In the Zone: The DMZ
My mac crashed on Saturday morning…aaarrrrggghhhhh…now begins the task of getting it repaired in Korea.
Fortunately, Korean efficiency is well underway and we already have a desktop computer up and running at home. This means I can tell you all about the DMZ and the trip that we took…two weeks ago. Whoops. Seems that I’m still not up to blogging speed but I’ll try.
The DMZ, or DeMilitarizedZone, is one of those checklist items for many foreign teachers and other visitors to Korea. It’s sort of like taking a tour to the scene of a traffic accident, where you are allowed to crane your neck and snap pictures as much as you like. There are several points along the border where you can enter this zone of neutrality between the North and South. We chose to do a USO tour, which allows visitors access to the Joint Security Area (JSA) of the DMZ.
Now, that business with the JSA didn’t mean a whole lot to me, but several people had recommended the tour to me, so I thought we’d go with it.
Word of mouth must have reached plenty of others, because our Saturday morning tour was made up of two full busloads of people. There were tourists from Korea, Britain, Germany and the US, including an English banker who was currently working in Japan. He had flown out of Tokyo at lunchtime on Friday, March 11th, to enjoy a weekend break in Seoul. By the time he landed, Japan was in a state of turmoil, and he spent most of the trip on the phone checking up on his co-workers, flights, and apartment.
PFC Vang, a Californian, led Bus B through the JSA. He pointed out all of the locations of interest, including the site of the Ax Murder Incident, the Bridge of No Return, and Freedom House. The military really knows how to hand out names, don’t they?
On the South Korean side, border guards face the border or the visitors to make sure they don’t try anything funny. South Korean border guards are chosen on the basis of their height and spidey-senses. The people protecting the JSA are not your average joes.
North Korea runs tours, too, for Chinese and Russian tourists. On the North Korean side, the guards face each other, to make sure that the other doesn’t try to defect. I don’t think it matters how tall they are.
When the Armistice Agreement was drawn up in 1953, two villages were allowed to exist on either side of the demarcation line. In the South, this was comprised of people who had been living in the area for years, farming and nurturing familial roots. The village was called Daeseong-dong, dubbed ‘Freedom Village’ (there they go again with those names).
The people of Daeseong-dong live under fairly strict rules and military surveillance. Everyone must be in the village by nightfall and in their houses by midnight, doors and windows secured. Men are allowed to marry outsiders and bring them into Daeseong-dong, but women are not. PFC Vang said that they are trying to change that rule, because the current mayor has all daughters. I’m not sure if he was joking or not. The people of Daeseong-dong erected a 100-meter tower and flew a large South Korean flag for all to see.
That included the North Koreans, who were also entitled to a village. The problem was, there weren’t really enough people living there to constitute a village. But they built one anyway, a ghost town populated by North Korean guards. According to PFC Vang, announcements blared from loudspeakers up to 12 hours a day, touting the merits of Kim-Jeong-Il and encouraging people to live in the village, Kijong-dong. Apparently the North Koreans refer to it as Peace Village, but Vang told us it is better known as ‘Propaganda Village’. Oh, and the North Koreans put up a flag, too – only theirs was 160 meters high. The flag itself weighs 600 pounds when dry, and often tears under the burden of its own weight.
I sense that I’m leaning too much into an us-versus-them diatribe, and I don’t want to do that – particularly as the tour was led by a US soldier on the South Korean side, so information was bound to be biased. So I’ll segue to this heartwarming sculpture of the two Koreas, pushing the world back together. A guide told us that the South Koreans are on the left – you can tell because they are wearing better clothes.
We marched down a long tunnel, one of the four known tunnels that North Koreans dug towards Seoul. It was kind of claustrophobic. I wouldn’t do it again.
The tour capped off with a visit to Dorasan Station. When reading the itinerary, I assumed that this was some sort of historically significant location. Which it was, I guess, but it looked suspiciously like a train station to me.
Dorasan station is basically only open to tourists, although it has the potential to connect the Korean peninsula to the Trans-Siberian railway, if only those pesky Northerners would open the border crossing. It’s the closest South Korean station to the border.
I left Seoul feeling more informed about the North-South conflict, though confident that I will soon forget all of the important names, dates and facts that I picked up that day. Of course, I feel more fortunate than ever to be in South Korea, where life is so abundant compared to that of our nearest neighbors.
And, if things get hairy, there’s always a contingency plan, as found in our 7th-story hotel room: