Went on a DMZ tour yesterday. On my seventh trip here in Korea. It’s about time.
To be honest, I have been having doubts about going on my previous trips, which explains why I didn’t make the trip. A lot of people have been telling me how it is not worth it, etc, and I’ll admit it; those comments kind of affected me. Plus a DMZ tour isn’t something I want to go alone – just in case it sucked and all, who can I talk to for the entire day? Thankfully Rex is here! He is the type of person who likes history and culture, even more than I do; the kind who will read up about things before going – something that I sometimes wouldn’t.
But I’m glad I went for this. So many things to look at – more than just the DMZ. This entry will not be on what the DMZ is about, and all the history because honestly, you know all these things already or you can read about them elsewhere in other blogs. You don’t need me to blog about them. Instead, I’m going to use the DMZ to talk about my observations from a tourism sociological point of view. Afterall, I’m here to do fieldwork as well, although this has nothing to do with my thesis.
Hopefully from this, it can help you understand the tourism makers in the industry a little more, and why we want to travel to certain places in the first place (for the second part, I won’t cover too much on it since this is going to be a major part of my thesis, but I will save this entry until next year in April).
Reached our first stop, Dorasan Station – the station that once connected South Korea to the North (Kaesong). This connection was short-lived, because North Korea closed that border soon after so no train goes to the North now. But tourist can still come here and visit.
Tourists at work.
Tourism Geography is on my mind even though I’m technically a tourist myself here. I can’t help taking photos of the tourists taking their photos. What is in a photography? It is a way, a technique, a form of work that tourist do while on travel – to record pieces of evidences of their travels. A photograph itself IS Geography. They contain geographical images that we have in mind, and captures the things that each of us see from our own point of view. A camera is a tourist’s weapon; we appropriate what we see into a set of images, seeing only what we want to see, or the things we’ve been taught to see. Tourism is a set of learned behaviors that we perform as we travel, sometimes (most of the time) without consciously knowing that we’re doing them.
To many tourists who come here, the first thing they want to take is the sign that says “평양방면 To Pyeongyang” (see picture below). This is what they’ve been taught to do so when they’re here – capturing sights. Finding the signs that matters to them, and snapping pictures of them as evidences of travel.
This is what I would have done, and what I do frequently as well as a tourist. This is partly why I love tourism geography. It is self-discovery to me; and so far I’ve learnt so much from the discipline that helps me know a little more about myself and my interests in travel.
There is also a souvenir store here, which most tourists rush towards after capturing the “To Pyeongyang” signboard. Does this make you feel slightly uncomfortable? It definitely made me feel a little strange. Here is a place where we come, supposedly to learn about the separation of a country that was once a united whole for thousands of years. But we have shops like this, selling “DMZ souvenirs” as though it is something to celebrate about. Perhaps this is why a lot of people didn’t recommend the DMZ tour – not really because it’s boring. Perhaps some of you felt that you didn’t exactly learn anything from it, or you’re suspicious of what you are suppposed to learn there. Is this really a site to learn about the Korean war, or a mere tourist trap to reap monetary profits from a dark tourism site?
But at the same time, I think I wasn’t very sure who I’m supposed to be. A tourist or a third person watching this and studying it from a sociological point of view. As a tourist myself, who came on a tour here, I performed all the tourist behavior that I was taught to do so, such as taking pictures with landmarks and statues here, even though I am very well aware by now, that these are activities that tourists do because of the need to capture evidences of having travelled to places. So that they, like what I’m doing now, can come back and tell their stories. This is me telling you my story, my having “been” there.
At the Dora Observatory:
This place is where we can take a aerial glimpse at North Korea (Mainly Kaesong Industrial complex). Some rules apply here, such as having to take pictures from a yellow line. We cannot take pictures if we cross the yellow line, probably one of those rules here to prevent tourists from pissing any North Korean army scouts out there, staring back with their giant binoculars or whatever.
But if you pay 500won, you can use one of those binoculars there. We paid, and spent a few minutes trying to find a living soul from where we are. I couldn’t see a single living organism, though there surely must have been some animals in the woods. This area hasn’t been touched by humans for a long time – and supposedly house some of the rarest species in the world. But of course, we couldn’t see any through the thick canopy of forest trees. Nor any human in fact.
