Thursday, February 4, 2010

DMZ: Sobering Tour

After the look around Imjingak park it was time to board the bus that would take us to special locations around the DMZ.

Folks boarded the bus, mostly families and couples. There were a few Grandma and Grandpa types who when walked on the bus had a bright beaming smile on their faces. I wondered was this perhaps their first tour around the DMZ? Were they proud to be going on the trip? As I thought about this I watched as the bus filled up and noticed some folks brought along those transitory snacks, like roasted corn, for the ride. This puzzled me as I wondered why people would bring snacks to view something that symbolizes so much horror. I guess they figured they would finish it by the time they got to wherever we were going.

Really, however, getting on the bus meant I was going to get closer to the DMZ border and I didn't really know what we were going to see.

The bus was finally full of passengers and we took off. I noticed that at the front of the bus was a tourist group from China, since the group's interpreter sat facing them giving instructions and info in Chinese.

We got to a bridge checkpoint and waited in line, during which time I watched cars in the nearby lane. Some were allowed pass the checkpoint, while others made a U-Turn and went back. JH told me that if they didn't have authorization than they can't go forward. He said he tried a similar thing years ago just to get close enough by car.

The ery and intriguing part about the checkpoint were the armed guards. In all my life, besides one time being busted by cops with a group of friends in high school, have I been so close to guns. At that time the cops just had a gun secured on their belt while they questioned us. But at this time, I was close to heavy-duty guns. I am no fan of guns and am grateful Korea outlaws ownership. Certainly the sight of armed men and barbed wire set me up for the fact we were seeing a very secured space in Korea.
I talked about this with JH, how I feel around guns, and he seemed to understand. But we talked about how he knows how to use them since he already completed his mandatory army service. He even schmoozed a little bit over a certain type of gun that he was fond of when he was in training.

At the checkpoint an unarmed soldier came on board to check our ID's. Then once we got the okay the bus crossed the bridge, which was littered with blockades. The blockades were set up in a way that the bus had to maneuver in a zig-zag formation, and I guess the bus driver was use to it and probably had a bit of fun going through.

Once we crossed the bridge the bus traveled up a hillside heading towards the Dora Observatory.

Dora Observatory:
 I love this picture, because the little girl was staring at me while I took it and I also love the yellow color of the hangeul written on the pavement.

On the way up to the observatory the bus driver was talking to us (in Korean) about the place we were going. JH caught me up before we got off the bus, and so I figured that we were going to an observation deck where we can look out over the DMZ and North Korea. So as we disembarked the bus and made our way up to the platform I couldn't help but wonder what North Korea would look like.

Situated on top of Dorasan (Mount Dora, 37°54′53″N 126°42′31″E / 37.91472°N 126.70861°E / 37.91472; 126.70861), the observatory looks across the Demilitarized Zone. It is the part of South Korea closest to the North. Visitors can catch a rare glimpse of the reclusive North Korean state through binoculars from the 304 square feet, 500-person capacity observatory. They will be able to see the North Korean propaganda village situated in the DMZ, a remnant of the old prosperity of the North, and can see as far as the city of Kaesong.

Once you get to the viewing platform you are greated with a horizontal line of people looking out over the wall, while others look through binoculars. Walking up to the edge of the wall, to look out, I was overwhelmed. And then as I gazed out I couldn't help but take in the seeping desolate feeling of it all. For with the combination of the history, mist and undeveloped land that I saw before my eyes, the view was spooky and sad. This was a sobering moment for me as I realized the importance of the DMZ and its current state.

Because this border was created between the two Koreas the land that occupies this demarcation has been left untouch by developers. Thus a rich and thriving natural refuge exists for some rare and native species. This became extremely evident when I saw an eagle soar past us.
There were three of them and they were circling very close to the platform, probably spotting out something that had died down below. They came so close to us you could see their talons and beaks. An amazing sight to see at such a location.
From that experience we moved onto the building adjacent the observatory deck, where inside was a model that outlined what is in the view.
Before this I was taking a picture of the view when one of the soldiers came to me and said "NO PICTURES!". I immediately erased the picture. I wasn't the only fool to make this mistake as I saw others get caught. Apparently there was a line at which point past it you couldn't take photos. I know a few of you complain about my lawless photo taking so I chose this time to be a good girl. But it also frightened me and after this I took fewer photos of the places we went to. 

The 3rd Tunnel:
In a war if a wall is built and you can't go through it or over it the next logical step would to build tunnels that go under it. This was North Korea's plan at the time when both sides were giving peace talks. 

