Friday, July 2, 2010

DMZ, JSA and the Third Infiltration Tunnel

The weekend we were in Seoul the alarm went off at 5:30 am on Saturday.  We awoke to a gray and foggy morning.

We checked in for the DMZ tour at 7:00 am.   

Once we were on board the bus we were asked to show our passports.  This was to prove we were foreigners.  North and South Korean citizens are not permitted on the tour.  Those attempting the tour from certain countries are often asked to undergo a background check before they’re given clearance.

An energetic Korean woman took the microphone and began to brief us on the activities of the day.  We’d be visiting the DMZ, JSA and Third Tunnel.

In case your world politics aren’t up to date, North and South Korea are not unified.  North Korea is a communist country, refusing to allow its citizens to leave.  South Korea is a capitalist country, and doesn't agree with the North’s policies and government which are controlled by “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-il.

Although we had anticipated the tension surrounding the reality we were about to witness, we were still slightly unnerved once the tour actually began.

After about an hour we were dropped off in front of a small building within Camp Bonifas.   

United States and South Korean military were prevalent in the area. 

Before entering the building we were told to bring our cameras but nothing else.  On our way inside to find seats we were given a printed waiver and a pen.  
The first part of the waiver read as follows:  "The visit to the Joint Security area at Panjunmon will entail entry into a hostile area and the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action."

After handing over the death waivers, the lights dimmed and  a slideshow narrated by a US soldier began.  He gave us a brief history of the Korean War and the places we'd visit throughout the tour.
DMZ stands for De-Militarized Zone.  It refers to the two kilometers on either side of the border of North and South Korea, where no military can be stationed.  The area has become home to a rich and diverse population of wildlife since in some parts there are few people.

The JSA (Joint Security Area), also known as "Panjumon" is the only area in the DMZ and along the border where both United Nations and North Korean military stand face to face.  They border the ceasefire Military Demarcation Line created at the 38th parallel after the war's end.  For the most part the two nations keep a civilized common peace due to treaties. 

After the slide show, we boarded a second bus, and continued our journey.  

We were told that photographs of our own would be permitted in some areas but not others.  If we were to ignore instructions and take pictures when it was prohibited, our cameras would be taken, our pictures erased, and our names would be written down. 

Our soldier tour guide pointed out a one-hole golf course where the soldiers often practice their golf game.  Surrounded on three sides by mine fields, it has been named the world’s most dangerous golf course by Sports Illustrated magazine.

Once we passed the hole, we were asked to put our cameras away for the time being.

As we continued on the windy road, greenery and plants surrounded us.  There were areas where the road narrowed and tall pillars cropped up, making it impossible for tanks to get through.  The intermittent rain impaired our vision, which was disappointing.

The bus stopped at the site where the “Ax Murder Incident” transpired.

Camp Bonifas  (where we had just been) was originally called Camp Kitty Hawk and Camp Liberty Bell.  It had been renamed Camp Bonifas for Captain Arthur Bonifas, one of two American military was murdered by North Koreans in 1978.  “The Axe Murder Incident” as it’s known, took place in what was at that time a neutral area. 

Leading up to the event, it was determined that an overgrown poplar tree needed to be trimmed as it was blocking an observation post.  The trimming went as planned until a North Korean soldier abruptly asked that it be stopped.  Bonifas ordered it to continue, which is when the soldier ran across the bridge and returned with twenty more men.  These men decided to turn against Bonifas and the other UN soldiers.  The attack resulted in the murders of Captain Arthur Bonifas and Lieutenant Mark Barrett with axes that had been dropped by the tree trimmers.

Truly disturbing.  As a result of the incident North Korean guards were forced to stay on the other side of the line, and the area is no longer a neutral zone.

The infamous poplar tree was cut down entirely three days later, in an operation titled "Paul Bunyan."  During the removal, sixty-four South Korean soldiers formed a ring around the tree as the first line of defense against a potential protest attack from the North.  Unarmed but holding black belts in Taekwan-do, the soldiers threatened to turn the enemy’s own weapons on them if necessary.  Also at the scene were twenty-seven fighter jets, twenty-eight helicopters two B-52s, and a battle ready aircraft carrier.  Within an hour the tree was successfully removed with no interference from the North.

In 1987 a monument to commemorate the deceased was placed at the scene.

Just beyond the monument was the Bridge of No Return.  

In 1953 at the end of the Korean War, prisoners were brought to the bridge and given the choice to stay in South Korea where they had been captured, or return to North Korea.  If they chose to cross the bridge into the North, the prisoners would never be allowed to return, hence the name.

On a clear day we would have been able to see beyond the bridge, as well as stopped to visit the Third Tower lookout point referenced in the Axe Murder Incident.  Here, a tall South Korean flag flies from a tower, at one point the tallest flag in the world.  Immediately after seeing the flag go up, North Korea’s leader ordered a taller tower flying a North Korean flag be built.  This is a statement that the nation refuses to be outdone.

