Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A touch of the cold wind from the other side

A stay in Korea wouldn't be complete if I didn't get a chance to see its other half. That “other half” happens to be one of the most reclusive state in the world. I recently got a chance to see the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) border that separates the two Koreas, and I can assure you, that it was one of the most memorable places I have ever visited.

The DMZ has been created along the 38th parallel after Japan surrendered at the end of World War II. Japan had occupied Korea for 40 years, and had relinquished its control to both the US and the Soviet Union. So, the country was divided up “temporarily”, and after subsequent conflicts between different political ideologies between the US and Soviet, it became a divided nation. Soon afterwards on June 25th, 1950, North Korea made a surprise attack in Seoul, and pushed South Korea to the brink of losing. The US intervened and pushed them past the 38th parallel before China was involved, and for the next 2 years, there were more fighting which ended in a bloody withdrawal. There was a cease-fire agreement, but a peace treaty was never signed which means that both Koreas are technically still at war.

The DMZ is 4 km wide, and split for both sides. It is the most heavily security tight area in the world, and the last remaining stronghold from the Cold War.

North Korea, long separated from its brother since the end of the Korean War in 1953, has managed to continue its totalitarian control over its population despite the estimated 4 million people that have died from the famine during the 90s, the power cuts they have experienced, the economic collapse that has plagued the country for the last 20 years, and an unknown number of people who have been put to death either by execution or through the hard labor camps. There are also an untold number, possibly in the tens of thousands that are currently in the labor camps around the country.

North Korea is such a reclusive state that many in the international community have called it an intelligence blackhole. It is also perhaps one of the hardest countries to visit in, as you are only allowed to visit Pyongyang, the capital, and a few other select places around the country with the accompaniment of a tour guide. A person's stay there goes no longer than a week, and you're freedom as a visitor is nearly non-existent as you are only allowed to go to select places under the watchful eye of your tour guide. Currently, tours in North Korea are far, few in between, and their government randomly allows certain times where visitors can make a trip to their land. As it stands now, the country is not allowing any foreign tourists at the moment, but instead, my friends and I were given a rare chance to see a bird's eye view of Korea's rebellious, pesky little brother.

Much like the weather during my DMZ trip, North Korea's future outlook is cold, grim, and foggy. Despite the depressed and failed state that its currently in, North Korea refuses to let go of its military-first policy, and take on new reforms the way China and Russia did. The nuclear weapons that they possessed are the only leverage they have against the international community. They are isolated from the world as China remains their only ally, though its alliance has diminished significantly over the years due to China's strengthening partnership with South Korea, Japan, and the US.

I have longed held a strong, curious interest in the history of both Koreas, especially the North. Since the Korean War, South Korea has rapidly ascended from being a war-torn, 3rd world country, to one of the world's largest economies in a short period of time. Their rapid economic strength earned them the nickname, “The Miracle of the Han.” Meanwhile, North Korea recovered very quickly from the war due to the aid of the former Soviet Union and China. However, the collapse of Eastern Europe and the diminishing relationship with China, North Korea has experienced a steep fall that it has yet to climb out of. Both these countries draw such polarizing contrasts that if these two would ever reunite, it would be one complicated, hot mess.

However, there is still that hope that one day these two halves would come together.

I planned my DMZ trip in late September. I had always wanted to visit the DMZ border since my arrival to Korea in February. Many months later, I finally had the opportunity to make that visit. I talked with a travel agent, and was able to book a full-day tour with 11 of my friends. It was about 120,000 W ($140 USD) which covered several places: The Dorasan Railroad Station, the Dora Observatory, the 3rd Tunnel, Unification Village, Imjingak Station, and Panmunjom (Joint Security Area). This was the best of the best DMZ package we got, and we would be able to see almost all of the sites at the DMZ. The tour nearly didn't happen because of the H1N1 outbreak, but luckily, we found out at the last minute that it would continue to proceed.

