Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Korea 2012 - The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and Joint Security Area (JSA)

One of the essential experiences that I had to do during my time here in Korea was a tour of the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, on the border of North and South Korea. It is ironically one of the most militarized regions on Earth and, considering the ties between the United States and Korea, it was something I needed to see.

I went with a tour organized by the USO here in Korea. The tour costs 97,000KRW (or around $95) and takes you to the DMZ and the Joint Security Area. It's the most comprehensive tour out there, and if you're ever in Korea I would suggest booking it. You can contact them through their website.

We left Yongsan around 9am and and travelled about an hour north to the DMZ. It was a strange experience for me because, even though I've been here for 10 months, I've never been on this side of Seoul before. At one point I was going to be teaching in Paju, a city that basically straddles the border. As we got closer to the DMZ, the populated areas seemed to drop off completely...instead being replaced with farmland and military bases. The highway was strung with barbed wire and guard posts were everywhere.

Just before we reached our first location outside the DMZ, we had to cross a military checkpoint on a bridge crossing a frozen riverbed. My dad cracked some jokes that this place resembled the zombie apocalypse and, all joking aside, I couldn't help but notice the similarities. Compared to the rest of Korea, this place was dead. Really dead. Winter definitely took its toll on the landscape, and you could see giant chunks of ice in the river bed. The river seemed to snake from mountains that were blanketed in dead trees. It was eerie, and it would only get more strange.

This bridge was lined with metal barriers and spikes that required the tour bus to zig-zag on this otherwise empty 4-lane highway. Looking back, I don't recall seeing a single other car on the road once we hit that point....just a lot of barriers randomly placed on the highway.

Just before the DMZ was our first stop: the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. The North Koreans dug tunnels under the DMZ in case they decided that a sneak attack on Seoul was a good idea. So far, 4 of them have been found. The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel is about 73 meters underground and spans for just over a kilometer. If North Korea had the opportunity to use this tunnel, they could funnel 30,000 troops in an hour into South Korea.

When you go in, you enter via the visitor center. Hard hats are a good idea, as I found myself hitting my head regularly on the hard granite ceiling. Along the walls of the tunnel you can see where the North Koreans painted the tunnel black so that it could be labeled as a 'coal mine'. Also along the walls were the dynamite holes that clearly pointed towards Seoul, proving that this was intended to funnel people into the country.

Photos were prohibited, although I did sneak a picture of the entrance ramp.

Outside of the visitor's center I saw the stark reality that we were in a war zone. The two countries are still technically at war. A common site in the tourist areas was this barbed wire fence blocking us from the miles of land peppered with land mines. These mines are technically owned by the United States, although we have tried to turn them over to the South Korean government for many years. If reunification does happen, one of the issues that will arise is how to deal with the millions of land mines within the DMZ. Many have said that this area should remain uninhabited, using it rather as a natural reserve for animals. Many endangered species have taken refuge here already, and in the future this place might be known for it's immense natural beauty rather than the border of a divided nation.

This area isn't completely devoid of hope, however. Just after lunch (where we also got to try some North Korean beer), we went to Dorasan Station. Dorasan Station is a train station that is the 'gateway' to North Korea. There is a railroad track that does cross the border and, up to 2008, it was used to transport goods from an industrial complex just north of the border. Since then, it has been shut down.

Inside, however, you can see that it is ready to resume operations at a moment's notice. Tourists now can get tickets with the Dorasan stamp. I was particularly taken by the sign that said "To Pyeongyang" that lead to the platform outside. To me, this represented the view that most Koreans have about this situation. They see North and South Korea as one Korea. They are one people, one family. That family looks forward to the day that they can be unified again. I don't believe it's a matter of if, but a matter of when.

After visiting Dorasan Station, our bus made our way to Camp Bonifas for a briefing and preparation for entering the Joint Security Area, or JSA. Here we saw a brief history of the Korean War and the state of the peninsula today. In the JSA, United States troops and Republic of Korea troops (also known as ROKs) are stationed to protect the armistice agreement signed at the end of the Korean War. Only the very best soldiers are stationed here, as they are face to face with the North Koreans on a daily basis. Here we were provided with a military tour guide after signing an agreement saying that, if North Korea engaged in hostilities during our tour, the United States and Korea would not be held liable for any harm that may come to you.