After driving for a few more minutes we passed through "Taesongdong" or "Freedom Village", a place with extremely unique circumstances.

Those residing in Freedom Village are required to spend a minimum of 240 nights a year in their homes, and must obey a nightly curfew.  Many residents of the village own businesses in nearby Seoul, and are allowed to come and go as long as they stay within the curfew and minimum stay guidelines.  Citizens of the village are guaranteed an annual salary equivalent to $85,000 US no matter how their businesses do.  If their goods (mostly rice crops) go unsold, the government will buy them.  Citizens are guaranteed this income no matter how their businesses do.  The trade-off of course, is that they are living as close to North Korea as possible and would be the first to be put in harm’s way if anything were to happen within the divided nation.

Ryan’s response to this information: “I’d rather pay my taxes.”

Next we pulled up to a large building where we were instructed to wait a few minutes before de-boarding.  Anyone with jackets or sunglasses were told they’d have to wear them the entire time we were inside.  Their other choice was to leave them on the bus. 

When we entered the building, we learned it was built to reunite family members that had been divided between the North and South after the war.  Sadly, the North has allowed few, if any people to be reunited there.

Our guide briefed us on the fact that there would be North Korean soldiers watching us, and that photographs were allowed, but offensive gestures and waving weren’t.  Photographing the large security cameras atop the building pointed toward the North was also not permitted.

We were led to a point outside called The Military Armistice Commission Building, a neutral meeting place for the two sides.  Armed UN military stood guard facing the North. 

In South Korea every man is required to serve two years in the military, directly after either high school or college.  The soldiers at the DMZ have to be larger in stature and weight than their peers and along with undoubted extra training must also hold a black belt in Judo or Taekwando.

In a large building no more than fifty feet from where we stood, a North Korean soldier with binoculars was watching our every move.   

The tour guide told us these soldiers often make obscene gestures at the UN soldiers, signaling slitting their throats and giving them the finger. 

Almost directly across from the North Korean man remains this South Korean soldier.  He uses the building as a partial shield and stands at attention for hours on end.

We stood just in front of the official Demarcation Line.

When we entered The Military Armistice Commission Building we were told that those of us on the far side of the room were on North Korean soil.  
North on the left, South on the right.
A large table in the middle of the room is the site for rare meetings discussing peace between the two sides.  Fingerprints and even a footprint marred the shiny wood.  The North had shown their disrespect yet again. 

Our guide shared some more anecdotes and information about the tour as we stood in North Korea.  

Behind a glass window, the United Nations flags are currently displayed in the meeting room.  At one point when the flags weren’t encased, the South came in to find that soldiers from the North had blown their nose in the South Korean flag, and cleaned the table with the American flag.

We couldn't resist one picture with this soldier before heading out of the room. The table referenced is pictured as well.

Back on the bus, we toured a gift shop and then wound through some lush green hills.  We saw signs warning of land mines in the area. 

The Dora Observation Center would have been amazing on a clear day.  

Looking out we saw only white haze, where normally we’d be able to see a large section of the North.  This line marks the last chance to take photos, as they’re not allowed beyond it.  Unfortunately we couldn't see much at all.

Our next stop was a self-tour of the Third Infiltration Tunnel.

One of four discovered in the years since the war’s end, the Third Tunnel was found near Panjumon in 1978.  This and the other tunnels discovered were built for no other purpose but to launch a surprise attack on Seoul.   The Third Tunnel is estimated to support 30,000 troops carrying guns and equipment.  Coming from the North, troops would be able to travel the length of the tunnel and end up close to Seoul in under one hour.

North Korea initially denied they’d built the Third Tunnel.  They claimed the South must have built it to attack them.  Once the North finally took responsibility for building the tunnel, they claimed it was part of a coal mine. They even went so far as to paint black spots on the wall in an attempt to back up their story.  Coal does not naturally form in the area, making theirs an even more outlandish story.

Pictures weren’t allowed beyond the entrance to the tunnel.  I found this one online which gives you a glimpse.   

 Here we are getting ready for spelunking, yellow hard hats securely in place.

The black paint on the walls was visible.  Water dripped from the ceiling and in many places we had to duck down to avoid hitting our heads. The whole thing was pretty creepy.  It wasn’t conducive to tall people either, so we were hunched over for the better part of the one mile length.

When we reached the end of the tunnel we were able to peer into an empty room with boards covering a window, leading towards the North.

We were happy to turn around and go back the way we came.

Lunch was served in a large cafeteria.  The choices were bibimbap and bulgogi

Through the gift shop and back on the bus, our last stop was an abandoned train station.  Fairly new and never used, it was built with the hopes of allowing travel from South to North and back again.  Sadly at this point that travel is not possible.

The deserted station had a sad and forgotten feel to it.

Ryan and I have become fascinated with the history of our new home.  From an outside perspective it’s hard to imagine living in a divided nation.  Visiting the DMZ was a wonderful opportunity where the reality of the country’s grim situation became eerily clear.  We'll keep hoping for a peaceful end to the divide.  Someday.

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