Yesterday I spent four minutes in North Korea. Proof:
That's inside the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) conference building, within the Joint Security Area near the village of Panmunjom. The line of microphones on the desk follows the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) dividing North and South Korea. To my left is South Korea; to my right is North Korea.
You have to take an organized tour to get to the JSA. Because, let's review: (a) it's an active war zone; (b) it's a diplomatic base with heavy military presence; and (c) you don't want to get kidnapped by the DPRK. (The tour I took cost $78 and included a delicious bulgogi lunch at a roadhouse outside Puja.)
Here's the first up-close-and-personal view of North Korea you get:
The blue building to the left is the MAC Conference Center from the photo above. The blue building to the right is another ROK-administered structure. Running between them, on the ground, you can see a raised concrete curb about 10cm tall. That is the MDL—the border with North Korea. Assuming you could get past the armed U.S. Army guys I decided not to photograph, and get past the ROK officer in the center, and the two beefy MPs on either side, you could make that border in just a few steps from where I was standing. Then you'd have a really difficult time getting back over it, and a harder time, whether or not they let you back in South Korea, staying out of jail on one side or the other.
It's surreal. The border is an abstract concept but two enormous armies make connect the abstraction to reality. A bunch of tourists, half of them Japanese, took an ordinary tour bus to a United Nations military base a few hundred meters from a hostile country, got a slide show about axe murders and not gesturing to or speaking with North Koreans, then got on a U.N. bus and drove—slowly—past mine fields, tank defenses, and rice paddies. (About 700 people live just outside the JSA, within the DMZ.)
Here's another chilling place, the Bridge of No Return:
Yeah, don't cross that bridge. You won't come back. Seriously.
Today I'm heading over to the Korean History Museum and possibly the War Memorial. I've been thinking a lot about Seoul and my reactions to the city. At first approximation, modern Seoul is defined by a war that hasn't ended.