Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A glimpse of the mysterious North: Korea's Demilitarized Zone

We can't really say we were surprised at our families' initial reactions almost a year ago when we announced we were applying to come teach in Korea:

'Korea? Aren't they at war?'
'But... the nuclear weapons!'
'Maybe you should consider a safer country...?'

So began our quest to convince our loved ones that their biased Western vision of perceived impending war on the Korean peninsula was flawed. As one of Jason's friends so wisely put it: 'I'm more afraid of Wal-Mart than I am of North Korea'.

They eventually came around, but remain curious and at times uneasy, especially given the recent news surrounding Kim Jong Il's death. Who could blame them, really, since North Korea remains such a secretive country, revealing so few details about all aspects of its daily life that the rest of the world (including the South) is, for the most part, left in the dark.

DMZ, entrance to the third tunnel
It's no wonder that Koreans and expats alike are drawn to the famous USO tour of the De-Militarized Zone, a 400km wide 'peaceful' area designated on either side of the North/South border after the end of the Korean war in the early 50's. Like them, Jason and I wished to gain from this experience some insight into where things stand politically, and how the DMZ came to be. What better way to achieve this than to physically step into the military Joint Security Area and feel the tension first hand. It was the second week of December, we were booked for the weekend, and we couldn't wait!

We heart the DMZ
Early Saturday morning we met Katie, Alice and Dana at the new Express line to Seoul at Jeongja Station. A few transfers later we arrived (just in time - running for our lives from the station so we wouldn't miss the bus :S) to have our passports checked and board the coach. We arrived at the DMZ a mere 1 1/2 hours later. Our first stop was the third tunnel, which we entered after watching a short film briefing us on the history and raison d'etre of the DMZ.

South Koreans discovered four major infiltration tunnels after the Korean war, which North Koreans claimed at first were coal mines (they had painted the insides of the tunnels black to make it look like coal deposits). It was soon discovered, through obvious clues such as the direction of the dynamite explosions, that these tunnels were dug specifically for the purpose of invading Seoul in the shortest possible time. To this day Koreans believe there may be dozens of other undiscovered tunnels.

My flag is bigger than your flag
The tunnel was hot, humid, and claustrophobia-inducing, so we were glad to come back out. After a short stop at the gift shop, we made our way to the top of a watch tower, where we had a great view of Panmunjeon, the second largest city in North Korea. Pictures from the gate were prohibited: guests who crossed the clearly marked yellow line to take pictures had their memory cards erased by guards. From the binoculars we had a respectable view of the propaganda village (a cluster of tall, empty buildings aimed at creating the appearance of a prosperous North Korea), and of the 600lb flag (which was, of course, twice as tall as the South Korean flag).

After a bibimbap lunch (the greatest part of which was the beautiful can of pepsi... mmm), we were off to the most interesting part of the tour: the Joint Security Area (JSA).

Dorasan Station
South Koreans are prohibited by law to visit the JSA, so we swapped our Korean tour guide and bus driver for members of the American military stationed there. They led us first to Dorasan Station, the northernmost train station in South Korea, where trains used to travel liberally between the two Koreas, prior to an incident last decade involving the murder of a South Korean woman. Here we obtained a commemorative ticket and stamp and snapped a few pictures with guards.

Site of the Axe Murder Incident

Bridge of no return
Next we were guided to a watch tower, where we had an even closer view than before of the propaganda village, flag, bridge of no return (after the war, prisonners and refugees were given the option to remain in their country or cross over to the other one; their decision was to be final and they were never to return, hence the name), and the site of the axe murder incident (where South Korean soldiers were axed to death when the attempted to cut down a tree which blocked the view from the watch tower). The American soldier leading the briefing was very informative and thorough in answering our questions.

American Soldiers watching North Korean sodiers (background)
The highlight of the tour was, undoubtedly our entrance into the Freedom House and JSA. Forming two straight lines, we were given specific instructions as to how to take photos, where to look, when to speak. Outside there were soldiers of the ROK (South Korean soldiers who are trained in martial arts) for our protection as we were being briefed again. Most people were dead silent, afraid to make a wrong move. The atmosphere was tense and it wasn't long before we got our first glimpse of North Korean soldiers, flexing their muscles to our tour group, keeping an eye on our every move. We even got to go inside the meeting room where negotiations between the two Koreas take place, and officially set foot in North Korea!

Interesting details, such as the wearing of dark sunglasses by ROK soldiers in order to show zero emotion in the face of the enemy, or their position half standing behind the wall to protect in case of shooting, kept us on our toes  the entire time.

Despite the fact that this tour had a markedly American perspective (it's important to maintain a critical eye), I think our overall understanding of the recent history of Korea took on a new dimension. The 'real' view of the seemingly desolate village and the various anecdotes about the rivalry between the North and the South reinforced the grim reality of North Korea. How can they be so different, yet live so close? A paradox, too, because in spite of the fact that it was an enlightening experience, it's still all a mystery to me :)

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