Korea’s Thanksgiving, called Chuseok ( 추석 in Hangul) is a great opportunity for a wonderful, relaxing, five-day weekend. Jordan and I took advantage of that by traveling to Seoul (unfortunately our last time) and visiting the Demilitarized Zone.
We showed up, bright and early, for Koridoor’s DMZ tour at USO Camp Kim. Because this is run through the U.S. military, we were told it’s the best one out there, and it gives people a chance to go to the JSA (Joint Security Area).
We hadn’t been around so many Americans in probably a year–it was a little disorienting, actually. We left Seoul in a big tour bus surrounded by American, European, and Singaporean tourists and drove about 50 minutes into the northern countryside.
The Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, isn’t just a line in the dirt. It’s a strip of earth, a ribbon running from one end of the peninsula to the other, about 160 miles long and 2.5 wide. Because few humans have walked withing the DMZ, much of it is teeming with wildlife and actually quite pretty, despite the barbed wire and landmines still present. There are a few roads, however, that go to the actual border within the DMZ, the real line between the two countries. That’s called the Demarcation Line.
Along the way, we passed Daeseongdong, a small farming community also known as Freedom Village. It’s one of two villages within the DMZ, the other, Kijong-dong, is called “Propaganda Village” by American soldiers. Built by the North Korean regime, it has one of the largest flags and flag towers in the world, but based on surveillance through binoculars, no one’s really convinced that anyone actually lives there, and it’s all just empty buildings. Sometimes South Korea blares KPop music over the propaganda loudspeakers.
Although farmers in Freedom Village lead a somewhat dangerous life so near North Korea, have lots of rules to follow, and have a fractured history of the 1950s, they’re actually quite well off–they don’t pay rent, tax, or do military service.
We stopped at Camp Bonifas, which is jointly run by Americans and Korean soldiers. An American usually stays for about one year, Koreans about two. Korea has compulsory two-year military service for all males. They usually do it in between high school and college. The camp is named for an American captain who was killed in the Axe Murder event by North Korean soldiers. There, we disembarked, filed into a tourist building, watched a very fast slideshow of the history, and were put on different, UN buses. Camp Bonifas is the last stop until the JSA, or Joint Security Area, which is along the real border between the two countries. It’s where the UN hangs out when they have conferences.
At this point, to be honest, I was getting a bit frustrated. Our military tour guide for the JSA was a young American soldier who seemed like he’d drawn the short straw and had to babysit a bunch of tourists. He wasn’t enthusiastic, and I had a hard time hearing him. I think I also may have had higher expectations. I expected, because this was a hostile border area, more history and a serious look at the political and social forces at play. But the soldiers really weren’t interested in telling us much of that.
We walked quickly and quietly through a courtyard area, into the the Peace Pagoda which was built to house separated families when they hosted reunions. There have only been a handful of reunions, primarily because North Korea’s government is wary of contact with the outside world. The Peace Pagoda has never been used to house families.
We walked, double file, out onto a back deck of the Pagoda.
“Do not move quickly. Do not wave at the North Korean soldiers. Do not walk over the lines. Do you see that water tower? Do not take pictures of it. Only take photos of North Korean buildings. Do not touch the South Korean soldiers. Do no make sudden movements. Do not stand on that part of the deck.” And on the list went. I couldn’t hear the soldiers very well, and was pretty nervous about making a mistakes.
We took photos for a few moments, and then another American soldier said, “that’s enough. Put your cameras down.” We obeyed, and led down the steps to one of the blue buildings.
Built for treaty meetings and UN conferences, the building straddles to demarcation line. One half of the building is in South Korea, the other in the North. It’s the only place tourists get the chance to step into North Korea.
White stones now mark the demarcation line, but back in the 60s and 70s soldiers of both sides could freely move around, and guard towers were built on both sides of the demarcation line. However, one American/ROK tower was surrounded by three North Korean towers, and the line of sight to the headquarters was blocked by a tree. After a lengthy discussion and agreement, American soldiers went to prune the tree, to allow for better eyesight to their lone guard tower in 1976. However, several North Korean soldiers grew anxious, and things disintegrated. Two American soldiers, Bonifas and Barrett, were killed in the attack. You can learn more about the Axe Murder Incident here.
Once we finished taking our photos, we were instructed to calmly leave, walk back through the Peace Pagoda, and get on the bus. The bus drove us back to Camp Bonifas, where we toured a small museum (finally, I got to learn some of the history), and purchase North Korean trinkets. I admit, I bought some North Korean money. I thought it was fascinating.
Our Koridoor tour guide and bus driver took us to Dora Observatory, which is exactly what it sounds like–an observatory tower with binoculars to peer into North Korea. We got to see Gaesong Industrial Complex, a rare example of North and South working together. Unfortunately, it’s being shut down. While South Korea will suffer the loss of cheap gadgets made there and shipped into the country, North Korea will lose up to 20% of it’s GDP.
Another stop was the Dorasan train station. The northernmost train stop in Korea, it’s tracks run to the Gaesong industrial complex, though freight trains on ran between them in 2007 and 2008. However, rails are in place to link Seoul to Pyeongyang, on to Beijing.
“Just think!” we were told. “After reunification, you could travel from Seoul to Paris by train!” It is a pretty crazy thought.
Because the train station is only used a couple times a day, coming from Seoul, it’s mostly set up as a museum to “what could be.”
Our final stop (after traditional Korean lunch) was the third infiltration tunnel. Long story short, there was a North Korean defector who told the South Korean government the military was digging it’s way to Seoul to invade, in at least 20 tunnels. The South Korean military, ever vigilant, began drilling holes and filling them with water to detect for tunnels. And they found four, from 1974-1990. The North Koreans denied that they’d dug the tunnels, claiming they were old coal mines.
Now, South Korea has opened the tunnels up as tourist destinations, which now that I think about it, is pretty weird. But I think it’s a calculated attempt to publicize to the world how crazy their neighbors are, as well as a show of strength, like, “your attempts at infiltration is so pathetic we entertain ourselves with the efforts.”
That tunnel, though, is pretty deep, and pretty narrow. Supposedly, it could get 30,000 soldiers through in an hour, but I just don’t see how. I was bent over half the time, trying to avoid hitting my head on the low ceiling, and returning, I huffed and puffed up the 11% grade incline. Anyway, that was our last visit of the day.
I found it really enlightening (after a bit of wikipedia searches), and would recommend it to people–as long as they do a little research beforehand so they’re not frustrated and confused like I was. I did learn a lot, and have a much better understanding of North Korean relations now. I had really wanted to visit Pyeongyang on a 4- or 5-day tour through Pioneer Tours, but we’re running out of time and money. So the DMZ tour was kind of our one shot at getting to see North Korea. And it’s highly educational and worth going to understand the South Korean perspective as well.