DMZ – FREEDOM BRIDGE
Saturday, July 3rd, 2010 is the day I decided to cross the border into North Korea…legally that is. I signed up a few days earlier online for the combined tours of the Third Tunnel and Panmunjom. I received an automatic confirmation and reservation number. I was already thinking that if for some reason I didn’t get into the tour I would just walk around the area of the departure. The departure point happened to be the prestigious Lotte Hotel. I hadn’t paid for the tour yet. The hotel is a stop away from City Hall so there’s plenty to do there. I had to get up at 5am so I could be on the train around 6am. I had to be at the hotel by 7:30am and it takes an hour on the train to get to the Lotte Hotel including some line transfers.
So, I get to the Lotte Hotel in timely fashion. I find the floor I need to the DMZ tour office. I walk in and am asked to take a seat. I sit down for a moment. Then they call me over. The clerk tells me that the tour I reserved online for was not even open this day. (I should have known as the reservation was too easy.) There’s more than one tour company. This office happen to be another tour company doing the same tour around the same time. I asked if they had room for me and I got the very last seat on the bus. Phew!
Half or a bit more than half the bus was a large group of Japanese tourists. There were always two tour guides on the bus. One was for the Japanese and a sweet, funny older Korean lady spoke English to the foreigners.
There are separate tours for the Third Tunnel and Panmunjom. I wanted to see it all and I’m so glad I did.
First of all, the bus ride is about an hour and half to the Northern border.
In the morning, the first stop was at Imjingak where you can see the Freedom Bridge where a train once ran through here. It was a place where the North and the South exchanged prisoners after the Korean War. This is a very sacred area as many South Koreans still have family members in the North.
Next Stop: Odusan Unification Observatory
This was very fascinating! Those mountains in the background are in North Korea. Over the right side behind this soldier is a small South Korean village made up of a few hundred farmers. A South Korean flag can be seen as well as a church steeple and the town. A few hundred meters north of the South Korean flag is a North Korean flag. The North Korean village is known as the Propaganda Village since not a soul lives there. The North is all about appearances. It’s not easy to take photos of these sites as the South Korean government purposely makes it difficult. There’s a yellow line that lets you know you can take pictures up until that point. No pictures after crossing that line. You can really see the two villages and the two flags very well through binoculars at the edge for 500 won.
The South Korean villagers in this town don’t pay taxes and do not have to do the mandatory military service that the rest of the country does. They have good benefits. They deal with enough living with hostile neighbors that have been known to kidnap villagers. These villagers are also surrounded by thousands of land mines. The South Korean military has only rid of about 30% of the mines here.
Welcome to the Third Tunnel.
We took a monorail down to the Third Tunnel. The space is very narrow so you have to watch your head. I bumped mine a few times on the monorail and on foot. The monorail only takes you down so far. The rest is on foot. So, apparently one North Korean defector came to the South and told them of these tunnels being dug so the North can do a surprise attack. Four tunnels have been found, but they suspect up to 10 possibly exist. The North splashed some coal over the tunnel to make it seem like they were simply mining coal, but there’s no coal. The Fourth Tunnel was found as recent as the early 90’s. The North doesn’t let up. The tunnel was pretty amazing. We had to bend down in order to walk. You can barely fit two people beside each other. I don’t know how an army would attack through such narrow spaces. They would need to sleep after getting to the other side. We walked to the end where the South Korean military put up a wall so the North can not penetrate now. Through a small hole in the wall you can see another door further away. On the way back, instead of taking the monorail which some people did, I opted to walk up the steep incline. It’s VERY steep and quite long considering we were on the monorail for about 3 to 5 minutes. I was dying when I reached the top.
Next Stop: Dorasan Station
There is a South Korean factory way over the North Korean territory in Gyeseong. Most of the workers are North Korean. Some South Koreans in supervisor type roles take the train here to Gyeseong to go to work. The North and South have an agreement regarding this factory where both sides benefit. South Koreans would love to see this station be a working station for civilians to take through North Korea all the way to China. South Koreans have to fly if they want to go to China.
I’m starving. Bulgogi! I think this is my favorite Korean meal. Beef stew is all it is. It tastes much better than it sounds. We ate at a traditional Korean restaurant and sat on the floor.
Let’s go to North Korea!
The bus headed to Camp Bonifas, South Korea’s military base on the border. Things get very strict here and at different times throughout both tours. There are places and times when you’re not allowed to snap photos. Since we were now much closer to the neighboring villages we could see them without binoculars. ‘No pictures please.’
On our way into the area in the morning there were a few check points where soldiers checked passports. Camp Boifas has even more restrictions. On our way into the base, the tour guide kept updating us on how close we were getting to the Demarcation Line or Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Soldiers took another look at our passports. We finally left for the Joint Security Area where the DMZ line is. But first we needed to see an 8 minute movie about the DMZ. We also signed our life away on some form. (It was nice knowing you all.) We picked up badges that we wore in plain sight on our shirts. Other than the movie we were also briefed about what we could do and what we could not do. Still cameras were okay to bring and snap photos inside the MAC Conference Room. Video cameras are not permitted. (So, all those You Tube videos are people that broke a very serious rule. Bad! Very bad! But thank you for sharing.)
We were not allowed to bring our camera cases. Just the still cameras. It started to drizzle. I thought, ‘Oh, great. We can bring our cameras, but if it starts raining we’re screwed.’ Luckily, the rain remained a light drizzle. We were also informed that we could not do any pointing with our fingers. The North will use that as propaganda. There are apparently cameras everywhere. Who knows what would happen to you? Don’t be a dumb-ass and follow the rules people!
Here it comes!
The MAC Conference Room is the ultimate in political geography when two sides are technically still at war. It’s a very strange feeling being there. We had about 5 minutes to snap photos inside the MAC Conference Room. All the soldiers inside are South Korean. The soldier I’m standing beside is positioned on the DMZ line. The table is half on South Korea and the other half is in North Korea. There is a flag and marks on the table indicating the line. You’ll see the line outside the window. The South Korean side has gravel while the North Koreans prefer the plain concrete look. They’re not big on decorating.
After posing for that picture, I stepped over into North Korea to take some more photos. It’s a weird feeling to stand there. Before we knew it, we were being rushed out of the room. Get in. Get out. Stay safe.
We then were able to take more pictures from a distance as another tour group entered the Conference Room. A few soldiers outside stand facing the North with only one eye to watch the other side. These soldiers in their set positions are seriously like mannequins.
The purpose of this Demilitarized Zone is to prevent any possible fight between two hostile armed forces.
In this wide shot you can see a North Korean soldier looking on from across the way in the furthest building.
In such an awful place there is still some incredible beauty as a flock of white cranes filled the trees.
There is so much suffering among the Korean people over this area. A part of Imjingak is a family amusement park. I guess it’s a pleasant thing to have there since many Koreans go there to think about their relatives still in North Korea.
Hopefully some day these two countries will patch things up. I’m just glad I got to see some unbelievable history.
The hagwon I work at took the younger kids on a field trip to Seoul Grand Park. There is this wonderful zoo there so I was excited as I haven’t seen much being in South Korea for a month. But when we arrived we stood in front of the entrance to the zoo for only a moment. Then the group walked towards a flower garden where we spent the morning.
We did see some animals like tiny monkeys goats, sheep and very big rabbits. At least us teachers had the morning off.