Friday, July 27, 2007

Seoul, DMZ + JSA (Panmunjom)

It was just over 2 months ago when we visited Panmunjom and DMZ from North (see here) but I decided to go back again to get a different perspective.

Entry to this area (especially to the Joint Security Area (Panmunjom) from the south is pretty strict. Basically if you are South Korea or citizens of other communist countries then you are not permitted. For the rest of us it's pretty strict forward, as there are 4 or 5 tour groups in Seoul to choose from , even though they all offer pretty much the same itinerary.

To my amazement there is a dress code on visitors to Panmunjom. This list of things you can't wear: shorts, short skirts, sleeveless shirts, leather pants or skirts (?), torn jeans, transparent or tight fitting clothes, shoes with no heels (i.e. flip-flops). That's almost the description of my wardrobe. The hotel concierge was nice enough to let me borrow some uniform for the day. (I looked around for French maid's uniform but found none.)

OK enough jokes. The drive to DMZ took an hour and the first stop was Imjingak, where we got to observe the bridge for the railway connecting North and South Korea. Apparently this area reflects pain and sadness of the separation since 1950 and over 3 millions visitors come to pray for reunification yearly.

Freedom Bridge, again connecting North and South, symbolises the meaning of returning to freedom. It's the only bridge crossing Imjin River. It's got its name as almost 13,000 war captives crossed this bridge shouting hurrah for freedom after the end of Korean War.

We then got a chance to go to one of the four tunnels dug by North Koreans for infiltration purpose. The 3rd tunnel was discovered in 1978 and it's 2m wide, 1.6m high and 1,635m long. The southern exit is only 400m away from the southern demarcation line of the DMZ. It looked to me like a very well-executed plan and effort as the tunnel is pretty wide.
No pictures were allowed inside. After our 400m descend we finally got to the flat part. It was dark and cool with water dripping pretty much the whole way. We got to walk a section of it and the head protection came in handy as the tunnel was built for North Korean height.

Outside the tunnel my guide specifically asked me whether I had taken a picture of the One Earth statue so here you go. I have to say it's pretty lame.

Next we were off to Dora Observatory, where we could observe life in North Korea through telescopes. I made 1 discovery while I spied on the landscape of the North: not far from Kaesong city there's an industrial area with glossy looking factory buildings. Apparently it is the Kaesong Industrial Park run by Hyundai and it employs quite a few North Korean civilians from the area and it's the only place they allow a small number of South Koreans to work there. Funny our North Korean guide had not mentioned anything about it while we were in Kaesong. We were even taken to the top of a hill in the city for a view of the city and yet we didn't spot the place. It must be kept as a secret in the North.

At the observation deck we had a discussion about the Concrete Wall allegedly built by the South to further separate the country and as bunkers for weapon storage. No one had heard of such wall (the North Koreans say of course they will deny it), but from what they know there are indeed tank deterrent structures dotted around. Interesting. Why have sections of deterrent structures and not a wall? It's not making a lot of sense. The South Koreans added that their government is not very good at keeping its people informed of what goes on anyway. Propaganda wherever you are I suppose.

No pictures are allowed beyond the yellow line on the observation deck. Soldiers were patrolling the place and would delete the pics at once.

Our final stop for the morning DMZ tour was Dorasan Station, the northernmost station In South Korea. In the future it will play an important role if connections to Pyongyang ever become regular. Right now it's pretty much deserted except the daily 3 or 4 trans to and from Seoul. However not many people use this particular train line as driving is faster.

The gates are guarded by military police as the station falls within the Civilian Passage Restriction Zone.

After a short lunch I finally got to join another group for the much anticipated Panmunjom tour. There were so much more security measures to get to the area and we were told that it's a hostile place. As we approached the army camp we saw the slogan "In Front of Them All" everywhere we looked.

After 2 passport checks and a briefing, we had to each sign a declaration to promise we wouldn't make any contact whatsoever with people from the North and that we would take our own risks for entering the area. Basically they were implying that there could be freak accidents and shootings anytime. The last shooting we know of was when a Russian defected and ran across and the North opened fire and killed a soldier in 1984.

The area was as quiet as I remember and there was nobody in the North in sight. Two new facts I learned which I had not known before this trip: first the Military Demarcation Line was introduced only in 1976 after the axe murder incident. The second thing is the actual axe murder incident which involved a dispute over a tree cutting routine and 2 US soldiers were killed by North Korean soldiers. I can see why none of these were mentioned while we were in North Korea.
Anyway we were allowed to go the conference room. We were told the best looking men are used for posts in Panmunjom and they have to be over 1.7m too. The typical stance is apparently a Taekwondo standby position and they are ready to combat anytime. We were lucky enough to catch some action when one tourist went too far behind the dude and dude took action. It all happened so quick but dude shouted loudly and went punching forward with his right arm while he took a half step forward. The tourist went white and freaked out but it was pretty cool for the rest of us to watch.
I noticed they all had to wear shades, perhaps to protect their identity in front of the enemies?

I have yet to figure out the reason of this standing position, half behind the conference room, half facing north. Some kind of protection for cover I assume, but it can't be good for your eye sights?

At a check point we came across a friendly MP on his last day of duty in the area after 2 years. We was giving his sleeve covers away! Too bad he didn't choose me (some Japanese tourist seized one, then he chose a teenage girl).

Our last sight: Bridge of No Return, where all POWs were repatriated after the end of the Korean War. The crew of the USS Pueblo also returned across this bridge. This was the primary entrance to the Joint Security Area by the North Koreans while each side had free access to the area. It wasn't until after the axe murder incident then a MDL was introduced and only authorised personnel are allowed to cross the line.

It is interesting to learn from the propaganda video at the briefing that the DMZ is a symbol of peace and an important sanctuary for birds and animals. In the North the soldier who gave us a tour/performance was almost in tears when he spoke of the sadness of separation. My quest for the truth do people really feel?

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