North Korea began digging tunnels under the DMZ at the same time that the South and the North first launched peace talks in 1974. According to intelligence analysis, it is believed that North Korea began digging the tunnels after Kim Il-sung (North Korea's President) issued the September 25 Combat Readiness Order in 1971. In this order, he stressed the need to dig tunnels under the Demilitarized Zone, saying that one tunnel would be more effective than 10 atomic bombs and would thus be the best means to overwhelm the heavily fortified front.
But the South were wary to the tunnel digging and over time discovered several tunnels. One of which was the 3rd tunnel which was available for touring.

We got on the bus again and headed to the location of the 3rd tunnel. After getting off we followed everyone to the tunnel's entrance building. Here we all sat and watched as a tour guide spoke about the tunnel's history and guidlines to viewing it. (In Korean). JH again filled me on what he said and what to expect. We lined up at the entrance and walking past some shelves grabbed a yellow hard hat and put it on.

The way one see's the third tunnel is by walking down a vertical shaft that links up with the actual cave-like tunnel that was created by the North Koreans. It is a steep decline down into the depths of the earth. If one were claustrophobic they would have a hard time with this. As one goes further down the air changes to that of a mineral rich type.

Soon enough you finish the vertical drop and come to a flat walking platform that you follow through the tunnel. Everything is lit up from ultra-bright lamps and walkway lights. You realize soon how handy the hard-hat is as the height of the tunnel narrows on just being 5ft tall, and in some places below that. As you walk through, following diligently the people in front of you, others pass by you on the left. It felt as if the tunnel had no end. Along the way are placards on the sides of the cave giving out pieces of information, both in Korean and English.

From reading the placards I learned that the tunnel was coated in charcoal to make it look like they were merely only mining. Other information included the demarcation of dynamite holes with yellow paint and other facts about the tunnel.

It penetrates 435 meters south of the Military Demarcation Line at a point 4 kilometers south of Panmunjeom, running through bedrock at a depth of about 73 meters below ground. Capable of moving a full division (plus their weapons) per hour, it was evidently designed for a surprise attack on Seoul. This tunnel is only 2 kilometers from a key outpost defending the Munsan corridor leading to Seoul.
Initial efforts to discover the tunnel failed until June 10, 1978, when an excavation hole was exploded, they started to dig a counter-tunnel which later reached the North's tunnel on October 17, 1978.

Finally, one comes to the end of the tunnel, which is really the blockade created by the South Korean army.  Basically the tunnel stops at a thick concrete wall with a tiny locked door on it. You look around and note from the sign that this is just one of three concrete blockades. To me it symbolized how strongly people want to prevent war and keep enemies out.

You turn around and head back to the exit / entrance shaft. I have to admit that I took in small amounts of pleasure from being inside the tunnel and it's exposed granite walls. Some small positive present from the war's creations. Yet at the same time I couldn't help but consider the hard work it must have been to create such a tunnel considering how hard a rock granite is. I only concluded that the North Koreans were very determined.

Heading back up the shaft I was out of breath when I got to the top. We joined up with the group and headed outside for some fresh air. At which point we saw people taking their picture with some statues and so decided to do the same.
We then meandered over to a building across the parking lot and walked inside. It turned out to be a theater where we watched a commemoration video about the DMZ. Turns out they had headphones one could use to listen to it in English. My experience of watching this video was that it was heavily laden with propaganda. Yet also laced with the message that the DMZ will be a symbol of peace in the future and also a nature preserve. One couldn't help but wish for the same thing.

Dorasan Station:
We got back on the bus and headed to another location, this time it was Dorasan train station. The bus driver made jokes about how all the buildings around the station are empty. It turns out the station is waiting to be used until there is peace between the nations. For a while there a few years ago freight trains went past the station but nowadays that is no longer happening. It is basically a place open to tourists, with a little souvenir shop inside. 

It was very squeeky clean inside and kind of gave off that "ghost town" vibe. Looking through a glass wall you could see the hopes of the station where a security check point is set up to check passengers and their baggage. The place was ready for the first signs of users but when that day will come...who knows?

DMZ Tofu: 
The last leg of the tour was a stop at a local tofu restaurant set up for tourists. It was the local tofu speciality that was fresh and came with fermented kimchi. It was very delicious and a natural and fresh way to digest all that one had seen on the tour.
 We got back to Imjingak park and went our separate ways. On the ride back home I was overwhelmed with thought and contemplation about everything I had seen and experienced. And now I can say with confidence that one should consider visiting the DMZ, learn about it's creation and hope for a brighter future.

1 comment:

  1. I took the DMZ tour when I visited Korea in '06, it was an interesting experience to say the least! I'm glad I went.


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