Into the DMZ (for real this time...)

Trip Start Dec 02, 2011
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Trip End Dec 02, 2012


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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

For the next week or so, my parents will be visiting Korea. They arrived yesterday evening, and today was their first full day in the country. To start them off right, this morning we ate breakfast at McDonald's. Okay, so that wasn't exactly an authentic Korean meal, but I'm not eating rice for breakfast.

Today's main event was an afternoon visit to the DMZ. I know I didn't have a great review from my first trip, but this time we would be visiting the Joint Security Area (JSA) inside of the actual DMZ, not just peaking over the border and pretending to be in the DMZ.

There were a couple of tours that advertised visits to the JSA, but we booked with the USO and they did a good tour. We saw everything from my first tour except for Imjingak. Because the tour added the JSA visit, our time was less at the other three stops: the Third Infiltration Tunnel, Dorasan Observatory, and Dorasan Station, but I felt like the time was adequate to see them even if there wouldn't have been time to take all of the pictures my friends and I took during the winter tour.

One interesting thing about this tour group was that the USO crowd skewed much older. The tour I did last time was mainly English teachers in their 20's and 30's that seemed to be more curious about North Korea than the DMZ itself. Today's tour had a few of those people, but probably had an average age of late 30's or 40's, and contained several families with grown children (including mine). More of today's visitors seemed to be more interested in the DMZ itself than in the North, although maybe just from hearing about the DMZ rather than from a deep interest in the history of the Korean War.

The DMZ was not quite like I remembered it. There was a huge difference between going at the end of winter and in the beginning of summer. For starters, it was a lot more green and there was a bit more evidence of all the wildlife the DMZ descriptions brag about, however it was still not hotbed of animal activity.

The view from the Dorasan Observatory was also noticeably different from my first visit. I don't know if it was the hot weather, the time of day, or the closing of Kaesong, but this time there was no movement to be seen on the northern side of the border. There were none of the trucks or people I'd seen last winter, although even at that time it was only a handful. I didn't see anything today even though the view today was clear, with a rare blue sky for the Seoul area this late spring/early summer.

The biggest difference, though, was the number of visitors. Back in the winter, our tour group was basically alone at every stop, with maybe one more tour bus overlapping with the end or beginning of our visits to the stops. Today, I'd say there was a minimum of six tour buses at each stop (except for the JSA, of course). On top of regular tourists, there were also Korean soldiers touring the area. They all looked young and may have been new conscripts. Korean men are required to do approximately two years of military service.

In my opinion, the crowds were a bit of a problem. At Dorasan Observatory, for example, it was basically impossible to take pictures of North Korea. Since you had to stand behind the line, which was about 10-15ft from the edge, there was always a wall of people two or three deep who were between you and your picture. We also had to be a little more assertive to get to the binoculars. On the plus side, we were still able to get an overview of the area from a young South Korean who told us about what we could see and some of the actions his unit (before he was a part of it, of course) had been involved in during the war.

The crowds also seemed like they would have been a problem at the Third Infiltration Tunnel. I advised my parents not to bother to go down (and our tour guide basically told the entire tour group to think twice about entering the tunnel) because it was so steep and the ceiling in the tunnel was so low, and there was really nothing to see. With the crowds, I don't know how you could have made it down and to the end of the tunnel in time to get back to the bus. Also, between the heat and the crowds, apparently the tunnel was extremely stuffy.

I would say Dorasan train station was the most similar to last winter's trip. It looked the same as I remembered it, despite the shut-down of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. We didn't stay too long, however, before heading off to Camp Bonifas to prepare for our visit to the JSA inside of the actual DMZ.

A couple of US soldiers stationed at the camp took over responsibility for our tour and gave us a presentation with a brief history of the JSA and some do's and don'ts. Most of the don'ts involved not taking pictures of things on the UN side of the zone. They also had people in shorts and t-shirts or sleeveless shirts change their clothes. There were shirts and pants available to borrow if they hadn't brought their own.

On the way through the DMZ, we passed South Korea's "Freedom Village", with many restrictions on the residents, but a few benefits like tax and military service exemptions. Only Koreans who's families had traditionally lived in the village were allowed to live there and they had to stay in the village a certain number of nights each year in order to maintain residency. I assume this was to prevent abuse of the exemptions.

The North Korean equivalent, visible from the Dorasan Observatory, was called the "Propaganda Village" by our guides. Apparently, it got that name because it used to blare propaganda across the border from loud speakers. Many of the buildings were only shells, with windows painted on the outside. Although a few workers may have been living there when the Kaesong Industrial Complex was up and running, no one was around today.

The JSA itself was emptier than I expected. I kind of thought soldiers or other personnel would be working in the buildings, but really only a handful of people were around to patrol. When we were there they were not actually patrolling. Instead they were standing like statues (I really thought some were mannequins at first) facing the North to guard us during our visit.

At the JSA, we walked into the North for a bit, or at least to the North side of the joint conference room, which was just over the North side of the line. After that, they led us out so we could take pictures of the North side of the JSA, but our tour got cut short for "security reasons" only a minute or two later.

They wouldn't tell us why we had to leave, but as our bus was leaving, we noticed some North Korean soldiers had moved right up to the line of demarcation. So that may have been the cause or possibly it was just North Korea's reaction to whatever the actual cause was. Either way, it was a little bit disconcerting to suddenly see a group of North Korean soldiers literally right at the border when there had been only a single North Korean observer visible for most of the visit.

At any rate, whatever it was wasn't so unsafe that we had to leave the JSA entirely. Our bus still went to the observation post overlooking the Bridge of No Return and the Axe Murder Site. It also had an excellent view of the propaganda village. Again, we took pictures of the North while the US soldiers told us about the various points of interest and a little about their lives. Our soldier/tour guide did a good job, but I'm not sure he expected to be giving tours when he signed-on for the posting. He was really enthusiastic about the opportunity to patrol face-to-face with the enemy soldiers, though.

I'd done a bit of reading about the JSA and seen pictures before we went, so I mostly knew what to expect. However, I was really surprised at how hilly it was and at the amount of vegetation. I assumed it was a flat, well groomed area in order to minimize the chance of surprises, but it was not. From looking at older pictures, it started out without many trees or bushes, but it had been allowed to grow-in over the years.

After dropping off the soldiers and returning borrowed clothes, and a brief stop at the camp museum & gift shop, we headed back to Dorasan Station for dinner. We ate in a cafeteria above the hall that had been used by workers going to Kaesong. At first, I thought it was a weird place to stop for dinner, but upon further consideration it was nice to give the cafeteria some business since they must be hurting if commuters used to eat there.

We made it back to Seoul in the evening, and I had one final bit of surprise tonight. I noticed a boshintang (dog meat soup) restaurant right next to our hotel. Although there are a couple of dog restaurants out in the countryside where I live, I had read in guidebooks it was basically impossible to stumble upon a dog meat restaurant in Seoul. You had to know where you were going. That was clearly wrong as our hotel is in the touristy Jonggak/Insadong area. True, you had do go just a bit down an alley, but it wouldn't be unlikely for a wandering tourist to happen across it. I wonder if the owner would try to warn us it was dog if we went in for a bowl, but I don't think I'll be stopping in to find out.

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