Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Nose to Nose with the North - A DMZ Tour: Part 1

I'm not going to lie. I would gladly accept a sponsored trip to North Korea. As abhorrent as the country's government may be, and as frankly miserable as the country appears to be, there's just something irresistible about getting to visit one of the world's last Orwellian nightmare states. Of course, I've accepted that it's unlikely I'll go there any time soon, since it costs a fortune and only a handful of people are lucky enough to have their visa requests accepted. But Angela and I recently decided we'd take a sneak-peek of the place by going on a tour of the DMZ, the buffer zone between North and South Korea. Before I talk about our trip, here's a short history of modern Korea and how it came to be split into these two very different, opposing sides. The photos and descriptions will hopefully be a lot more fascinating when a little historical context is taken into account.

For most of the first half of the twentieth century, Korea was a part of the Japanese Empire, but in the wake of World War II, Japan, defeated by the Allied Forces, was forced to relinquish her control of the peninsula. After decades of brutal suppression, Korea was free to control its own destiny as one unified, self-sufficient nation, as it had been for almost a thousand years under the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties that preceded Japanese colonisation.

However, Japan's quick exit from the peninsula presented its own set of problems, and in order to stabilise the region, the allies had to divide Korea into two halves, with the Soviet Union occupying the north, and the USA occupying the south. Just like Soviet-aligned East Germany and NATO-aligned West Germany, this North-South divide was originally intended only as a temporary partition to aid post-WWII reconstruction, and did not represent any pre-existing cultural separation between northern and southern Korea. Had things gone more smoothly between the Soviets and the US over the next few years, perhaps they would have agreed to establish a single, neutral government in Seoul, and Korea's division would simply have become a part of history, much like how we regard East and West Germany today, or North and South Vietnam.

Instead, an election in the US-controlled South led to the creation of the Republic of Korea, and in response, the Soviets established a rival government in the North, now known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Both sides claimed sovereignty over the entire Korean peninsula, and border conflicts soon escalated along the 38th Parallel. By the middle of 1950, a full-scale conflict - the Korean War - was in full swing, and over the next three years, both the North and South governments would at various points control over 90% of the peninsula, the frontline moving back and forth like some vast, military tug-of-war. Despite receiving aid from numerous countries (the South supported by the US, Australia, the UK, France and other western powers, the North by the colossal armies of Russia and China) neither opponent managed to secure Korea entirely, and in 1953 they signed a ceasefire agreement that left the country split approximately along the 38th parallel, a border commonly known as the Demilitarised Zone, or the DMZ.

Since then, the Korean peninsula has existed as two distinct states: capitalist South Korea and communist North Korea. The former has grown from an impoverished, post-colonial wasteland into a prosperous first-world economy, forging lasting relationships with the various powers of the west, developing and exporting advanced technology products across the world, and enjoying a thriving tourism industry that sees millions visit the country every year.

North Korea, on the other hand, remains one of the world's most isolated, secretive, and poorest nations, shut off from the international community and hardly changed since the darkest days of the Cold War. The country's government follows a Marxist-inspired ideology known as Juche, and forces its citizens to worship its leaders as gods, adhere to strict curfews, and surrender all political, artistic and spiritual freedoms.

Those few tourists and journalists that are granted access to the country do so under strict surveillance, accompanied at all times by government escorts who restrict the visitors' movements to predetermined tourist spots, all of which are designed to present a rose-tinted view of the country. Most of what is known about the real North Korea is based on statements by defectors who've escaped the country. These testimonies include tales of Soviet-style concentration camps, widespread poverty, starvation and torture. It's no wonder Bill Clinton described it as "the scariest place on Earth."

Scary though it may be, such a country inevitably remains fascinating and strangely alluring to many who read about it. While a trip into the heart of North Korea itself is out of reach for most tourists, there is always the option of "peering in" from the south. There are numerous mountain tops, cliffsides and islands from which one can see the peaks of the DPRK from the south side of the border (for example, in January I briefly saw the North from Ganghwa Island).

