Thursday, February 7, 2013

DMZ - hey North Korea, hey!

I've been meaning to blog about my DMZ experience for the whole week but I'll admit it...I've been lazy! And then the realization hit me that if I don't do it now, I'm going to run out of time, because my Korea chapter is closing much quicker than I'm ready for it seems.

I love history. When I travel, I love including historical sites or museums in my itinerary. I love the feeling of walking down paths that I've learned so much about. So you would think the DMZ would have been the first item on my Korea bucket list. But I actually almost never made it. Life got away with me here and I accepted that the DMZ was not going to happen for me. I just had no time, and it was Winter - apparently that's not a good time to go. But after speaking to some friends one night who convinced me this was something I needed to do, and when my friend Jeanette offered to join me, I went ahead and booked it! And boy am I glad I did. It's something I highly recommend everyone doing. I didn't know all that much about the DMZ and its history before I went but once on the tour, I was so happy I sucked it up and went. A part of me has been putting this post off because there is SO much information I could try and put down but I think I'll alternate my take on things with links to other sites - or else we'll all be here till next week. Also, Wikipedia did help refresh my memory on a lot of things so there's my reference ;)

Okay so what exactly is the DMZ? I hope I don't have to be the first to tell you that North and South Korea are divided. As much as I'd love to give a more thorough lesson on their history, I'd encourage you to read up on it. The DMZ or Demilitarized Zone is the buffer/border that cuts the Korean peninsula in half and is the most heavily militarized border in the world. Fun place. I don't know the specifics but I do know that it is INCREDIBLY difficult to get into the North, and almost impossible to do so from the South. These two are not friends. After the Korean War (1950 - 1953), an armistice was signed, causing a cease fire but no actual peace treaty was signed. The Korean war was a really dark time in Korea's history and it's been really interesting reading up on it. The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) is the line that divides the Koreas according to agreements at the time of the armistice  The DMZ runs 2km from that line into the North and 2km into the South. I know we look down on it but Wikipedia has everything you need to know about this all so I'd rather direct you there.

The actual tour starts in Seoul, at the USO Camp Kim base. We took the USO tour as I'd heard great things about it and I would recommend them to others too. It's expensive but it includes the JSA which a lot of other tours don't, and our guide was really clued up! From there we drove for about an hour to our first stop - the 3rd Tunnel. South Korea has found 4 tunnels believed to have been made by the North in order to plan a surprise attack. Although only 4 have been found, it is believed that more may exist. We are able to see the 3rd tunnel which was discovered thanks to a North Korean defector. There is a museum on site as well as the famous DMZ sign, but we did not have time to look around too much. The trip into the tunnel is an intense 350m walk down at an 11degree angle. Once at the bottom you duck (who am I kidding - you all duck while I walk straight through) through a long tunnel leading to the first blockade of concrete wall, as insurance that none of us and none of them can wonder through onto the wrong side. Walking back up is quite a feat, and although the tunnel was less than exciting, it was interesting to see.

A diagram of the tunnel
From there we got back on our bus and went to the Dora Observatory and Dorasan Station. The Dora Observatory is where you get the first real glimpse out over the DMZ and into North Korea. You can use the binoculars (500won) to get a closer look and are only allowed to take pictures behind a certain line. They are very strict on this (there are Korean soldiers there to enforce it all) and I think I heard it has something to do with ensuring no pictures are taken of the ROK soldiers on their rounds. In fact throughout the tour we were only allowed to take pictures in certain areas and many times we had to take them facing the North, and none of the South. Safety I guess. We went on a beautifully clear day so could see right into the North, and could really appreciate just how barren everything is. North Korea is a country in crisis. The mountains are dead and the trees stripped of their bark, which was cooked and eaten by starving North Koreans. It's just a dead land, sprinkled with odd buildings - many of which are fake (will talk about that later).

Unification is a big theme throughout 

The observation area behind me - you can see the yellow demarcation line for pictures.

From there we hopped back on the bus and took a trip to the Dorasan Station. Here we saw the border gate between North and South (though it's really just for show and very special exceptions - you cannot just pop over into the North). The Dorasan Station is this huge, beautiful, modern, deserted building. It once connected North and South Korea and was at one point used to take industrial goods to the industrial region within the DMZ but the North put a stop to that. The station has been restored and is now used for tourist purposes only (although we did see a train come in and drop people off - I think it must be part of some kind of tour). It's amazing to see all this going to waste, but I think the hope is that one day it will run between the two countries once more. We got to walk along the tracks and it truly felt like we were right in the middle of these two contrasting countries. We had lunch in the area too which was over -priced but quite delicious! Oh also - between the 3rd tunnel and the Dorasan areas we drove past what are supposed to be live mine fields, and lots of security. You cannot escape the feeling that you are walking on a forbidden kind of land. It's uneasy, but captivating. Jeanette also bought a lovely bottle of North Korean beer but it met its end on the bus terminal floor during a mad dash to make a bus (we don't like to talk about it) ;)

To the left, North Korea's capital and to the right, Seoul. 

