I have been reading a couple books lately on refugees who have escaped North Korea, as well as a short history book on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). I did not know too much about the Korean War before coming here. I knew that Canada was involved under a UN command and of course the result of the war, but that is about it. I wanted to learn more, and so I thought perhaps a trip to the DMZ and Joint Security Area (J.S.A) would be educational.
The tour I went on, took us to several areas. We went to: Imjingak Park, The Third Tunnel, Dora-Observatory, Dorasan Station and the J.S.A also known as Panmunjeom. I learned a lot and I also came away with a lot of mixed feelings.
Our first stop was the Dora-Observatory. This is a lookout spot where you can see the North Korean propaganda village in the DMZ. You are not allowed to take pictures at this specific location, unless you stand back behind a line. We were not able to go inside this building, I am not sure why (I didn't think it was appropriate to ask questions when told no) but there was a little temple next to it and a Buddha statue near the fence on the other side of the building.
As mentioned, at the lookout you can see North Korea. As for what it looks like, well it doesn't look like anything out of an ordinary landscape in March of mountains and some dead trees. It is really just a village surrounded by mountains, and I'm guessing barbed wire. I think I had a lot of expectations about this trip that maybe weren't realistic. I really didn't know what to expect, but I think in my head I hyped it up. We could however hear something from the North Korean side, I am not sure if it was messages or their anthem. Or perhaps it was propaganda from the South Korean side.
Dorasan Station, is a railway station that was built in anticipation for unification. There is a plan to connect it with a Seoul subway line, and European railway lines, should this ever happen. It is so pristine inside and at the moment the only purpose it serves is for tourists and filmmakers. There is a souvenir shop as well as a desk to get a Dorasan Station stamp.
The Third Tunnel is, the third infiltration tunnel that was discovered in 1978 by the Koreans. There are three other discovered tunnels and they have determined that they were dug by North Korea, in attempts to reach Seoul. The goal was to have them large enough for tanks to get through and then have a surprise attack. You ride a monorail down under the ground. Once inside the tunnel, you are able to walk quite a ways in and technically be under the DMZ. In this tunnel, the guide told us, the North Koreans painted it black to try and pass it off as a coal tunnel. There are yellow markings on the wall showing where the dynamite holes were.
The tunnel was interesting to see, and the fact that we could walk through it was unexpected. Once we finished in the tunnel, we were brought into a building that serves as an exhibition for artifacts from the DMZ and a glass floor showcase of the nature preserve that has become the DMZ. This is the place where I start having issues with the tour.
We sat through a video showing and explaining the history of the Korean war as well as hostile events that have occurred since this time. The video was voiced by a Western (American most likely) person who was over dramatic in many parts and sort of presented the video like propaganda. I am not pro-North Korea, I don't know anyone who is, but at the same time, it was a very strange video and it really presented an unfavorable light on the whole thing. The one line the dramatic voice over says is something like "Until unification, the DMZ will remain a natural paradise for plants and animal species FOREVER". 'Forever' was stated in a very intense tone. I remember thinking, 'What did I just watch?'. I really do not know why they feel the need to show this video but I hope they replace it soon.
This was a full tour, so we also got to go to Imjingak park, which is actually accessible legally by South Koreans. I really enjoyed this stop, and I think it was my favourite part of the tour. At the park were are several different aspects. There is actually a mini amusement park for children there as well as many memorials and pieces of the war. The park itself was built for the millions of Koreans who lost their homes because of the war.
The ribbons are tied to the fences by South Koreans. They write their names and addresses on it in hopes that if a member of their family becomes a North Korean refugee or re-unification happens they can be re-united.
After the park we went to the J.S.A. This is the another place where I felt very uncomfortable and not because North Korea was about 20 steps away and I could see a DPRK soldier. We walked through a very empty building and were told to stand in two lines. We were given instructions on where we could take pictures (no gray buildings allowed). The guide said "okay everyone you have two minutes to take pictures. go", and in an instant you could hear the clicks of everyone's camera.
After that strange touristy experience we went inside the blue building where the ceasefire was signed in 1953. There were two soldiers (U.N. possibly?) standing like statues inside and everyone was clamoring for a picture with them. I don't know why but that ordeal made me feel very uncomfortable. I think I took a picture of my feet on the ground just to show I had 'technically' stepped into North Korean jurisdiction and then turned my camera off.
This is the bridge of no return. We were not allowed out of the bus at this point. As we were driving past I felt a very eerie feeling, maybe it was because of the weather (cold, gray) or the significance this bridge has mixed with the emotions I had been feeling throughout the tour. At the end of the war this was the bridge POWs crossed back and forth and Koreans had to decide which side they would go to. The name is in reference to the fate that you would accept if you chose to walk to the North Korean side.
Despite a few parts of the tour which did not sit well with me I am glad I went. I think it is important to learn as much as I can about this issue and the war and the political relations since I am living in this country. I think that it gives you an insight into details about the war you may not of known and you get to see some interesting things. If you are planning on visiting South Korea or coming to live and work here try to be objective if you decide to take this tour and realize that everything is all about interpretation and perspective. I'm sure if I were to travel to DPRK and take a DMZ tour there (if one exists) I would be presented with a different interpretation and perspective of events.
Labels: 2016, DMZ, History, JSA, South Korea, Travel