Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Korea Bucket List: The DMZ.

As soon as I decided on coming to South Korea to teach, I frequently got the question, "Are you going to go to North Korea?!" And while no, I have no immediate plans to hop the border and have a look around (even though I could if I arranged it -- you go in through China), I still wanted to go see the DMZ. This was met by a variety of reactions. Most thought it sounded scary, some were jealous, and some were perplexed as to why I'd want to go there. In short: it's history. Who knows if Korea will stay divided for the rest of my life. Who knows if I'll ever be in this part of the world again. So, basically, I couldn't resist. I wanted to see it for myself.

Plus I knew it absolutely would not be dangerous in any possible way. If I was honestly concerned for my safety, I (probably) wouldn't have gone. But we (me + four coworkers, and then about 30 strangers) did one of the tours organized by the nice people at Adventure Korea and it was far from a dangerous experience.

The tour left from Hongdae (in Seoul) at 9:30am, so we had to get up and on the way into Seoul around 7am. So, so early. I hate mornings. But I got coffee and a delicious bagel, so I was alright.

The first stop of the day was at Imjingak. Imjingak is in Paju, about 7km from the demarcation line. People come here to pray for those they left behind -- both their living relatives and their ancestors buried on the other side of the 38th Parallel. There are lots of monuments and memorials for the Korean War, some honoring fallen soldiers, a giant one for the U.S. military... But Imjingak was kinda... weird. Not in a creepy way. In a should-you-be-exploiting-this-so-much? kind of way.

If there were any doubts that visiting the DMZ was a popular tourist destination? Check out just one of the many rows of tour buses. And I was told this is nothing, apparently, since it's "early" in the tour season.

Another indication that this was a "fun" place to go spend the afternoon: a Popeye's?

Oh, and an amusement park?

"Do not come close or take pictures." OKAY.

So wandering away from the monuments (that I didn't take pictures of) and the overly touristy areas (the amusement park...), there's finally a bit of actual history. One of the first things to see: an old train! This was the last train to pass through from the North before that train line was completely destroyed in 1950. As you can see, the train took a serious beating. It was apparently just left on the old tracks for a long time before its historical value was recognized and now it's on display. And yeah, all those tiny holes are bulletholes.

This bit actually caused me to say, "Wait, what?" out loud, much to the amusement of one of our tour guides. It's probably too small for you to see what the little signs say, but they're explaining the different stones that are wedged into the chainlink fence. The highest, labeled 1, is the auditory stone. 2 is the hearing stone, 3 is the patrol tag, and 4, on the bottom right, is the trace stone. When I asked what the hell all of these rocks were doing stuck in the fence, the answer I got was something about how if the fence is tampered with in any way -- even if it just gets rattled around too hard -- the auditory stones will fall and that will... alert the guards? Or something? I can only assume this is a super old security measure and they've preserved it in this area for historical/educational reasons... but I swear I saw rocks stuck into fences all over the place as we did this tour. Not sure. But... yeah. Hm.

Near the old train was this fence: covered in ribbons and photographs with messages and prayers for those left behind in the North. Imjingak's existence, from my understanding, was initially as a place for people to mourn and pray for their family and the homes on the other side of the border. Families would come every Chuseok and New Years to honor their ancestral homes that they left behind. This is the area where you can actually see some of that, and it is quite depressing.

Obligatory shot with the little South Korean guard statue.

Eleanor and Brigid.

This is one of the main attractions in Imjingak: the Freedom Bridge. It's a discontinued railroad bridge that crosses the Imjin river and was used at the end of the Korean War to repatriate/exchange prisoners of war and soldiers. For many, it's a link to the North, even though the railroad hasn't been used in a long time.

I found this part of Imjingak to be interesting, especially seeing all the handwritten notes left along the fences for lost family, friends, and homes. But there was one thing that really, really bothered me: I don't think you can see it in the photo, but all along the wooden fence above were speakers. Playing this... very dramatic, overwrought music. Intended, I'm sure, to add to the feeling of loss and sadness, but I just found it to be kind of distasteful and ridiculous. Silence would have been more effective, I think.

This is as far as you can walk down the bridge. Here's Kara standing in front of all the messages left on the fence. Again, looking at this in silence? So sad. But with the weird dramatic music? Bizarre.

I bought some North Korean money! It's pretty cool. I have a couple more bills that I didn't take pictures of -- these two are the best. The pictures are just the definition of Communist propaganda. I love it. But seriously -- the money is really beautifully done. Great details.

For lunch, we went over to the Unification Village, called Tongilchon. It's one of two villages in the DMZ, and since it's a dangerous place to live, the residents get some compensations: they are exempt from the mandatory military duty and they don't have to pay taxes. They have a curfew every night, which is monitored by soldiers. There are also requirements for the number of nights each year they must actually spend in the village to still be eligible for the compensations. Mostly the people who live in this tiny little village work the land around it -- growing food, a lot of which goes to feeding soldiers stationed nearby and visitors to the DMZ. I didn't take any pictures of the houses, just the one picture of the shack and empty farmland, which was basically the vibe of everything we saw in the village.

The next stop on the tour was a little farther in -- meaning closer to North Korea. Of course, we posed with the pastel-colored giant "DMZ" sign, which is another obligatory tourist shot.

This stop, with the tacky sign, was at the 3rd Tunnel built by the North so they could infiltrate Seoul. As you can see in the map above, four tunnels have been found, all leading directly to Seoul. It's suspected there are more tunnels that just haven't been discovered yet. (Like as many as twenty. Yikes.)

