Sunday, May 5, 2013

DMZ Tour

Was a mild spring day outside in Seoul yesterday and I want to be outdoors all the time in this weather.  So I booked a day trip to the DMZ, South Korea's 4-km wide border with its northern brother.  Whatever springtime tensions existed seem to have died down here (which I wrote about a month ago) and I felt it was as good a time as any to visit.

I caught a morning bus from Seoul and we were at Imjingak in about an hour.  Imjingak is as far as civilians can go to the North by themselves without permission.  The town was built to console those who had to leave their homes in the North as a result of the 1950-53 Korean War.

The first thing I noticed is how close the border is.  Like, imagine if the Mexicans were preparing to overrun San Diego with tanks.  It takes as much time to get to Imjingak as it does to get to Incheon Airport!

Little did we know that media would turn out for North Korea Freedom Week!

Imjingak has some peace memorials...and a theme park for kids who take their history less seriously!  But it seems like a fairly solemn place.  There is the Freedom Bridge, which was used to exchange P.O.W.'s at the end of the Korean War.  Also, we visited for 2013 North Korea Freedom Week!  There was a media event at one of the memorials with Suzanne Scholte, an avid North Korea human rights supporter.  All sorts of media covered her appearance at Imjingak.  From there, we crossed the Civilian Control Line and ate lunch at the "unification village" of Tongilchon, one of two villages controlled by the military (the other being Daesongdong which lies within the actual DMZ).  The area between the Civilian Control Line and the DMZ serves as an additional buffer for South Korean citizens from the North.

After lunch we toured the Third Infiltration Tunnel, one of four known tunnels dug by the North Koreans which would have allowed their army to launch a stealth invasion by marching troops underneath the DMZ!!  The tunnel height was quite short and I kept bumping my head on the ceiling – thankfully I was wearing a helmet.  I imagine I must be taller than a typical North Korean soldier, though I'm not very tall myself (1.78 m).

As close as I got to North Korea on this tour.  Still 2 km away, and quite hazy.

From here we traveled to the Dora Observatory. This lies right at the edge of the DMZ, and from here you can actually see North Korea!!  Unfortunately the air was hazy, but one could see Daesong-dong and its North Korean counterpart with their competing flagpoles.  In that area also lies the Joint Security Area (JSA) where North and South Korean forces stand face-to-face.  To the west we could see the Kaesong industrial complex, what was once jointly operated between the two Koreas but shuttered as a result of the recent verbal show between the two countries.  Our tour finished at Dorasan train station, an empty place built to one day lie on a train line between Seoul and Pyongyang.  Symbolic certainly, but strange that such infrastructure would get built for a reunification that seems long off.

The tour left me wanting more, as we didn't have the chance to actually cross into the DMZ and visit the JSA as some tours are authorized to do.  So I enjoyed the day and learned some South Korean history, and I will need to return for another tour of the border region.

So where do I board the train for Pyeongyang??

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