Thursday, January 29, 2009

DMZ

Every country has an icon, something quintessential to the country that anyone with a passing familiarity to the country will know about. Australia has kangaroos and the Sydney Opera House. America has the Statue of Liberty and the White House. Italy has the Colosseum, Greece the Parthenon, Japan Mt Fuji. South Korea (and North Korea) have the DMZ. The Demilitarized Zone. The 4 kilometre strip of land that separates North and South Korea that was declared after the stalemate that became the Korean War and intensely guarded ever since.

The weekend before last I went on a tour of the DMZ with the guys from work (we invited the girls but they didn't want to go). The tour met in downtown Seoul early Saturday morning, from where we bussed up to the DMZ which was about 90 minutes away. We then swapped bus to a US Army bus, which took us for a briefing by a very gung-ho and stereotypical soldier on the history of the Joint Security Area, the little area where there are a bunch of buildings nominally there for the purpose of talks, if only the North Koreans would show up. After listening to the briefing and signing a waiver, we took the Army bus into the JSA. Both the North and South have buildings there, and soldiers. We only got to go inside two of the buildings, one of which was the main meeting room. This building is split in the middle by the border, so while inside we were able to technically enter North Korea, although my stay lasted about a minute.

After seeing the main section of the JSA, we were taken on a tour of the places that were involved in the Axe Murder Incident of 1976, which led to Operation Paul Bunyan, the most expensive tree cutting ever (the back up plan to take the tree down if things went really bad was for a battleship on the east coast to bombard the location).

After the JSA we went to Dorasan observatory, a lookout on a mountain near the border. The view wasn't that great, and photos even worse because you weren't allowed to take photos at the edge of the observatory, but had to stand behind some yellow lines about two or three metres back. The fog didn't help either, nor did being kicked out of the auditorium there so some big wig could have a private look at the border.

The final part of the tour was a visit to Infiltration Tunnel 3, one of four known tunnels dug by the North Koreans into the south. Before entering the tunnel, we watched a bizarre film on the DMZ, which started out a bit grim but factual, and then went on a crazy overly optimistic dream about the future of the DMZ. The tunnel itself was low (I had to crouch most of the time, and am glad I got a hardhat), cool and damp. The entrance was pretty steep (about 11 degrees I think) which was OK going down but a good bit of exercise going back up. The tunnel just sort of stops at the end where the South Koreans have put up barricades, and apparently the North Koreans have collapsed the tunnel on their side as well. The tunnel also had a thin layer of coal painted on the sides, as one of the claims the North has made about the tunnel is that it was a coal mine that went a little too far. They said that had it been used, the North expected to get 30,000 men an hour through the tunnel. Presumably the North Koreans aren't as tall as me.

Now for some photos.

Me next to one of the ROK soldiers in the meeting room in the JSA. We were told not to touch them or we'd be "touched" back.

The main building on the North Korean side. There was one soldier visible, but we were told there were more inside the building take our photos.

Where the tree that led up to the Axe Murder Incident used to be.

The badge I had to wear. Unfortunately, we couldn't keep it.

The blue JSA bus

Chris at Dorasan Observatory. The yellow line is where we could take photos from.

Going down the tunnel. The south Koreans have made the entrance part nice and neat, but the later section (the flat bit) is a lot lower and rougher.

Another of the ROK soldiers in the meeting building. He's there in case the North Koreans try and break through the door behind him (I'm not sure why he isn't facing that way then, but that's what they told us. Perhaps he's there to stop us trying to defect to the North (like that would happen)).

More photos are here

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