Thursday, August 4, 2011

Trip to the DMZ

After being in-country for almost one year, I finally went to the DMZ with a couple of friends who will be leaving Korea come August/early September. For those unfamiliar with the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Korea, it is a narrow strip of land which divides North from South. The DMZ roughly follows the 38th parallel, which demarcated the line of the cease fire at the end of the Korean War, 1953.
While the DMZ has been a flashpoint of intense violence in the past, it is open to tourists visting either country. Often, tourists from Western countries visit the DMZ on the side of South Korea while tourists from China, the East and Western Asia visit the landmark from the North. It is impossible to visit the DMZ aside from one particular area, known as Panmunjom (as heard in Billy Joel's classic "We Didn't Start the Fire"), wherein the United Nations' Joint Security Area is established and outlines the only meeting point between the two Koreas. This area was definately the highlight of my visit to the DMZ, which also included a visit to Fort Boniface, the 3rd tunnel, a lookout point over North Korea and a train station which will eventually connect Seoul and Pyongyang, pending reunification.
The JSA was my favorite part of the tour. Located within the JSA is the famous conference room wherein heads of State of each country confer and meet. Standing in South Korea, I saw, for the first time, North Korea and North Korean guards.
A view of the conference room between the two Koreas. North Korea is opposite where I'm standing.
United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission Building

Me and North Korea. We're tight like that.
There are four guards (two pictured) who watch the North 24/7.
The microphones on the table represent the line of demarcation. I do, in fact, have one foot in North Korea and one in the south.
Me and a soldier of the Republic of Korea, defending freedom and looking good doing it. Ray Bans are standard issue, not even kidding.
A real-life North Korean guard
This concrete divider represents the literal dividing line between the Koreas. And yes, I am standing in North Korea.
We had many opportunities to look over North Korea. One such opportunity came when we got to look upon, what the South calls "Propaganda Village."
This village was, in the 1960's, a modern and confortable looking town to lure South Koreans into the North. It was later discovered that it is not occupied by anyone and never was. In fact, the lights which light the town at night are completely automated. Approximately six North Korean soldiers man the town, their job is to raise the Korean flag, pictured atop the 525ft (160m) flagpole.
Another highlight of the tour was visiting the third tunnel, one dug by the North after the cease fire, to transport soldiers and weapons into the south. The South Korean government detected the digging. Upon questioning the North, leaders said they had sent miners down to excavate coal. In a quick and strange attempt to substantiate this story, workers from North Korea quickly and haphazardly painted the inside of the tunnel black. The South Korean scientists who investigated the matter were not impressed.
We then went to a lookout where we could overlook North Korea. I half expected a baren wasteland, void of trees; something baren and desolate, a land which reflected the human suffering and desperation plaguing the country. Instead, I overlooked a lush and beautiful country, shrouded in fog and mist. The mystery that was and still is North Korea, in my mind, was symbolized by the fog.
A candid shot from a vantage point where photography was strictly prohibited. Many Bothans died to bring us this picture.

Finally, our tour ended at a train station which will connect Seoul to Pyongyang pending reunification.

"Not the last station from the South, But the first station toward the North."

I have wanted to visit the DMZ for many years. This trip was something of a History major's dream-come-true or as my companion Jamie put so eloquently, a "dorkasm." Visiting the DMZ, standing in North Korea, was something of a surreal experience. Like visiting Narnia. Much like my trip to and experience in Palestine to visit Hebron, I felt like I was entering into a void in the American psyche, a place that existed in spite of the geopolitical, political and economic will of others. 
I felt like I was trespassing into a forbidden place. I later realized that such forbidden places exist only in the mind. North Korea is, I am sure, full of warm, kind and open-minded people, given the opportunity. The North Korean people are not the enemy and North Korea is not a pariah-state, a taboo in the Western media. The enemy in North Korea, the same in every nation on earth, is oppression. Oppression knows no ethnicity, skin color or creed. It knows only exploitation and feeds on apathy and ignorance.