A few more touristy photos. If you’re wondering why I’m wearing a longer than usual dress (longer than my usual style anyway), it is because at the DMZ, you are not allowed to wear anything above the knee. Yet another rule. But you gotta have rules in these places. Not just because there might be a threat to safety since this is after all a place with guns moving about. You need rules in these sites too, because believe it or not, they play a part in instilling sufficient fear and excitement in you for you to enjoy this DMZ experience.
At the Third Tunnel:
The third tunnel is one of the four tunnels discovered after the Korean war armistice, with the latest forth tunnel discovered just a little more than 20 years ago. These are tunnels dug up North Korea, in several attempts to reach Seoul via underground. If they had been successful, the nearest tunnel could have North Korean soldiers reaching Seoul within an hour – we were informed by the tour guide, who let the seriousness of this possibility sink in before laughing again, and moving on to the next topic.
At the tunnel, we went down through a railway carriage to see how it’s like. Nothing much actually. It is small but big enough for two persons to move to and back, but generally lower than 165cm, so most of the men had to bend over as we were moving in. The tunnel was covered in coal powder, which we were told that the North Korean government put those coal powder in, in an attempt to hide the fact that they were digging this tunnel for “unfriendly” reasons. When the tunnel was discovered, the North Korean government made an excuse that they were digging for coal and “didn’t know” that they have accidentally dug beyond the DMZ towards the South.
We sat with the tour guide, and during the 7 minute ride up to the surface by the railway, Rex asked him about the Korean army. So the tour guide told us that most soldiers can only go home about once every few months during his time, and they were paid very poorly (a few cents an hour). After the two years of compulsory conscription, they have to return every year for three days to do their reservist training. Most of it involves watching a very long video, which I guess is to remind them about the impeding war that may happen any time without warning. He said that he was pretty lucky, because his family only has one son (him) and three daughters. In addition to that, his parents are already very old (beyond a certain age, though he didn’t share this information), so he only have to serve for 6 months.
At this moment, Korean men can delay their military service up to age 32. I supposed this will be relevant information for the fangirls out there who are hoping that their oppas won’t go into army so soon, so I’m sharing it here as well.
Lunch time!!!! And a lot of random free time that we have – so here are some photos totally not related to the DMZ.
The weather is fantastic. It’s a sunny day, but not humid hot. The breeze is cool and refreshing and I don’t remember sweating at all the whole day even though I do have to carry the umbrella around. Rex is totally judging me so sometimes I didn’t use my umbrella. And I regretted this now because the next day, I think I got a little bit darker. After all my hard work to make my skin color the same as the skin color under my arm, which I finally achieved this month in Korea. But now it’s back to half a shade darker. Sigh.
At the Panmunjeon:
These bimbo department concerns aside, back to after lunch’s tour – to the Panmunjeon, one of the most well-known images in the world when it comes to North-South Korea relations. I used the word “images” because I want to show you guys how important geographical imagination is when it comes to tourist travel and learning about places.
Why is the DMZ interesting to so many, yet nobody cares about the Somalian civil war enough to want to check them out? Places are only fascinating to tourists because of images they’ve been taught by the media to recognize. Everyone wants to visit the leaning tower of pisa when they go to Italy, take pictures of boats and water-filled streets of Venice, the Eiffel tower in Paris, and lately, all the drama filming locations in South Korea.
Because even a person who has never been to any of these places have certain geographical imagination of them. A fan of KPOP and Kdramas have some faint idea of what Korea is like, because they have been taught by the dramas and variety shows to recognize certain well-known images. And this encourages travel to Korea. This is why so many people want to go to Korea within a span of a decade or two since the rise of Hallyu. This is the power of cultural products – it communicates expectations to overseas viewers about what they should be looking out for in Korea.
This is the same for the DMZ. Newspapers and the media have shown images of the Panmunjeon whenever they mention North-South relations. It is the symbol of North-South interactions; the place where any form of discussion between North and South could actually happen, even though this is not true. There are several regional forums in which the North and South Korean government could possibly interact as well. But for many of us, the blue-colored house at the Panmunjeon is what we remember, and as tourists, we want to capture these images with our cameras.
Best if we can capture them with ourselves in it. Evidence of us being “there”.
