It was my fifth trip to Korea (to participate in Seoul Gourmet 2016) and I figured it was time to get up to the DMZ. The DMZ is the demilitarized zone created in 1953 between North and South Korea. On a hot and sunny Sunday I signed up for a bus tour as the zone is only an hour north of the capital. As I found out, it’s not a carefree bus tour, you needed to bring a passport and be checked by military personnel on entering the zone. My expectation was to see soldiers on both sides of the line, stare at the buildings and landscape across the border, take pictures with the military guards and put another notch in my tourist belt. What better way to get over jet lag than witness a piece of living history?
It was not until I was on the bus that I realized I did not sign up for the tour to the military sight but to the other places in the DMZ. Wait- there are other places in the DMZ? The DMZ is actually 250 km wide and 4 km deep. It is fascinating, surreal and very gastronomic! For example, in the DMZ you find the relatively modern Gyeongui Railway station that hosts no active trains, and no train customers but has spacious facilities and futile signs for trains to Pyeongyang.
You also discover that historically the DMZ lies in a treasured agricultural valley which in ancient times produced rice and soy beans for Korean royalty. When first declared a no man’s land, farmers were driven from this fertile region. After waiting decades for an end to the conflict (technically the Korean war is not over, there is just a cease fire in place), the South Korean government decided it was not going to let this delicious region go rice-less. The only village in the DMZ, Unification Village was built specifically for working farmers and soldier families. It is the only civilian lodging in the zone. As our guide waxed poetic about this rice, I was hoping the souvenir store would actually sell it. It did, but in 10 and 20 kilo sacks, not exactly souvenir size. My fellow Korean tourists were buying it by the sackful. In the shop shelves there were other delicacies such as DMZ honey and DMZ chocolate soy beans. Tourist attractions dotted the zone. For example there was Peace Park with the main attraction of wind. It’s high, grassy knolls lent themselves for flying kites. Families picnicked by bomb shelters as the kites bobbed and weaved among the barbed wire fences. Jarringly attached to Peace Park was a full blown kiddie amusement park, Imjingak.
Along with the expected DMZ attractions, such as models of fighter jets and a steam locomotive riddled with a thousand bullet holes, there were bumper cars and merry go rounds. At the perimeter colorful ribbons honoring the dead fluttered below the rolls of barbed wired fencing. These vivid colors and the happy park goers were disorienting against a sober backdrop of barbed wire and manned guard houses along the river.
Further on there was a soybean museum with the story of tofu and three amazing towers of ginseng! I have been to a lot of food museums in my life, but I scratched my head on wondering if people would come to this dangerous part of the world just to understand the soybean. I realized then how seriously the Koreans take their food and though the DMZ is known for the present conflict between the north and the south…Korean food heritage was not about to cede its ground to recent history.
As for the amusement park food itself, it was as unappetizing as Coney Island fare. Different for sure, but equally unappetizing. Some delicacies such as squid and small crustaceans were purely Korean but the faux western fare of ‘old hot dogs’ and ice cream sticks made me run back to the ginseng towers! If the North Koreans ever come over the line, they are in for a shock!