Our friends and I arrived in Seoul the night before. We stayed at a nice, cozy hostel, and had to get up quite early to confirm our reservation by 8 am, and catch our tour bus. We went to the grand Lotte Hotel which was about 10 minutes from our hostel, and soon headed for the DMZ. The bus ride went smooth, and had a tour guide sharing us some stories about the history of the DMZ right after the Korean War. As the highway soon became narrow, and devoid of traffic, we can see the Han River to our left side. The Han River now becomes the Imjin River as we head into the border. The bus ride from Seoul to the DMZ line is only 45 minutes, 50 km (35 miles); a surprisingly short distance between normality and danger. All of us were eagerly excited when we saw our first sight of barb wires surrounding the Imjin River. Once we arrived at the checkpoint, we were asked for our passport (this would happen a few more times) and were specifically told not to take pictures without their discretion due to military confidentiality, and alarming the North Koreans that the UN is spying on them. The road became an obstacle course, as our bus zig-zagged our way through. We can see the large wildlife, the mountainous background lurking in the North, and the endangered animals that have sought refuge in the landmine-filled wilderness. The entire wildlife there, though despite its seemingly tranquil nature, is filled with land-mines, and barbed wires.

We made our first stop to the Dorasan Station. This station was recently rebuilt as the railway link between the two countries. It would link it to two of the biggest North Korean cities, Kaesong and Pyongyang, its capital. Currently, the train station is closed, and it will never open until both sides can come to peaceful agreements regarding unification. As the train station sits idle, and devoid of any commuters, it is treated as a historical site, and a symbol for its reunification efforts. The train station is in top, brand-new condition. We took several photos of the station, and saw entrance signs that says “To Pyongyang.” Quite surreal to think that one day, you can take the express train into the North Korean capital, which is hardly ever visited by any foreigners, and the rest of the country being closed off to the entire world. What was most astounding was the map of the future Trans EurAsian Railway Network. This railway will start from Busan (Southwest of the S.K.), into Seoul, through Dorasan, then into North Korea. Then, it will connect throughout almost all of Russia, and then into the European countries like Germany, France, and even England. At this time, North Korea has not granted permission to open its railroad track for this international network. A great, big shame indeed. However, I can imagine what a backpacking adventure it would be to travel throughout Europe from Korea.

We were told on the bus to not point any gestures towards the North Korean side, and not to take pictures in that direction from Dorasan Station. In the meantime, I bought three souvenirs from Dorasan Station; one is a limited edition set of an old barb wire from the DMZ, memorabilia stamps of South Korea, and a DMZ keychain. We headed back onto the bus, and headed towards the Dora Observatory. The observatory allowed us to view North Korea through a telescope. Most of the view from that side are only mountains that are left barren, the tall North Korean flag which is adjacent to the South Korean flag. You can see “Propaganda Village” otherwise known as Kijong-dong which is a village with several small to medium sized buildings. However, these buildings are hardly ever occupied at all. It is suggested that no one even lives in that village, save for a few people. It's purpose is to blast propaganda speech about the greatness of North Korea, its leader, and condemning the US, South Korea, and Japan for nearly the entire day, everyday, hence the nickname. The other side, South Korea has its own village by the DMZ. That village is called Daesong. Only 230 South Koreans live in this village. Those people that have lived in this security tight area have ancestors in this village prior to the Korean War. Most of them are farmers, as they work in the rice field there with soldiers protecting them. There is a church, a school, a few shops. We were not allowed to take photographs of the Unification Village, its nickname. The advantages of living in this remote area are its residents do not have to pay taxes, their income ranges from $80,000-$100,000 a year, they are not required to do their military service. However, they must be living in their village 240 days out of the year, and must be home by 11 pm. They also must lock their own homes for fear that North Korean spies would abduct them.

Our view in the observatory was somewhat obstructed as the fog kind of hampered over the Kaesong area. We were not allowed to take photographs from a certain distance as there was a yellow line several feet away from the telescope. The weather coming from the north side was incredibly cold. The wind was howling in, and I felt like we were in the middle of Siberia.

