Tuesday, January 17, 2006

DMZ: A Step Into the Divide

It's been a non-stop whirlwind tour of Seoul and Soraksan starting last Friday night and finally ending last night when I fell asleep exhausted at 6:30pm and didn't wake for 12 hours. I didn't think it was possible to do so much in so little time, especially considering I was working the entire week, but I think John managed to get a good taste of Korean culture for such a short visit. We wasted no time and started his trip off with a tour of the DMZ and a step into North Korea.

We woke up at 5:15a on the 7th to go on the USO tour of the DMZ. We began our tour by signing a release that says our trip to Panmunjeom (the truce village between North and South Korea) "will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action". That statement alone let you know you were not on an ordinary tour. It was absolutely freezing at what has been called "the most dangerous place in the world", but I think the bitter cold weather of the day fit well with the aura of the place. It would be a completely different experience to go on a beautiful Spring day with birds singing and flowers blooming all around.

We passed through South Korea's Freedom House, which was built to host reunions between North and South Korean families, but has never been used for its intended purpose. On the North side is the building Panmungak, which in an act of one-upmanship was actually made taller than the Freedom House. Next we visited building T2, the small blue building that is situated in between the North and South, and set foot in the most isolated country in the world while South Korean soldiers guarded the North door. This is where occasional meetings take place between officials from both sides.

We were taken to the location of the 1976 ax murders where two U.S. soldiers were killed by North Korean soldiers while trying to cut down a tree that was obstructing the view from a UN post. After this incident, soldiers on both sides were no longer allowed on opposing sides at the DMZ. Near this site is the Bridge of No Return where prisoners of war from both sides were returned. If someone voluntarily chose to go to the North Korean side, there was no chance of return.

There are two villages located within the DMZ: Taesongdong in the South and Gijeongdong (ironically called "Peace Village" by North Korea) in the North. Gijeongdong is known as "Propaganda Village" in the South because it merely appears to be a modernistic village, while in reality only a few people reside there and there isn't even glass for windows on any of the buildings. From Checkpoint 3 we got a look into Propaganda Village, which is also the location of the world's tallest flagpole, erected after South Korea built a flagpole in Taesongdong. In another contest of "mine-is-bigger-than-yours-is", North Korea's flagpole is 160 meters high and the flag weighs about 270 kg (575 lbs.). It must be taken down when it rains because the flagpole cannot support the added weight of the wet flag. I thought it was funny that in the South Korean model of Propaganda Village the South Korean flag is the same size (or maybe even larger) than the North Korean flag. (Ha! But our flag is bigger in the model!)

We also went into the 3rd tunnel that was discovered in 1978 that was dug by North Korea with the supposed purpose of a surprise attack on Seoul. We put on hard hats and climbed in the 1,635 meter tunnel until we came to a small door leading to North Korea that was blocked with rolls of razor wire to block anyone from defecting to the other side.
Visiting the DMZ was definitely something I needed to do while living in Korea and it gave me visual images to link with the historical facts I've learned. But as I was told so bluntly tonight by a young Korean man, "You will never understand Korea's history. It's very deep and very personal." I agree and appreciate his statement but regardless, I will continue to learn all I can about the country I currently call home.

Blue T2 building in front of Panmungak building

The Bridge of No Return

South Korean soldier in front of Propaganda Village with the tall North Korean flagpole towering above all the buildings