Dispatch, Korea 3: From spiritual to geopolitical tourism

KKSKOREA162x120Travel Weekly Destinations Editor Kenneth Kiesnoski explored South Korea on a first-time visit. His final report follows.

My Korean sojourn took a turn from the spiritual to the geopolitical when I returned from Woljeongsa Temple, in serene Odaesan National Park, to bustling Seoul.

The South Korean capital, as I noted in my first dispatch, lies nearly 30 miles from the North Korea border. As such, day trips to the tense, notorious Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, are a popular must-do for visitors.

The 155-mile buffer zone, riddled with infiltration tunnels dug by North Korea and leftover land mines, has straddled South Korea’s coast-to-coast frontier with the communist north since the 1953 ceasefire that ended the Korean War.

The Korea Tourism Organization included in my itinerary a half-day tour to the DMZ with local operator Grace Tours. Prior to my departure from the U.S., it had been, admittedly, the one element of the trip about which I was truly intrigued.

Would I spy heavily armed North Korean soldiers just over the border? Were the toiling, downtrodden masses of the enigmatic north visible from across the frontier? Did propagandistic Potemkin Villages litter the landscape? It was all appealingly cloak-and-dagger and Cold War.

Although state-guided visits north of the 38th Parallel are possible, the DMZ is the closest the average leisure traveler will ever get to North Korea.

My day tour was to take in only the closest accessible part of the DMZ from Seoul (including the Third Infiltration Tunnel), near Paju City, before heading for a late lunch.(A visit to the Joint Security Area farther on at Panjunmeon, where North and South Korean soldiers have glowered at one another in a half-century stand-off, entails another half-day of touring.)

I was picked up at my hotel promptly at 7:50 a.m. by Grace Tours guide Mia Tratta. (How Seoul residents so strictly stick to designated meeting and travel times amid all the heavy traffic, crowds and congestion remains a mystery to me.)

On the minibus, I joined two dozen other day-trippers (including U.S. military family members, an American teacher resident in Korea and a handful of European tourists) for the short ride KOR-dmzguardnorth.

Along the way, Mia -- funny, informed and fluent in English -- gave us the history of the DMZ as we sped along the Han River. She pointed out mid-river guardhouses, barbed-wire barriers and distant mountains in North Korea along the way.

I was amazed at how quickly we reached the DMZ. Seoul, a huge, heaving center of parliamentary democracy and consumer capitalism, is literally a stone’s throw, or short march, from the North Korea border.

The oddness of Seoul’s continued, unperturbed existence so close to a hostile and aggressive foe was perhaps once rivaled only by the long run of the former West Berlin, which once sat smack in the middle of East Germany.

We stopped in Paju City to switch to an official DMZ tour bus. Before boarding, we strolled the Peace Bridge, Wall of Peace and Peace Bell. (There’s a lot of wishful thinking going on at the DMZ.)

The bus, which we shared with a Chinese tour group, took us to the Third Infiltration Tunnel, one of five dug under the DMZ over the decades by North Korea to facilitate a surprise attack.

Mia warned us, only half-jokingly, that before we could view the tunnel, we’d have to be "brainwashed" by a short South Korean film about the DMZ.

The clip proved, as promised, sappy and surreal propaganda. It started with painful and partisan scenes of invasion, division and separation and then totally switched gears to, oddly enough, promote the DMZ as the site of future economic cooperation and environmental preservation.

In fact, as the zone is off-limits to both north and south, it is indeed one of the most pristine parts of the Korean peninsula. And wealthy South Korea, not sure it can pay for reunification with the destitute north, prefers -- unofficially, of course -- to view the DMZ as a sad but perhaps convenient and permanent state of affairs.

Then it was on to the tunnel itself, discovered in 1978 after a North Korean defector told of its construction. The communists beat a speedy retreat, first claiming they were only digging only for coal (smearing the tunnel’s hand-hewn walls with coal for good measure). Then North Korea did an illogical 180, blaming its construction on the south.

Today, visitors descend 250 feet, either on foot or by monorail, to walk its cool, clammy length of some 1,000 feet, up to the third and nearest of three iron barrier walls put up by South Korea and the U.S.

Hunched over, wearing a protective hardhat, I found it exhilarating. At the same time, it’s an exhausting trek, and others in my huffing and puffing group werKOR-KenwithGuardse less impressed.

Then it was on to the Dora Lookout, a heavily patrolled mountaintop "viewing" platform. Though the day was hazy, through binoculars I was able to spot a North Korean soldier on duty outside a guardhouse on the opposite side of the DMZ.

Due to both climate conditions and pollution, sights on the communist side of the border can only be seen about three days per year -- if visitors are lucky, Mia told us.

We had no such luck. Just out of sight, we were informed, lay the world’s tallest flagpole (579 feet), the industrial city of Kaesong and Gijong, one of North Korea’s empty, showcase "propaganda villages."

A bit disappointed, we piled back on the bus for a quick visit to the gleaming, high-tech rail station at Dorasan, which South Korea built in hopes of increased trade under its "Sunshine Policy" of détente and rapprochement in the late 1990s.

Train trade never took off, derailed thanks to North Korea’s persistent nuclear ambitions. But daredevil visitors can avail themselves of meaningless souvenir "Pyongyang-Seoul" visa stamps in their passports, something Mia advised against, as it might mean trouble back home with Homeland Security.

I settled for stamping a page in my travel journal.

Then we had an even briefer visit to Daesong, a South Korean village within the DMZ, where farmers grow red ginseng, before taking the freeway back to Seoul for amethyst shopping (the semiprecious stone is a southern specialty) and a lunch of Korean barbecue.

Tired, satiated and once again safe in the arms of democracy and commerce, I headed back to my hotel for a spa treatment. Fittingly enough, it was a Korean red-ginseng body rub -- as wonderful as it sounds.

Relaxed, I decided to avail myself of the hotel spa’s sauna and steam room -- and walked straight into my first and only culture clash in Korea. As I reached the steam room, a spa attendant approached and told me I had to leave the facility.

"I am sorry, but men with tattoos are not allowed in the fitness center," he said quietly. "Didn’t you see the sign?"

I had not.

"Are you serious?" I asked. "What about the gym and the pool?" No and no, again.

"Sorry, but you’ll have to leave," the attendant insisted.

KOR-PEACEBELLDisappointed, flustered, annoyed and confused, I began to head for my locker. I spent the short walk calming myself with reminders that, for all the surface similarities to the U.S., South Korea is indeed a different society, with its own standards and practices.

I had just decided that I had no right to be angry when I noticed that the spa attendant was following me all the way to my locker. I took it to mean that he didn’t trust me to leave of my own accord.

Now I was quite upset. After a glare or two, he backed away. I got dressed and returned to my room.

Furiously pacing and composing a letter of complaint to hotel management in my head, it occurred to me that perhaps the attendant had meant to be helpful and courteous, not distrustful or offensive. Again, different country, different customs.

I crumpled up my angry mental note and decided I’d declare a unilateral ceasefire with the hotel spa staff. After all, I was on their turf.

Better to designate my own little DMZ and enjoy otherwise wonderful, welcoming South Korea on its own terms.

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