We never expected that our tour of the DMZ, the most heavily militarized border in the world, would feature farming, rice paddies, wildlife, ginseng, biodynamic wine, and well-paid farmers:but that's exactly what happened.
The official tour bus departed from the corporate-chic Lotte Hotel near Seoul’s City Hall, at exactly 8:50 am. As we sped north along the Han River away from the city, our tour guide briefed us on the complicated and often misunderstood history of the two Koreas. And after addressing the war she was eager to point out lingering features: the riverside double chain-link fence with barbed wire, there to prevent North Korean spies from swimming in, and the small, camouflage painted watch houses, where South Korean military keep guard.
However, the 60 minute ride through rural farmland from Seoul to the border was nothing short of scenic. We were mesmerized by neat rows of crops, small diversified vegetable gardens, hundreds of hoop houses and rice paddies for miles. The vibrant agriculture only briefly distracted us; the endless chain link fence (and North Korea’s threat) came back into focus even though it was hard not to see the rolling farmlands as a sign of growth and peace.
As we approached the check-points and entrance, the air in the bus changed. The seriousness of the situation finally settled in. Clutching our passports and sitting up straight, we were informed of some zero-tolerance policies: no pointing, no waving, no motioning to anything at all, no photos unless specifically noted, as military were monitoring everything around the border, and a simple wave of a finger the wrong way could halt the entire tour. If a South Korean soldier deemed the day was unsafe for touring, sorry, no refunds.
We entered the DMZ and after joining a Japanese tour group in an auditorium and watching a short video about the area and again, how to behave, we boarded a more heavily secured bus accompanied by an armed South Korean soldier. On small dirt roads, we snaked through gorgeous wild forests and lush fields to the Joint Security Area. On the way, our tour guide taught us about the only two residential villages that exist near the border line: the Daeseong-dong, and the KijŠngdong.
Both villages essentially serve as “show off towns” to the other side. The KijŠngdong in North Korea is sometimes called “Peace Village” (but widely referred to as “Propaganda Village”) consists of vacant concrete apartment buildings, most likely just facades, scattered under the North’s absurdly tall flagpole. However South Korea’s village, The Daeseong-dong side is a populated by 250 people, the majority of them farmers. Its location makes it a dangerous place to live but the government subsidizes these farmers with high salaries of 82,000 (USD) a year tax-free as well as educational perks for their children. The Daeseong-dong villagers are victims of the Korean War: families were torn apart in the conflict, so it is not unlikely for many to have relatives living on the other side of the border. Yet through this ongoing conflict, the Daeseong-dong farmers have kept life moving with abundant rice and vegetable crops.
We reached the Joint Security Area (JSA), where border lines of the two nations meet and where both countries face off in a show of power, control, and tenacity. Only allowed a few minutes here, we gazed curiously into North Korea, and our eyes and cameras were met with a lone North Korean solider staring back at us through binoculars. Briefly allowed, we snapped photos of the blue, one story buildings, where meetings are held and guarded by a handful of stoic South Korean soldiers, standing motionless in the taekwondo ‘ready’ stance.
This intense stand-off seemed, for lack of a better word, ridiculous, after the drive through the idyllic countryside and farms. We couldn’t help but feel it was all a show, a performance, of paranoia and pettiness when juxtaposed with the prosperity and hopefulness of the lush farms we had seen and learned about. Our thoughts turned to the bleak life of North Koreans, civilians who are starving and possibly brainwashed: where were their rice paddies and hoop houses? Prosperous agriculture was non-existent: land had been stripped bare for firewood, causing soil erosion. North Korea’s climate and land are not ideal for farming in the first place (mountainous terrain, infertile soil, and irregular rains); these factors paired with flawed politics have caused devastating famine. We heard that starving civilians shoot down birds for food, leaving North Korea’s skies lifeless.
But at the border, animals and plants (cultivated and wild) prosper: with minimal human activity and interference, the DMZ has become a wildlife sanctuary. The area accommodates deer, seals, tigers, cranes, black bears, about 100 species of fish and countless amphibians. Leaving the JSA we drove by the Bridge of No Return, and a rare and beautiful thing happened: a deer came out of the woods and stopped right in its tracks in the middle of the paved overpass. The bus stopped, and we clamored for a picture just before the deer darted into its shady, tranquil home.
We had been consistently surprised on our tour, and the fact that the DMZ had its very own gift shop was no exception. Our tour guide told us that chemical-free, biodynamic-ish, North Korean wine made from wild grapes was available to purchase. She explained that insecticides and herbicides were prohibitively expensive in North Korea so many crops were by default grown organically. Unable to resist we snagged the wine as well as some “official” DMZ shot glasses. We left the gift shop wishing they also sold the local rice by the pound.
Exiting the DMZ, our tour guide directed our attention to an area of leafy plants neatly covered by black plastic. This was the ginseng crop! The Daeseong-dong farmers grow and harvest the plant along with rice and vegetables. Ginseng, she explained, requires a great deal of patience and year to year planning as it takes a long time to fully grow.
For the finale of the tour we learned about ginseng’s historical health and medicinal qualities, and how South Korea is one of its largest homes. This lesson left us hopeful that even through the ongoing standoff planting must go on.
Twenty minutes later, we arrived at a traditional Korean restaurant for some much-needed nourishment. We ate absolutely delicious, authentic dishes: bulkogi stew and bibimbap accompanied by house-made pickles. We are happy to report that we did get to enjoy the local rice after all: heaping portions of it, blackened at the bottom in our stone bowl of bibimbap, and served as a side dish for the meat. The rice was from the paddy right outside the restaurant. We left feeling totally satiated by vegetables and grains, in awe of how local our meal was.
After observing Korea’s surreal and certainly contentious DMZ, after walking by the soldiers as still as poles, even after being in the presence of a North Korean guard and seeing a mysterious North Korean village, we left the tour with impressions of the growing farmlands and local crops. Politics from the war may be hindering a unification of two countries, but the Daeseong-dong farmers keep on planting.