July 27th, 1953. This was the day of the ceasefire of the Korean war. The following armistice saw a buffer zone created on both sides of the border with troops from both armies retreating . This border stretches some 155 miles long and around 2.5 miles wide. This is where I travelled to on October 31st, 2009 to tour the DMZ, "the most heavily militarized border in the world".
Both Koreas are still at war as a peace treaty was never signed. Despite the passing of time, the situation is still a serious one and reunification remains only a distant prospect right now. Both sides currently represent different ways of life. All throughout the tour were reminders of the severity of the situation. Millions dead, families torn apart and one nation pursing a course of action that would lead to the deaths of countless numbers of their people. Technically still at war with neither side winning one wonders what may happen next with both countries.
Onto the tour. Living at the other side of the country meant that my co-workers and I had to travel to Seoul in the early hours of the morning. Being a light sleeper I didn't sleep on the train, leaving me exhausted later that day. The actual tour departs from Camp Kim, Seoul at 7:30am though I never did truly work out why such an early start was needed. The journey to the DMZ took around ninety minutes during which our Korean guide gave our a briefing on what we should expect and what we would be doing. She also gave her slant on the North Koreans and some stories of what had happened between the two countries over the past few years.
Upon arrival at Panmunjom, a small village around the DMZ area, we transferred to a new bus accompanied by some American troops. They proceeded to give us their viewpoint on a few things before we went to a room to see as quick presentation and summary of the war. Here I was also given a form to sign stating what we should and shouldn't do and that we understood that we were entering such a dangerous area.
Panmunjom is home of the JSA (Joint Security Area). It was in this area that we saw things that I shall remember for a long while. After another quick bus ride where we saw what has been dubbed the worlds most dangerous golf course (just one hole), a massive North Korean flag and and some lovely autumnal scenery - the area, because there are so little people around has become something of a wildlife haven.
During our time in the JSA we got to see the Military Demarcation Line. Here there are many building on either side of the 'border' and in one of the small buildings we were allowed into. This building is where various negotiations, meetings and signings have taken place. While here there was one American soldier (our tour guide for this part) and two South Korean soldiers, a table and some chairs. Going around the table you step onto North Korean territory so technically I have been into North Korea.
It is around the Military Demarcation Line and inside this building that the tour gets very serious indeed and you are constantly reminded of what you can do and what under no circumstances you cannot do. You cannot engage in any contact with the North Korean soldiers. The South Korean soldiers inside the building we went to were there to prevent North Koreans entering. However during this time several North Korean soldiers hovered around the building and the Military Demarcation Line taking pictures of themselves. No eye contact is made but you can see them. Of course they are really watching you and taking pictures of you. It was utterly fascinating for me and I managed to get a few pictures at the time.
After leaving the building we lined up to let the accompanying tour go where we had just been. During this time more North Korean soldiers 'took pictures'. Across from where we stood was a large building from which one North Korean stared at us through binoculars. That is his job and while most South Koreans serve a mandatory two years military service, North Koreans must serve ten years or seven years (male and females respectively).
Getting back to the South Korean soldiers, there is none of the cracking of jokes and smiles that I saw from the North. They are constantly on alert mode and those guarding anything are usually in what I saw described as a 'modified taekwondo stance'. When they move there is a noise that you probably haven't heard before. It's the sound of ball bearings in their pants. Strange as that may sound, it is because the sound makes it appear that there are more of you and is useful when you expect to be outnumbered. The American soldier tour guide claimed that tradition dated back many years.
The weather now started to go from overcast to wet and the rain left me ruing my lack of umbrella as we went to the Dora Observatory. Because of the weather this was literally a washout as we couldn't really see into North Korea. This didn't dampen my enthusiasm though as we then went for lunch. The final part of our tour took us first to the 3rd Tunnel and later to a video presentation. Following the ceasefire, the North has dug many tunnels with the intention of invading. We went to the 3rd tunnel and I think ten have been discovered but there are estimated to be many more and some presumably currently under construction. We travelled as far as we were allowed. The tunnel was 2m by 2m and quite crowded. It was said that if completed, they were planning to bring some 30,000 soldiers to Seoul to invade, per hour. Parts of the tunnels walls were painted black by the North because they said the tunnel was a coal mine but there is no coal there and there never has been.
Finally, before heading home, we saw a video presentation details key moments of the war. It was OK but a bit too hopeful given the tensions of both past and present. Then onto a small display of some artifacts from the war alongside pictures and models of what the DMZ looks like. it was here that some random Korean was practising his English with westerners. His pronunciation was the worst I've maybe ever heard in Korea and he repeated one word at least 50 times, each time wrongly. A lighter moment on a poignant and sometimes dark tour.
The tour was enjoyable and informative but due to some renovations going on right now the bridge of no return was off limits and there was a similar story at the site of the 1976 axe murder incident. The tour is highly recommended for anyone either living in South Korea or just visiting. It is perhaps THE must do thing for any traveller or working teacher such as me who spends time here. Maybe I will go back again in clearer weather and when I can see the things that were being renovated. We shall see. That was my trip to the DMZ.