Our first day in Seoul was spent making the trek up to North Korea! Joe really wanted to go to the border and the only legal way to do that is to go with a tour group. I hate tourist traps, but I agreed to go anyway. We spent two hours on a tour bus with several other Americans and one Korean guide. He was admittedly pretty entertaining and told us interesting stories that illustrated the state of North Korea. South Korea funds a worker program that pays North Koreans to build infrastructure to connect the countries via a railway (South Korea is a peninsula, so it has to go through North Korea to be connected to the rest of the world via land). They even pay for the worker’s meals which include one Chocopie snack. These snacks were so popular that the workers would opt to pool them together and sell them at market. For Christmas, instead of a cash bonus that the government would confiscate, they asked for more Chocopies. This was an interesting glimpse into the difficult relationship between the countries.
Seoul is located along the Han River. During the North Korean invasion, the few bridges were immediately destroyed which left the South Koreans as sitting ducks. After the war, they vowed to never let that happen again and constructed 29 bridges across the river. I love learning these interesting facts that explain why a city looks the way it does!
Once we got close to the border, we stopped for lunch at an authentic Korean restaurant. We had to sit on the floor and eat everything with chopsticks (we became quite skilled at this!). I’ll be honest – I’m not sure what type of dish we ate, but it was served on a hot plate and had pork, mushrooms, and lettuce. It came along with kimchi, some noodles, and seaweed! I loved the black seaweed the most.
The tour of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) was quite time consuming. First we had to go through several passport checkpoints and then sign waivers. We also had to switch busses and watch a powerpoint presentation on the history of the area. Basically, the DMZ is a 2.5 mile wide buffer zone surrounding the “border” or military demarcation line. It is actually the most heavily militarized border in the world!
Within this zone is the Joint Security Area. It used to be entirely neutral with a mix of North Korean and South Korean buildings, but in 1976, the axe murder incident occurred. American army officers were assisting the Korean Service Corps in trimming a poplar tree that was blocking the view between two UN watch towers. The North Koreans immediately issued them to stop, stating that the tree was planted by Kim Il Sung. A fight broke out and two American army officers were killed, one of them being Arthur Bonifas, whom Camp Bonifas is named after. After this incident, the JSA area became separated into a North Korean and South Korean side. In the photo below, you can see the giant North Korean building on the opposite side of the neutral UN buildings in blue!
The most significant building in the JSA is the conference room where negotiations occur. The room straddles the demarcation line, so half is North Korea and half is South Korea. Within the room, the border is represented by the telecom wire draped across the table. We had approximately 5 minutes to take photos of the room and gaze at the intimidating soldiers!
While in the JSA, we were ordered not to wear sloppy or revealing clothing, as the North Koreans could use the photos as propaganda to show how uncivilized the rest of the world is. We were also told not to point or make any gestures that could be perceived as hostile. It was a pretty solemn atmosphere and I definitely felt like we were going into uncharted territory.
However, this feeling soon faded as we were shuffled into the gift shop and witnessed the next group of 100 tourists being bussed around the grounds. Most of the tours are from the south, but North Korea does schedule the occasional tour for its citizens. I would love to compare the two tour narratives and see how radically different the two versions are.
After we were bussed back to Seoul, Joe and I went to Gangnam! This neighborhood is known as the wealthy fashion district with high end clubs. We had planned to bar hop, but 2 of the bars we wanted to visit didn’t exist! We spent almost 2 hours wandering around and trying to find directions.
Finally we went to Moon Jar for some authentic makgeolli. This is a creamy rice wine that tastes so sweet, you could drink a gallon! We ordered our drinks and the waiter said “…and for food?” We explained that we were only drinking and he said “No, not allowed.” Joe had wanted to go to a burrito restaurant and I wanted to try actual Korean food, so we decided I would order dinner here and he would eat at the burrito place. I got a pancake sampler – onion, shrimp, and a variety of other flavors. It was pretty great!
Afterward, we went to a couple more bars but realized we were too jet lagged to go to another club. We took an Uber Black back to the Airbnb. I don’t even want to know how much it cost!
It was a pretty interesting day of history, but I was excited to get to know Seoul during the duration of our trip to Korea. Next up – all the famous tourist sights!