Saturday, November 24, 2012

S.Korea - DMZ Tour (seeing some real live N.Korean soldiers)

Day 6 - Tuesday Sept 18.

On Day 6,  Sarra, Mum and I went on the DMZ tour. DMZ stands for Demilitiarized Zone. Since the outbreak of the Korean war, over 60 years ago, a 248 km cease-fire line was drawn (you can tell I like to read the information pamphlets:)) cutting the country into two, and creating a border. On either side of the border is a 2km zone which has become known as the DMZ.

 It was amazing and intense all at the same time. The security was very tight and before we boarded the tour bus, we had to show our passports (some nationalities are not allowed to do the tour) and were given passes to wear around our necks.

The tour was broken up into three parts and took approximately six hours. Firstly we explored the 3rd tunnel and Dora observatory, then Dorasan Station and lastly we got to go into the JSA, the Joint Security Area, which was the most intense of all. Apparently it is the most heavily armed place on earth and I don't know if it was because I was told that, but the tension was almost palpable.

It took about an hour for our tour bus to get to the border. There were only about 15 people on our tour,  so we were pleased that we picked a day that wasn't too busy.

But when we got to the border, it was packed with heaps of other tour buses.

Our first stop was the 3rd tunnel.

The 3rd tunnel was dug in 1978 by North Korea to infiltrate South Korea. It is 1635 metres long and 2m high and 2m wide. It was built to allow the passage of 30,000 armed soldiers into South Korea within 1 hour. It is the 3rd of 4 tunnels discovered so far and our tour guide told us that they think there are other tunnels which have not been discovered yet. It made me think that the North Korean army was underneath us right at that minute digging away.

We weren't allowed to take photos inside the 3rd tunnel but this a photo of the entrance way.

You walk down to the left of this photo and walk down a very steep and long corridor underground. As you can see in the pic on the wall, on the right were all the yellow hard hats that we had to wear and I am glad I did because I kept banging my head when the roof got quite low.

If you are the teeniest bit claustrophic I would not recommend doing this as it gets very dark and closed in and your breathing gets quite shallow, your heart beats quite fast and you feel a bit light-headed. I had random seconds of panic and then I would calm myself down and be okay. It was weird and quite random.

We got to go right to the end of the tunnel or end before you would then be going into North Korean territory and then turn around and walk back. On the sides of the tunnel walls, we found a chalk/mineral like substance and our tour guide told us, it was something the North Korean soldiers marked on the walls so they could pretend that they were doing something innocent like mine for coal or something of that nature as opposed to digging a tunnel for thousands of soldiers.

A map of the area we were visiting.

The next thing we got to do was look through some binoculars into North Korea. This building was called the Dora Observatory (near Mount Dora) and in front if it are massive windows where we got to sit down and look out into the North Korean city of Kaesong. It is the closest part of South Korea to the North. A South Korean soldier explained to us significant landmarks that we could see through the window.

Dora Observatory

We then got to go outside and take some photos for ourselves. That is the North Korean flag flying proud and high.

There are 28 million people in North Korea but even staring for ages through the binoculars, I didn't see a single person or even a car. As I surveyed the land, I couldn't help but wonder about the people that live there and what life is like under a Communist regime. All I know is that it is a different way of life to what I know and I don't think that makes them any more or less than other countries, just different and very very interesting.

I would have liked to get closer to take some photos but we weren't allowed past this yellow line which was very far back from the binoculars.

I suppose the North Koreans don't want to see us looking at them. But because they are so private and closed off to the rest of the world, everybody is so so curious about the country making us all want to look even more.

Our next stop on the tour was Dorasan Station.

This pic explains a bit about how the station came into being. It is a train station with a railway line that goes directly into North Korea. One day following the dream of reunification between the two countries, it is hoped the station can be used to transport people freely between the two countries. 

It is a really haunting place because it is set up all ready to go as a train station but no-one is there except the South Korean soldiers who patrol it.

It even has arrival and departure times of trains that never come.

It is like a ghost station and it made me feel a little sad because it kind of epitomised the fragmentedness of the two countries.

We even got to go out on the track and stand there for a minute. It was very peaceful and quiet but I'm sure they wish it was bustling with families from both sides who can freely see each other no matter what side they live on.

A sign depicting how far to each of the country's capitals.

Nice to have a soldier that smiled. They were usually all very serious and gruff.

Our last stop was the Joint Security Area (JSA) or also known as Panmunjeom. Things changed here and we knew we were heading into a highly secure area. US President Bill CLinton once described it as "the scariest place on the earth". Not quite sure if he is correct but the atmosphere was very very intense.  