We headed for our next destination. We visited the 3rd tunnel. During the 1970's, UN intelligence discovered that North Koreans were building secret underground tunnels as a surprise attack on the South. There have been 4 tunnels found, the last one discovered in 1990. All of them lead into Seoul. Though the North Korean government has continually denied any involvement with the tunnels, it has alarmed both the US and the South to the point where they have hired tunnel-detection teams to find more secret tunnels. As of now, there could possibly be 20 tunnels altogether, and they have yet to find the 5th tunnel. These tunnels that the North Koreans dug up can move up to 10,000 soldiers an hour, and fit tanks and other artillery through. This has given the UN such a headache that there were rumors that they have hired psychics to find the location of the missing tunnels.

We were not allowed to take pictures inside the tunnel. The tunnel is about several kilometers deep and very narrow. We were told to put on our hardhats to protect our head from the sharp rocks. We took the monorail inside the tunnel. It was surreal. Inside, the walls were jagged and uneven. I was sitting on the edge of the monorail, and can sometimes feel my jacket brushing up against the wall. The tunnel was dimly lit, and you can spot the dynamite holes that was left on the walls. We got off the monorail, and started walking a kilometer to the halfway point where it reaches the North Korean side. The path is very narrow, and for a tall guy like me, I was bending my back as I walking. This was a killer walk, as my back was killing me. Drops of water were dripping from the cave as we were walking. We finally reached the center of the tunnel which was closed off. There were barb wires that surrounded the sealed off area. There, you can get a brief glimpse of the other side in the tunnel.

We walked back to the monorail, and back into solid land. Outside of the entrance, there are trees and grass behind it. It seems more like a typical forest that you can take a nice stroll into. However, looks are deceiving. There are a gazillion land-mines buried here. I was able to get as close to the mines, and make some silly poses by it. Right next to it, is a badminton court. Quite convenient.

We walked into the DMZ exhibition hall right next to it. It's fairly new. We were watching a short 10 minute film about the history of the DMZ. It also focuses on the wildlife and the species that inhibit the area. There have been many discussions about keeping the wildlife preserved, if and when Korea is united. We walked into the gallery, and there, we saw photographs of the Korean War, the large design of the DMZ map, and several other artifacts from the war.

We got back on the bus for lunch, and temporarily left the DMZ. We had a great lunch as they served us hot beef noodle soup with rice and vegetable dishes. The restaurant was very cozy and delightful.

We headed back into the DMZ, and again, we had to show our passports. We were instructed to not take photos inside the Panmunjom area, until we reached Imjingak. We headed into the Imjingak area to see the Freedom Bridge and another observatory. It's a rather beautiful area, and it even has a small amusement theme park for the little kids. The Imjingak building is about 4 stories high, and they have another set of telescopes you can use to peer closer to the North. This time, we had no photo restrictions from that area. From a short distance, you can see the train bridge over the Imjin River that was built several years ago which connects both countries. Next to the right, was a bridge that was torn apart during the Korean War with only the pillars still standing. Right by the train bridge is a memorial called the “Freedom Bridge.” People can walk on the bridge which abruptly stops right at the border. The gate is covered up as a shrine as there are pictures, letters, and well wishes for a reunification, and for many South Koreans or former North Koreans who have been separated from their loved ones. This is such a tragedy to see so many Koreans separated from their loved ones, and displaced from their hometown for so many decades now, and counting. Recently, both governments have allowed temporary reunions for separated families during the Chuseok and Memorial holiday weekend, but that's only those can do the reunion are picked out by the North Korean government in cooperation with the South.

In the park, there was an old freight train that is left standing at the DMZ line. It was left behind after the Korean War, and now serves as an important symbol of that separation. The train has bullet holes ridden all over its body. I got myself some postcards from Imjingak, and as we finally headed our way to the JSA building.

