Korea: past present and imagined future in a day

2014-06-28 10.23.54I had a day free in Seoul before my plane, so I took the opportunity to do a morning trip to the DMZ. For the uninitiated, the DMZ is the Demilitarized Zone, which is the border between South and North Korea running along the 38th parallel. I would have liked to see the Joint Security Area where negotiations etc were held but that was a whole day trip and I didn’t want to risk missing my plane home.

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However the half day trip to the DMZ was quite enlightening. We had a guide who (well at least according to him) was one of the most experienced guides in the DMZ – a 50 year old Korean guy in board shorts and reflector sunnies who still retained the accent gained when he studied (apparently mostly surfing) at the University of Hawaii. The first thing to learn about the DMZ is that a lot of tourists go there. When I say a lot, I mean some number of thousands a day. If the North Koreans ever invade, they are going to have to go through bus loads of Chinese tourists first.

2014-06-28 10.27.56Because our guide is the Ninja of Tour Guides, he made sure we got to the “3rd Tunnel” well ahead of the crowds (I think there were only a couple of buses when we arrived).

The second thing to learn about the DMZ is that it is a weird cross between a heavily militarised border, a museum and an amusement park. The 3rd Tunnel is pretty much at the heart of that. The North Koreans have tried to tunnel under the border to Seoul on a number of occasions – this tunnel is the third such effort discovered by the South Koreans. The North Koreans tried to disguise it as a coal mine, even painting the walls. It was discovered in 1978. We got to walk down to the tunnel which was 73m under the ground (the walk up again was pretty hard work). No photos are allowed and, apparently, until a few years ago there were always soldiers on guard down in the tunnel. It is quite an impressively sized tunnel straight through granite.

2014-06-28 10.21.54For a “de-militarized” zone, there are certainly a lot of military about. Here are some soldiers getting a pep talk before their visit into the tunnel.

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You see the reality of it being a defensive zone and not just a fun tourist venue when you realise that the entire area around is landmined.

Nonetheless, there is a nice little museum of the history of North-South conflict at the 3rd Tunnel and this is where I learned the third thing – the South Koreans have a slightly confused view of the North Koreans.

2014-06-28 10.52.35At the museum there was lots of information about the conflict and the various attempts by the North Koreans to come and invade, kill or kidnap South Koreans since the war. There is also a short film – which is where these conflicted views are most apparent. It starts by displaying the North Koreans as terrible, devious aggressors and then ends by talking about how the whole Korean people should be reunited one day. It is quite odd.

2014-06-28 11.08.09That whole sense of wistful optimism about the future of a reunified Korea is further reinforced at Dorasan Station, the train station in the DMZ. I thought this was an odd place to visit, but it is a really revealing monument to hope and optimism and obsolescence. The Board pictured above includes the names of all those South Koreans who donated money to build the station – there are something like ten thousand of them.

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The story of the station goes something like this: during the 1990s, the “Sunshine Policy” led to some opening up of relations between North and South Korea. South Korea’s only land border is with North Korea, so they were hoping to run a train through North Korea which could then hook up eventually with the Trans Siberian and other railways in China. These was agreement and this station was built and George Bush came and opened it. Because the North Korean train line was from around 1900, the South Koreans then offered to build new track so their trains could operate. They built the line through to the first Korean town and a train did the trip through and there was a party and then it returned. Before building of the rest of the train line could continue, relations broke down, the North Koreans put an end to the project and no train has travelled north from the station since then (a train from Seoul brings tourists once a day to Dorasan, but no further.)

2014-06-28 11.16.59No one has ever travelled to Pyeongyang from the station. But there still seems to be an edge of hope that one day it will happen.

2014-06-28 11.17.50We also then went to the Observatory where you can look over into North Korea (but not take photos). You can see the nearest North Korean town which has the largest flagpole in the world. You can easily see the North Korean flag flying atop it! You can also see where there is a factory zone – South Korean companies using North Korean workers.

There was a buddha there too.

2014-06-28 11.57.46We then had a quick visit to Unification Village a town wholly within the DMZ. Apparently the people who live there are quite wealthy from farming, but they have to be home at 10pm every night for security reasons. The land in the DMZ is apparently quite fertile, even if there are occasional unexploded ordinance problems. At the shop in the village you can buy DMZ rice, ginseng and North Korean alcohol. Our guide told us to avoid the North Korean plum wine because “that isn’t drinkable if you are human.” I bought some brandy.

We headed back into Seoul and our guide took us for genuine Korean BBQ – it was completely delicious. Because he has been going there for ten years, we got all the additional free things – kim chi stew, salads, potatoes, you name it.

The tour was over and I went to visit the Deoksugung Palace which was just across the road from my hotel. When I got there there was an elaborate changing of the guard type ritual going on. The costumes and weaponry were amazing. Apparently some of the people who dress as palace guards are young men who didn’t make it into compulsory military service and they do this for two years instead.

The grounds of the Palace are quite lovely. There is actually a new Western-style part of the Palace complex which was built early in the 20th century.

After that there was time for an iced tea at the hotel before heading to the airport. Another part of Seoul explored!

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