Wednesday, December 2, 2009

North Korea & The DMZ

We've been living in South Korea for a few months now and we are frequently asked by our friends and family back home whether the North has had any influence on our daily lives. To tell you the truth, I think we heard more news pertaining to the North when I was living in Canada. At war for 60 years, I believe that the Korean people have lived with this situation for so long that they refuse to let uncertainty or fear rule their lives. The few Koreans that we have spoke to about the North (its not the kind of subject you bring up in the school cafeteria) have only expressed sadness about the situation - not fear. They feel sorry for the people of the North and the oppressive government they face. We haven't been given reason to worry about it all that much during our time here . . . but we'd have been fools not to check out, "The Most Heavily Armed Border On Earth!"

We booked a tour through the United Service Organization of the US Army. They offer the best tour because they can provide access into the Joint Security Area - right where the North and South meet.

We met with our tour group at Camp Kim in Seoul and hopped on a bus heading North. We arrived at the DMZ about an hour later and were taken into an office to be 'briefed'. There was a really strict photo policy: "Don't take photos unless the armed soldiers say its OK". We actually saw a few people's photos being deleted by soldiers during our trip.

After the briefing, we were taken straight to the JSA. The Joint Security Area is where the two sides meet - right on the border. Soldiers from the North and the South are both allowed in this area. Here's our respective JSA mugshots . . .

Those are ROK soldiers you see by the blue building. They stand facing the North in a modified Judo pose.

In front of the gray building is a North Korean soldier. They were checking us out with binoculars the whole time. A little bit unnerving . . .

Here's our tour guide/armed guard telling us a Canadian related anecdote while the North Korean soldiers check us out. (Sorry for the shaky camera work - it was shot in a war zone . . .)

We were able to enter the conference room. It sits directly on the demarcation line and this room is where the Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953. (The war, however, still officially continues to this day.)

Here I am next to the ROK soldier guarding the North door. His sole purpose in life is to stop people from going through that door . . . I wish my job was that simple . . . wait - no I don't. I didn't get too close -- I really didn't want to be the tour guide's next anecdote! Oh, and by the way, at this point I'm standing in North Korea. Pretty cool, eh?

A view out the window. That concrete is the 'line'. DO NOT CROSS - You might get shot!

Later, we went to the Dora Observatory for a view of the North. Here's the tourist's line. If you have a camera - DO NOT CROSS - your memory card might get shot.

A view to the North. We had to stand quite a few feet back from the edge when we took photos. The view through the viewfinders was pretty neat, though. You could see a monument to Kim Il-Sung and you could see Kijong-Dong, the 'Propaganda Village'. Supposedly, the village has a population of zero and it was built just to impress the people looking from the South. The lights in the whole village go out at the same time every night. I did see a couple of people through the viewfinder though . . . so you never know. . .

I took a video panning our view of North Korea. Check out the tallest flag in the world - 525 feet. South Korea erected a massive flag but the North wouldn't be outdone so they erected an even higher one. Once again, sorry for the shaky camera . . .

We also went to visit one of the four known tunnels built by the North for possible invasion attempts. The tunnels passed from the North to the South and each could allow an entire infantry to pass into the South in an hour. They were discovered by the South in the '70's and the North claimed they were dug as coal mines. Some of the tunnels were even painted black to look that way but no coal was found. We weren't allowed any pictures in the tunnel.

Well, before heading back to Seoul we hit the gift shop. We bought some North Korean paper money and a t-shirt as souvenirs and took a couple bottles of North Korean soju back to share with our friends in Yeoju.

What an interesting tour . . . I'd say, if you're coming to Korea, the USO tour is definitely a "do not miss!"

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