Greetings from the Koreas – Digital Postcard Delivery

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Annyeonghaseyo from Korea!

Well, I can say it. I have been to North Korea. I wasn’t kidnapped or brainwashed or, as far as I know, married into the Kim family. But there’s always next time.

I decided to stay only in Seoul, given the short amount of time I would have in the country and that some of that time would be dedicated to officially crossing the border into North Korea. But we’ll get to that.

Korea (without the South, as they call it) has swag. It is organized and chaotic and young. Sorry to call you out, but Korea, you are full of the worst petextrians I have yet experienced.  I’m fairly certain everyone was laughing. Except the business men, Of which there are a lot. They don’t smile. Because they’re serious businessmen.

“Holy sh*t this place is white.”

That was my first reaction and message on arrival. I was very excited to meet up with my friend Levi, the first friend from CO who I have gotten to see on the road. I knew we were going to have fun when his reaction to my, “want to go to North Korea with me?” was “hell yeah.” He was in town for work, so let’s just hope he wasn’t one of the aforementioned businessmen prior to my arrival.

After our DMZ/JSA tour (wait for it, we’ll get there), Levi and I hit the streets of Gangnam. I wrote “Opa Gangnam style” in one of my Snapchats of the area and immediately regretted it. But the area is sensory overload. Lights and music everywhere. We had gone out in search of batting cages. I met Levi on a ball field and though we were in Korea in the winter, there was no way we were totally missing out on baseball while we were there. We found one and he showed off his American baseball prowess, by which the staff and other visitors were thoroughly impressed.

They all looked on as I hopped in the cage, in a dress, to see what the heck was going to happen next. I haven’t taken swings at a baseball pitch in, basically ever, and quickly commented that the bat was too heavy and the pitches were going to be too fast. I have never struck out for a full batting cage session. Before. I found a lighter bat and switched cages and made appropriate contact, but I quickly eyed the mini basketball game in the corner, my favorite of all arcade games. Namely because I’m terrible at real life basketball, but am surprisingly really, really good at the arcade version.

Apparently so good I won a prize, but we talked them into letting Levi’s [much lower score’s worth of] winnings combine with mine to get a bear. That I of course can’t take with me, but everyone on the streets of Gangnam was pretty happy about seeing a fluffy pink bear walk around.

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The city was fervent, but waning as preparations for Lunar New Year ramped up. Everyone was headed out of Seoul [home], but also taking care of last minute details (the amount of Spam gift boxes I saw being carried on the trains is more than 1, and more than a dozen). Which meant the Sunday before the New Year, I could barely find food, but prior to that, had no trouble finding an apparent Korean obsession. Coffee. Cafes are EVERYWHERE in Seoul.

Three words: sweet potato latte. United States, let’s get on this one. I promise and you’re welcome.

I also had to take care of some mundane stuff. Finally found sneakers in “big size” [as they so adorably like to refer to Western feet on this side of the world] that are actually men’s but who cares, my feet are in heaven. While in the motherland of Sony, I had some business to attend to with my camera. It stopped working the last few days in Japan, and they couldn’t fix it before I left. Because of this, I did not have a proper camera during the DMZ/JSA tour. My disappointment level was pretty high because I wanted to share awesome pictures with you all, but you get what you get.

The rest of the time in Korea involved exploring the city, which inevitably meant learning more and more about the war. The war memorial at the entrance to the museum is one of the most stunning and moving that I have visited. The Koreans are very grateful for the 21 countries that got involved when North Korea invaded the South and in the expansive entrance. A flag waves for each country that offered support, mounted above a stone with details about the individual country’s involvement and a message for that country, in that country’s native language. It is hard not to feel moved by how the world reacted to undermanned South Korea being invaded by the North – one might expect to see the US, UK and Australia get involved, but Colombia, Greece, Luxembourg, Thailand, Ethiopia…

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Patriotically, it was also a refreshing contrast to learning about the Vietnam War (or American War as they call it), in which our actions were nothing short of shameful. Korea is expressly grateful that the US offered the first and most support in their time of need.

The museum is a [free] very impressive multi-media educational experience. Videos, quizzes, pictures, art, confidential documents. It has it all. Pro-tip: if you unintentionally go on the day before the biggest holiday of the year, it will be empty.

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North Korea

Finally! It’s what you really clicked on this post for. It’s the one country far and above that people have asked about my intentions with when they hear my goal.

