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The Demilitarized Zone, the Communist and Capitalist Divide.

August 9, 2011

Not too many people can say that they got to peer into the world’s most secretive nation.  Not too many people can say they stood in the territory of a totalitarian Stalinist dictatorship either.  This is why I have been excited to visit the DMZ from my arrival to Korea 5 months ago.

My American education only informed me on 3 things about North Korea….that is was bad, had nuclear weapons and was communist.    Upon knowing I was coming to live in Korea, I started researching about this nation out of great curiosity.   Finally, on August 6th, 5 friends and I took the USO tour of the DMZ (demilitarized zone) for the day.

The DMZ

The DMZ is a strip of land that stretches 2 km (1.25 miles) in each direction from the military demarcation zone (or the actual border line).   The DMZ area acts as a buffer zone for the North and the South.  If you’re a little confused on why this exists, blame the lack of worldly education in American public schools.  (I for one know I never learned about the Korean War…).

In short, towards the end of WWII, and after Japan surrendered and gave up the 35 year occupation of Korea, the Korean peninsula was divided on the 38th parallel by American administrators.    The United States, backed by the UN supported the southern side, while China and military support from The Soviet Union held occupation of the North.  After 3 years of fighting, in 1953 a cease-fire armistice was signed between the two Koreas and the Demilitarized Zone was established.  

Though created as a buffer zone for the  current day Cold War situation, the Demilitarized Zone is actually the most heavily militarized border in the world.  And ironically, a fun tourist attraction…

The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel

Our first stop in our USO tour of the DMZ was at the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel.   This tunnel was built by North Korea and discovered in 1978 from information given by a defector.  The tunnel is said to be able to support 30,000 North Korean solders per hour in order for an invasion of Seoul.  Four tunnels have been found, and there is said to be many more.   The only reason I can guess that the other tunnels have not been found is because of how deep it is.  We walked 250 meters down a really steep tunnel to reach the actual infiltration tunnel.  Then while wearing hard hats and repeatedly bumping our heads on the tunnel ceiling (while yelping loudly each time) we were able to walk to the first of three barricades South Korea built to block North Korean entry.  From the first barricade you can see through a little window to the next barricade.

Sadly, and for an unknown reason to me, they did not allow us to take any pictures.

North Korea view point

Our next stop was a view-point from which we could get our first look at North Korea.   For another reason unknown, we could only take pictures from behind a yellow line, and not right up against the wall.  Given that we had no idea if we would get to take pictures towards the North later on in the tour.  We decided to do all we could to get pictures, while still staying behind the line.  This meant,  me sitting on a friend’s shoulders.  Sadly, I was caught by a South Korean soldier and he deleted my photos.  When we asked him what we could do…he said

“no human pyramids, no being lifted up…”

“What about jumping?”

“Ok, fine.  Jumping is alright.”

From then on we continued to jump, in hopes to get a good shot.

Luckily, later on we were taken to a great spot to get pictures of North Korean territory guarded by U.S. soldiers in the Joint Security Area.

Joint Security Area

The Joint Security Area was the reason we paid a large chunk of money for this tour, and definitely the high-light.   I had done my research on the area, and had really wanted to see it, but I never thought I’d be as nervous as I was when we were entering.  The joint security area lies in the DMZ, and runs right up to the military demarcation line.  It is the only place where North and South Korean soldiers stand face to face and is also where the two Koreas can have diplomatic discussions.

We first arrived in Camp Bonifas, the United Nations Command military post for a briefing on the area.  This is where we were first exposed to the strict rules and first realized how close to North Korea we really were.  During the briefing we  were all asked to sign the same paper which stated,

“The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”

After we signed all of our comforts away, we got on a different bus and drove through the DMZ up to the military demarcation line.  It was here that we saw the famous blue buildings straddling the North and the South.  Quietly, in single file lines we were escorted into the blue buildings.  These buildings are the UN conference rooms, where the North and the South can have diplomatic discussions.  Inside the room, ROK (Republic of Korea) soldiers stand at the Taekwondo ready position, with sunglasses on and without emotion.  In the center on the room lies the conference table, with one side of the table lying in Northern territory and the other side of the table in Southern territory.  We were told we could walk around the room freely, technically walking from North Korea to South Korea and vice versa.

After spending some time inside the conference rooms, we went outside and were able to take pictures towards the North.  A North Korean soldier looked back at us with binoculars.  To the left of him, a large video camera could be seen through the window.

Our guide then said, “Feel free to take as many pictures of the North as you want… they are taking your picture as well”

After our time at the JSA conference area, we were then loaded back on the bus and taken to some other spots inside the JSA.  First we stopped at a view point in which we were surrounded by North Korea on all three sides.  The JSA jets out in the shape of a finger, and from here we had a great look towards the North.   In the distance we could view Kijong-dong, or the North Korean propaganda village.  The position of the North Korean government is that the village is real and contains many aspects of a nice town (schools, farms, hospitals etc).  In fact, the village is uninhabited and was built in the 1950s to encourage defection to the North at that time.  The buildings are painted in vibrant colors and are wired for electricity but do not have floors or windows.  The village is suppose to give the onlooker the feeling that North Korea is well off, and full of nice and prosperous villages. Sure…

It also has one of the largest flag poles and flags in the world.  A 600lb flag waves high in the air so all onlookers in the south can see it…

Here is a short video I took of the area.  Stephanie obviously thought I was asking for her craziest face in the video….or maybe the North Korean heat was getting to her…

After this viewpoint we were taken to see The Bridge of No Return.  After the war, POWs from both sides were taken to the bridge and told they could make a free but irreversible choice on if they wanted to go to the North or the South.  Supposedly only a handful of people went North.

Dorasan  Station

Our final stop on this tour was the strange Dorasan Station.   This “ghost” station is the last station on the train line in the south, and doesn’t actually run, but still has signs for Pyeongyang (capital of North Korea). It is not a working station, and was built more as a symbol for reunification than for a transportation purpose.  There are hopes for the day when the station will open up and Koreans can travel freely North and South.

Most Korean sentiments around the DMZ area are for reunification.  Koreans hope for a day when they can have their country whole again.  After the devastation of the Korean war, many families were split apart because of the North/South divide and never able to see each other again.   On rare occasion, the 2 countries will hold reunions for the families that were split apart. Sadly,they only happen every couple of years and also depend on the current North/South diplomatic relations.

Many times I’ve seen videos of the devastation of the Korean War, and also of the poverty in North Korea.   Scenes of barefoot children dying of starvation haunt the screen and one can only feel like that place is very far away.  When thinking of all of this, the saddest part is to realize that the children I teach are just the lucky ones who happened to be born on the south side of the line.  North Koreans and South Koreans are all ethnically and culturally the same, but location of birth and the fate of war has decided which children live healthy and fortunate lives (cell phones as early as 2nd grade included) or live in oppression and poverty.

Anyone visiting the Seoul area, with a free day should check out the DMZ.  And I would say no tour is worth going on but one with the JSA area included.    And who knows, maybe this tour wont be available for long…reunification could be around the corner… 😉

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