Sunday, December 31, 2006


So here's my full-fledged post about my trip to the DMZ. We only did the half day tour because the full-day tour was booked solid but it was so cold that I don't' really mind going back another day to visit the JSA (Joint Security Area) at Panmunjum. This is the only place along the border where North and South Korea actually touch each other. The rest of the entire border is separated by the DMZ.

So if you don't know what the DMZ is, here's a quick summary from Wikipedia...

The Korean Demilitarized Zone (or DMZ) is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula that serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea. The DMZ cuts the Korean Peninsula roughly in half, crossing the 38th parallel on an acute angle, with the west end of the DMZ lying south of the parallel and the east end lying north of it. It is 248km/155 miles long and approximately 4km/2.5 miles wide, and is the most heavily armed border in the world.

So that's that.

Our day began at 7:00 at the Lotte Hotel. This was our meeting place and only me and Matt got picked up there. The bus then stopped by three or four other hotels and by the time we left Seoul we had about 40 people on the bus, half Japanese and half English. It took us a little over an hour to get to the border.

According to our tour guide, the DMZ tour is different everyday and the guides never know in what order each group will be visiting the different "attractions." My tour consisted of checking out the Third Tunnel, The Dora Observatory, Dorasan Train Station, and then the Freedom Bridge. Our guide was on the phone until the last minute trying to figure out where we were supposed to go first.

After a little confusion, it was confirmed that our first stop would be the Third Tunnel. Our guide said we were lucky because our group would be taking the monorail into the tunnel as opposed to walking down there.

Before entering the tunnel, we were treated to watching a 10 minute film that gave us an overview of the history of Korea and a hopeful outlook on the future. I don't think too many of us were fooled by the video and the hope it attempted to project for the future. I don't think unification is coming anytime soon, and I don't think many Koreans believe this will happen in the near future either. After the movie we were given hard hats and descended into the Earth.

Those red car seats are the monorail.
The monorail tunnel was very small and I hit my head a few times on the ceiling. The 1600 meter infiltration tunnel, discovered in 1978, was a damp, dark, and eerie place that's 150 meters below ground. The guides said the tunnel is big enough to move 10,000 equipped soldiers per hour, although it's less than 7 feet wide and high. At the end of the tunnel is a bolted metal door with a window, and through the window you can see another bolted metal door. Passed this door the tunnel was filled in by the South and they have a camera monitoring it 24/7. The tunnel stretches for about another 500 meters or so passed the barricade.

The South discovered four of these tunnels, the most recent in 1990.

Wikipedia says the first of the tunnels is believed to be about 45 meters below surface, with a total length of about 3.5 kilometers, penetrating over 1,000 meters into the DMZ. When the first tunnel was discovered, it featured electric lines and lamps, and railways and paths for vehicles.

The North Koreans actually coated the tunnels with coal dust so they could say they were mining and not trying to attempt a sneak attack. Geological surveys showed that there is no coal there.

Unfortunately, we weren't' allowed to take any bags or cameras into the tunnel so that means no pictures. However, I did manage to borrow a rock from the third tunnel. Notice the black on the rock. It's coal dust that easily wipes off unto your hands.

After exiting the tunnel, I checked out the gift shop (yes, a gift shop at the DMZ - strange I know) and got myself a DMZ t-shirt and a pin.

The whole vibe of the DMZ tour was starting kind of sink in at this point and it was weird. Here I was just a few hundreds meters from one of the most messed up places on Earth and I'm buying a t-shirt.

Our next stop was the Dora Observatory where we could look at North Korea and the DMZ through binoculars that cost 500 Won to use (50 cents). I put a few pics of this place in my previous post and once again there was photo restrictions here. We could look at North Korea through the binoculars but we had to stand behind a yellow line to take pictures. Why you ask? Beats the hell outta me?

The observatory building itself looked really tough and they had some cool models inside showing the location of the villages and other things in the area, but again, no pictures.

You can see the tallest flag pole in the world from here. Go North Korea Go!! Apparently they keep extending it to make sure it remains the tallest.

From this place you can also see two villages that are actually in the DMZ. The South's village is called "Freedom Village," while the one in the North is called "Propaganda Village." The people in Freedom Village are farmers and they pay no taxes. Only about 200 farmers work and live there and in order to be a part of the village you must spend eight months of the year there in order to gain benefits. Supposedly, they make over $100,000 a year.

Propaganda Village is pretty much exactly what it's name says it is. No one lives here besides a few soldiers but they have it set up so it looks like a "real" village. The South realized that the lights come on in the same buildings at exactly the same time each day, and closer inspection with a telescope will allow one to see that none of the buildings even have windows.


We were soon herded onto our bus again and this time we were off to a train station called Dorasan Station. This is the final destination of the South Korean rail line but they already have the track connected to the North, although no trains go there. It is more of a symbolic place than anything else. They even have a sign outside showing the distance to Seoul and Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.
Only three trains a day go to Seoul and you must get special permission to ride. They have two army guys at the place where you board the train.

This place was really creepy, almost like something from a movie. You have this shiny, new building but it's totally empty, besides for the bus full of "tourists," a couple of soldiers, the people at the ticket booth, and the person at the souvenir shop. It's basically a place to show the people on the DMZ tour and nothing more. The South Korean propaganda machine works just as well as the one in the North. And oh yeah, you can get some pretty cool stamps in your passport here as well.

Here's what the place looked like as we were leaving.


Our final destination was Freedom Bridge. This place ends with a collage of paper and fabric and flags that contain handwritten hopes for peace, unity and reunion. Many South Korean school children visit this site and leave notes here, although people in the North don't get to read them because they'd have to cross the DMZ to see them.

This place gets it's name because 13,000 POW's were exchanged here after the Korean War. Until 1998, it was the only bridge linking North and South Korea.

The strangest thing about this place is that they had music blaring from speakers on the bridge. It was likely some kind of traditional music and the picture below is the best way for me to describe it.
While we were on the bridge the train passed by right behind us. This is a train that came from Dorasan Station. Matt tried to flag it down and hitch a ride but it didn't stop. The barb wire would probably be a bit of trouble anyway even if he did get the train to stop. I guess we'd just have to settle with the bus ride home.

I must say that I've never seen so much barbed wire in my life.

On the way out I noticed an amusement park in a parking lot at one of the places we visited. In the midst of the most heavily gunned area in the world they decided to put some rides. Good way to ease some tension I suppose.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the first half of the DMZ tour. I'll do the other half in the spring when the weather warms up a little.

Sticking with the theme of freedom and all that stuff, today is my last day of "freedom" for a while. Tomorrow I head off to my district English camp outside of Seoul in the middle of nowhere. I'm there for 14 days and I hope I don't go insane there. 14 straight days of teaching and dealing with a bunch of kids for about 12 hours a day is gonna take it's toll. And they better have internet there.

Maybe I'll defect to the North and see if they have shorter camps and next year I'll sign with them.

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