Trip Start Mar 10, 2011
20Trip End Ongoing
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So, as we've told some of you we are loving South Korea! A full blog will come shortly but we’ve had such an amazing tour today of the DMZ that we thought it is actually worth it’s own trip report as it’s been an amazing day. The history is not simple so we are not going to give a long history lesson (but if you don’t know much about it it’s a very interesting subject) but tell you about our day…
As you approach the DMZ on the empty 6 lane highway, even 30 minutes out there are high fences, barbed wire, south Korean soliders (ROK) and plenty of heavily armed army observation buildings, reminding us that these two countries are still technically at war with one another. The purpose of the eerily deserted road is to get tanks to the border as quickly as possible in case of invasion and as it’s a civilan free area its strange being on such a large road all by yourself. To make the whole thing even more weird Korea at this time of year is very grey, quiet, cold (freezing in Celsius and about 10-25ish in American talk) and bare.
The DMZ is a civilian no go area of up to 20 kilometres either side of the military declaration line (with a 2km buffer everywhere apart from Panmunjom, our destination) that separates north and south Korea and is open to visit as part of a UN Camp Bonifas sponsored tour- all you need is to prearrange a tour and bring your passport. Not all tours go to the negotiating buildings as it has to be arranged with the UN and Koreans are not allowed in the area at all. It is the most heavily armed border in the world, with a claimed 1.8 million troops guarding both sides along the length of the border. No pictures are allowed in the DMZ or the tunnels etc, we could only picture north Korean soil pretty much so hence a lack of pictures.
When you get closer you pass through the blockades, military checks, barbed wire and minefields as you reach the UN base where we were handed over to an UN American solider who was our guide of the joint security area (JSA) and Panmunjom, where the actual border line is with the UN negotiating buildings built over. They started with a pretty detailed talk and waiver signing (they make you sign a death waiver before you pass) and the rules- no pointing, shouting, gestures, stopping or anything out of the ordinary, no pictures facing south (you are not allowed to show any of the south Korean defences) and a warning that north Korean soliders sometimes come up to the line to try and intimidate tourists by making obscene gestures etc.
So, first stop was the most memorable part of our whole trip, and the highlight of the tour, seeing the JSA Panmunjom negotiating rooms built by the UN on the boundary line for peace negotiating. As our military escorted minibus pulled up at the front of the fortress of a building which looks across the 50 metres or so to the north (where another large building built by the north faces it) we definitely felt nervous. After following the US MP in carefully formed lines past the ROK soliders in their judo poses we popped out in front of the negotiating huts and where escorted inside (see videos). We were free to wander around the whole room (and hence onto north Korean soil!) whilst the ROK solider locked the door and guarded the north Korean side, which they do to stop any tourists going through the door. The huts are neutral soil and occasionally used for tours by the south, like ours. The north Koreans were visibly looking at us through binoculars and our MP told us that the whole area is surveilled, so we were being photographed (hence the dress code and rules about gesturing etc!). The ROK (republic of korea) soldiers wear the dark sunglasses and stand in judo poses to intimidate the north and have to be a minimum height also.
This is in front of the negotiating huts, with the actual separation line in front (through the middle of the blue huts) and the north in the background
This is entering the negotiating huts
The sense of history here is amazing and being in the famous rooms was something that we will not forget quickly. The tour guide reminded us of the plenty of incidents that have taken place here (from small squirmishes to someone being killed with an axe) and as we left the immediate border area we felt much more relaxed! Next stop was called check point 3, a border observation post facing a north Korean one about 300 yards away where we were told some more interesting facts and got to see into north Korea from an elevated position. We then got driven to the bridge of no return, which was where the prisoners were exchanged after the Korean war and called so because once they crossed they are never allowed to return. To this day thousands of Koreans are still left stranded by a war which killed 2 million people and has never reached a conclusion. Our MP guide told us there are still 28,000 Americans stationed in south Korea (because they are basically apparently so desperate to get a foothold in the region) which has an total active and reserve army of almost 4 million….
Outside checkpoint 3
After this we retreated back to the relative safety of the greater DMZ area (and lost out escort) and went to visit what is know as the third tunnel, a tunnel (one of four discovered) dug by the north into south soil supposedly to launch an invasion but discovered by the south. Although 4 have been found, everyone we asked seemed to think there are most likely more that have not been discovered yet. After this we headed to the Dorsan observatory, which is on a hilltop overlooking the DMZ and the north, with great views. You can see the north's towns which are supposedly fake (buildings are hollow apparently) and are meant to entice southern defectors. They have telescopes you can use to look into the north's towers opposite and onto the greater DMZ. The guards told us 3 days prior they watched a northern defector try to get through to the south but disappear in the hills! They were rather tight lipped but we got the impression that they believed the defector was either killed by his fellow northern soldiers or in the mine field between the two countries.
After this we headed down to Dorasan station which is a huge modern train station built to link the north and south 10 years ago when reunification looked likely but now lies empty. There were X-ray machines and everything was all ready to be an international terminal. If this terminal had been allowed to connect the two countries, it would have joined the Korean peninsula with the train network that provides access to the Trans-siberian railroad and ultimately all of Europe over land. The line was operational (for cargo only) for 2 years in 2004, but was abruptly closed after an incident on the mountain nearby in which north Korean soldiers shot and killed a civilian.
Throughout the day we spoke to a few south Koreans, all of whom said they would support unification under the right conditions. One display in a museum impacted us strongly when it highlighted the fact that after the war and when the line was drawn, families were split with no way to reunite. As tensions have increased and the border has become impossible to cross, these families are even more pulled apart. Without any chance of a choice, brothers have grown up and built lives in countries that couldn't be more different. The south seems to have made huge efforts to reunify but the worlds most fortified border ultimately testifies to the norths refusal to play ball under a horrendous communist regime where millions have died of starvation in the last 2 decades. It's shocking to think 60 years ago this modern, friendly metropolis of south korea was on equal footing with one of the now most deprived countries in the world. A really amazing day and the most eye opening and worthwhile thing we feel we've done.