During this part of the tour our military guide discussed the region and what their duties were. One of the more interesting places within this area is Daeseong-dong village, or Freedom Village. It's a full city of 250 people within the DMZ that is protected by the US and ROK forces. The residents are taken care of by the Korean government and provided with many acres of land for farming and agriculture. In exchange, however, they are required to abide by a strict 12am curfew and must live within constant sight of North Korea.

We reached the JSA and I have to tell heart was racing. I'm sure you've seen pictures of the blue UN buildings straddling the border. When you're there in person, the place is much more ominous and tense. On the South Korean side, there is a building with steps leading up to the hillside where the UN buildings are located. You wait just out of sight of the North Koreans as you are briefed on etiquette within the JSA. All visitors are kept in 2 single file lines. Photographs are only permitted when told by an MP. There is to be no communication or contact with the North Koreans, which includes hand gestures or waving. ROK soldiers all have a bubble of about 6 inches around them. If you cross that bubble, they will stomp their foot twice. If you don't leave, they take you down - tae kwon do style.

Once we cross that threshold and see North Korea, you immediately notice that the North Koreans are staring at you. They are checking you out, determining if you are a threat. You can see their soldiers eying you with binoculars and pacing on the steps on the other side. The ROK soldiers don't bring any comfort either. They are trained to show no emotion. Even though you know that they are on your side, they look stoic and robotic as they patrol the South Korean side. ROK soldiers also stand next to the blue UN buildings with half their body in cover. This is to give them an advantage if fired on. Basically...if anything went down, this would be ground zero.

As tense as it was, I found the place insanely fascinating. It might be the idea that I could never go into North Korea, and so I wanted to get as close as possible. It's a piece of living history, and a source of immense sadness and the hope of a brighter future for a country that I've called home for the past 10 months. I felt drawn into their issues, and I want nothing more than to see a united Korea.

On our way out, we stopped at two more locations. One was a guardhouse overlooking North Korea and Propaganda Village. This is a village visible from Freedom Village and, at first glance, looks clearly more prestigious and lively than the South Korean side. But, with modern day optics, the ROK and US Soldiers were able to tell that all these buildings are fake. The buildings are shells with no windows and a single light located on the top floor. The giant flagpole, purposefully built larger than the one in South Korea, is sometimes the only thing lit at night. The flag is also taken down by North Korean soldiers when it needs to be changed, with no villagers ever in sight.

As strange as this was, the second stop had a much more emotional impact on our group. We stopped at a place called the Bridge of No Return, a single unguarded bridge crossing a river that divides the two countries. At the end of the Korean War, there were many prisoners of war on both sides. These prisoners were set free and given a choice: they could choose where they wanted to live. This bridge allowed them and their families to choose to live in either North or South Korea. They had to abide to one condition: their choice was final, and they could never return to the opposite side.

Think about that for a second: you were involved in a war and had the choice to choose a country to live in, knowing that you could never go back to the other. The other side could very well be a place you call home. You could have family or friends who live on that side of the river. Maybe you farmed on one side and lived on the other. Before the war, this was just a quiet place to live. Now you had to make a decision. Which one do you choose? At the time, there was no evil or good side. Both sides were utterly destroyed by the war and in desperate need of reconstruction. What happens if you picked the 'wrong' one?

I couldn't imagine the decision these soldiers had to face after fighting a war that claimed the lives of many of their countrymen. This was a sad place for many could feel it.

After visiting the DMZ, Korea felt immensely different to me. This place knows war. They've lived with it for over 50 years. In that time, one side came from ashes and built an economic and political power that now plays a major role in the world and the other side faced famine, human rights issues, and isolation from the modern world. I knew why South Koreans are so proud of their nation and their people, and why they are afraid of foreign involvement. I love this country, and as a foreigner I'm insanely proud of what these people have accomplished.

They do have a tough road ahead of them, but the biggest hurdle has already been crossed. If you ask any Korean in South Korea, they'd tell you that they are all one people, one Korea. The process of reunification is already in the works. Economic and social policies are taking shape. The culture itself is ready to accept North Korea with open arms. That's huge, and shouldn't be understated. When that day finally comes...and it will...I will be celebrating with the Koreans. They deserve it.

Dorasan Station has it right: it's not the last station from the South, but the first station toward the North.

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