Last weekend I finally got around to checking out the DMZ between North and South Korea. It has been on my to do list since my arrival. It was long over do and thanks to meetup.com I was able to finally cross it off of the list and do it for a pretty decent price.
The first thing that I noticed at the DMZ was that there was an amusement park. Not exactly what I think of when I think small border next to the evil North Korea. After that was just the awe of actually being right on North Korea’s doorstep. With the naked eye you could see the observation posts of the North Koreans. As I pointed out to my friend who did not know that right outside the chain link fence was the killing fields in the event of an attack, and that beyond that was Kim Jong Il. Right after I made that statement it hit me as well that it was in fact North Korea just beyond reach. It was surreal to say the least as you read about it in the papers, on the internet, and on the news broadcasts.
After scoping out the first area at ground level we headed out to another area of the DMZ and grabbed a hard hat and began our decent down into the Earth where we were allowed to travel down to a tunnel that the North Koreans had drilled, chiseled, and dynamited their way secretly under the DMZ and into the south. I do not consider myself to be a very tall individual but by Korean standards I am rather big. North Koreans are said to be even shorter than their South Korean counterparts and I believe it as I was nearly crawling through the tunnels that they had dug to prepare for another invasion before they were found by the South Korean government. On several occasions I hit my head on the cavern’s ceiling which did not hurt but shocked me every time it occurred. Both the descent and ascent back up were brutal on my back and legs as the majority of the walk in the tunnel I was hunched over and the way back was up a pretty steep incline.
After we ascended from the tunnel we headed to another observation point where South Korea was hosting a UN gathering so we were not given free reign of the area (not that they let you go where ever you please, but it was more restrained than it normally would). It was here that the military had painted a line away from the edge of the observation area where you could take pictures. Roughly ten feet from the railing. The pictures that I took were not very good and in all honesty there was not much to photograph so, I did not take many and what came out were not really worth keeping. Not really sure why there was a ban on taking photographs of the area as it was basically a few outposts and scrub brush.
After that we headed to our final tunnel (tunnel #3) and we donned our hard hats once again and descended into the mantle of the Earth once again. This descent was not as harsh as the first one and at the end of the tunnel had an area where you could stand up completely and roam around and talk with people. After the tunnel tour some people got their photo taken with the soldiers and others, like myself, headed for the mini museum where they had interesting things on display such as old bottles of booze and different types of ordinance that was used in protecting South Korea during the war and while manning the various posts on the DMZ.
We then went to a tour area that informed you of the various birds and water foul that can be found at the DMZ and surrounding area. I was not all that interested and instead focus my energy and camera lens on the front line of the DMZ where we were told not to take pictures. Many of us did, and in our best James Bond impressions tried our hardest to snap shots of the troops and guns that protect South Korea from its Northern neighbor. We then went up to another observation point and had our closest look at North Korea. An observation post was not very far away and I tried to use the pay binoculars to squint towards the pill box on the far side of the hill but it was broken. However, our tour guide had a nice pair of binoculars and I was finally able to see a lone sentry guarding against the South Koreans. Admittedly, I expected something evil but, found myself feeling sorry for the young man having to patrol the hillside and brave the wind and chill of Korea’s waning Winter.
We then went to Wild Horse Hill where over eight days of battle occurred and resulted in over 1,800 deaths. There were several monuments and plaques denoting the fallen and the history of the skirmishes. It was the most impressive portion of the tour. The top of the hill had a (Buddhist) bell that is to be rang when the war is finally declared over.
Our last stop on the tour was at a building that was used to house the dissenters when the North Koreans stormed in and took over the Southern portion of the country. The structure was in bad shape and felt and looked to me like a Russian gulag. There was graffiti in the cells and it gave the impression of how desolate and terrible things can be.
In the end, the tour was very impressive and I was able to see quite a bit of the DMZ in very little time. I understand the need for the DMZ and why it needs to be protected at all costs but I could not help feeling sorry for the North Koreans. After seeing the soldier on the hillside freezing and suffering while manning his post for an invasion that will never come from South Korea I can not help but hope that reunification comes soon. That way many families can finally be reunited and hostilities can finally cease and healing can finally begin. It was a tour that everyone who comes to visit or live in South Korea should take. While I was on the tour I tried to imagine my grandfather trudging through the exact same places that I was walking and the things he ended up giving up so that others could stay free. In a word the tour was “awe-inspiring” to see what sacrifices people make so that they are not oppressed and the lengths they will go to in order to stay that way.