Tuesday, August 4

Scars of war

Our first day in Seoul started early. I’d booked us on a full-day tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the buffer zone separating North and South Korea. This is the world’s most heavily militarized border and is located an unnerving 50km from the heart of downtown Seoul. In fact, South Korea’s capital city is so close, that within minutes of hostilities breaking out, North Korean artillery guns can mercilessly pound it without ever crossing the border.

Our tour’s highlights included brief stops at the Freedom Bridge, Dora Observatory and Dorasan railway station. We also enjoyed more leisurely tours of the Third Infiltration Tunnel and the Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjom. Since I’d visited the JSA before, the day’s highlight was the secret North Korean tunnel. It’s one of four such tunnels discovered thus far. Many more are believed to exist, with detection efforts continuing unabated. Each tunnel discovered thus far has been large enough to permit the passage of an entire infantry division, or more than 10,000 soldiers every hour

This particular bore was found in October 1978 following confessions from a North Korean defector. It stretches for 1,600 meters, more than 73 metres below the surface. When discovered, the tunnel had already penetrated more than 250 metres beyond the border. It's roughly hewn from pure granite and measures approximately 1.75 metres high by two metres wide. Officially, North Korea denies it’s responsible for this crude engineering feat. However, the tunnel has a steady three degree drainage slope towards North Korea and blast holes are consistently drilled from north to south.

We ventured down to its starting point via a monorail that traverses a steep, narrow intercept tunnel bored for 300 metres by South Korea. As we boarded the train, we were instructed to wear hard hats. It all seemed like a silly nanny-state instruction until both Garry and I continually hit our heads on the tunnel’s low ceiling while walking towards the border. The tunnel is blocked by a sentry outpost less than 150 metres from the border. As we walked, it was hard not to marvel at North Korea’s audacity and its sheer determination for facilitating a surprise attack.

Equally fascinating was Dora Observatory. It's one of several such outposts along the DMZ that offer South Korean's a brief glimpse of the North. Dora itself consists of an outdoor platform lined with binocular stands and an indoor air-conditioned hall with tiered stadium seating facing a six-metre wall of plate glass. The hall also housed an enormous and incredibly detailed diorama of the view itself. For most South Korean's this is as close as they'll ever get to the Hermit Kingdom. The mere existence of Dora brings into stark relief the nation's continued division and it's enduring dream of reunification.

Nearby Dorasan station is known as the last station in South Korea. It’s located just 700 meters from the southern boundary of the DMZ on the recently rebuilt Gyeongui line to North Korea. While Dongsan station has been restored, trains still do not run between North and South Korea. In March 2007 one limited test run of two five-car trains, each with 150 passengers, ventured simultaneously from the North and the South. Each train crossed the border for a few hours before returning home. Today, the station stands virtually empty, looking just as shiny and new as the day it reopened.

Our final stop of the day was the JSA itself. It had been almost six years to the day since I'd last been here. This last visit was just as eerie as the first. Once again we were told to adhere to strict protocols as both our guide and military escort nervously pleaded with members of the tour that proceeded to ignore them. Their fear was understandable. As recently as 2006, shots have been fired across this specific section of the border.

Since 1953, negotiations that maintain the current armistice have been held here in central UN-blue hued conference hut, one of several that straddle the border. On Saturday, our group was given a swift, ten minute tour of the hut. Recent sabre-rattling and nuclear bomb tests have clearly left their mark. I’m sure this JSA visit was much shorter than in 2003 and our escort was visibly more anxious.

Despite these tensions, Garry and I were still able to cross briefly into North Korea by simply walking around a central table that straddles the border. We barely had time to take a souvenir photo with a South Korean guard before being urged to leave the hut and return to the relative safety of nearby Freedom Hall. The famous ROKA pose was also present everywhere as soliders observed North Korean buildings less than 50 metres away. Some soliders were partially hidden by the edge of UN huts as they struck their pose.

Equally surreal are the two peace villages that lie inside the DMZ. In the South, villagers living in Daeseong-dong are classed as Republic of Korea citizens, however they are exempt from paying tax and other civic requirements such as military service. In the North, Kijong-dong features a number of brightly painted, multi-story concrete buildings and apartments with electric lighting. The town was oriented so that the bright blue roofs and white sides of the buildings would be the most distinguishing features when viewed from the border.

Kijong-dong has no permenant residents, as its location is deemed too tempting for North Korean citizens. Instead, caretakers sweep its streets by day and automated switches activate lights at night. It's also home to the world's tallest flagpole, towering more than 160 metres over the village. The entire artifical character of town simply brings home the equally abnormal reality of the DMZ, one of the world's last surviving Cold War relics.

Any doubt that the DMZ remains a war zone is quickly dissuaded by the visitor’s declaration our tour group had to sign. UNC Regulation 551-1 opens with the uncompromising sentence; “The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.” However the declaration finishes with the reassuring statement; “If any incidents should occur, remain calm...” That sounds easy.

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