Monday, February 7, 2011

The DMZ is a tourist trap. Also, a tank trap.

I picked the worst day of the year to visit the DMZ/JSA and surrounding points of interest (e.g. the third infiltration tunnel, Dorasan Observatory, Dorasan station).  Fog reduced visibility to just about nothing, rendering the North invisible and allegedly making the JSA too dangerous for tourists.  The army was concerned that DPRK soldiers might have been lying in misty concealment somewhere waiting to kill us all.  The most interesting part of the tour was therefore canceled.  How exactly KPA assassins could have ambuscaded a tour group without conspicuously crossing the border and massacring it at close range is beyond me.  Hey US Army:  fog works both ways.  If you can't see the lurking communist scoundrels, they can't see you.

As is typical of me, I found the tour surreal and farcical and ended up observing its structure and participants more closely than the things we were shown.  It gets all meta when I go to tourist attractions and I always come home with pictures of tourists taking pictures.  Have a look:

A scale model of the most famous part of the JSA (Joint Security Area), where the border bisects the conference rooms used for official meetings between the DPRK and the UNCMAC.

The statuesque uniformed badass on the left is a RoK taekwondo expert assigned to guard the door to North Korea and taekwondo the shit out of any tourist who attempts to approach said door, which is--I guess--unlocked or something, making defection to the Worker's Paradise a simple matter of grasping and turning for any disgruntled citizen of the Free World possessed of hands, rudimentary motor skills and quick thinking.  He looks pretty intimidating but that won't save him from being kidnapped from behind by a nihilistic Das Kapital-wielding commie tricky enough to open the door from the North Korean side and grab him.  He'd never see it coming.  Not pictured:  me having a hard time taking this seriously.

Here you can see, over the shoulder of a random tourist, a couple of the RoK-ready badasses toeing the line in the sand that separates free enterprise and centralized planning, Jesus Christ and Kim Il-sung, Freedom House and 1/3 of the Axis of Evil.  The one nearest the border stands half behind the building and the one behind him patrols the 5m span between the buildings in case the one-eyed sentry misses something.  We were told the assembled badasses were here strictly for our protection, i.e. they're only present when tourists are about.  Conspicuously absent are North Koreans, who apparently opted to remain indoors (the weather was inclement), and rifles.  One possible explanation for this is that the RoK intends to repel any DPRK advance on its heavily-guarded tourism zone with a dozen pistols and furious taekwondo.  Another is that the whole thing is theatre.

The tour group was quickly herded back into Freedom House to reduce the risk of their being shot dead by godless world communism's bloodthirsty Asian thugs.  Inside, its constituents lined up to photograph North Korea's side of the yard through a wall of blue glass.  (And be photographed doing so by yours truly.)

I saw this RoK-ready badass fidget.  I expect he spent the rest of his brief and unhappy military career pleading for undeserved clemency in front of various courts martial.

I was really looking forward to seeing the poplar stump of the Panmunjom Axe Murder Incident.  No, really.  Sadly, it was not part of the abridged tour and in any case was replaced by a monument years ago, rendering this model obsolete and a cruel encouragement of impossible dreams.

This is a diagram of the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, one of four known tunnels the DPRK has dug underneath the DMZ for use in a reopening of hostilities.  It's been turned into an expensive low-quality tourist trap by nearby Paju city in anticipation of a post-reunification tourist boom.  Cameras were not allowed inside the tunnel proper, probably because the place is so painfully lame no one would want to bother with it if they knew what awaited them therein.  Our tour guide invited us to "experience" the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, through which 30,000 soldiers could supposedly pass each hour.  I hope the North sends 30,000 short fellows stout of heart in that first critical hour because my 3rd Infiltration Tunnel Experience entailed crouch-walking down 265 meters of unremarkable dank tunnel wrestling with feelings of apathy and boredom all the way to the end where I was confronted by a locked door, a pile of barbed wire and the crushing existential disappointment of knowing I had wasted my money and precious time.  And then I had to turn around and go back.

You know these men are communists because even their wheelbarrow is red.

This is how lame the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel museum is.  What's even worse is the gift shop, which sells three-inch segments of rusty barbed wire clipped from DMZ fences of yore too rusty to withstand communist aggression.  They're numbered, limited edition items.  There are only 150,625 pieces:  act now or forever regret foregoing your opportunity to own Minuscule Rusty Barbed Wire Segment #83,406.  It will only appreciate in value.  Your 32,000 won is an investment in future profit.

This is Dora Observatory, a hulking concrete monstrosity located on top of a hill prominent enough to have a name.  Dora Observatory was literally visible for miles around, until it was painted with camouflage.  Now it is inconspicuous.

Here, with the aid of binoculars, tourists learn that North Koreans live inside a ping pong ball.

The Dora Observatory basketball half-court is located in the corner of the parking lot with the highest density of metal trapdoors.

This is an urn painted to commemorate the opening of Dorasan station, the final RoK station on the only north-south railroad line.  When it was operational, Dorasan was the center of commerce between the two Koreas.  It ceased being operational after the sinking of the Cheonan in March 2010 and has since been open only to tourists. 

Dorasan station's urinal art is contemplative.

The station is huge, deserted and extraordinarily clean.

I'm not the only one unable to treat the place with gravitas:  here are two RoK MPs goofing off while they wait for the tour to move on.  On the left is a monument to a speech G.W. Bush gave re the station's opening.  It includes a full transcript of the mercifully short speech which is still too long and I ask you how anyone can take a place seriously when it unironically feels honored by something G.W. Bush said in public.

For 500 won you can pretend you're boarding a train to Pyeongyang.

A well-dressed functionary waits for passengers who will never come.

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