I feel very settled into life in Korea at the moment. Sometimes I need to remind myself where I am. "Oh ya, I live in a little Asian country on the other side of the world." I don't even call it South Korea anymore, just Korea. However, this little peninsula is still split in to two very different halves. There is still tension between the two. Last weekend I visited the DMZ (demilitarized zone). The main reason I went was to hopefully get a greater understanding of the reason for tension, and of course get a North Korean stamp on the passport (success).
The DMZ runs coast to coast. It's 2.5 miles wide and nobody is allowed inside. The walls and landmines keep the people out so the natural life in the DMZ has flourished. Ironically, some endangered species have found protection in between the walls of the North and South. However, there is one place where people are allowed to enter. It's called the Joint Security Area or JSA. This area functions as a place where officials from the North and South can have talks. It is in the middle of DMZ and consists of a bunch of military buildings, conference rooms, and soldiers staring face to face with the enemy. When there are no talks going on it's a place where tourists can get as close as they can to North. Last week we were those tourists.
We arrived outside the DMZ and we are introduced to our tour guide who is an US army officer. He basically told us to do what he says or you will be quickly dismissed. We got on a bus and drove past barb wire, cement blocks, tank walls, and land mines to get in to the DMZ. No pictures are allowed on this portion of the tour. We arrived at the JSA a few minutes later. We are informed that when we get off the bus we must stay in single file line and never gesture towards anything. There is no pointing and especially no waving. If we saw a North Korean soldier near the border then we couldn’t look him in the eyes. We had to stay in front of this South Korean soldier and never pass this South Korean soldier. No wearing shorts, flip-flops, baggy clothing, etc. Only took pictures when the tour guide said it's OK and never left the group because there was no telling what those North Koreans might do. We were told that someone is watching your every move through the scope of a sniper rifle. We stood there for a few minutes just facing the North Korea side of the JSA. There is a row of conference buildings along the border and a large communist style building on the North Korean side. There are several South Korean guards at their post. Some of the guards stand half behind a conference building and half exposed to the border. This is so that if North Koreans start shooting at them then the guards can quickly step behind the building. The guards wear helmets and sunglasses to show as little emotion towards the North Koreans as possible. There was one soldier near the big North Korean building who had his binoculars and he was checking us out.
We entered the conference room. It's just a long room with some chairs and tables. However, because the building sits on the border, when we stood in the north side of the building then we were technically standing in North Korea. There are two South Korean soldiers in the room, one in the middle of the room and one blocking the door that goes on to North Korean soil. They are completely still without any facial expression what so ever. Our tour guide said that they are there for our protection and constantly stand in what is called the "tae kwan do ready" position.
We learned a lot about the history of the DMZ during the tour but perhaps the most interesting, yet frightening story is the axe murder incident. In 1976, the American soldiers decided that a tree was just too big and blocking the view from one watch tower to the next watch tower. If something were to happen at one of the watch towers, then the other one wouldn't know about it until someone called for help. The tree had to be trimmed. A team of American and South Korean soldiers went to the large tree and began using axes to trim it. A group of North Korean soldiers gathered around the border and watched for a while until the commanding officer yelled at the South to stop cutting the tree. Apparently the tree was special to the North Koreans. But we were informed they made it up. They claimed their great leader planted the tree, but it was later proven that this was not possible due to timing. The South ignored him, so the North sent over a truck with twenty soldiers armed with crowbars and clubs. The North Korean officer yelled to stop again but the South kept on trimming. Then the Northern officer yelled, "Kill them!" Two American soldiers were beaten and then murdered with the axes that they had dropped. It was an unfair fight with the North Koreans well out numbering the soldiers of the South. The fight was eventually broken up and three days later Operation Paul Bunyan took place. With the support of hundreds of troops, artillery, jet fighters, bombers, helicopters, and an offshore aircraft carrier, the South cut down the tree. If the North Koreans would have made a move, it would have been the beginning of World War III. It resulted in the most expensive tree trimming in history.
The funniest thing we saw was the flag competition. Near the JSA, there is a peace town in the South and one in the North. The one in the South is a little community of a couple hundred farmers that get to live tax free. They actually save lots of money. However, they're under constant surveillance and have to be indoors by 10pm. The one in the North is a propaganda village because it has several big buildings that are empty shells and no people live there. Yet the North claims it's paradise on Earth. Each of the peace villages boasts the flag of their respective country and they've been growing in size over several years. When one side would build a bigger and taller flag, then the other side would respond by "one upping" them. North Korea then decided to really give it to the South by building the world's tallest flag pole and attach the world's largest flag. The flag pole is 160 meters tall, and the flag is 30 meters long and said to weigh 600 pounds. The South finally said that's enough and that's how North Korea won the flag war.
Next on our agenda was a visit to the third tunnel dug by the North Koreans into South Korea. They built four in total. We visited the third tunnel found by the South Koreans. It had the capacity to transport 30, 000 North Koreans an hour to the south. The North Koreans originally denied digging these tunnels, but later claimed they were digging for coal. No coal has being found in the tunnels, which are dug through granite. The third tunnel was discovered on October 17, 1978. The third tunnel was discovered following a tip from a North Korean defector. This tunnel is about 1,600 m (1,700 yd) long and about 150 m (490 ft) below ground. We took a trip down inside this tunnel using a sloped access shaft. The roof was very low so we wore helmets. It was interesting but very strange.
After this we visited Dorasan Station. It is a railroad station situated on the Gyeongui line which once connected North and South Korea and has now been restored. For several years the northernmost stop on the line was Dorasan Station, which is served by Tonggeun commuter trains.
On December 11, 2007, freight trains began traveling north past Dorasan Station into North Korea, taking materials across the border, and returning with finished goods. It was scheduled to make one 16 kilometer (10 mile) trip every weekday.
However, on December 1, 2008, the North Korean government closed the border crossing, after accusing South Korea of a confrontational policy. This coincided with the South Korean legislative election, 2008, and a change to a more conservative government.
Our visit in last week showed us clearly that the station was completely shut to all train travel, and that the station was only open for tourists.
It was a very enjoyable, informative day. Apparently you cannot come to South Korea without visiting the DMZ, so I will be able to sleep easy from now on having taking the excursion.