Monday, October 6, 2008

DMZ.. aka... that time I crossed over the border into North Korea...

This past weekend we finally went up to the DMZ. This was one of the most surreal experiences of my life, and certainly the closest I ever want to come to war. I joined the USO tour, which provides the best and cheapest tour of the DMZ. The first stop on the tour in Panmunjom, which is the Joint Security Area (JSA). Here there are buildings belonging to both North Korea and South Korea/United Nations Command. Each building rests on top of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) aka the actual border between the countries. I entered one of these buildings... and got to *technically* stand in North Korea.

This is a picture of two Korean soldiers on the South Korean side of the border at Panmunjom. They stand at Taekwondo ready position (?). When you get a good look at it... it's pretty intimidating.... As you can see, one soldier is almost completely hidden behind the house. This is to avoid snipers/ being shot at. Very encouraging...

This is inside one of the buildings belonging to the United Nations Council. Down the center of this table there are microphones for recording and translation purposes. This also marks the North/ South border inside the building. So... standing here I would actually have one foot in each country. I actually stood on the North Korea side of the inside of this building for a good 5 minutes or so... I know it's not much... but it still kind of blows my mind a little...

This is called Freedom House. It was originally constructed for reunions between North and South Korean families separated by the war. Unfortunately it has not yet been used for it's intended purpose.

This is a post marking the North/ South border. The border is only marked by white posts every 10 meters or so, and a rusted sign every so often that says something to the effect of: don't cross the border unless you feel like dying today. Korean and English posted on one side, Korean and Chinese posted on the other side. This sign is so rusted though, you probably couldn't read it if you wanted to.

The next stop on the tour was the Third Tunnel of Aggression. This is a tunnel discovered in 1978 which went under the DMZ and surfaced about 44 km from Seoul. Four tunnels have been found that cross into the country, although they think that about 17 exist in total. Again... very encouraging.. Anyway, at the Third Tunnel you can walk down to the tunnel and see where they drilled. It's a long way down.

The last stop on the tour was Dorasan Station. This station is the last station in South Korea. There is now a train that goes from South Korea, though this station into North Korea, to the Kaesong (Gaesong) Industrial Region, which is just 10 km across the border into the North.

Kaesong Industrial Region is a small area where South Korean businesses are allowed to set up factories. North Korean employees are not allowed to see their South Korean bosses. Employees are paid $60 USD per month. $55 goes to the government, and so they are paid $5.00 per month. Sounds bad? This is actually a dollar or two more than the average North Korean. The workers here are the best of the best. These jobs are usually given to people retiring out of the military, since they are the most brainwashed (sorry, that's biased... let's call it patriotic... same difference in my opinion). How do they survive on $5.00 a month? Well, the government provides everything. That's Communism for you.

Ok, I'm forgetting the order of the day... it was a few days ago now that I went... we also made a stop by an observatory where you had a great view of Kaesong. Now I know that there are (were?) tours of Kaesong (the town) and the Kaesong Industrial Area. The idea of North Korea fascinates and scares me at the same time. When I bought my guide book to come to Korea, I was actually more fascinated by reading about North Korea than about South Korea and Seoul where I was actually going. You actually can go to Pyongyang, but you need to go in from China. The only recently started to allow South Koreans and Americans in the country. There was a tourist area for South Koreans (that Americans could visit as well) in Kumgangsan which would be for overnight visits. This abruptly came to a halt when a Korean tourist was shot here this past summer. As far as I can tell, there are still day trips to Kaesong, and as far as I can tell, Americans are allowed in. The idea of going into North Korea frightens me to no end. But, once I could see it over the border, it was more tangible. Not like walking off the earth with no return. I think that if I ever get the opportunity to visit Kaesong, I should take it. How many westerners can say that they've been to North Korea? Besides, when else would you ever get the opportunity to see what the world would be like without the existence of capitalism and globalism? The thought is just sort of mind boggling.

Anyway, enough ranting about North Korea. I'm going to bed.

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