But the easiest way to get up, close and personal with the communist north is to sign up for a DMZ trip with a reputable tour company. Angela and I chose the USO, a nonprofit organisation that provides morale and welfare to US troops around the world. The tour included visits to several different parts of the DMZ, including a North Korean invasion tunnel, an observatory, the last train station to the north, and the Joint-Security Area where historic talks between ambassadors of the two countries were held.

That's it for historical context. Without further ado, here is a photojournalistic summary of our adventure on the doorstep of the world's most mysterious country!

We started by heading to the headquarters of the USO in Samgakji, Seoul. This is the location of the US Army's main Korean headquarters, at Yongsan Garrison (previously the headquarters of the Japanese Army during the occupation of Korea)
After leaving Seoul via bus, the first place we went to was a museum right near the DMZ.
A model of the Joint Security Area, which we would visit later in the day.
Some weaponry used by various assailants in the war.

Angela and I doing our obligatory DMZ photo before we headed down to the Third Tunnel of Aggression.
During the mid-1970s ROK forces discovered a series of tunnels beneath the DMZ. Though North Korea claimed these passages were mine shafts, South Korean intelligence suggests that they were built as part of a military invasion attempt. In fact, the tunnels are carved entirely from granite, but the North Korean soldiers painted the walls with black oil to give the impression of a coal tunnel. The photo above (which I stole from wikipedia, as we weren't allowed to take pictures) shows the entrance to the Third Tunnel of Aggression, which we were allowed to explore.
This photo, courtesy of lifeinkorea.com, shows the interior of the Third Tunnel. Discovered in 1978 via intelligence provided by a North Korean defector, it runs at a depth of over 200 feet under ground, and is thought to have been designed for a surprise attack on Seoul. While not wide enough to allow the passing of tanks or heavy vehicles, it could easily accommodate 30'000 soldiers per hour as well as mobile weaponry. Of course, those soldiers must each have been under five feet tall, since we all had to crouch to get through the tunnel, and were constantly bumping our heads on the ceiling (good thing we were given helmets).
After leaving the Third Tunnel, our bus driver took us to Dora Observatory. Situated on the top of Dorasan (or Mount Dora), the observatory lets visitors view a wide North Korean expanse just beyond the DMZ.
Because the observatory is built directly above a military compound, visitors can only take photos from behind this yellow line.
Visitors can use coin-operated telescopes to view North Korea up close.
Angela has a look.
You can tell where South Korea ends and North Korea begins by the treeline. North Korea cut down all of its forests near the DMZ to make it easier to spot defectors trying to escape the country. In the background is the North Korean city of Kaesong. We couldn't see much movement in the city even when viewing through the telescope.
At the observatory's gift shop you could buy pieces of wire fence from the DMZ.
There were also some North Korean products for sale, such as these wines.

From the observatory we headed to nearby Dorasan Station. This is the northernmost station of South Korea, but today most rail travel has ceased and it serves mostly as a tourist spot. Should travel between North and South Korea ever become a reality, Dorasan Station will be the customs and immigration point for Russians, Chinese and North Koreans entering South Korea by land.
Inside the station, the silence of the Inter-Korean Transit Office seems symbolic of the uncertain relations between the two countries.
Dorasan feels almost like a regular train station if you're wiling to forget that nearly everyone here is a DMZ tourist.
Guards patrol the entrance to the tracks. The advertisement overlooking them says: "Not the last station from the South, but the first station toward the North."
This map shows a plausible Trans-Eurasian rail network should Korean unification take place, allowing travel all the way from London to Seoul via train.

Just like at any ordinary train station, in order to enter the tracks you have to buy your ticket and get it stamped.
Out on the platform you're free to walk on the railway tracks as you please, since they're no longer in use.

Angela balances on a train track.

North Korea's capital, Pyeongyang, remains out of reach from South Korea. But the sign makes it fun to imagine a day when travel between the two cities will be as simple as catching a train.
A vase showing a 2000 summit meeting between the late North Korean despot, Kim Jong-Il, and former South Korean President, Kim Dae-Jung.
Before heading to the JSA we had some tasty bulgogi for lunch at a nearby cafeteria.
Continue the adventure in Part 2, where we momentarily cross the border into Communist North Korea...

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