom foor and decided to walk through the park back toward where we saw airplanes that were used in the war before. There are lots of flowers and monuments. There is a big monument that is just a huge rock that says “Nara Sarang” meaning “love of country.” Another one is of a Korean mother with two children. One child is holding the S. Korean flag that has the Teguk in the middle. The Teguk symbolizes earth, wind, fire, and water. The other is holding a flag with a flower. The flower is called the mugunwa. The mugunwa is a perennial, and the Koreans love its symbolism. They use it to symbolize forever. In the third picture below, you get a better look at what a mugunwa looks like.  If you go to Seoul Station, you can take a train that runs all over Korea they call the Mugunwa. It is a regular train, not the bullet train. The bullet train is called the K-Tex.

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We keep walking down the path, and I see something that completely warms my heart. There is a circle of flags, and every other flag is either S. Korean or American. As we walk around the circle, I see a tribute written to the American soldiers who fought in the Korean war and then another one to the Japanese Americans who fought in the war. When we get to the other side, there is a statue of President Truman.

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We continue on, and something has changed again. There used to be a small museum with pictures of the war inside, and then planes on the other side. They redid the museum. The entrance was no longer where it used to be, and as we walk around, the museum is closed. When we get to the other side, they have moved all the airplanes. They are no longer there, and I don’t know where they have taken them.

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We continue on, and there are more statues and monuments. I took a picture of one I like that is a group of people holding up the world. To me, it symbolizes the unity that the South Koreans feel with the rest of the world because they came to help, and the Koreans want to help other countries in the same way. The Korean churches send missionaries around the world, and the head of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, is S. Korean.

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We head out of the grassy area where there is an old train that is in much better shape than the one on the bridge was. When I came here with my South Korean friends, they told me this train used to run between the North and the South, and it was placed here hoping that some day it would run between the two countries again. We happen into a nearby souvenir shop. They have North Korean money for sale.

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We continue on and decide to go into the amusement park. They have added things here too. We see what looks like a haunted house, so we get closer to check it out. It is called the Tokobee House. A Tokobee is a mythical Korean pest. They look like little people, but they are a type of demon. They come to earth to cause trouble and play tricks on people. Sometimes, you can see them on television here as part of a Korean drama. We watched one called “My Girlfriend is a Nine Tailed Fox” where a Tokobee ran around making trouble. (When the girlfriend was called a nine tailed fox, it is not what Americans think of when they call a girl a fox. There is a beautiful mythical girl in Korea that is actually supposed to be immortal and be a fox who has nine tails. If you are not careful, they can be very dangerous.)

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As we continue on through the park, we see another picture that all Korean children recognize. It is the picture of a little penguin called Pororo. Pororo is the main character of a television show for children here, and all the children want a Pororo doll. We don’t see just Korean stories represented here. We also see stories from other countries. The big ship has a Viking on it, and the small ship has Captain Hook. The Koreans know our stories, but other countries don’t know the Korean stories.

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We leave the amusement park and head back for the shops. It is always hard for us to find things we really want to eat here. However, restaurants with decent Korean food here, and they also sell corn dogs, slusshies, ice cream, and cotton candy, but there is also a lot of strange food here like bugs, silk worms, and other foods most of us would consider downright weird. We go into one of the souvenir shops and see lots of interesting things for sale. We also see North Korean liquor. In another shop, the shop attendant told us this was North Korean whiskey, but this shop has it labeled as North Korean wine, in English. I thought there was a big difference between whiskey and wine, but maybe they really don’t know what this stuff is they are selling from North Korea.
We decide to get back into the car and drive back to Seoul. It has been a nice walk, but we want to eat in Seoul. It is always easier for foreigners to find good food in Seoul, but if you know how to go about it and where to look, you can find good food outside of Seoul too. We begin our 50 kilometer trip back to Seoul.

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We are sitting at a stop light in the middle of the country, and all of a sudden, we are reminded of a real Korean problem, the drivers! We are the only car on the road. We had been sitting at the stop light for a couple of minutes, and all of a sudden, someone hits us from the back, and we feel a big bump! We are completely shocked! No one is hurt, but I put the car in Park, put the emergency brake on and get out to survey the damage. The other driver gets out, and all I can to is ask, “Why?” It makes no sense. There aren’t even any other cars on the road, and there are several lanes, and he chooses our lane and hits us. He gets out of his car profusely apologizing saying it was his fault. I am shocked that he is apologizing because that is not what Koreans usually do. They try to turn the tables and make it seem like your fault, but this guy admitted that he had a black box that recorded everything his car does, and that it is his fault. The damage is minimal and I am tired, so we just exchange phone numbers and go our way. I don’t believe in making trouble for someone. I am shocked, but I am fine. He tells us to be sure and call him if we take the car to get it fixed or decide to go to the doctor to get checked out because of the accident.

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We drive on to Seoul. We are still seeing guard houses for quite a way, and we see a soldier standing outside with his gun, After 50 kilometers, we are back at Gayang Bridge in the land of traffic jams, crowds of people, and tall buildings headed for Burger King. We had a good day at the DMZ. We didn’t get to see the secret tunnels, but we did see a lot. Maybe I can take you to see the tunnels another day.

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