Friday, March 7, 2008
Part Two: The DMZ
The most fascinating part of my time in Korea would have to be the DMZ tour. The Demilitarized Zone is a 4km-wide zone along the entire border between the North Korea and South Korea, the most heavily guarded border in the world.
The 3 of us were lucky enough to have our own personal tour guide Youngsan (Angela) who gave us a fascinating history. (On a funny note, she actually picked us up in Seoul looking like the Korean version of Gwen Steffani....patent leather high-heels boots, leopard-print tights... thinking we had hired her for the "City Tour". When we told her that we had actually signed up for the DMZ tour, she switched gears immediately - and like Superman emerging as Clark Kent from a telephone booth, transformed herself into a very serious and extremely knowledgeable historian.)
Youngsan and Clay ready to descend into a tunnel
We drove about an hour out of Seoul to the DMZ area. I will not attempt the details of the history, as the tour guide was talking for a full 4 hours, and I could not begin to cover it. Suffice to say that the war is still technically "on" since 1953, and both sides stand and watch each other and the whole thing is very tense. There are a ton of land mines that the US helped to plant, keeping the North from coming into the south.
Land Mine indicator, up close and personal. I probably should have backed up a bit and used my zoom lens.
Since 1953, the NK's have actually carved tunnels deep in the granite of the earth, USING CHISELS AND DYNAMITE. This thing is an amazing feat. Well, I should mention that the workforce consisted of NK's political prisoners, and they were probably not volunteers. I can't imagine how many died in the process, as there is hardly any air down there, and NK is not known for it's safety standards.
Figurines of NK's building the tunnel
SK has discovered 4 tunnels, and suspect there to be about 20. The 3rd tunnel, which we got to go in, was large enough to permit 30,000 heavily armed troops to pass per hour into South Korea for a surprise attack only about 30 miles from Seoul. NK's discovered the tunnels from the South side, and then landmined and stopped up the tunnels, and we got to go all the way to the middle point.
We took a tram 45 Meters DOWN into the earth and then got out to walk to the end, not even being able to stand straight because the tunnel was not that big. I must say if I had known that it was going to be a claustrophobe's worst nightmare, I'm not sure I would have braved it, but I'm glad I did. It did not help that I was sitting across from a ginormous, dreadlocked Canadian guy on the tram that was about the girth of the tunnel itself, and I spent the ride trying to figure out a way I was going to get around him should we become trapped.
The funny part is that the NK's actually painted the walls of the light brown solid granite to appear black so that when the international community inspected the tunnel, NK said they were "mining for coal-- see? black walls...coal! We're not trying to bypass 100,000 land mines to try to sneak spies into South Korea, we were just mining for coal....IN SOLID GRANITE." Um hmmmmm. Kim Jon Il must have learned that one in an "I Love Lucy" episode.
So there are these tunnels, and the SK's don't know where they all are, and there is this potential to invade South Korea at any time. And the US military is under a 1:00 AM curfew in all of Korea, so I guess they're hopin' the attack doesn't come at 3 AM, because they'll be fightin' on their own. (Speaking of curfew, MP's actually come into the bars in Seoul to get all the military people out, so we had to leave at 12:30 every night, which is a tad embarrassing when you're just hanging out with a bunch of Canadians, and you have to run out at midnight for fear of turning into a pumpkin.)
A group of wealthy SK's raised a bunch of money to build a brand new train station on the border, in the expectant hopes that someday they will be able to travel once again into North Korea. The train station has never been used other than as a site on the tour. It shows that this fierce antagonism between the two nations is not necessarily felt by the people. The South Koreans are optimistic that they will be reunited with the north and seem to be awaiting the day. The train station is symbolic of that hope.
John and I with a South Korean guard at the Train Station
(Another odd note, one that will send shudders down my germaphobic father's spine...the soap in the bathroom at the train station was not of the liquid kind.... it was literally a bar of soap on a skewer....you were just supposed to rub your hands on a bar of soap that presumably 400+ other people had used. And yet the Koreans walk around the city with medical face masks on. Go figure.)
All in all, it was a very intriguing trip for a history buff like myself.
More on the fun, more colorful Korea tomorrow!