This is also the most exciting place for most of us – where we can really “feel the atmosphere”. Is the atmosphere real? Half-halfs maybe. Some of it, we have been prepped up along the way to feel. Remember those rules? “Wear pants/skirts below knee” ”Do not wear printed t-shirts” “Do not gesture at the North Korean soldier” “take photos only when you are told to do so”. They may be safety precautions, but these precautions are essential aspects of a successful DMZ tour. They build us the atmosphere of tension and fear, not too much to scare the tourists away, but enough for tourists to feel “close to danger” but “far enough to be safe”.
So if you ask me, this place is no different from a theme park; with all the sights, music, characters and fun rides, which are all built specifically to tell us how to feel emotion and WHEN to feel a particular emotion. Though of course, the DMZ tour is a lot less engineered than a theme park.
This is the man we all want to take a picture of. The only North Korean that you can ever come close enough for your naked eye. He doesn’t do much, except standing there with his binoculars. Occasionally, he’ll use it to check us out. And he’ll move to another position as well. But most of the time, he just stood there, extremely still.
On the South Korean side, there are these soldiers standing in a rigid position, with clenched fists. They don’t move so much as a muscle. The sight of them is definitely intimidating enough to tell us that this is not a place to fool about. You half expect them to fly at each other in a rage. Some wondered if these soldiers secretly want to talk to each other, like normal human beings. But they don’t do anything. Just standing there, looking at each other.
We were informed that even though there is only one North Korean soldier over at the other side, there are many more eyes looking at us as we move into the Panmunjeon. Ironically, it is less scary inside the Panmunjeon; the only place in the world where tourists from South Korea can take a step into North Korea if you’re standing on the other side of the room. Inside, there are only South Korean soldiers.
The guy behind the chair is a human. I thought it was a statue. I can’t even tell if he is breathing.
After the panmunjeon, we were brought to a souvenir store again, where we were told that we can buy North Korean won, North Korean wine, shirts, caps and badges of the Joint Security Area (JSA) and Panmunjeon-related stuff. I noticed that other tourists mainly bought the North Korean won and North Korean wine. The JSA souvenirs are probably less interesting to them; just another reminder of American soldiers.
But North Korean wine and money notes on the other hand are exotic enough to capture the interest of many tourists. You can only find here at the DMZ Souvenir shop by the way (and in North Korea of course. 2000~3000 Euros will get you here if you wish).
5000 South Korean won for a 100 North Korean won note. While I was looking at it, a staff working at the souvenir shop came by to tell me that this dude in the note is Kim Il Sung, leader of North Korea. I looked at her strange; it wasn’t because I was offended that she thinks I wouldn’t know that. She obviously doesn’t know who I am or my interests in Korean studies. It is the fact that she seems to think that the tourists here wouldn’t know a simple thing such as who Kim Il Sung is. Despite the fact that he is practically an iconic figure of the DPRK.
That was when I was reminded of the reason why nobody wants to be a tourist, even though we all are. Tourists have long been getting all the bad names: tourists are children to be taken care of, to be told what to do, what not to do. Tourists are ignorant about local culture and they come here with whatever ignorant and one-sided cultural beliefs from their own countries. Tourists are unaware of the negative impacts of their presence, in terms of how they come in seek for a culture that they are slowly destroying just for the fact that they come in search for it. That tourists are simply bad, ignorant, childish, and must be “taken care of” and “taught what to see and do”.
Is this why many of you today are engaging in free & easy type of travel, backpacking, Overseas community involvement service (OCIP) and volunteer trips? Like me for instance. I haven’t been making short term trips to Korea for a long time. Whenever I’m here, I stay for over a month at least. I claimed that I don’t do much traveling. I hang out with local people frequently and do “local things” all the time. But does this really separate me from the rest of the tourists who come here? Does being a backpacker or a OCIP volunteer lessens the tourist guilt that many tourists feel while being on travel, especially to a poor country, because they know deep down that their presence itself is destroying the local culture here? Is being a volunteer necessarily less harmful than being a tourist?
The more important question to ask: are these questions even worth asking; whether it is a good thing or bad thing being a tourist? Does that really matter? Or should we focus on the meanings that are created during the process of local-tourist interactions? Because the fact is, whether tourists create harm or not, the fact is that tourists still visit the DMZ, buy the souvenirs and in the process change the whole place into a tourist trap. These are meanings created. Just because it is a tourist trap doesn’t mean it is necessarily less meaningful than it once was. We just have to figure out how these new meanings created may potentially change the landscape in future.
What will the DMZ mean to us in the future?
I guess the answer to this question will change and continue to change as we go along.