Wednesday, 12 June 2013

DMZ: Demilitarized Zone or Domestic Money (Making) Zoo

Hyejeon College turned 30 on the 30th April, a while ago now I admit, and we all got a day off to celebrate.  The college held a ceremony, the students drank soju and Nick and I went to the DMZ!

We'd been meaning to go for ages.  It's one of those places you feel you need to see while you're in Korea and an unexpected mid-week day off seemed as good an opportunity as any to go and check it out.

8:30am was the meeting point in a hotel in central Seoul. On with everyone to the bus and away with us towards the Unification Bridge where the tour would officially begin, just remember one thing 'You CANNOT take photograph'.  The bridge had a fairly large military presence and we had to join the queue of coaches all waiting for a soldier to get on and check our passports before being allowed to continue.  The first sight of a soldier had everyone reaching for their cameras, especially the Japanese contingent on the tour (to reenforce a stereotype), until the guide belted out the "you CANNOT take photograph' line that was to become the most familiar sound bite of the day!

Unification Bridge.  No Taking Photos

With the passport inspection done we trundled on to Camp Bonifas (named after some American soldier or other).  The camp is a couple of hundred meters shy of the southern border of the DMZ, (which spans the width of the country, approximately 250km), and it's where all the buses stop for a bit of a slide show before continuing on to the Joint Security Area (JSA).  After the brief, and one-sided, slide show we headed for the JSA passing the only two towns (one North Korean, the other South Korean) along the way.  These towns face each other, the North Korean town with a bigger (more intimidating??!) flag pole and lights on automated timers to give the illusion people live there although in reality the buildings are facades and the whole thing is for show.  The South Korean town does have inhabitants, who are compensated for living in such an odd environment by having much larger farmlands than that of the average Joe outside the DMZ.  Is that really all the incentive needed? Surely there's more?!

Off the bus at the JSA we got and into the Peace House with us.  This is where any talks between the North and the South take place.  The room is built half on the south side of the border and half of the north, with the conference table placed direction over the border!  There were two ROK (Republic of Korea) soldiers inside the room (for our protection!) as well as three outside, all standing in a supposedly intimidating taekwando pose, with fists clenched.  They all also wear sunglasses so that the North's soldiers can't see their eye movements!  It all seemed a bit surreal until we asked how long they have to stand like that, stock still and expressionless.  20minutes came the reply, 'just while you are here', then from what I understand, they take their shades off and go inside to have a cuppa and watch a bit of TV!  The feeling that the whole thing was amped up for show, and has been developed as a money spinner ,was beginning to firmly take hold at this stage.  Knowing that I'm somewhat of a skeptic, I refrained from making any snap decisions and decided to give it a bit longer before I wrote it off completely as a total tourist trap.

Intimidating Tae Kwon Do Pose?

Beyond the North Korea!

The Bridge of No Return.  POA's had to choose, go left or right, and then live with their decision forever

Next stop 'Imjingak' and I'm still not entirely sure what that means.  It's where Freedom Bridge is, as well as a memorial alter and the remains of some (significant?) train.  The main attraction here though was the hurdy gurdys! Yup! Roll up folks and have a blast on the 'Super Viking'!  It seemed, that day at least, to be a popular school tour destination, and sure why wouldn't you bring kids to what is a heavily fortified, supposedly dangerous border area and let them lose on some carnival rides??! Ah Korea, you never fail to surprise!

Freedom Bridge and Memorial

Super Viking!

At this stage in the day, we were fairly hungry which was lucky 'cause we stopped for bulgogi, barbequed marinated beef, washed down with some makeoilli, an alcoholic, milky-white fermented rice drink.  At this stage I would've been happy enough if the tour was over, I'd got a feel for the place, I'd formed my opinion and I wasn't really all that interested anymore but no, the tour was not over.  The morning part of it is what's known as the JSA tour, and now after lunch we were about to start the DMZ tour so off with us to the 3rd Infilration Tunnel dug by the North Koreans, under the DMZ, and into South Korea.  From there we went to a train station, the last one in South Korea before you get to the North but no trains run though it.  It is however, a state of the art station, complete with staff members and you can even buy a ticket which allows you onto the platform so that you can let your mind run away with itself and imagine you are awaiting the train up to see Kim Jung Un himself!  If my mind hadn't been made up yet then this would have surely swayed me.  At $100 a person, and 60 odd people per coach and the guts of 20 coaches per car park, all on a Tuesday!  That's a fairly serious take for one day!

Busy at Work Selling Void Tickets

No trains on Mondays, in case you were confused!

I'm glad we went, although I can't say I learnt anything new, except that the South Koreans are making a fair whack of money from it on a daily basis.  There was no sense of danger or hostility.  The infiltration tunnel was impressive, in its length and size, but its purpose and how it was discovered remains somewhat of a mystery.  The story (we were told) goes that the North Koreans dug it in order to attack the South, then when they knew their cover had been blown, they painted the walls black in order to claim it was a coal mine.  The South say they weren't fooled! It appears the only way you'll really get some real insight is by learning the lingo, and that folks, was the overriding lesson of the day.  It's on my '91 things' list, and it's a work in progress.

Some soldiers hard at work...

...doing the tourist thing with everyone else!

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