We weren't allowed to bring cameras into the tunnel, which was a bummer, because it was probably my favorite part of the tour. First, we had to walk down a tunnel (that I think was about 300m long?) that's at a steady incline down into the ground. The infiltration tunnel itself is 73m below the ground and smells exactly like my parents' basement. In the documentary they showed us before we walked through the tunnel, there was footage of it being filled with water when the South found it. Water was still dripping here and there in the tunnel, and the ground was pretty damp through most of it, just adding to the creepiness. There are three concrete barricades in the tunnel as it nears the actual demarcation line, the outermost being the one visible to tourists. It basically looked like a thick wall with lots of barbed wire so people can't come near it.

What was interesting about walking through the infiltration tunnel was trying to imagine soldiers actually using it. There were pipes on one wall to control the groundwater and lots of support bars/beams that took up some space, but even so, without all of those? I don't think more than three (maaaaybe four) men could walk abreast through the tunnel. Especially if you add in guns and other gear? I know Korean men were smaller in stature fifty years ago, but still. Crazy.

We did, however, have to wear some pretty nifty hardhats. Here's Brigid and I, looking super cool, with the entrance to the tunnel that leads to the actual infiltration tunnel behind us. The ceiling in the tunnel is really, really low. I had to stoop through the majority of it. (So add that to your visual of an army trying to pass through this tunnel -- not only was it cramped width-wise, but also in height.) I witnessed a couple people smack their heads on the bars right below the ceiling of the tunnel, so it was definitely good that we were wearing hardhats.


Outside of the tunnel. Imprinted on the inside of the sphere is the Korean peninsula, so they're pushing the two halves back together. Despite the sometimes tacky touristy aspect to the areas of the DMZ that we visited, they all definitely had one very clear message: Everyone wants reunification.

The ladies from work, clockwise from left: Brigid, Eleanor, Kara, and Lauren.

The next stop was Dora Observatory, where we could actually get a look at North Korea. (Well, at parts that weren't just countryside.)

It was a very, very hazy day, so my pictures didn't turn out well at all. Maybe if I'd been able to take pictures from where those binoculars are... But there's a yellow line you have to stand behind for pictures, probably a good fifteen feet (or more?) from where all those people are standing. But there! In the distance! North Korea!

I looked through the binoculars for a bit. From Dora Observatory you can get a good look at the Propaganda Village that's in the North Korean side of the DMZ. It was a village built by the North to show the prosperity of their country -- except it's empty. Or was, up until recently, according to one of our tour guides. Now some people actually live there. There's also a factory nearby. I watched the village for a while but saw no movement whatsoever. It was just still, quiet, and gray.

A bunch of soldiers, hanging out.

The last stop of our tour was at Dorasan Station, which is the last subway station before you hit North Korea. About five years ago, the line was actually being used to take supplies into an industrial area in North Korea -- to factories that are owned by South Koreans, and then also to bring the goods that were made back into the South. It was discontinued in 2008 after a disagreement between the two governments. So now it just sits empty.


Soldiers guarding the entrance to the tracks.

Everyone was posing with the soldiers. I decided to give it a go, but then realized that I don't really know what you're supposed to do when you pose with soldiers? And that maybe I didn't want my picture with the soldiers after all but now I was standing here and I'd committed to taking this picture so what do I do? And why am I throwing up a damn peace sign again ohmigod my students are rubbing off on me, aren't they? So, all of these thoughts occurred to me at once, right as the picture was being taken. Hence the face.

We all paid our 500 won (basically 50 cents) to go to the actual tracks. Upon walking out there, our tour guide told us the train wouldn't be arriving for ten minutes, so everyone climb down onto the tracks! I think we all thought he was joking -- about getting on the tracks and that a train was coming? But he wasn't. About either part.

With my back to North Korea.

This guy came out to tell us about the station -- the history of its use, how it no longer connects the two Koreas, and how it shouldn't be thought of as the northmost station in the South, but the first station to the North. Reconnection of the line would not only mean access to the North, but also to the entire Eurasian railroad. Just like everywhere else in the DMZ, he seemed to place the greatest emphasis on when reunification happens, not if.

To Pyeongyang! (Just kidding, Mom.)

And then a train DID come! But just from Seoul Station. He said a commuter train runs between Seoul Station and Dorasan Station four times a day. For who? Not sure. The train was totally empty besides the conductor and the cleaning lady. It's a really old train, too. You can see from the picture that it's pretty dirty, but compared to the subway trains all over Seoul now? This one looks ancient.

On the way back out of the DMZ, I managed to snap a few pictures on the bridge that has the main checkpoint. Nothing crazy -- just wanted to show what the heavily guarded and militarized areas looked like. These were everywhere along the roads, not just on the bridge. Ready to be filled with soldiers should they need to take cover and fire guns. Yeesh.

Not 100% sure I was allowed to take pictures here... Kinda leaning towards "not." I feel like I heard someone mention that to us as we were going into the DMZ...

On the bridge itself were tons of these barricades, creating a bit of a maze on the actual road. Our bus had to drive pretty slow.

So that was our tour. We didn't go to the one area I was most wanting to check out -- Panmunjom and the Joint Security Area. That's where you can actually go to the demarcation line and see North and South Korean soldiers facing each other, just... watching. You can tour one room in particular where negotiations were made between the two countries in the past, and since the building straddles the demarcation line, you can technically stand in North Korea. That part of the DMZ is still on my Korea Bucket List.

Overall, it was very interesting and educational, somewhat disturbing (in the sense of exploiting the depressing outcome of the war for the sake of tourism), and occasionally actually creepy. It was never actually scary, but definitely very sad, as a whole. I'm glad I finally went on a tour, and I'd go again, actually. I'd really like to go to Dora Observatory on a non-hazy day... And of course to the JSA and Panmunjom. Maybe next month? :)

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