Saturday, February 12, 2011

Exploring the DMZ (2 January) – Part One

Our early night in has helped us recover sufficiently that we’re able to leave Hong Guesthouse with enough time to have breakfast at Paris Baguette before meeting Adventure Korea outside of Hongdae Station.  A typical waegook moment (ie. Not understanding simple instructions) results in my popping a container of maple syrup all over myself and the counter and seat behind me rather than on my breakfast waffle.  Being covered in syrup that has successfully managed to find it’s way up your jack sleeve and all around your watch among other places is not a pleasant way to start a day. 

Unexpected Reunions

Before we know it, it’s time to make our way to Hongik station to meet the AK bus.  We’ve just rounded the corner and are wondering who will be staffing this trip when we see Seokjin (the owner of the company).  We can’t conceal our enthusiasm as we happily greet Seokjin with much cheer and Cheshire Cat grins and start chatting while we wait.  When the AK bus arrives, Patricia tells us that they’ve kept seats for us: Catfish and I are confused as to who ‘they’ is and are just about to ask when KiwiKat gets off the bus and we’re once again joyously greeting someone like a long-lost relative.  Clearly, the day is going far better than it started and we’re all ready for the day’s adventures at the DMZ (the DeMilitarized Zone between North and South Korea). 

Despite the warning that we can’t wait for anyone, we end up leaving nearly 45 minutes later than scheduled as we wait for two more people who are “on their way”.  Finally, we’re off and KiwiKat attempts to show me on a map of Korea where, exactly, the DMZ is.  Seokjin also announces that there will be a slight change to the order of today’s trip since he’s just been notified that there will be military drills taking place in one of the areas we’re scheduled to visit.  As a result, we need to be out of this area by 13:30. 

On the bus, ByungMin (who, along with Patricia and KiwiKat, will be helping to run today’s trip) collects our passports and ARCs (Alien Registration Cards) which need to be presented at the entrance to the DMZ.  In true Korean style, we first need to pass a ‘test’ before we’re granted permission to enter the DMZ.  This involves a member of the Korean military at the DMZ boarding our bus and inspecting our passports or ARCs presumably to check that no one poses any threat to the area.  It’s a bit like passing through border control in the US as a foreigner except that, as Seokjin tells us, we greet the soldier with our friendliest and happiest smiles unlike the US where we’re expected to remain very serious making us look even more like potential criminals.

Fortunately, we all clear the security check and we’re soon passing through the heavily guarded gates and onto the bridge where no photos are permitted.   It’s somewhat ironic that the DMZ is meant to be DeMilitarized and yet, is one of the most heavily guarded areas with serious trust issues on both sides of the border.  We head straight for the unification village and the site of the third infiltration tunnel which we were only supposed to visit this afternoon.  Apparently this is the area that will be closed from 13:30 today due to military drills – again, a strong sense of irony can be felt considering there shouldn’t be any military in the DMZ!

The DeMilitarized Zone

The DMZ is an area of approximately two kilometres on each side of the border between North and South Korea.  This line covers not only landmass but water territory too.  Yeongpyeong Island, which was bombed by North Korea in November 2010, is the latest example of constant disagreement between the two Koreas and it’s interesting to note that this particular island lies closer to North Korea than South.  As someone explained to me, the disagreement in this instance has more to do with controlling fruitful fishing waters than anything else.  It should be noted, however, that a lot of what I will mention is predominantly pro-South Korea. Obviously, living in South Korea, I don’t particularly want this country to be attacked by anyone but, just as South Korea has genuine fears of a North Korean attack, North Korea and it’s supporters have just as legitimate a fear of an attack from the South.  It’s a seemingly no-win situation.


At Panmunjeom, the first stop of our trip, we watch an interesting documentary about the DMZ and the tunnels in particular before exploring the small museum that shows the history of Panmunjeom which is simultaneously fascinating and bloody.  Panmunjeom is often referred to as the ‘Truce Village’ and is part of the Joint Security Area where, in certain areas, North and South Korean military personnel literally stand opposite each other guarding their respective sides of the border within small conference rooms.  It’s interesting that such an awkward truce can exist in such small spaces and yet there is still so much mistrust between the two sides.  The museum shows a colourful and disturbing history of bloody skirmishes that reinforce just how much mistrust actually exists. 

Here, we learn about the Bridge of No Return and various incidents that occurred in the JSA.  Perhaps one of the best known incidents is the “Axe Murder Incident” of 1976.  In short, two American UN soldiers were murdered by North Koreans soldiers when they followed orders to prune a tree in the JSA that was obscuring visibility of the border.  Catfish provides a far more thorough account than I of these incidents and history of the DMZ in her blog. 

Having hosted over 100 trips to the DMZ, Seokjin was keen to answer any questions we had regarding North and South Korea and the DMZ in general.  He also told Catfish and I a little of his own military experience.  All men in South Korea have a compulsory two year service in the military.  Their university studies are usually interrupted in order for them to complete this service which explains why many men here only graduate in their late twenties.  In addition, men who have not served military time are generally not seen in a very positive light.

Third Infiltration Tunnel

From the museum display, we move across the parking lot to the Third infiltration tunnel.  Discovered in October 1978, this particular tunnel would allow for 30 000 armed North Korean soldiers per hour to invade Seoul.  The tunnel is two metres in diameter, approximately two metres in height, 1 635 metres in length and averages around 73 metres below the surface.  The tunnel was discovered when an underwater gush revealed it’s presence.  At 52km from Seoul, it is considered more threatening than the first and second tunnel according to the explanations at the DMZ.  For security reasons, we’re not allowed to take photos of the tunnel because “North Koreans have access to Facebook too, you know!”

