Tuesday, April 26, 2011

SSB (Part 4)

Ah, the final leg of my Surprise spring break adventures. It's been a long 4 days, not at all a relaxing vacation, but a very fun and rewarding one nonetheless.

So what better way to go about ending my SSB than a quick trip up to North Korea. You read me right, I went to North Korea today!

As always, let's start at the beginning. In case you've never noticed, you're reading a blog entitled "Thoughts from the Thirty-Eighth Parallel." On the one hand, this title is misleading -- In Bucheon, I live much closer to the 37th parallel than to the 38th, but naming my blog "Thoughts from the Thirty-Seven and One-Half-th Parallel" seemed wrong. On the other hand, the 38th parallel has a much better ring to it and is of critical historic importance on the Korean peninsula. Having named my blog after such an important landmark, it was really only a matter of time before I went up north to see my blog's namesake for myself.

Now the only way to get into the DMZ (and to Panmunjom, where you can stand inside North Korea) is with an organized tour group. To be honest, I'm not the biggest fan of tour groups. Something about a certain time in New Zealand, on a sheep farm that happened to have once been part of a set for The Lord of the Rings. If you look to your left, you'll see a tree with a red ribbon tied in it, left from from the movie set. If you look to your right, you'll see a piece of white decaying plywood that was once a Hobbit hole. If you look to your left again, you'll see a tree Peter Jackson decided to completely disassemble and reassemble 5 feet away from its original location. And if you look down, you'll see that you're standing in sheep ddong. This is a working farm after all.

For the DMZ, however, I had no other choice than to just suck it up and pick a tour group. I chose to take a combined tour of both the DMZ area including the third tunnel, and the JSA (Joint Security Area, aka Panmunjom). Despite the cheesy touristy element of going with the tour group, it was an awesome experience, and I would definitely recommend it!

The first stop on our agenda was the 3rd tunnel, located within the CCZ (Civilian Control Zone) a mere 44 kilometers from Seoul. It's no secret that the North has been plotting ways to covertly and not-so-covertly attack the South since the war "ended" in 1953, and the tunnels are a perfect example. Tunnel 3 was discovered in 1978, lying 73 meters below ground and stretching 435 meters into the South Korean side of the DMZ. The tunnel was cramped, only about 2 meters tall and 2 meters wide, but had it been completed, it could have easily allowed an entire division of fully loaded enemy troops to cross into South Korea in about an hour. Which is a little bit unnerving. The South has only found 4 such tunnels to date, but there might be as many as 20 stretched across the 241 km long DMZ.

No photos were allowed inside the tunnel, and fearing that if I disobeyed their strict photography rules, they would get angry and throw my delinquent self over to the crazies up North, I decided to heed their warnings. To get down to the tunnel, we donned blue hard hats and rode down an extremely squished monorail train. The descent took about six minutes, and was very steep and lit by foreboding neon-green lights. At the bottom, we disembarked and walked to within 200 meters of the MDL (Military Demarcation Line, the actual border with the North). Even though it was blocked off by a 5 meter-thick concrete wall, it was eerie. When the North found out that the South had discovered the tunnel, they tried to quickly play it off like they were just mining for coal down there by painting black marks on the walls. Obviously not true. Given the tunnel design, layout, and dynamite marks in addition to the other tunnels also pointing in the general direction of Seoul, their motives were pretty clearly not about coal mining. Also the black paint rubbed off on your hands if you touched it. But good try.

After finishing up at the 3rd Tunnel, we headed to the Dora Observatory, a site where you can see past the DMZ into Gaesung City, the second-largest city in North Korea. Well, kinda. Even through the binoculars provided, it was hard to really see anything, it was so far away. What you could see, however, was Kijong-dong, more commonly known as Propaganda Village. Kijong-dong is a modern-looking village with grey and blue multi-floored buildings and lovely looking landscaping, but it's not real -- The north maintains it just for appearance's sake. If you look closely, most of the buildings don't even have windows! In addition to its fake buildings, Kijong-dong has a giant flagpole (the second tallest in the world, actually) proudly waving North Korea's flag 160 meters up in the air. It's really quite ridiculous.

Photography was allowed at this point, but only kind of...

North Korea. See???

After unsuccessfully taking pictures at the Dora Observatory, we got back onto the bus and headed over to the Dorasan Station. Now I love train stations as much as the next person, but this stop was completely unnecessary. Yes, it's true that it's the northern-most train station in South Korea, and yes, it's true it links up with Pyeongyang. But until reunification happens, it's really just an empty train station used occasionally for moving the handful of South Korean employees working up North across the border. Not really a worthwhile twenty minutes of my life.

After Dorasan Station, we crossed back out of the CCZ and had lunch at Imjingak, a tiny village nearby the DMZ. What I found amusing about Imjingak was that there was a tiny amusement park situated in the parking lot. The crazies up North may have built a fake village, but we apparently built a fake amusement park... who knows.

After lunch, we switched onto a different bus and headed out to the good stuff -- Panmunjom. As one of the tenses places in the world, a militarized zone where soldiers of warring nations stand watching each other every moment of every day, we had a set of VERY strict rules to follow. For one, we had a dress code and a restriction on cameras with zoom capability over 90mm. We were forbidden to talk to any of the military personnel from either side, and we were instructed not to point or make any gestures whatsoever. We were herded like ducklings in a two-person across single file line, and we were told exactly when we could take pictures (for one minute increments tops) and exactly what directions we could photograph. Even our release form we signed after a short 15-minute briefing about the history of Panmunjom started, "The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action..."


We walked through the front building of the complex and went inside the MAC Conference Room, where all the meetings between the United Nations and North Korean officials take place. In this small blue room crowded with chairs, tables, and tourists, I got to walk across the MDL (marked by a set of microphones on the main conference table) and into North Korea!

The main conference table. This soldier is standing in both North and South Korea.

I'm in North Korea! A little anti-climactic, I know...

After maybe three minutes of frantic picture taking and walking in and out of North Korea, we were herded outside to the steps of the main South Korean building at Panmunjom. There, we were told that there were North Korean officers watching us from the building directly in front of us. Again, we were given maybe one minute to take pictures, facing only directly forward or to our left or right side.

It WAS a tour group, of course I had a Swedish guy in my picture too...

If you look hard, the cement line lying horizontally between the two buildings marks the MDL. Really cool.

After our one minute was up, we were herded back out of the complex and onto our bus. As we drove away from Panmunjom, we stopped and were instructed to take pictures of the Bridge of No Return, the only bus photographs we were allowed to take anywhere near the grounds of the DMZ.

Stunning, I know.

Soon we were out of the DMZ, and allowed to gesture and take pictures freely again. Whew. The whole day was an extremely intense experience, but so awesome! Completely worthwhile! In my day to day life in Bucheon, I think about our conflict with the North approximately never, but seeing firsthand how tense the border really is, is just eye-opening. Panmunjom is such a historically fascinating place, seriously, if you're in Korea, GO!

And with that excursion, I completed my 4-day SSB. My legs are sore, my puppy has been walked, I have some terrific new pictures, and I feel more culturally aware than I was even last week. All in all successful surprise spring break.

- Christine -

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