Thursday, August 20, 2009

Last Vestige of the Cold War

It all started after Japan conceded at the end of WWII (The Big One, as Archie Bunker used to say) and the US and USSR accepted separate surrenders north and south of the 38th parallel for the Japanese occupation of Korea. The US installed Rhee Syng-man, and the Russians elevated Kim Il-sung as leaders of their respective occupation zones, then on 25 June, 1950, the North Korean People's Army invaded the South--the rest, as they say, is history.

The war which followed lasted three years and cost some two million lives; the "armistice" that ended the fighting resulted in an uneasy stalemate along a "military demarcation line" which vaguely follows the 38th parallel , a two kilometer wide demilitarized zone on either side of it, and a tense stalemate that has periodically resulted in violence.

And a surreal tourist opportunity.

We took the USO Tour from Samgakji, departing at 7:30 AM. The first destination was the JSA at Panmunjom, which is where armistice negotiations took place, and where today, North and South forces come face-to-face. This is also where we get the weird, "Here I am in North Korea" photo ops next to the stone-faced ROK soldier, and the shots of elite troops standing half-exposed at the building corners in case their DPRK counterparts decide to mix things up a little via sniper bullet.

I was trying to look as tough and stern as him, in a taekwondo position the US troops call "rock-ready", while being slightly worried he would see though my pose, but instead I just look constipated. It was supposed to be meta, but things don't always work out.

The blue buildings are UN JSA facilities, the gray ones are run by the DPRK. The one below is called the "recreation building" even though, as our guide explained, there is no equipment inside, and it only seems to be used when dignitaries from the south are in attendance; North Korean soldiers seem to delight on those occasions in making faces through the windows or shooting the bird. For this reason, US forces call it the "monkey house".

Stop number two was the forward observation post atop a hill inside the DMZ, manned by ROK forces. It has an observation deck outside and a large glass wall inside looking out to the DMZ and the villages of Gaeseong (the site of the original peace talks, and presently home of a North-South economic cooperation zone), Daeseongdong (Peace Village, a South Korean farming community) and Kijeongdong (Propaganda Village, known for its jamming tower and 160-m tall flagpole sporting a 30-m wide NK flag that weighs 600 lbs).

Even though they have a giant window, a landscape model and a 10 minute multimedia presentation, you are not allowed to take photographs, except behind the photo-taking line on the observation deck:

So, the photos you get look like this:

Well, I accidentally got a picture through the window before anyone said anything, not that it's some great big hairy deal:

The folks who live in Daeseongdong--Peace Village--have a pretty good set-up: they don't pay taxes, they are exempt from military service (all Korean males must serve for a little over two years before turning thirty), have an allotment of 17+ acres, and earn an average of USD 82,000.

The last stop on the tour was the 3rd tunnel of aggression, one of four tunnels discovered so far that are NK attempts to infiltrate the south. God knows how many more are there which have yet to be discovered. The idea is to have secret, rapid-access routes to Seoul and then surprise the ROK with a wave attack. One suspects this modus may be discontinued what with the development of nuclear bombs (thanks, Dubya).

The Wikipedia page says photos are forbidden in the tunnel, but I don't think that's so: I took several pictures, as did some of my fellow travelers. The round, steeply sloped tube is the tourist access--okay going down, not a cakewalk going back up:

The tunnel itself is close and cold, slightly sloped downward toward the north, well-lighted, and floored with good rubber mats. Hardhats are required, for good reason. There is a little dipping fountain of "DMZ Spring Water". It was really nothing much, but I can say I was there:


saw said...

Wish I could have gone to Panmunjom. I had a chance to when I was an American citizen, but my tour guides were Korean citizens so I couldn't have traveled to that area as Korean civilians were restricted from that area.

I did explore the tunnel though. Supposedly, there are several more tunnels that are left undiscovered. Which is an amazing engineering feat how the North Koreans could build such large tunnels while keeping it hidden.

Kelsey said...

One of my regrets is that I didn't get to visit the DMZ before I left Korea.