The Demilitarized Zone. This is an area spanning 2 km on either side of the dividing line between North and South Korea and all the way across the peninsula. As technically the North and South are at a cease fire in a war that never ended, you might find it interesting to know that it is also a tourist attraction. We visited 5 different locations in the DMZ.
It is a pretty bizarre feeling being in the DMZ. Brent and I toured there this weekend with about 30 other staff members.
We began at the USO in Seoul then made our way by bus the hour north to the border. We had an introduction to the JSA with a presentation by Staff Sergeant Cisneros on the history of the war and the DMZ. We were instructed that we must follow procedures. There's an age limit, dress code, and strict rules about when to and not to take photographs. At no time is pointing, waving, or other gesturing allowed - anything that may be used as propaganda by the North against the South.
Once at the DMZ we were able to go into one of the buildings. This was a building for any meetings between dignitaries. There were three ROK (Republic of Korea) soldiers with dark sunglasses standing at TaeKwonDo ready (meaning fists at their sides but white-knuckle clenched). As our US Army/UN representative Cisneros informed us about our location and told stories, I learned that I was at that very moment straddling the imaginary line that runs between North and South and through that very room. I actually had one foot in North Korea and one foot in South Korea. Speaking of feet. It seems that there are toe and foot prints on the tops of the meeting tables because North Koreans who have met in the room have gotten up on the tables bare foot and stood with their backs to South Korea as an insult.
We were able to take some pictures. I used my zoom to get a picture of a North Korean Soldier standing at attention at the front of their main building on their side of the border.
The feeling there is tense. What an odd mix to have soldiers ready for any moment to erupt in conflict and at the same time have tourists taking pictures next to them.
Other memorable moments of the day. We saw and were told about Propaganda Village just over the North border. It is a town that is shaped like a triangle, with the widest portion facing the South. This is to give the impression that it is bigger than it really is. In it are dozens of buildings and roads and such, but NO people. In fact, there is not even glass in the windows. At night lights go on to "light up the town" to make it seem occupied. For a long time they used to blast propaganda over a speaker system there between 6 - 8 hours a day. The broadcast would be inviting S. Koreans to defect to the North.
A few kilometers behind it is an industrial village that is quite unique. This village is a cooperation between S. and North. South Korea provides the electricity and raw materials. North Korea provides the labor. They manufacture some sort of products. These products are then transported by truck down the one highway (incidentally called Highway 1) between the two nations. Some are taken directly to market. Others come to warehouses at a very unique train station.
We visited the train station, too. This train station is the closest one to North Korea. If reunification happens, it is ready to run trains. The facility was finished in 2008 under the Sunshine Policy of South Korean then President Lee. President Bush was there for the opening. There were hopes the train would be used to transport goods from the industrial village as well as tourists to North Korea. Unfortunately, the train only ran once. At that time in 2008 one of the tourists from the South did not follow instructions about where she could go. She was instantly shot and killed by a North Korean soldier. No trains have run since. What an odd place, this train station. It is literally like being in a ghost town. Everything is new and beautiful, but for a few tourists on a daily basis, it is empty. There are huge parking lots that simply stand empty. If you've ever seen Stephen King's Langoliers, it was like that.
We also visited Tunnel 3. This is one of 4 tunnels that have been discovered. These tunnels have been blasted and mined out by the North and their political prisoners in order to attack the South. It is possible that there are tunnels that have not been discovered, of course. But for now, Tunnel 3 is visited by tourists. We walked down and in through a tunnel with a 2-person width. They estimate that 30,000 soldiers could have emerged per hour.
We had an opportunity to buy some souvenirs. The North Korean beer was actually pretty good. Brent got some framed barbed wire (kind of like buying Lambeau Field dirt, right?) and I got North Korean currency. Later I found that my 100 Won bill was worth 11 cents. Incidentally, the laborers who work at the industrial village have it quite good, making about $25/month. Of course the government takes all but about $5 of it. But this is still more in a month than most people make. Terribly sad, I know.
One of the things we noticed gazing across the border was the topography. While the mountains are, of course, a continuation of the mountains in the South, there is a noticeable difference. Their mountains are stripped of almost all trees. This is because their people have needed to use them for firewood.
To learn more, click on the links in this blog.
I put this experience right up there with visiting the Great Wall and the Terra Cotta Warriors. I've no plans to return, so don't worry. But, visiting the DMZ was definitely a once in a lifetime experience.