A Visit to The North Korean Border and DMZ in Paju
About a week ago I got a message from one of my Korean friends in Seoul asking if I wanted to come on a little road trip to Paju. Paju is a small city north of Seoul that seems to be famous for having a good outlet mall and being right on the border with North Korea. Or I suppose more accurately the demilitarized zone.
So I left Daejeon after work on Friday and headed to Seoul. Saturday morning we met up, grabbed some breakfast on the way out of the city, and headed north.
It wasn’t too long of a drive, although getting out of Seoul is always kind of a nightmare as far as traffic goes.
I didn’t really research Paju at all before we left, I just agreed to come along for a chance to see some more of Korea and hang out with my friends. I knew that it was relatively close to the North Korean border, but I didn’t realize that the DMZ is kind of the main attraction there.
So when I opened the map on my phone and realized that we were directly across the river from North Korea it came as a bit of a surprise.
It’s one thing to visit the DMZ, which we later did, but its something else entirely to be just driving along the highway and look over to see North Korea. It was a bit unsettling that you could look to the right and see signs for premium outlet malls and restaurants, and then look to the left and see nothing but fog covered mountains.
It didn’t help that the weather was particularly grey on this day either. It gave the whole thing a very eerie feeling.
At one point of our friends said something very abruptly in Korean and my other friend translated it as, “he just realized that there hasn’t been any other cars on this for a while.” Did I mention it was a bit eerie?
We continued driving and came across a road that was barricaded and had a giant banner that read, “통일을 준비하는 파주.” Which means “Paju, preparing for reunification.”
I can’t say that I know for sure that this road leads into North Korea, but I do know that we saw several cars and bus driving out, but no one driving in. From what I could piece together, there is a city not too far from Paju in North Korea called Kaesong which used to be the home a lot of South Korean factories for big companies like LG because the labor was cheaper there. But, and this is all according to my friend, “once things started to get really crazy they pulled out.”
Anyway my speculation is that this is what that road might have been for. Or possibly for the very few tours that still exist into North Korea.
From there we headed up to the DMZ which was a really bizarre experience. The memorial area itself was very beautiful and respectful, but what we were greeted by was a tiny carnival and tons of gift shops in the parking lot.
Eventually we made it past that stuff and into the real memorial site which was really special.
I’m still searching for the right words to describe the feeling of being there. It wasn’t overly sad, or sensationalized, or insensitive. It was just heavy. All the ribbons kept moving ever so slightly and silently while people were speaking in mostly subdued voices.
A combination of the very severe reality mixed with a quiet hope for the future.
From the memorial area we went up to the, I suppose it could be called, observation deck. Although I’m not sure I’m super comfortable with the semantics of that. Basically the area you could look and see past the border.
Luckily my trusty little point and shoot camera has a decent zoom. Because here’s a picture of the regular shot just for perspective.
There were some other little statues and memorials on the way back out as well.
Then we walked back down towards the parking lot and into one of the little shops that was advertising North Korean money.
Inside they had all kinds of little trinkets including, of course, North Korean soju.
And this last picture that I’ll leave you with pretty much sums up the entire experience.
This is just a sign for the North Korea money sale written in English, Korean, and Chinese (or maybe its just the Hanja I don’t know.) But either way it’s sitting there, a bit forgotten, next to a pile of tourist maps, a used water bottle, some crackers, and a roll of tape.
There exists a line somewhere between voyeurism and respectful consideration, but that line is very hard to draw. Most of the time North Korea is like this sign, just silently existing while everyone else goes about their day.
I’m grateful that this memorial exists to remind me again that I live my very easy comfortable life less than 150 miles away from arguably the most totalitarian dictatorship in the world. I can’t change what is happening their, but I can let the reminder change the way I perceive my struggles and my daily life. I feel very privileged to have seen even a tiny bit of this mysterious country and I hope someday we can live in a world where people are able to cross that border freely.
Thanks for reading!