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My plan was always to do the DMZ/JSA tour to cross the border and nothing further. Anything more at this time requires hiring two government guides who are with you the entire time (two to watch each other and make sure they aren’t corrupted by foreigners). This not only seems like a really fake way to see the country, but is insanely expensive and the dolla’ bills go to the government, so that’s a pass for me.

DMZ, JSA, KJU, what’s with all the initialisms?

DMZ: de-militarized zone; this is a UN run buffer zone around the border, 2km on each side, designed to maintain the cease fire.

JSA: joint-security area; this is the much smaller area within the DMZ in which operations for North Korea (KPA), South Korea (ROK) and the United Nations (supported mostly with US troops) are based. It is home to the little blue conference rooms where you can cross the border and where the cease fire was signed.

KJU: the bad guy.

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The DMZ/JSA tour has lots of rules from what you can wear and say to gestures and where and when you can take what kind of photos. It had just reopened the day prior and the observation point, one of our stops, was still not open. Soldiers were on and off the bus, checking passports and counting us off to make sure no one snuck off.

We saw the Freedom Bridge on which POWs were exchanged and messages of hope are written on clothes tied to the fence. We saw a train station built, ready to start running trains through North Korea and connect South Korea to the rest of the mainland from their isolated peninsula. We heard about the history and about hopes for unification. We walked through tunnels dug by North Korea after the cease fire was signed (naughty, naughty).

Going into the JSA, we were accompanied by US soldiers and agreed that we were 100% responsible for our own safety, whatever may happen there (technically you’re supposed to sign it, but no one had pens, so I guess I didn’t sign my life away). We went to the border and the room where the cease fire was singed (notably, not by anyone from South Korea – technically they’re still at war).

We crossed the border (the middle of the room). You could not go through the door to the other side and no KPA were allowed in the room with us. The only North Korean could be seen up on the steps looking back to his country, watching for defectors.

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It’s all very eerie and strict and, if I’m honest, boring. From building taller flag poles than each other to blasting propaganda music, from an outsider’s perspective, it just seems like we all need to move on.

Full detail, including pictures and video (perhaps even from a no-photo zone), will be covered in an upcoming post.

Fun fact. Because the DMZ has been completely protected from human interference for so many years, it has quickly become an incredible wildlife haven. Amazing what can happen when we get out of the way.

South Korea and the DMZ area couldn’t be more of a contrast. While the border area seems drab, conflicted and a bit lifeless, Seoul is teeming with energy and excitement. Perhaps with unification, that can spread North.

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(I really, really tried to be serious, but…)

Cheers,

Lovingly,

Jess

3 thoughts on “Greetings from the Koreas – Digital Postcard Delivery

  1. D.F.

    Hi, Jessica!

    As someone who is both interested in travel to the lesser known corners of our world and has been to a few places myself, I was drawn to your adventure to become the first American woman to visit every country. I’ve followed your journey closely and congratulate you on what looks like a fun trip thus far. That said, I don’t think under your present criteria you will be able to visit every country in the world.

    You blog here about visiting North Korea by entering the part of the DMZ open to tourists that straddles the actual border. Indeed, by this measure, tens of thousands of tourists every year visit North Korea, but unlike you, I don’t think any would claim to have actually been to the country.

    You can stick a hand through a fence or a foot over a line, enter a foreign embassy, or even sneak across a border at night. Maybe you might even have a really long layover in an airport. All of those things will physically put you (or a portion of you) inside a country’s internationally recognized borders, but you won’t have traveled there. And that’s because you didn’t go through that country’s customs procedure.

    Despite its fearsome reputation, North Korea is one of the easier countries to visit. You pay the money for the tour, get your visa, fly out of Beijing, place the flowers at the Great Leader’s feet, yada yada. Everyone gets the same experience. It’s also the only legal way as a tourist to get in. I presumed you, who would silence the doubters by completing this historic task, knew this ahead of time.

    You also mentioned the immorality of giving money to the North Korean regime. If this is your yardstick for traveling to a country, then I’m afraid a huge portion of the world – and your momentous goal – will forever be out of reach. It’s true: North Korea is perhaps the most repressive regime in the world. Here is a short list of some other regimes – dictatorships, military juntas, theocracies, places where you know who’s in charge because of all the murals and billboards of a guy in Ray Bans – where government revenue is used to repress most freedoms, eliminate dissenters, shore up power, and vanquish enemies:
    – Egypt
    – Equatorial Guinea
    – Eritrea
    – Ethiopia
    – Iran
    – Iraq
    – Israel
    – Myanmar
    – Russia
    – Saudi Arabia
    – Sudan
    – Syria
    – Turkmenistan
    – Uzbekistan

    And these are just the big offenders! This is to say nothing of places where democracy is a fiction, corruption is rampant & unchecked, people are kept under the thumb of a nonexistent economy, or are open war zones. You know, places where your tourist dollars are only going to filter up to the local guys in charge and no citizens will ever realize any benefit. In short, LOTS of the world.

