Joe and I went on a Tour of the DMZ today. For those of you that don’t know what the DMZ is, it’s the Demilitarized Zone that lies on the border of North and South Korea. The Travel and Tickets office on base runs tours there a few times a month. We left at 7 AM and headed for the Injingak Resort Park which resembles a very fancy rest stop. There were a few interesting sites as well as a measly representation of an amusement park which was closed as it was 8:30 AM.
This is the 21 ton Peace Bell. It was made with the desire of peace and unification of North Korea. For $10 you can ring the Peace Bell. We were told that many South Koreans who still have family members in North Korea will ring the bell in their honor or because it is said that the bell can be heard in some parts of North Korea.
Joe and I in front of the bell.
Some delicious silk worms at the concession stand at Imjingak. Mmm, now that’s what people want for breakfast.
I had found a small seashell on the ground and thought it was the coolest thing as we were nowhere near a large body of water. When we wandered over to the concession area for some water we saw a huge vat of these simmering seashells. I quickly reached into my pocket and threw my seashell on the ground with visions of an old Korean man sucking the salt water from the seashells core. Ewww, yuck!
Our next stop was what is cleverly known as Observation Point. How original! How ever did they come up with that name? This newly constucted building is located at the northern edge of South Korea. From here, you can “observe” the life of North Korea. I use the term “observe” loosely because the North Koreans have a “town” just past their side of the DMZ called Gijeong-dong. Gijeoung-dong is affectionately referred to as Propaganda City because it is a very modernized yet uninhabited town in Northern Korea. The North Koreans built it and try to maintain that some of their citizens live there. However, there is no life observed there from the South Korean observation points. There are a few employees who come and go daily because they work at the Gaeseong Industrial Complex there but otherwise there are no inhabited residences or people walking around. Gijeong-dong is, merely, a large-scale doll house. It’s almost comical that the North Koreans think we actually believe it is a real city.
We were told, numerous times, before arriving at Obeservation Point, that we could look through the telescopes but we could not take photos past the yellow line. Here you can see how far from the ledge the yellow line actually is. You can’t get many pictures of Gijeong-dong from behind the yellow line, that’s why all those tourists have their cameras raised in the air, in hopes of snapping a few shots of this “ghost town.”
Our next stop was Dorasan Train Station, which is the northernmost train station in South Korea. Their vision and motto is “Not the last train station from the South, but the first station toward the North.” It really reminded me of how eager South Koreans are to, one day, reunite with North Korea. I hope I live to see it. President Bush visited this beautiful, yet rural, train station in 2002. There are 3 trains which arrive and depart daily from Seoul, which lies 56 km south of Dorasan. This train station was built with South Korea’s dream of advancing trade and travel to China, Siberia and eventually Europe. Everyone wants pictures with the ROK (Republic of Korea/South Korea) soldiers. They will gladly take a picture with you but they are not allowed to smile.
Stop #3 was the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. This tunnel is only 44 km from Seoul and was discovered in 1978. This tunnel, which is almost identical to Tunnel #2 is 1.6 km (1.02 miles) long and only 1.95 meters (6.4 feet) high at its highest point and 2.1 meters (6.9 feet) wide. A large air conditioned, paved path leads you over 239 feet below ground. Once in the tunnel we had to wear hard hats as we crouched through the tunnel past rock walls that had been dug using dynamite and other explosives. This tunnel is capable of moving a full 10,000 person North Korean division plus their weapons, every hour and was obviously designed for a surprise attack on Seoul. We couldn’t take any photos inside the tunnel and it was quite a hike the 20+ stories back up but it was so interesting.
There is a small museum across from the tunnel entrance and this display depicts how the North Koreans must have excavated the tunnel, little by little, using explosives.
Our next stop was Camp Bonifas, the northernmost American military base in SouthKorea. After a briefing about the areas we were to see we were required to sign a declaration stating that we would do nothing to offend or provoke the North Korean guards we would come into contact with.
The two pictures above are of the Freedom House, a structure built with the idea that it would be used as a meeting point for family reunions between North and South Koreans. Ironically enough it has never been used for such a purpose even though it still maintains the name Freedom House.
This is the JSA or Joint Security Area. It was designated by the U.N. and North Korea to be out of administrative control by both North and South Korea. The U.N and North Korea sides each operate 6 guard posts and 35 security guards reside inside the JSA. We were standing on the steps at the rear of the Freedome House. The gray building in the background of the photo is the North Korean’s “Freedom House.” The South Korean Freedome House sees tourists everyday while the North Korean side prohibits most of their citizens from visiting the DMZ in fear of defection. Our American military tour guide (who you can see walking in the foreground) told us that once someone actually tried to defect from the South side to the North and was quickly apprehended before the North Koreans could harm him.
I was told, by friends, that the North Korean soldiers would probably take photos of us since we were Americans visiting the DMZ. As soon as we arrived on the steps the North Korean guard took out his binoculars (he’s in the large red rectangle above). He then passed them back and forth to another guard in the window to his right. We were forbidden from waving, making lewd hand gestures and even waving. It was quite an eerie feeling to be standing only 800 meters from such a forceful enemy.
The two photos above are South Korean or ROK soldiers. When there is a tour at the JSA there are two soldiers that man posts to protect the tourists. They stand halfway behind the buildings to increase protection area. The ROK soldiers face North Korea to monitor their movements while the North Korean soldiers manning their guard posts (not the ones above) typically stand facing each other. The reason for this is that they are ordered to shoot the other soldier if one tries to defect to the South. How crazy is that?
This silver building is affectionately termed the Monkey House. It is a “recreation” structure located on the JSA for North Koreans to use. Our guide told us that it was ironically called a recreation facility as there is no recreation equipment in it. The term Monkey House came about because the North Korean soldiers who use it to rest during shifts jump around and make lewd motions to the American and ROK troops.
In this picture, Joe and I are actually standing in North Korea, with a South Korean guard, of course. The ROK soldiers stand at a Taekwondo pose at all times and cannot smile or talk to you. You are also prohibited from speaking to them, however you can pose with them for numerous paparazzi opportunities. The building we are standing in is the MAC or Military Armistice Commission. This old, musty meeting room is used for various government meetings and signings.
After visiting the JSA and MAC we headed to a lookout point where we could get a better look at North Korea’s Propaganda City. The red rectangles are far off pictures of the city and the yellow rectangle is the largest flag in the world. North Korea likes to compete with South Korea in many ways and when South Korea hung a flag on a 100 meter flagpole the North Koreans then erected a 160 meter flagpole across the way. We were told this flag weighs over 600 pounds and only waves when it is extremely windy out. Our guide told us that there’s a rumor circulating around Camp Bonifas that a magazine is offering a $1,000,000 bounty for a square cut from the North Korean’s flag.
In the very far off background of this shot is one of North Korea’s cell phone jamming towers. Everyone was told to turn off their cell phones for fear of the phones malfunctioning due to these towers. I don’t think anyone on our tour tried to risk it by seeing what would have happened.
Overall, this trip was so interesting and should be a must-see for all Active Duty military stationed in Korea. It really helped me see what American troops are doing here. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about the struggle between the North and South.