Saturday, June 4, 2011

Korea trip part 2: The DMZ

Well, a lot has happened since the last time I updated my personal Korea journey. I did write an entry on the pros and cons of South Korea from a more general perspective, which you should check out below if interested. But now that I'm leaving Seoul and Incheon onto the final leg of my trip it is definitely time for an update.

Friday May 20th where I left off was a big day, as probably anyone would say of their day if they visited North Korea. Unless you've been living in total isolation (much like the people of NK) you know what a crazy place it is. What you may not know are the details surrounding the border between the two countries. I learned much on this trip about the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The journey started out extremely hectic though, as my friend Adam and I had booked the 7:30am USO led tour (which is the best and only one you should do but I"ll get to that later). We woke up around 6am, and still feeling some jetlag effects plus the rain outside, I almost had a moment of abandoning the mission. But we rallied, figuring we had plenty of time to make it over there. Wrong.

There is simply no quick way to get to Seoul from Incheon, this place is massive. What resulted was us sprinting through subway stations and up escalators (which is the worst thing ever when you're tired). But somehow we made it with approximately 2 minutes to spare, we were the last ones to arrive and had we missed one of the trains we barely caught at Seoul Station we definitely would not have made it. Anyway enough about that, luckily we had an hour bus ride to rest and get ready for the tour.

We arrived at the entrance to the DMZ and met up with our American guide who was part of our Army stationed over there. He rode with us to the one of the main military compounds (along the way we were strictly forbidden from taking photos) where he gave a slideshow presentation which really brought things up to speed. If you want all the details I suggest you consult wikipedia, but a few highlights stuck out. First was the general concept of the DMZ. The Korean war was a very costly battle for both sides and many other countries involved, and eventually it became clear that neither side was going to be defeated anytime soon (the war lasted for about 3 years and hundreds of thousands of people died). So eventually a ceasefire agreement was reached and a 2km Demilitarized zone was established. From where the exact border was drawn each army was to pull back 2km each effectively creating a neutral zone 4km wide. This pact still stands today (which is why we can tour there) but the area is not without incident. One of the most notable was the infamous Axe murder incident, when some soldiers attempted to chop down a tree that was blocking their view from one of their posts (each army still had posts within certain parts of the border they just weren't allowed to bear heavy arms) and was met with fierce resistance. 2 US soldiers were chopped to death and 9 others injured (both American and South Korean) in the resulting skirmish. 3 days after Operation Paul Bunyan was launched, described as the biggest military tree cutting operation in history. Read more about the incident here:

Recreation of the Axe Murder Incident

Once the presentation finished we were taken outside where we got our first glimpse of the North Korean compounds and the South Korean ROK guards who were patrolling the area. We were allowed to take pictures but instructed not to point or make any threatening gestures as we were being watched by the North Koreans across the way. We we then taken into a building that straddled the border  where many talks had taken place over the years between the two sides. It was here I was actually able to set foot into North Korea, even if it was only about 6 feet or so in. You could feel the intensity and tension of this place, as a guard was placed close to the end of the building and we were instructed not to pass him for any reason.

Adam (left) in South Korea and me (right) in North Korea
North Korean compound

This was definitely the most interesting part of the tour, and I was very glad we took the USO tour because it is the only one that takes you there. So if you ever do want to tour the DMZ be sure to get that one. After the compound we got back in the bus and were taken to a couple of spots  mentioned in the slideshow such as the place of the Ax Murder incident and the Bridge of No Return (a bridge dubbed as such when upon the armistice signing and DMZ creation residents of that area had to chose to head to either the North or South part of Korea, for good. Bet some were kicking themselves for that). At these areas we were allowed to take pictures but shortly thereafter as we were taken to the next part of the tour the photo-ban again went into effect.

The bridge of no return

The next stop was one of the tunnels the North Korean sides were excavating into the South but was discovered before completed. These tunnels were definitely not dug, as it was several hundred feet below the surface and solid rock so they had to use dynamite. There was a small museum and monument at the entrance which our guide attempted to explain parts of but the cacophony of a large group of school children drowned out much of what she was saying so I just kind of wandered around. After that we were taken to the tunnel, a long and very steep pathway led down into the entrance of what the North Korean's actually dug. And wow what a nightmare that would have been to work on. We had to hunch over slightly almost the whole way through, and you could feel how immensely solid the rock was and what a bitch it would have been to demolish and take it out of the tunnel. We probably walked no more than 1000 feet into the tunnel before we hit one of the 3 barricades that had now been installed within to prevent its use and stymie any possible North Korean invasion. Not exactly an amazing site but again you could feel the weirdness of the area and what was at stake between these two sides. And of course once discovered the North Koreans claimed it was actually the South trying to tunnel into their side. Keep in mind this was only one of four found tunnels, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if more are being worked on right now. Also photos were not allowed here either although I have no idea why.

Our next venture took us up top one of the highest areas in the DMZ where an observation post was stationed and we could there get our most comprehensive view of the North side. Unfortunately we were only allowed to take pictures behind a marked off area that gave a much poorer view than what you could see with your eyes (much less the coin-operated scopes) but either way there it was stretching out for miles in either direction. North Korea, one of if not the most enigmatic and scary countries in the entire world. Through the scope we could even see small town with people working in the fields, obviously completely unaware that they were being looked at from people of all nations from across the way.

The view into North Korea

There was only one more stop on the tour although luckily we finally got to have lunch first as I had been starving for a good while now. After lunch we were taken to Dorasan Station, easily the most eerie train station I've ever been to (not that there are many in the running, if any). For a time it was part of a line that connected the North and the South via train but has now been shut down. It is only open for visiting.

We got back on the bus and were taken back to the Camp Kim (the USO base). While I wouldn't call the tour a fun experience per se it was definitely the most significant and culturally interesting thing I did here while in Korea and if you do ever visit I'd say it is a must see. It is also most deserving of its own (and very long) blog entry because of its importance. My trip later that night into Seoul is hardly worth a paragraph because all we did was get trashed and visit some Korean clubs. So I'll get to the rest of the trip soon but this had to come first. Only a few days left here now, I'm actually in Busan which is this beach area on the east coast of Korea (and actually the 2nd biggest city here) which I am very excited to be in for the next few days. Some serious R&R coupled with some partying and some gambling thrown in for good measure should be a great way to end this amazing trip. I'll also have a lot more pictures to post since I've been snapping them constantly, as they will tell a lot more in some cases than my words ever will.


  1. This is an extraordinary account from the perspective of one ordinary, young American.

    One can feel the creepiness of the excursion throughout the blog.

  2. Creepy and fascinating for sure. Thanks for your comment!

  3. I never got the chance to see the dmz either time i visited south korea with the military. Thanks for sharing your story!