Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Crossing the Border

This is one to check off the list. The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a four kilometre wide strip of land running roughly along the 38th parallel. This area serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea, with each country caring for the two kilometres of land lying on their side of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). Measuring 250 kilometres from east to west through the Korean Peninsula, it is officially the most heavily militarised border in the world. Even though the war effectively ended in 1953 with the Korean Armistice Agreement, peace between the two neighbours remains a long way off.

Unsurprisingly, such a unique destination tops most recommendation lists for visitors to South Korea. Despite its serious nature it is surprisingly easy to book a tour, assuming you carry the right passport. From the Camp Kim USO office in Seoul it took us just over an hour by bus to reach the outskirts of the DMZ. There we were met by two playful American soldiers who would be our guides for the morning. At Camp Bonifas, in the Joint Security Area (JSA), we took in a very clear and informative history lesson. The JSA, located in the abandoned village of Panmunjom, is a blue battleground where staring matches are fought between northern and southern soldiers on a daily basis. It also has the honor of hosting very occasional diplomatic negotiations.


As we were escorted outside, just metres away from the MDL, we were instructed not to make any gestures or attempt to call out to any North Korean military personnel we may see. In the end we saw only one, a uniformed figure who observed us silently from a distance. Supposedly he had backup hiding in the building behind him. The North Korean soldiers only come down to take a closer look if the tour group appears to be of particular interest. It turns out that we were neither rich nor female enough to warrant their attention. After a photo opportunity everyone packed into the small MAC Conference Room. This is where, like it were no big deal, we stepped across the border and onto North Korean territory. The unwavering posture of the aviator-wearing South Korean soldiers reassured us of our safety.


Until 1976 North and South Korean personnel were permitted to move freely on either side of the MDL, provided they stayed within the JSA and carried no weapons. This privilege was revoked following the aptly titled 'axe murder incident', which involved the brutal killing of two United States Army officers. They were planning to trim an obtrusive tree, with the feigned approval of the North Koreans. Needless to say it all went horribly wrong. The tree was eventually cut down three days later in a gigantic operation that cost millions. We were able to grab a view of the monument that sits where the tree once stood, right near the inconspicuous Bridge of No Return, which crosses the MDL. It is a pity we did not get a better look around this spot, as it is one of the eerier points of interest in the JSA. A bit further up the hill at Observation Post 5 we spent some time surveying the mostly empty northern half of the DMZ. The southern side is lush with trees and bush, while its opposite is almost entirely bare. Trees or not, it would be hard to miss the 160 metre high flag pole that rises out of North Korea's uninhabited Peace Village. To the rest of the world this facade is better known as Propaganda Village.

Since the armistice North Korea has made at least four attempts to tunnel south, with the presumed intention of launching a surprise attack on Seoul. The Third Tunnel of Aggression, which we had the opportunity to walk along, was discovered in 1978, based on a tip from a defector. North Korea initially denied responsibility for the tunnel, and then declared that it was simply part of an innocent coal mine that lost its way. Retreating soldiers were ordered to paint the walls of the granite tunnel coal black to strengthen the illusion. The southern end of the tunnel emerges just 44 kilometres from Seoul, and has a constant stream of civilians descending the 73 metres below ground to take a look. This involves a lot of hunching for those cursed with being taller than 5'4". For the disinterested-looking school children that passed us by, the low ceiling was not a problem. One boy was even playing with his Nintendo DS as his class marched single file down the damp passage.


We made it back to the surface and headed straight to Dora Observatory, the northernmost point in South Korea. With the assistance of binoculars this is the best place to get a wide, high up view of the DMZ. From here we laid our eyes on part of the Kaesong Industrial Region, which houses collaborative manufacturing facilities that provide employment to any and all Koreans willing to make the risky commute. The vista was spectacular, but unfortunately photography is strictly prohibited. Our final stop on the tour was at Dorasan Station. A peculiar place, it waits in limbo, kept lightly staffed in hopes that one day North Korea will allow the railroad to reopen on their end. This would not only help to reunite the countries, but also give South Koreans a route to access Europe by land. Right now it is a curiosity for tourists, who are able to purchase fake tickets and mosey out to the platform. There the tracks sit quietly, waiting for a train that may never come.


You can check out a few more photos here.

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