The DMZee: Where North Meets South
04 May 2010
Today is my one day out of Seoul, a day trip to the DMZ (and it is always, seemingly, pronounced DM Zee; these Americans!). nb Although the map point shows Kaesong, that is in N Korea and I didn't go there but it is the nearest place I could find in the area. I'm using a company called USO United Services Organisation which is in the US army base Camp Kim, smack bang in the middle of Seoul.
On getting a bagel for lunch, I bump into Erica, a Canadian who is on holiday from her English teaching job in Japan where she has been for four years. Get a few useful tips from her about Japan during the day.
This tour gets booked up well in advance and this afternoon has two buses. It departs with military precision at 12.00 on the dot, heading 55km north.
As you can see from the photos the DMZ has become something of a tourist attraction. The army base even has a tourist shop for heaven's sake.
A Bit of Background
The two parties signed the armistice in 1953 (note it was 'just' an armistice; the two countries are officially still at war). Now for an acronym or two (and believe me the military could rattle off acronyms with the best of them). The MDL (Military Dividing Line) was set around the 38th parallel, where the last military engagements were. The DMZ extends 2km north and south of the MDL, for 241km. Perhaps surprisingly it contains two small villages, one in the north (almost a ghost town) and one in the south.
Inside the DMZ, straddling the MDL is the MAC (Military Armistice Commission) building.
Tunnels, Tunnels, Tunnels Everywhere
So far four tunnels have been found which the north have dug. The third, the one we are going to walk a long a section of, was found in October 1975. The South knew tunnelling was taking place so had dug 107 bore holes and filled them with water. Dynamite detonated far underground caused the water to surge. The 1635m tunnel was discovered, 73m underground. The North had painted the walls black, claiming it was a disused coal mine.
We had to don bright yellow hard hats and walk down a very long, and quite steep incline, to get to the start of the 265m section we were to walk along. It was built for Koreans but the height quite suited me, for the most part!
We were then taken by bus to the highest point in the area to look over the border at some scrubby woodland. Although there were loads of binoculars to look through (at a cost) no pictures were allowed beyond a yellow line. This effectively meant all you could photograph were N Korean clouds. On a really, really clear day, from this point looking south, you can see the N Seoul Tower (with binoculars) but our guide said she had been here over 500 times and that sort of visibility had only happened three times.
A Station with No Passengers
Next stop was Dorasan station. Completed in 2002 after the leaders of the two Koreas agreed at a 2000 meeting to reconnect the rail lines of the two countries. Although goods move across the border, people do not. It sits here, all new and shiny, just waiting for the day.
The MDL - Crossing The Divide
Off to Camp Bonifas where we are given strict instructions as to our behaviour. We were going, by military bus, to the S Korean Freedom House which is a large building staring across a small number of UN huts at a N Korean Visitor Centre. It glares back. We were then going to walk briskly, not stopping to take photos, making no gestures whatsoever, into the MAC building, which you will recall straddles the MDL
For our protection we had an escort of ROK (Republic of Korea) forces who all looked very mean in their modified Tae-kwan-do poses. We were assured this was not for show.
We were allowed to take photos from inside the Freedom House and you can see in mine the sole N Korean soldier who was monitoring our every move, often with binoculars.
We were given the signal to go and trotted off obediently. The room is modest in size and in decor with a couple of large wooden tables and a UN flag at one. Out of the window we could see the MDL close up, with gravel one side (south) and sand on the other. Then we trotted back again and home.
Those North Koreans: The Little Tinkers
Whilst there have been a few serious incidents over the years (not the place to dwell on here) there have been some other more amusing ones. Three that were related are as follows:
- When the two sides were to sit down and sign the armistice agreement the North decided to arrive early and prepare the seating arrangements...by sawing a length off the legs of all the chairs to be used by the South so that in the photos the South look like they are looking up to the North.
- I mentioned there were two villages in the DMZ, one on each side. The South presented a flag to their village which was erected on a tall flagpole. Almost immediately (dramatic licence?) the North responded by putting a massive flag atop an even bigger flagpole, dwarfing the South's.
- You can see from the photo that the North's Visitor centre has three floors. They added the third to overshadow the South's building. So when the South rebuilt theirs in 1998, there were thorough meetings between both sides to ensure it was no higher nor lower than the North's building. You have to laugh.
Price excluding lunch or dinner (depending on time of tour) was 84,000 Won + 10% tax
You have to book a tour; you cannot travel by yourself. USO Tours are highly recommended but book early to avoid disappointment. Prices seem to have risen significantly in the past year (or my guide book was wrong)