Today, I got a chance to go to the demilitarized zone or the DMZ. The Korean airport is so ahead of the game in terms of technology and service. It has everything you can think of–shopping, movie theatres, a botanical garden and best of all, a transit tour office. This tour office arranges tours based on the length of your layover. We had planned on doing the Seoul City tour this time and then the DMZ on the way back, but as it turned out, two other people decided to go to the DMZ today which lowered our costs considerably (a 7 hour tour for $60, instead of $100).
As always, the travelers we met were quite interesting. One guy was from Houston, and just moved back after 6 years of living in Indonesia and was looking for a new home in South Korea. The other guy was an Indian, living in America, working for a French company, traveling all over the world, looking for investment opportunities.
When we arrived near the DMZ, the five of us had to switch from our minibus into a special tour bus. Ours happened to be packed with Chinese tourists. From there, we were told not to take photographs unless we were given word to do so. After getting our passports checked, we entered into the DMZ The most surprising thing to me was the amount of rice fields in this zone. I expected it to be filled with military personnel, but upon further inquiry, I discovered the DMZ was filled with a lot of natural resources and beauty. It contains birds and animals that cannot be found in other parts of South Korea because it is so untouched.
I sort of got an ominous feeling when we drove through the forest and you knew there were still thousands of undiscovered landmines everywhere.
We saw a little film and a museum and then headed off to the 3rd tunnel. After the DMZ was created, the North Koreans began digging tunnels under the DMZ to use in a sneak attack. So far, the South Koreans have discovered 4 of the tunnels. We got to visit the third tunnel.
Outside the tunnel, I ran into a U.S. Army man and a UN peacekeeper. I spoke to both of them about their jobs in South Korea. The American spoke 5 languages and had been overseas for 3.5 years–he loved having these experiences so much that he bought a house in the Philippines and was learning Tagalog. The UN peacekeeper told me how they watched and took photos of what was being brought into North Korea. For example, if perfume is being brought in, they know its not for the North Koreans, since commoners are not allowed to have beauty products, but it is probably for the people in higher positions in the government.
I thought the tunnel was one of the most interesting and bizarre parts of the trip. After we locked our cameras in lockers outside the tunnel, we had to walk down this long path to reach it because the monorail was out of order. We put our hard hats on and walked hunched over along the path, since the tunnel ceiling was low. Along the way, you can see boreholes marked where the South Koreans had drilled to discover the tunnel–this is where they tested to see if there was a tunnel by pouring water down and seeing if it would drain. Yellow paint highlighted dynamite holes to show that all the holes were going in one direction–straight toward South Korea.
One thing that was a bit funny was the coal smeared all aroudn the tunnel. this was done to pretend the North Koreans were just digging for coal, even though it was clear that coal is not found in granite rock.
When we got to the first barricade, we were 170 meters from the demarcation line. You could see thick barbed wire in front of a metal door in a meter thick barricade. Through the window, you could see the second barricade, maybe 50 meters closer to the demarcation line. Although we couldn’t see it, there is another 5 meter thick barricade at the demarcation line. The South Koreans believe that there are several other tunnels under the DMZ, but they have not discovered them yet. The South Koreans are justifiably concerned about this, since they believe that 50,000 soldiers can get through the tunnel per hour and the tunnels are all very close to Seoul.
We didn’t get to see Panmunjeom, where the armistice was signed, where now North and South Koreans stare each other down at the border. We were told that it is a violation if anyone from either side crosses the line; however, inside the buildings, which are right on top of the line, people can freely cross to maintain the buildings. Apparently, there is also a golf course on the DMZ, surrounded by landmines–they call it the “most dangerous golf course in the world.”
We ended our tour solemnly by going to Imjingak, where South Koreans post prayers and wishes for their North Korean families. There are a lot of people who were separated and haven’t been able to contact each other since the early 1950’s. Everything is blocked, no phone calls or letters are allowed, so their only solace is praying for their families.
As we drove back, we noticed fences with barbed wire and guard posts along the side of the highway that bordered the rivers that led to North Korea. It is pretty surreal to drive in a major city and see miles of barbed wire everywhere and be reminded that there is still a conflict in this democratic country. In contrast, we were told that in North Korea the guard towards face inward, trying to ensure that people do not leave the country.
Although in the U.S., we think of the Korean War as having ended, a cease fire armistice is not a technical end of the war (like a peace treaty), and in fact, North Korea unilaterally withdrew from the armistice in 2009, adding more uncertainty to the current situation.