Friday, December 12, 2008


A few weekends ago, the wife and I decided to do the famous DMZ tour. North Korea has always fascinated me, a nation-sized Cold War relic and monument to ego that would be comical if it wasn't so tragic and dangerous. The recent rumors of Jong-Il's health problems have really brought the question of "what next" to the forefront of a lot of minds here.

So anyway, the border is only about 60km north of Seoul. About 40km out, you start to see huge razor-wire fences along the shores of the Han river; this is because the North has often sent infiltration teams overland or down the river. The last known incident was only about 6 years ago, so this isn't something that is buried in the past. Hundreds of miles of shoreline are manned 24/7 against this sort of thing, it's like living right next to a James Bond villain.

The shore defenses. The "Freedom Highway" that our bus followed paralleled the river. Those hills were our first glimpse of North Korea. You may not be able to tell from this pic, but they are entirely denuded; harvested for lumber years ago. The resulting flooding has devastated agriculture and contributed to multiple famines in the DPRK.

As we drove further and further north, traffic on the freeway tapered off until we were the only vehicle on the road. Eventually we started to see gigantic house-sized concrete blocks balanced along the side of (and above) the road; tank traps. At this point we were no longer allowed to take pictures, so the one above was it for awhile. Even further in and we were swerving back and forth between more barriers strewn across the highway, and stopping at multiple checkpoints. Mine field warning signs also began to appear. As you pass mile after mile of mine fields, 30-foot razor wire fences, concertina wire, and artillery emplacements, you begin to realize that all of this stuff is real. It's hard to believe that this Cold War shit is still going on anywhere in the world, but here it is.

The USO tour we took stopped at several rather surreal spots on the way to the Joint Security Area. The first stop was an overlook of the JSA and the two propaganda villages maintained by each side. Again, picture-taking was not allowed, but they had coin-operated binoculars set up. Through these I saw a guy walking down the street in the North's propaganda village 2km away, and it really hit me then. There's a guy, living in that hell, and I can see him with my own eyes. Of course I'm sure he's one of the privileged to be allowed anywhere close to the DMZ, but it was still jarring.

The next stop was the Third Tunnel, which is the third of four North-dug invasion tunnels discovered so far. #4 was found in 1990, and some theories claim that up to 20 additional tunnels exist. This one was found in 1978, and by the time ROK forces had dug an interception tunnel, the NK tunnelers had rubbed coal over the granite walls and claimed that it was a coal mine. After this we got to watch a rather jingoistic film on how awesome the ROK is, how duplicitous the North is, and how reunification has practically already happened. Given the reality, this film was extremely bizarre.

An additional interesting fact about the DMZ is that it has become a four kilometer-wide nature preserve. Nobody goes into that area (except for the JSA and propaganda villages), so many rare animals have had kind of a field day in there. Also, the rice and ginseng grown by the ROK propaganda villagers goes for about 6x the normal price, because this area is completely unpolluted. The North's village is thought to be uninhabited. Lights come on at night, but they do so at the exact same time every evening and are thought to be on timers.

Our bus was ahead of schedule, so we got to stop at Dorasan Station, which is the last train station before you'd enter North Korea, if you could take a train up there. A few years ago, relations were warming between the two Koreas, and this station was built as part of that. The current pro-US administration is taking a harder line, and that has pissed off the North. It was fascinating to see all of these facilities sitting around, gleaming and new, waiting for reunification.


Our last stop was the "main attraction": The Joint Security Area. This is where you see NK and ROK soldiers staring at each other across a courtyard. It's the only place where this happens; the rest of the DMZ is 4 kilometers across. Both sides used to enjoy full freedom of movement within this square-kilometer area, but ever since the 1976 Ax-Murder Incident, the JSA has been divided along the actual Demarcation Line.

So we pulled up to the ROK's Freedom House, walked up some stairs, and all of a sudden we step out into this famous scene:

It's deathly quiet; all conversation halted as we walked out here. Aside from us, the only people were the guards on both sides, staring at each other in complete silence. It blew my mind to be standing here, it's almost like going back in time. 30 feet away is the line, and across it is the most isolated, closed nation on earth. No walls, no fences.. people have tried to run across in the past. In 1984 a Soviet tourist did so, and this resulted in a small battle. The latest incident was in 1998, when a NKPA Captain simply stepped across and defected. Lethal incidents have started here simply because of perceived rude gestures or facial expressions.

There is a tension in the air that is palpable; it's impossible to describe. Bill Clinton called it "the scariest place on Earth", and I can't say I disagree. There's no immediate danger, but you can feel the weight of two entire nations focused on this one spot. It's the Cold War distilled into a physical location, but for the Koreans it's even more emotionally charged; this is brother vs. brother. You can't believe that a place like this still exists.

Here's a better shot of one of the North's guards.

We had a tour of one of the blue buildings; basically it's just a conference room, and you can stand "in" North Korea. There's a decidedly large Korean soldier there to prevent anyone from trying to open the door on that side.

Interestingly, the North Koreans run their own tours, presumably reserved for Chinese tourists and politically reliable citizens. In the conference room you could see footprints on the tables where the tour guides apparently stand to give their spiels; the soldier conducting our tour didn't even want us touching the furniture.

So that's the highlights. We also saw the dramatically-named Bridge of No Return, but we weren't allowed out of the bus here and it didn't photograph very well anyway. The JSA is one of the most incredible things I've ever seen, it's like a living time capsule. If you haven't done so, go. And make sure you take the USO tour, because I don't believe any of the others are allowed into Panmunjom.


White Rice January 8, 2009 at 12:47 PM  

In the immortal words of Oliver Twist: "More please." More posts that is. I wait, my breath bated.

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