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a Glimpse into the North - MY BUBBLE...

About a Glimpse into the North

Previous Entry a Glimpse into the North Nov. 25th, 2016 @ 02:07 am Next Entry
It's always been on my bucket list to visit North Korea. Or at least get close enough to it.

You're talking about the last remnant of the Cold War that still exists today. The Cold War officially ended in 1991, but that could be debatable since the Korean War itself technically has never ended.

Taking a tour to the DMZ (Demilitiarized Zone) was, like, my top priority. The tour was pricey, but given my interest in history (especially contemporary military history), it was well worth the $135.

After arising bright and early, John and I were greeted at our hotel by our tour guide, Hana. After picking up the rest of the tourists via bus, she gave us the backround about the Korean War and thus the DMZ. Being a history buff, I was familiar with most of it. But then she said something that stood out to me:

"When North Korea invaded the South, 16 nations around the world rallied to help out a country they've never heard of."

Now, I didn't talk to Hana enough to get her personal opinion about the politics behind the Korean War, and especially the United States' part in it all. But I know that there has been anti-US sentiment in the past, particularly in the early 2000s when the Iraq War started and the Yangju Highway Incident when a U.S. military vehicle fatally injured two 14-year-old South Korean girls, Shin Hyo-sun (신효순) and Shim Mi-seon (심미선). I remember speaking to a fellow college student at UC Irvine during 2001-05; he was Korean and he said that young people in South Korea just wanted to be reunited with the North. Whether that meant even living under the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's (DPRK) system, aka North Korea, I don't know. But the impression I got from him -- perhaps incorrectly -- was that the United States is the single, biggest obstacle to that reunification occurring.

He may have been right. After all, if it weren't for the Soviets and the United States splitting up Korea post-World War II, there probably wouldn't be any North and South Koreas.

Anyways, when I heard our tour guide Hana say that part about the 16 nations rallying to fight for South Korea back in the 1950s, I didn't hear any anti-US sentiment in her voice. More like gratitude, actually, of the US and the United Nations coming to aid of the South way back when, despite the immense costs her civilians suffered in the war (and cannot forget the North, I suppose). Of course, our tour guide wished for reunification just like everyone else, but recognized the North's belligerent attitude & actions in relative recent years especially in 2010, when the sinking of the South's Cheonan warship and bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island occurred.

Anyhow... I digress.

Our first stop was Imjingak Park, whose location also included a Korean War Memorial, the Freedom Bridge, the Peace Bell, and Stones of the Peace Wall. It was a very sunny day with blue skies. Despite the frigid air, we were very lucky to visit a site of such remembrance under those conditions.

Korean War Veterans Memorial

I was pretty impressed with the Stones of the Peace Wall, which reportedly contained stones from historical battlefields all over the globe. That's a major feat. The stones were gathered in hopes of it being a symbolic step towards reunifying the two Koreas.

Aftewards, we visited the 3rd Infiltration Dunnel dug up by the North Koreans. It was supposed to be used to invade the South upon its completion. Tourists could go walk down there, but aren't allowed to take cameras. It was pretty crazy going 73 meters (240 ft) below ground... below the DMZ, actually... and the incompleted tunnel is 1,635 meters (1 mile) long. During my trip down there, I actually hit my head twice on the rocky ceiling. Thank God for those hard hats!

Afterwards, we headed to the Dora Observatory to look across the DMZ into North Korea. The Observatory is the closest part of the South to the North, oustide the DMZ that is. Through the binoculars, I was able to take pics of the North. Special mention is the North's very very tall flagpole, which towers above their Southern's counterpart.

We also visited Dorasan Station, which the two Koreas hoped to use for their reunification. Unfortunately, since things went sour in 2008, it's pretty much just a tourist attraction and a non-functional train station. But hey, at least I got my ticket to Pyongyang! The most expensive ticket in the world since it won't do anything. Hana was all like, "Please DON'T stamp your passport..."

Finally, the grand finale... the JSA.

First off, the Joint Security Area is no joke. The military completely owns it, and you HAVE to follow THEIR rules, no Qs asked. It is technically a war zone since the two Koreas have no peace treaty between them. Thus, it is even a miracle that tourists are even allowed to visit.

I was struck by how many posted guards there were from the South's side, and how there was only ONE guard from the North's side... and he was all the way back THERE! Don't get me wrong, I'd rather have more of *us* vs more of *them*. But I was expecting more Northern guards up close on their side of the MDL (Military Demarcation Line). Thus, I was kinda disappointed that I wasn't able to see "the enemy", up close and personal... but I suppose it all comes down to safety. Later on, a ROK (South Korean) soldier said that the North does tours too. And when they do, they post more guards out. I've heard of foreigners being able to do tours in the North. The daredevil inside me wants to sign up for one of those.

Anyways, the one Northern guard I *did* see was very far on his side of the border. Once I snapped a pic of him, I saw him side step out of view, behind a building pillar to his right. Hah! Too late, sucker! I got ya (but he later came back into view). One tourist remarked that the North was probably taking pics of all our faces, the tourists'... and he was probably correct.

We then entered one of the JSA's conference buildings, where negotiations since 1953 have taken place. Again, no Northern guards were there. Two Southern guards were, and they looked dead serious. Talk about discipline! As our tour guide (not Hana) humorously remarked, "Don't touch them. Or they'll touch back."   I read that these guards need a black belt in Tae Kwon Do to be qualified to be posted there. I wonder what goes on in their minds when they see all these curious, nosy tourists coming in, potentially causing trouble. One guard was on the northern end of the building, with his back towards what seemed to be the northern entrance. It's scary to think about:  what's stopping the North from suddenly coming through that door and grabbing him, other than sparking an international incident? Nothing, I suppose.

Anyways, we all had 2 minutes to take photos. It was kinda eerie to be actually standing in North Korea.

On our bus ride out of the DMZ, they checked our passports... AGAIN. Meaning, they do that a few times when you came in, and they do it again when you go out. Security's not taken lightly. I also saw a truck of US Marines, which surprised me. I knew that the US Army was stationed in South Korea, but wasn't aware of the Marines. Anyways, I couldn't take a picture of them because taking pics of anything military (including personnel) isn't allowed. They're at the DMZ 24/7, and they're armed. So why they call it the DMZ "demiliatarized" is anyone's guess because from what I read about it, both sides are also bristiling with land mines, patrol teams, antiaircraft batteries, surface-to-air missles, and fixed armor emplacements. "O brave new world"...

I was hoping to also visit The Bridge of No Return, which was the site where 1976's Axe Murder Incident took place. But I guess that is off-limit to tourists, and they weren't part of the tour.

In any case, the tour was definitely THE highlight of my trip to South Korea. Thanks to Hana, the other tour guide, and above all, the United Nations forces at the DMZ for making it all possible.

When we did return (safely) to Seoul, the other tour guide said, "NOW you can take photos of anything you want."  Hah!
Current Mood: impressedimpressed
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