    I assumed you knew about all of this before you set off, but North Korea seemed to come as something of a surprise. I wonder how you will navigate the maze of bureaucracy, indifference, hostility, impossible visas, closed borders, war & famine, and huge swaths of the world struggling to survive much less accommodate an American, with more money & freedom than they could ever imagine, trying to break a personal record.

    This is not to say the whole of the world is not worth visiting. Every place on the planet has something unique to offer. Just do them a favor and go through their customs before you enter them on your list of conquests.

    Good luck!

    1. jess Post author

      Hey there! First, thank you for following along the journey and for your thoughtful comment. You are correct in that North Korea is a bit of an anamole in terms of criteria for what would be considered a “visit” to a country. While Guinness considers feet on ground (which would include your airport layover example), my personal criteria requires a bit more. It’s hard to quantify it (some say a night counts, but if I go by a night, I could fly in during the evening, go straight to my accommodation and flight out at first light, which to me, doesn’t really seem like a visit). Is it a day? A week? Is it variable by country size or population? So I have chosen to set that criteria similarly to fellow traveler Gunnar Garfors (who has visited every country in the world) as requiring an “experience.” Now, that leaves it up to interpretation and to myself to decide what that means. In general I would say that I’m averaging about 10 days per country on the journey so far, which has left me wanting more in so many places, but also allowed me plenty of time for experiences.

      Where North Korea strays from this set of criteria, at this time (and that’s a key phrase), is that for the tours that you mention there are a few issues, which come as no surprise. One, they are insanely expensive. Two, that money does not go to the people of the country or local tour operators – it goes directly to the North Korean government and stays in the hands of international tour operators. Tourism can be a really powerful way to infuse direct economic aid into the economy, but not in this case. In the case of North Korea, the people who will receive no benefit from those tourism dollars are exploited for a fake, propagandized experience. Third, US citizens have a difficult field to navigate in terms of dollars contributed to the DPRK (much like the embargoes being lifted from Cuba at this time), which could result in fines and jail time in the US. Lastly, as I’m sure you’ve seen on the news, political tensions in the DPRK are escalating at a rapid and concerning pace, with unpredictable lashing out by the government, often including arrests of US citizens, who have no protection (we do not have an embassy there and no diplomatic relations). This isn’t by itself a reason to avoid a deeper visit to a country, but among the other reasons, is certainly a contributing factor to my decision.

      All of that being said, I highlight the key phrase “at this time” with full intent to visit the country when these details are no longer the case. I continue to research options that mitigate the above concerns and when I feel like it is the right decision.

      So at this point in time, my visit crossing the border in the JSA within the DMZ satisfies both Guinness’s and my requirements. It was most certainly an experience and I crossed the border. I will say that day is one of the days I in which I have learned the most of the trip so far.

      In regards to all of the other countries and concerns you listed, you are also right. In short, it’s complicated.

      Visas are actually the least of my worries, but everything you have listed will certainly impact decisions on when is the right time to visit and the best ways to visit. The biggest difference I find with those countries and the DPRK is where the dollars go. This can be as “simple” as ensuring that I’m working with local operators to keep the money local (for example, this was quite difficult in the small island countries of the Pacific with basically non-existent tourism industries; the majority of operators are from Australia or New Zealand, sending that money out of the countries that surely need it). But it gets even more tricky when it comes to all of the other concerns. I was just reflecting yesterday on how I have only been in “easy” countries so far and know that it is going to get much, much more difficult.

      A book that is high on my reading list and relates directly to this topic is Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo, in which as I understand, she challenges us to think about forms of direct alternative aid and how powerful it can be.

      Thanks again for the thoughtful response, for joining the journey and for your encouragement. I look forward to continued discussions and your insights into the goal!

      1. Chris Chris

        While it’s true that the tours in North Korea are a fake, propagandized experience, visitors are fully aware of this fact, and it doesn’t take away from the fact that visiting North Korea is a freaky, surreal, and memorable experience in itself. No matter how hard they try to hide it, glimpses of the reality of the situation shine through. In 2011 I visited the DMZ from South Korea, and my tour to the North included a visit to the DMZ from the other side… same place, but a vastly different experience. It was quite freaky!

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