I think this experience will remain vivid in my memory for many many years. To be honest, I didn't know civilians could enter the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, nor did I imagine that I would want to take a tour to do so. But several people highly recommended it so we called on Saturday from our hotel and found ourselves on a coach bus headed north on Tuesday morning at 8:00.
Korea fought a civil war starting in 1950 when Soviet-controlled Communist North Korea invaded U.S.-supported democratic South Korea. An armistice agreement officially ended the conflict in 1953 but Korea has been divided ever since and conflict has flared many times over the last 57 years.
Our morning looked at the Past, Present and Future of Korea. But first we had to get in. Our bus was boarded by a Korean soldier for a passport check allowing us into the 20-kilometer Civilian Control Zone. We were stopped again as we entered the 2-km DMZ that stretches to the border. At that point we were officially out of South Korea and in a United Nations-governed area. Then we started our tour with the 3rd Tunnel, discovered in 1978 at 240 feet below ground and reaching well into South Korea. It is large enough to move thousands of North Korean soldiers in just one hour and points directly toward Seoul. North Korea denies responsibility for the tunnel. Three other presumed infiltration tunnels have been found and many more are suspected.
Next we looked at the Present by going to the northernmost observatory into North Korea. It was terribly foggy but we could see the outline of Propaganda Village, a prosperous-looking little town at first glance until you look through the telescope and discover that there is no glass in the windows and no cars and no people. We could also see the huge North Korean flag flying on a skyscraping flagpole that dwarfs the South Korean flag just across the border.
In 2002, the ever hopeful and peace-loving South Koreans completed construction on a beautiful new train station less than 1 kilometer from the DMZ boundary line. Relations between the North and South were going well and reunification seemed within reach. A sign inside reads, Not the last station from the South but the first station toward the North." Relations between the two sides have since deteriorated and the station has remained mostly empty for eight years, a sad reminder.
Our afternoon tour (following another traditional Korean lunch with metal chopsticks) was the most intense part of the day. We entered Camp Bonifas, the UN military base that sits at the border between the two countries. There we had our passports checked again and had our clothing and shoes inspected. Torn jeans, t-shirts, sleeveless tops, shorts, sandals and skirts are not allowed. The North Korean government uses photos of sloppily or "scantily" dressed tourists as propaganda, proclaiming the poverty and loose morals of Western culture. We then transferred to a military bus and remained under military escort throughout our visit. We signed a waiver acknowledging that we were about to enter the hostile Joint Security Area (face-to-face with North Korea) and that we could be harmed or killed by enemy action. Okay, not your average tourist attraction.
We drove then to Panmunjeom, the small village on the border that is the only place where North and South Koreans can come into contact with each other and where all talks take place. At that time we were under strict instructions not to take photos, not to point, look at or gesture toward North Korea or NK soldiers. As we exited a building and crossed the path to the blue building above, we noticed a NK soldier standing on the steps of the large gray building opposite with binoculars trained on our group. Yikes! The tension in the air was palpable. Inside the blue building, we saw the conference table that actually straddles the border and could step across the room into NK territory. In the photo above you can see a small raised concrete barrier halfway down the building- that is the border. We didn't spend much time there and we were happy to leave. It felt hostile.
On the drive back to Seoul, our tour guide told us about her family whose home was in North Korea. Her aunts and uncles are still there and for sixty years they have had absolutely no contact- no letters, no visits, no phone calls, no e-mails. Many North Korean people defect every year and bring reports of a harsh dictatorship, poverty and famine among the people. The South Koreans want reunification mostly because they know their countrymen across the border need help.