Walking through the little lobby of my service apartment here in a neighborhood frequented by high-end foreign visitors, I would commonly find the newest brochures for English-language tours of Korea. The familiar Seoul city tours, the Korean drama tours, the historical Korean culture tours...but even in this day and age, the most prominent and most used tour packages are still the "Korea divided" tours headed up to the northern border. DMZ tour is a crowd favorite and commonly acknowledged must-do in Korea, and wait it minute, can it be? NLL tours?!
NLL, for those who are unfamiliar, is short for the "Northern Limit Line," a highly disputed "maritime border" between the two Koreas extending west from the land border that we call DMZ. And the biggest military news of the last few months, namely the alleged bombing of a Southern frigate by a Northern torpedo, and the deadly bombardment of the nearby Southern island by Northern artillery, both occurred neared the NLL. Compared to the tense and apparent military stand-off of the DMZ, the NLL is perhaps made even more dangerous by the sheer unpredictability of when the next military skirmish will take place.
So, what kind of a crazy nutcase would be willing to pay a decent amount of cash, and take a flimsy and easily targeted tour boat into the waters that witnessed explosions and deaths just a few months ago. Even for the "fearless" myself who took already took two trips inside North Korea (one of which from the South through DMZ), joining such a tour may require a second or third thought in the current political environment. Adventurous is great, but this might just be a little bit too much even for the experienced.
Yet, the tours seemed to go on...As "news" blasted on a nearby TV proclaiming secret Chinese-North Korean collaboration to undermine Southern sovereignty, followed by severe warning of potential return of military conflicts, people, both Korean and foreign, snapped up the brochures. The gaily colored papers with big "NLL" written across the top and filled with scenic pictures serve as the most interesting contrast with the sternness of the news reporters on the TV.
Such a sight also correspond to a story told to me by a fellow teacher here. She noted that her friend in college received a research grant to Turkey, yet secretly used the money to head to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Tracing the "footsteps of bin Laden," she would call it. Well, I suppose there can be no better tribute than that to the fallen martyr. Her determination to get herself to the heart of Islamic fundamentalism seems no less than that of the fundamentalists to continue their campaign after the death of their loved-by-the-media symbol.
Indeed, come to think of it, a bit of disruption to normal operations, whether it be the death of a few Southern soldiers to artillery shells or death of a terrorist figurehead to American special forces, does not really change anything. The South Korean economy (more specifically, its tourist industry) and the lethal ideology that is the "freedom"-fighting Islamic terrorism, will live on and continue to thrive. Its participants, both active and passive, will not change overnight due to a single event, no matter how symbolic the event is presented to be by the relevant authorities and the media.
If anything, the big symbolic events can only make the prospect of experiencing the places and people involved even more exciting, and to some, necessary. Especially here in Seoul, only a hundred or so miles away from the most militarized border in the world, a little bit out of the way of complete safety and security in one of the most developed and wealthiest cities on Earth can be a whole world away in terms of personal experience. If a life-changing experience can be had in one day, this is perhaps the most convenient place to do it.
Of course, I am not sitting here downplaying the danger out there and the possibility of getting in harm's way (In fact, the tour I used in 2008 to get to the North from Seoul no longer exists because a Southern tourist was shot dead by a Northern soldier). But sometimes what people can gain from putting their lives on the line may really be something worth risking everything for. Yes, we can call it "entertainment," we can call it "adrenaline rush"...yet, the real fun of such tours as NLL and Afghanistan may be their "replay value," that gratified reflection on our own lives that we can have years later...