Wednesday, January 9, 2008

In The Land of the Morning Calm

I had an assignment in Seoul and while I was there, I found out that the South Koreans use the DMZ as a tourist destination. Never mind that the North and South are still technically at war. I decided that this was a unique chance to visit a war zone.

The Barbed Wire Highway

The DMZ is less than a 1 hour drive from Seoul. Highway 23 runs parallel with the Han River until it meets the Imjin River near the border. Since the rivers are an easy infiltration route, and infiltrators have been caught using them several times, the left side of the 6 lane highway is protected with 2 chain link fences that are topped with some serious razor wire. Every 5 feet or so, a smoke grenade can be seen hanging in the razor wire, I suppose to give warning should the wire be disturbed, but it also must get exciting if a car jumps the guardrail. (I am astounded that military pyrotechnics are so easily accessible. If this was the US, they would be stolen and used for all sorts of mischief.) If you look to the right, everything appears normal. But to the left it looks like Folsom Prison. Then you notice that the median has sandbagged fighting positions and coils of razor wire ready to pull across the road. Everything you need to slow down a rampaging NK army.

The Cold War and Tourism

We arrive at the town of Imjin-gak where we board another bus for transport through the civilian control line. At Imjin-gak, you can see Freedom Bridge which is where prisoner exchanges took place. Messages from separated relatives are written on ribbons and tied to the fence. This was also a chance to see propaganda in action. There was a 10k road race about to start - in full view of North Korea! Its a little surrealistic to be this close to North Korea and watch several thousand people gather to run a 10K foot race. As our bus approaches the checkpoint, the driver points out some points of architectural interest. A block of concrete is positioned on an overpass and is rigged with explosives to drop and block the road. From this point, only tourists and farmers are allowed to go any closer. Our passports are checked against a list of names submitted earlier and we are allowed to proceed. The farmers till ancestral land that had the bad luck to be located near the DMZ. They must leave by nightfall. And the rice they produce is sold under the brand of DMZ rice. I guess it's a patriotic thing to eat it.

Now things are getting serious. Signs along the edge of the road advertise the presence of land mines. This is not a place to go "behind a tree" as Dad used to say.

Our first stop is the 3rd infiltration tunnel. It was built by North Korea in the late 70s and was the third of 4 tunnels discovered when a defector spilled the beans. (or maybe kimchee) The idea was provide a route under the mine fields in preparation for an invasion. We sit in a small electric car and travel 230 feet underground. We exit the train and walk in a slightly stooped manner (at least for me) to a point under the DMZ about 500 feet from the North Korean line. A concrete plug and a television surveillance camera now guard against the North. The walls of this tunnel are pink granite that would make a Maine quarry man weep. It had to be hard digging. And it is engineered well, too. It slopes slightly back to the North so that draining water does not give it away on the South side.

After exiting this hole in the ground, we tour the small museum where we learn about the history of the border, but more space is given over to the ecological anomaly that is the DMZ today. Since the area has had no human intervention in 50 years, it has become a de-facto nature preserve. It is now worthy of scientific investigation - if you could get in.

We next go to the Dora Observation Post (I don't know how they name these things) There is an observation point on every hill as well as large lighted signs that are used for propaganda. This particular post has an auditorium with a wall of glass that faces North Korea. Off to the right is Panmunjom. Also over there is Freedom Village, a small community of volunteers that live within sight of the enemy in exchange for a tax free existence. They are in a long standing war of the flagpoles with the North. The North is currently ahead with the tallest flagpole in the world. We hear music and are told it is North Korean propaganda being broadcast to the South.

But the story repeated over and over is the fact that Korea has a 2-1/2 mile wide nature preserve running across their country. They would much prefer people remember that about the DMZ than its other history.

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