In 1951 this was the site for armistice talks between the two countries in the middle of the Korean War. The ceasefire talks took two long years. No peace treaty was ever signed but the North Koreans, United Nations Command and Chinese Army put their names to an armistice on July 27 1953. The South Koreans refused to sign it, fuelling the longest military deadlock in history.

We stopped at Camp Bonifas, an American Army base just outside the DMZ.  Our tour guide now became a US soldier and he examined all our passports on the bus. He told us that when we reached the JSA we had to leave all our bags on the bus and only take cameras and video cameras. 

We already knew about the dress code but he checked that we were not wearing any loud brands or tops with anything political or deregatory or deemed to be on them. No thongs, or short shorts or tank tops or short dresses, just long plain clothes. He explained that there was to be no pointing, laughing or gestures of any kind.

The bus wove its way through a road manned with mines and dotted with soldiers along the way, whose job it is keep a constant look-out across the border for any military build-up. We crossed the "Bridge of no Return", where in 1953, exchanges of sick and injured soldiers were made on the bridge. Shortly after, soldiers were asked to make a final choice as to which side they wanted to live and once they crossed the bridge there would never be any return to the other side.

We then stopped outside a building they call the Freedom House and went inside to watch a short film about how the JSA came into being. We were asked to sign waivers that said we were entering an area that could lead to serious injury or death and no-one could be held responsible if that occurred. Very reassuring of course.

A South Korean soldier facing a North Korean soldier in the film

This was one of the worst incidents when in 1976 inside the JSA, two American soldiers were killed by North Korean soldiers. The leaves of a poplar tree were blocking the line of sight to an Allied checkpoint so as agreed in advance, five United Nations Command (UNC) soldiers turned up to commence the trimming. Sixteen North Korean soldiers turned up and told them to stop and when they didn't a scuffle ensued. The axes used to cut the tree, were used on the UNC soldiers instead. A few days later a crew of 800 UNC soldiers with 24 vehicles and fighter planes turned up to cut the tree down. Funnily enough no North Koreans turned up with this kind of back-up. All just to cut a tree.

Our US army guide was hilarious. He said they had to do 12 mth tours and he had been there 9 mths and was absolutely bored of it all. On the bus he was cracking jokes but he got serious once we stepped outside of the Freedom House and could see only metres across to the North Korean building. (their Freedom House)

Our guide referred to the North Korean military building as the monkey house because of the childish things they do like slicing their fingers across their necks and making rude gestures toward the UNC. Every morning a phone call is made between the two sides, just to check that the phone lines are working. My mind worked overtime wondering what you would say when they answered. "Er, g'day mate".

Standing with fists clenched and leaning slightly forward and giving the appearance of peeking around the blue building or spying is all part of the show of intimidation on the South Koreans part.

From here the two sides can eyeball each other from opposite ends of the blue cabins. Personally I giggled over their short pant legs.

The official line between the two countries runs through the blue cabins, where the two meet for meetings.

We were extremely lucky on the day we went that there were North Korean soldiers outside working on some renovations on their building. It was absolutely fascinating to watch them and I even got some video footage. I couldn't believe I was so close to them.

I couldn't help but think it was a contradiction of sorts. It felt so tense for me not used to seeing soldiers up close or guns trained on us but at the same time the scenery and wildlife was beautiful and it seemed so peaceful and tranquil, listening to the birds and the quiet after the hustle and bustle of Seoul.

The South Korean soldiers in this area are called rock soldiers because they do not move a single muscle. They wear mirror sunglasses to help intimidate and they put the Buckingham Palace soldiers to shame because they don't even look like they are breathing. 

We were told when we were allowed to take photos but under no circumstances were we to touch or try to talk to the soldiers. This is inside one of the blue cabins where meetings between the two are held. 

We were told that the microphones on the tables - anything we said was being eavesdropped on by the North. The line ran right through the middle of the cabin and we were allowed to walk to the North Korean side of the room. Notice in the pic, everyone is standing on the North side, probably the only time in our lives we can say we were in North Korea.

I must say this tour was one of the highlights of our stay in Seoul and if anyone ever visits Seoul, you cannot pass up this opportunity to visit this unique area where an uneasy truce prevails and at anytime all hell could break loose.


The Kings said...

So interesting! I'm glad you took heaps of pics.

Anonymous said...

Again you have given me a further education.
How intense was that!!
What a boring job to just stand there all day in your sunnies without a smile.
Loved all the photos and all the info.
Love Lorraine.

Carli said...

It's all coming back. When we did that tour trains were running more frequently with people going to work in factories but things are a bit icier between the two countries now. Awesome documentation Simone

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