JSA stands for (Joint Security Area). This is the most highly coveted area of the DMZ/Panmunjom region, and for any DMZ tour. For the most part, they do not allow any South Korean citizens to enter into this area for security reasons, but for other nationalities including US citizens, they are granted permission to enter. We got back on the bus, and this time, we changed buses. We had a South Korean soldier as our bus driver, and a US soldier taking over as our new tour guide. As we waited patiently for our bus to be given the green light, the gates to the JSA opened up. There, on the narrow road, you can see soldier patrolling the road, and you can see the anti-tank barriers that’s in place in case there is an attack.

There have been a number of incidents since the DMZ was created. There had been some isolated gunfights along the border, the capture of North Korean spies, abductions, the secret tunnels. The most telling story of all was the Axe Murder Incident in 1976. A US captain named Arthur Bonifas was instructed to chop down the tall, poplar tree that was hampering the North Korean view. As he and a few soldiers were cutting down the tree, North Korean soldiers soon came and confronted them. Soon afterwards, Captain Bonifas was struck down with an axe and died instantly. After what the murder, the US military came down and cut down the tree without incident. Since then, the DMZ which was once a neutral zone where both military sides can roam freely is now completely separate.

We arrived at the JSA and Freedom Building. We were instructed to not take photos until we reached the 2nd floor of the Pagoda that is next to the Freedom Building. We also had to be in two single file lines under a military escort. The Freedom Building is where many of the family reunions take place. It sits across from North Korea’s security building. In the JSA, this is where both sides are split across. There are 3 blue building at the center of the DMZ. They are split off into two. They are called the MAC Conference Building. This is where the armistice agreement talks were held and signed. You can actually cross over into North Korea in that building, but unfortunately, we were not allowed to go in at that time as there are H1N1 issues. That killed me, especially since I can’t do that toe-stepping dance between the two lines (I’m joking!  ). However, we went to the 2nd floor, and were told to not point at the North Korean direction especially with their soldiers being present since this will give them more propaganda tools to tell their population about how evil and imperialistic the Americans are. Just imagine being in one of those North Korean films, and you are portrayed as the evil American. I can only imagine what those North Korean citizens go through everyday watching, hearing, and seeing everything propaganda that is used against Americans, South Koreans, and the Japanese. We were allowed to take pictures from there, and we can see a North Korean soldier standing there motionlessly. He was looking at us with his binoculars. Quite a telling moment as he saw our presence there. Sometimes, I wonder what is going through his head, and what he thinks about our appearance, our motives for being there, and what he really thinks of the world outside his homeland.

We came inside the Freedom Building, and we were not allowed to go outside to the JSA patrol area, but we did get a much closer look at the North Korean soldier who was looking at us, and the R.O.K. soldiers who were keeping an eye out on the North. It was a calm, but tense showdown between two sides. We were able to once again take photos. It was priceless, and I can’t wait to have the opportunity to see it more up close the next time around. We soon left, and headed for the DMZ gift shop in Panmunjom. In passing, we saw a golf course which Sports Illustrated called the “most dangerous golf course in the world.” There shouldn’t be an explanation as to why, but I pose this question to you, if you hit the ball out, are you going to get it?

I got myself a replica of the JSA builing and vintage North Korean money. I don’t ever recall being this ecstatic since my visit to Vietnam this past summer. I am a witness to the current, everyday tension between these two borders, and realizing how valuable our freedom really is. It is quite surreal that only less than 40 miles away, you’re in one of the most heavily populated, cosmopolitan, technology-driven cities in the world compared to the eery, prison-like, windy, mountainous nature that lies straight ahead to the North.

It was already evening, and we were done with our full day tour. We got a closer look at the Unification Village, and soon departed back home. As we left the checkpoint, and the view of the Imjin River away from our sight, we slept knowing that we have our freedom, and hoping the same can be said for those up North who never knew such an important thing.

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