Since the November attack of YeongPyeong Island, the DMZ has apparently been quieter than usual.  This is very clear today in that we’re one of only two groups in Panmunjeom at the moment.  Seokjin tells us he’s never seen the tunnel entrance so quiet and it’s a little eerie that we can see all the way to the bottom of tunnel without having to look over people.  On the way down to the tunnel, we pass several chairs are various rest stops and struggle to understand why the people walking back up are puffing and panting so much.  Standing at the bottom of the slope leading to the exit and contemplating the 45 degree angle that we now have to tackle in order to leave the tunnel, we suddenly understand the need for the chairs and the puffing and panting. 

Contemplating the seemingly insurmountable obstacle that currently stands between me and the world above ground, I can’t help but feel a grudging admiration for the sheer determination of North Korean soldiers who would’ve attempted the invasion of the South through these tunnels.  Firstly, they had to dig the tunnel – after the first two had been discovered.  Secondly, the tunnel is pretty low (and I’m about average Korean height) so moving through the tunnel quickly and quietly with weapons wouldn’t have been an easy task considering the lack of space and the fact that you’re doing the ajumma walk (ie hunched over) for most of the trip.  Thirdly, it’s a pretty long walk – and a very steep climb – through the tunnel.  The North Koreans may have had the advantage of surprise in the attack but they probably would’ve been exhausted coming out of that tunnel – or maybe that’s just foreigners since, as the Koreans love to tell us, we need to exercise more….

The tourist part of the tunnel is approximately 1 mile long. You all but roll down a sharp slope into the tunnel, dust yourself off, have a refreshing sip of fresh spring water, make your way (hunched over) through a long and narrow flat section to look at a wall with a look out point behind barbed-wire, say “Holy crap! I’m standing at the actual border between North and South – North Korea is just on the other side of this wall!”, briefly wonder if there are tourists on the North Korean side wondering the same thing and then turn around and head back the way you came.  Along the way, there are signs that ensure we don’t miss the vital evidence that this tunnel was dug by North Koreans and that it’s not, as North Korea has suggested, a South Korean attempt to frame the opposition. 

Dorasan Station: Not the Last Station From the South but the First Station to the North

Having successfully made it back out of the tunnel, we’re soon back on the bus and heading to Dorasan Station where, rumour has it we can even get a stamp in our passports.  Traffic is carefully controlled at the bridge that leads into the DMZ proper and we’re told not to take any photos of the bridge.  I wonder how much time North Korean soldiers and intelligent personnel spend on Facebook looking for the photos of foreigners who have ignored these security instructions and taken photos anyway?  

The first thing we see at the station is a donor board. Seokjin informs us that several thousand Koreans, including him, donated money to help build this station which is the only one with traffic going to North Korea.  Once a week, a train takes raw materials to a factory in Kaesong where they are made into various articles that are then brought back to the South.  He then takes us into the station which is, of course, deserted, and shows us a map of the Transcontinental Railroad of which Dorasan station is the starting point.  If North and South Korea were to unite, this railroad would open up countless travel opportunities to and from Korea instead of the current – and rather limiting – flight and boat options. 

We’re then shown the stamp that we can put into our passports.  It’s not a legitimate stamp and although we’re told to stamp it on the last page of our passports so that we can tear out the page if it’s a problem, this isn’t exactly a feasible option.  It’s interesting to hear KiwiKat tell us that some countries will not grant us tourist visas if they see this stamp simply because of clear proximity to North Korea – Japan is apparently one such country.  Sad not to have a stamp in my passport that shows I’ve been to the DMZ, we head through the doors to the platform and train tracks. 

We can’t help but laugh at the sight of the photo of George Bush signing something in an official photo at the site – with the black marker upside down! – while we take various goofy photos.

The amount of snow on the tracks is a clear indication of just how seldom this particular train actually runs but it’s an unique experience to be able to walk across train tracks with a clear conscience.  Safe in the knowledge that these tracks are not in use, KiwiKat tells Catfish and I to go and make a snow angel on the tracks because she wants a photo of someone lying on the tracks.  Catfish simply crosses the tracks to the platform on the other side but a part of me finds the idea appealing so I leave my bag on the platform and head for the centre track where I attempt to make a snow angel.  All around me, people are laughing at the idea of making a snow angel on the tracks and ByungMin seems to be watching with an incredulous “Are all foreigners really insane?” expression on his face.  A sudden image of Wild Wild West comes to mind and I lay back on the tracks as though I’m lying on a beach in Thailand.  This prompts several people to take out the photos for what can only be described as a unique photo! 

Train tracks forgotten, I head to the other platform to have a look around before crossing the tracks once more to where KiwiKat has claimed my bag.  She happily returns my bag to me – after robbing me blind right before my eyes.  It’s time to head back to the bus so Catfish and I decide to run ahead and try to find Seokjin’s name on the donor board outside.  Apparently our Korean isn’t anywhere near as good as we’d hoped: It took only a moment to find the ‘Park’ section but, by the time the rest of the group had exited the station, we were still no closer to finding ‘Seokjin’.  Finding this amusing, he glances at the section we’re currently studying intently, skims through the names and points to one and then laughs as we all take photos of his name on a board.

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