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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Walking along the DMZ 한반도 비무장지대

In 1953, the Korean War ended with an armistice. Not a peace treaty. As such, North and South Korea remain divided at the 38th parallel by a line decided with *much* input from Cold War enemies the Soviet Union and the US--the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). It spans a length of 160 miles and is approximately 2.5 miles wide of land mines, wilderness, and a surprising number of endangered species. 

Today, the DMZ remains heavily patrolled. Soldiers on both sides watch for suspicious activity, South Korea remembering when they found evidence of the North Korean-dug tunnel in 1990. The 6-Party Talks dedicated to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula hang in limbo, the financial realities of an eventual reunion cast hesitation on the South Korean side, and Dennis Rodman continues to be the most frequent American visitor to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, wielding the formidable likes of "basketball diplomacy." 

Will  this sign at the northernmost Dorasan Train Station continue to be an empty gesture?



Separated families on either side certainly hope not, and so do the thousands of refugees who flee through China every year, where they must really know who to trust, or else they will be sent back to North Korea due to their "illegal immigrant" status. The current administrations of North and South Korea continue to hold working level talks about co-run ventures. The jointly sponsored Kaesong Industrial Complex, which was nearly shut down over the summer, has recently rebounded and resumed operations on 9-16. The first family reunion in three years is planned for Sept. 25-30th. So the story continues in its up and down pattern, with the US, Japan, China, and Russia watching at every turn the course of two small nations on a very strategically located peninsula. 

Naturally, tourists flock to the infamous DMZ, and I was among them. Normally I do tours with Seoul Hiking Group, which in addition to affordable hiking trips, also offers tours to Jeju Island, Ginseng Festivals, rafting locales, and featured biking excursions, but this time I decided to try out Adventure Korea. They offered a one-day tour of the DMZ for 43,000 won that included a bus pick-up from Hongik University Station (홍대입구역/Hangeul Pronunciation: Hongdae Ipgu Yeok). Identification is *required* to pass the Civilian Control Line, and for foreigners that means a passport or Alien Registration Card.

My fellow Foreign English teacher friends couldn't make it for the August trip, but I made some new friends on the bus ride over, one of whom worked in a hagwon for her aunt, and another who taught in West Seoul. We kicked off the tour by visiting Imjingak, the northernmost village civilians can freely visit before having to provide identification. Our tour guide knew a guy there who sold North Korean money to tourists and was most likely making a nice profit off of it, too, but hey, I was curious. Our guide continued to be full of interesting stories on the ride up to the Civilian Control Line--he remembered fondly the old days when tours were still allowed to enter border villages of North Korea and have a couple drinks with the locals.




At the Civilian Control Line, we registered to cross over into Tongilchon, a Unification Village. Soldiers walked upon and down the bus and examined each of our IDs. Then we were settled in a farmhouse in a rather empty-looking village for a lunch of a miyeok guk (seaweed soup), tangpyeongchae (jelly noodles and veggies), kimchi, and various other side dishes. The South Koreans living in the village inhabit a Tax Free Zone/exempt from 2-year service in the army because of their proximity to the DMZ, but they do have to follow various government regulations when exporting crops over the Line.

From there, we arrived at the cavernous mouth down to the 1978 North Korean-dug infiltration tunnel. Wearing hard hats, we descended deep into the earth and walked past rubber mats and remnant mining equipment before laying eyes on the discovered tunnel, 239 feet under the earth (app. 73 meters). Our guide informed us that it would have allowed some 10,000 soldiers to reach Seoul within one hour.




I ran into some trouble at the next stop, the Dora Observatory. It overlooks the vast expanse of the DMZ, much of it hidden behind cloud cover. Unfortunately, I misunderstood my guide's explanation about where to take pictures and where not to, and a South Korean soldier politely informed me that I was not supposed to photograph Kijongdong, a North Korean propaganda village that features an insanely tall flag pole, built to make sure it overshadowed South Korea's flag. Aside from a couple supply trucks far off in the haze, the green expanse of the DMZ appeared eerily still. I deleted my photographs under the soldier's supervision.

Dora Observatory
 
Aaaand there's your picture of North Korea. Hey, if you squint you can see a mountain. Soldier ok-ed this one.


The last stop on the tour was Dorasan Train Station, meant to give some semblance of hope, I suppose, because of its emphasis that one day it would connect back to North Korea. Peoples' spirits lifted while exploring the train station, and the long-suffering soldiers posted around the platform agreed to be photographed with many of us. We could also purchase a symbolic ticket embarked with a seal for about 1,000 won (1 dollar). We goofed around the silent platform for a little bit and then boarded the bus back to Seoul, leaving the empty station with its motionless turnstiles and patiently waiting trains behind.





You know he was bored.




*Disclaimer: The above is depicted as fiction, not fact.







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