A Peak Behind the Iron Curtain – Korea’s DMZ

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall at the end of the last century saw the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of communism as we know it across most of the world. Yet, a few lonely outposts still hold steady to this day.

One of these outposts is North Korea.  One of the most secretive countries in the world, we think (for we can’t really be sure) that the country is much like it was n the 50’s, following the violent civil war which let the South become one of the most economically progressive countries in the world, while the North went back to the feudal system. Communist style.

Anyway, the DMZ (or demilitarized zone), a 4 km wide strip of land that quite literally divides the two Korea’s has become something of a tourist attraction in Korea. Well, at least for foreigners. Koreans are not allowed near the place, unless they’re one of the thousands of soldiers who guard the thing that is. I do find it strange that they are not allowed to visit such an important historical and political site in their own country.

Anyway, a group of English teachers went on a day trip to the DMZ over the past weekend. A group tour is the only way to visit this part of the country,which is fair enough,since it is a heavily armed border between two countries still technically at war with each other. We choose the USO tour, as it is the only tour which takes visitors into the Joint Security Area inside the DMZ itself. This offers travellers the chance for some serious traveller kudos’ – the opportunity to step into communist North Korea.

Our tour started at Camp Bonifas, the  United Nations Command military post located just 400 metres south of the DMZ’s southern border. Here we had a brief slide show on the Korean war, and the history of the DMZ and how it came about. We also heard about the various incidents that have occurred along the border since 1953, the signing of the truce between North and South. Once we had signed a waiver, which stated that our trip to the JSA will “entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action” and been briefed on how to behave when there (no contact of any sort with the North Korean guards, obey all instructions at all times, only taking pictures at certain times etc.) we set off to the JSA. Nervously. I think for most people it has just sunk in where we were, and what we were actually about to do and witness.

On the way, we passed what Sport Illustrated has dubbed the ‘most dangerous golf course in the world’ a par three  which is surrounded on three sides by mine fields.  A little trickier than your average sand trap.

Anyway, upon reaching the JSA, you can look upon the North Korean’s buildings just metres on the other side of the concrete slab that indicates the border, and watch the North Korean sentries while they watch  you intently with binoculars, notebooks and camera’s ready to document any behaviour that they might think noteworthy. Then we all trooped into the pale blue prefab building that straddles the border, which is where officials for the two Korea’s occasionally meet. The table marks the border line, and walking around the table meant that we were, officially, in North Korea. If only by a few paces. At all times during our visit we were accompanied by ROK soldiers, who stand at their modified taekwondo position, known as ‘rock ready’. Add in their aviator sun glasses, military uniforms and the weapons strapped to their hips, and you’re reminded that this is definitely not Disney World. Indeed, our time inside the building was cut short when our American soldier/tour guide suddenly barked out the order,

 “Back to the bus. Move it.”

And move it we did. Tensions are always rather high at the DMZ, and the recent sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan and the 60th anniversary of the Korean War just served to amplify this tension. We later learnt that several armed North Korean guards had started walking towards the building we were in, hence the move back to the bus.

Inside the JSA, the large grey building is in the North. The blue buildings straddle the border.

Rock Ready

Next up, Look Out Point 3. Surrounded on three side sby North Korea, it offers excellent views of the Korean landscape, as well as of Propoganda Village, a jamming tower, the Bridge of No Return and various Korean lookouts. Propoganda Village, the only village inside the DMZ on the northern side is a bizarre little place. Well maintained by the North, this village is actually uninhabited, and is meant to look enticing to anyone who views it. It is also home to the world’s largest flagpole ( at 160 m) and the worlds largest flag (at 31m and 250 kg, it takes 50 men to raise and lower it each day!!).

Propoganda Village, with it's ENORMOUS flagpole. Compensation for something perhaps?

Next up, we were shuttled off to one of the Tunnels of Aggression, just south of the DMZ. Fours tunnels have been discovered by the South, and are believed to have been dug to allow the North to move troops and equipment unhindered across the border  at pace. At 73 metres below the ground, the 3rd tunnel (which we visited) was only discovered with the help of a North Korean defector, and it is thought that there are more tunnels as yet undiscovered by the South….

Last up, a visit to Dorasan Station, the most northerly train station in Korea, and what would be the border crossing into the North. Would be if any train’s actually were allowed to cross the border. Built in 2004, the station was some concrete tangible evidence of the thawing in attitudes between the two Korea’s. However, recently, it’s been decidedly frigid on the Korean peninsula, with reunification looking as unlikely as it has at any previous time in the last 60 years. The station is quite eerie actually. Practically brand new and still sparkly, it’s quite dead apart from the tourists, and it looks and feels a little like a big white elephant. Apart from a few ‘feel good’ signs, “This is not the last train station in the South, it’s the first station towards the North” and a much photographed sign pointing towards Pyongyang, it has nothing going for it as an attraction. It is just a train station after all.

North Korea's capital, just a train ride away.

All in all, it was any interesting trip. For a few brief minutes we were able to walk into North Korea, and it was a startling and harsh reminder of the daily realties of what living in Korea entails for some of its inhabitants. More info on the USO tour can be found here, with some more details here.

Published in: on 30/06/2010 at 2:59 pm  Comments (2)  
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