On Saturday, 9/22 I went on a USO tour of the DMZ, the border between North and South Korea. I had been there once before, in 2000, and had really enjoyed it, so I was excited to go back.
The DMZ is about 1 1/2 hours north of Seoul. It's so easy to forget how close I am to North Korea when I'm in the middle of Seoul! There are a few different companies that do tours up there, but I think the USO may be the only one that actually goes onto the base that's there, Camp Bonifas. It's illegal for South Koreans to go to the actual DMZ, so there are some tours that go to other places along the border, but not the camp.
We caught the bus to the DMZ at 7 AM, so it was an early start. The tour at the camp was almost identical to the one I'd taken before. It started out with a presentation of the history of the DMZ and then we hopped on buses and went to Conference Row, which is a series of 4 or 5 small buildings built right along the border. So when you're in the buildings, you can walk between North and South Korea. There's a big gray building that belongs to the North Koreans and sometimes the N. Korean soldiers come down to the conference buildings when Western tourists are in there to take pictures through the windows. Unfortunately that's never happened when I was there. The tour groups can go into one building and wander around. On the N. Korean side of the building, there's a door that leads to N. Korea. Apparently there's always a N. Korean guard posted on the other side of the door. It used to be that a S. Korean guard (Republic of Korea guard, or ROK) would go in and lock the door by himself, but then one day, the N. Korean soldier on the other side opened the door and tried to pull the ROK soldier into N. Korea! So now 2 ROK soldiers go in to lock the door, one with a gun drawn, so if that happens again, it will probably result in some sort of international incident! Also, in that building, there's a little plaque with plastic flags in it. Apparently there used to be little cloth flags there, but when G.W. Bush came for a visit a few years ago, some N. Korean soldiers came into the building and pulled down the US and ROK flags and blew their noses into them! (Apparently they like GWB about as much as I do!). So now they have the plastic ones.
After that building, we got back on the bus and drove to Checkpoint 5, which overlooks N. Korea and the Bridge of No Return. The bridge is called that becuase it's where prisoners of war were repatriated at the end of the Korean War. All the POWs got to choose which side they ended up on, but that was it...they couldn't go back. It also looks over the Checkpoint 3, which is at the S. Korean side of the bridge. That post used to be manned, but in 1976, there was this big poplar tree that had grown so big that it was blocking the view of Checkpoint 3. So a group of 10 S. Korean and US solders went to cut it down. They were chopping it down, when all of a sudden the 30 N. Korean soldiers standing around grabbed the axes that had been used to cut down the trees and killed 2 Americans and injured the other 8 soldiers. The US and ROK soldiers retreated, but then they really needed to cut down the rest of the tree, so 3 days later, Operation Paul Bunyan was underway, that involved all sorts of troops all over Asia being on high alert in case the war started up again (since the Korean War is still technically going on). This time the N. Koreans didn't bug them, so it was finally cut down totally. For a while the stump was left, but now there's a plaque there that shows how big the trunk of the tree was. Over on the N. Korean side, there's a "Peace Museum" that apparently has the 2 axes used to kill the American soldiers.
After that, we went and and some Korean food for lunch (after a stop at the gift store, of course!). Then we went to an observation tower that looks over N. Korea. We couldn't really take pictures there, but there were telescopes you could use to look into N. Korea. There's a town right across the border called Kijong-dong. In English it's called Propaganda Village because no one actually lives there. Instead, it's a bunch of empty buildings, a huge flag on top of a huge flagpole, and giant speakers that broadcast N. Korean propaganda across the border throughout most of the night. There are some N. Koreans who come and are caretakers of the buildings, but they don't live there. It was really weird to look through the telescope into what could be a bustling town and see basically no one. There were a very few people wandering around...I saw probably about 5 workers over there.
On the S. Korean side, there's a town called Taesong-dong, that just so happens to be inside the demilitarized zone. The people who live there have pretty strict rules. They have to stay in the village for 240 consecutive days and nights, they have to be in their homes by 11 pm and have their doors and windows locked and be accounted for. They also have to listen to the broadcasts from Propaganda Village all through the night. But, there are some benefits. It's a farming village and the people that live there have 14-17 acres of land, compared to the average of 2-4 acres in the rest of S. Korea. They live tax free and make about $80,000/year. The men are also exempt from the mandatory military service. The men in the village can marry women from outside the village and bring them in, but the women can only marry men from the village so that there aren't more men who are exempt from military service (which is totally unfair! What if there's no one a woman likes in the village?!).
After the observation place, we went to a tunnel that the N. Koreans secretly dug to try to get to Seoul. It was found in 1978 and was the third one of these tunnels to be found. It wasn't completed, but if it had been, it would have been big enough for about 30,000 armed troops to move through in an hour and they would come out just 44 km from Seoul. Today tourists can go down in it, but no camera are allowed. When it was found and the N. Koreans were confronted, they said, "oh, we were looking for coal," and they had even painted the walls of the tunnel black so it would look like coal...as long as you didn't touch it, because then you end up with black stuff all over your fingers, and you can see the rock underneath the paint!
After that, we headed on back to Seoul. Another technique the ROK soldiers use to detect if N. Koreans are trying to get into S. Korea is that they stick rectangular rocks into the chainlink fences all along the border. Then everyday they inspect the fences and if rocks have fallen out, they know something's going on there. I couldn' believe how close to Seoul these chainlink fences were....I was looking at rocks almost the whole way back!
So, if you ever come to S. Korea, I totally recommend going to the DMZ. It's just so dang interesting!
Pictures, top to bottom:
1) An ROK soldier standing on the N. Korean side of the building on Conf. Row we went into. The door he's standing in front of is the one with the N. Korean soldier posted on the outside, where the ROK soldier was almost pulled in.
2) The small blue buildings are the ones along Conf. Row. the big gray building in the background is a N. Korean building.
3) N. Korea's Propaganda Village, with its giant flagpole. The flagpole is about 160 meters high and the flag is about 30 meters long.
4) The plaque where the tree in the Axe Murderer incident stood. The beige ring is the circumference of the tree trunk.
5) Looking across the Bridge of No Return.