Thursday, April 3, 2014

Seoul to Japan to Seoul - DMZ & Panmunjom

The second day my friend was in Seoul we had an all day tour booked to the DMZ and Panmunjom.

A short history for those not familiar with those names; the DMZ (demilitarized zone) and the abandoned village of Panmunjom Korea, are historical landmarks for the Korean war and the second world war. When Japan was stripped of its colonies in 1945, the 38th parallel was marked as a divider between the Soviet Union and the United States occupancy in Korea. The 38th parallel was supposed to be a temporary solution with an end goal of uniting the country under a new system of democracy, but in June of 1950 North Korea advanced on South Korea and pushed their troops nearly completely off the peninsula, save for the remaining city of B(P)usan. Realizing that a successful mission by the North Korean troops would engulf the whole of Korea into communism, the UN entered and pushed the North Koreans back to the 38th parallel. They could have stopped there, but hoping to free the entire country of communism they chose to continue pushing northward and ignored the threats from China if they continued to advance toward the Chinese border. When Korea was nearly liberated and the UN troops were closing on the border of North Korea and China, China fought back and pushed the UN troops back to the 38th parallel. This border area was mostly held during the next few years and in 1953 an armistice was signed to cease fire. There have still been bombings and aggressive actions taken by the North Koreans against the South, but a civil war has been avoided thus far.

With all that in consideration, the following is my account of the DMZ and Panmunjom tour.

We got up early, and the company I had booked the tour with, Seoul City Tours, picked us up at our hotel which was super nice and way easier than getting to the meeting place on our own. It took a while, but once everyone was collected and transferred to the tour bus we headed out to the first place called Imjingak Park. This park is very touristy, but you can see the engine from the bombed train that would run between North and South Korea. There was also a freedom bell you could ring for a fee as well as a selection of restaurants and tourist shops. I found this park unappealing and crowded and eagerly boarded the bus to the next stop, the 3rd tunnel.

Just outside the 3rd tunnel area.

The North Koreans have dug multiple tunnels and it's believed there may be more currently in process that South Korea hasn't discovered yet. But the 3rd tunnel was the shortest one between the DMZ and Seoul (the destination of the tunnel). There are no cell phones or cameras allowed in the tunnel, so I don't have any pictures to show you, but it was a neat experience. The South Koreans have a steep tunnel that descends to meet the North Korean's unfinished tunnel. From there it's a bit short for people over 5 ft and fairly narrow, but you can walk all the way through the tunnel up to the DMZ line where there is a very small window to look through toward the North Korean side. There's a bunch of barbed wire and a not so friendly looking barrier between the locked door on the South Korean side and the door on the North Korean side. After you take a quick look through the window you return back through the tunnel and ascend the steep incline back to the souvenir shop (where you can purchase North Korean alcohol btw) and also view a video in the screening room.

The tour also takes you to the train station built just on the border in South Korea that they hope one day will be the first station across the border if you're taking a train from Russia or North Korea into South Korea. Right now the station is completely vacant but is kept up in a show of faith to reunite the two countries.

This picture shows the finished ideal of a united railway system  connecting South Korea to the rest of Europe.
After this part of the tour, lunch is provided at a Korean restaurant for those that purchased it and then a few people continued on to Panmunjom.

The cement slab in the middle is the border between the two countries.
That is a South Korean soldier standing in the intimidating stance they all use.

Panmunjom is located at the center of the DMZ where peace talks are held and constant security is at a high alert all the time. There is a "welcome center" on each side of the border for both the North and South Koreans. Directly on the border are a few conference rooms that literally straddle both countries. During this part of the tour, you must sign a waiver declaring you will follow all the instructions, that you will not point or make gestures toward the North Korean soldiers and are dressed according to the required attire. There is a dress code to enter Panmunjom. After the waiver is signed, you watch another video and then get on a bus to the South Korea welcome center. Everyone is instructed to walk in double lines and not to make any sudden movements or break away from the troupe. There is specific designated amounts of time to stay at each location and there is a very strict policy about which direction you may point your camera and how much zoom you can use. The Korean soldiers were all very solemn and never moved or spoke or even seemed to breath. The US soldiers there were much more relaxed and I got to joke with one and he was very pleasant and his was a refreshing smile and laugh amidst the stifling composure and solemnity that surrounded the complex.

A North Korean soldier is keep a close eye on our tour groups' activities.

After visiting the border everyone gets back on the bus to return to the souvenir shop and then all the way back to Seoul.

It was an enlightening tour and I'm extremely glad I was able to go. I would definitely recommend the experience, especially the 3rd tunnel and Panmunjom. History is always more memorable and the lessons better learned I believe, when experienced in such a fashion. My next post will be another historical one featuring my trip to Hiroshima, specifically the Peace Park.

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