Deserted train tracks leading to the North

It's really quite strange to be in a quiet Korean train station

Live mine fields and security blockades 
Then it was off to the place I was really looking forward to - the Joint Security Area or JSA. This is where sh*t got real, to put it the only way I know how. Jeanette and I were really nervous. This area is within the village of Panmunjom and is the only place within the DMZ where North and South Korean soldiers stand face to face. The JSA is where the North and South come to meet over any diplomatic issues and was previously used as the site for military negotiations as well. We pull up to Camp Bonifas, the area where US and ROK military were stationed to monitor the armistice agreement, but is now where 'security escorts' (the soldiers) conduct the United Nations Command DMZ Orientation Program tours of the JSA and surrounding areas. We are greeted by a US solider who comes on board and checks all of our passports before we are allowed off and directed to the main building for a 20 minute briefing. Look, I'm sure a lot of this is for show and the 'briefing' is just a 20 minute history lesson but it's damn exciting. You are also surrounded by armed soldiers whose guns are not just for show. It's exhilarating whether it's aimed at us or at the North. Before we can leave, we are made to sign a document which includes lines like: "The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action". Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy doesn't it?

From there we have to get onto a special blue bus, driven by another soldier, and are taken around the JSA. Our first stop is the the New Freedom House. We're instructed to form two single file lines, and to make sure we have our badges on display so the "North can't catch us and keep us" (nervous giggle). We are then led to the front of the building where we are literally right across from North Korea. My heart kinda stopped and I was too scared to look anywhere. There are cameras on the North side recording our every move and we were told not to gesture in any way towards the North. I was too nervous to even look there never mind gesture. We walk down onto conference row and into the little blue houses that stand there. The atmosphere is tense and we all feel a bit nervous. Jeanette and I along with half of our group walk to the back end of the room while the others file in. We are now divided by a big conference table in the middle. We are told that in fact those of us at the back are standing in North Korea - whoa! We are perfectly safe though (it's all in our heads) and are free to take pictures as long as we face the North. There are 2 ROK soldiers inside, both standing at attention in a modified taekwondo stance, looking very intimidating with their aviator sunglasses (this is done on purpose, to intimidate the North. ROK soldiers actually have to be a certain height to be given these stations). When North and South come together here, they are split even within - each sitting on their own side. There are microphones running along the table which record everything at all times. Once we've taken our nervous photos with the soldiers, we are led back out and stand on the top steps outside Freedom House, facing the North. It's really quiet and we can see the North Korean soldier on the other side get out his binoculars to watch us. I felt really exposed, I didn't enjoy the feeling but was an amazing thing to do. We were given some history on the place and the US soldiers joke that because the North monitor us so closely and take pictures of us, we should return the favour. There are ROK soldiers on the outside too, in the same intimidating position, facing the North only partially exposed in order to minimize themselves as targets. We did learn that they only stand like that when people are coming in, and when we leave they are able to walk around more freely. If you do a tour, make sure it includes the JSA as it made the experience for me.

Looking nervous with the ROK soldier 

The main North Korean building in the background - the Panmungak

Standing in North Korea

North Korean soldier
After that we are taken to more places, and are able to get clear views of North Korea and their propaganda village. This is basically a village created by the North to make themselves look prosperous. What it actually is, is a fake village made up of empty shell buildings, with windows and doors painted on and only the side that faces the South kept looking good. A massive North Korea flag pole waves in the distance and we are told that there used to be speakers spewing North Korean propaganda directed at the South but that has stopped. It's just such a fascinating thing to know about and makes you understand just how bad the North are at telling lies. We are also taken to the Bridge of No Return where after the Korean War, Prisoners of War from each side were brought and told to 'pick a side'. Once they crossed into their country of choice, they could never return. So many families are split between these 2 sides; it's really heart-breaking. Found there is also the site of the Ax Murder Incident - in 1976, a group of United Nations Command workers who were pruning a tree by the bridge were attacked by North Korea soldiers. 2 of the soliders were killed and most injured. It is because of that incident that security is so tight at the JSA. Prior to that, guards from both sides were allowed to move much more freely within it. All of this is seen from the bus and we are only allowed to take pictures in specific spots.

The bridge of no return and location of the Ax Murder incident 

Propaganda Village with their impractical massive flag
Our US guide

And that was the tour. It was such a great experience  The guides were clued up, there was a sense of danger that, although maybe in my head, made it that much more exciting. The soldiers say that things at the JSA rarely get tense and the media often hypes up the actions of the North - they don't feel threatened by them at all. It was just something so different for me; being in a militarized zone with real soldiers and weapons. It was very eye-opening to hear the stories about the war and how North Korea operates (I knew a bit already but the tour is very informative). Do it guys. Forget about whether all of this is aimed at tourists or not and allow yourself to just go and feel the atmosphere of this place. That's really what it was about for me. I think it was a great way to end my time here.

I do not claim to know much about the relationship between these two countries but for the sake of the North Korean innocent population, I hope something can be done about this division soon. It's mind-blowing to me that in a modern world, the atrocities that happen in the North are allowed to continue. I know there are politics involved that go way above my head but if the South are as serious about reunification as they seem, then there is maybe some hope.

1 comment:

  1. I found it pretty easy for me back in '94 to get to the dmz/mdl I just joind the army told them I wanted to go to korea and they sent me to camp bonifas lol..all kidding aside I liked that you took the tour and I guess it might interest you a bit to be able to talk to someone that it was their mission to work inside the dmz it was a very prestigious job that not many americans can say they had the honor of doing,it's a mission that we have turned over to the Korean army and we do not do anymore...the main reason I am contacting you is I had some questions if the north Koreans still played propaganda over loud speakers inside the dmz around the pam mun jom like when I was there I am looking for information and I can't find any anywhere..I've never done the blog thing so if you could email me I would appreciate it besides some things are better left to a bit of discretion my name is rob davis and my email is