Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Brief Step into North Korea

I just came back from a nine-day trip to South Korea. One of the best experiences of the trip was a day tour I took with Koridoor to the North Korean border. While there are several companies that run tours to the border, Koridoor is organized by the U.S. Army, so I thought it would be a more official and legitimate experience. The tour cost $92 for civilians, including the bus rides and three separate destinations at the border. This once-in-a-lifetime experience was well worth it. 

First, everyone on the tour met at the headquarters of the USO to await our bus. The bus ride was about one hour, and during this time the tour guide started talking about the history of the Korean peninsula to give us some background. 

After about forty minutes we arrived at the Upper Civilian Limit. This is a border beyond which only authorized civilians and military people are allowed. Past this limit there are some farmlands and agricultural activity, but the area is largely empty.

Our first stop on the tour was Dorosan Station. Basically, earlier there had been hopes of a potential reunification between the north and the south, and this train track was built to connect the two Koreas and link them to the rest of Eurasia. However, obviously, the train is defunct at the moment. Dorosan Station is the last station on the South Korean side. 

You can see from the sign that this train is supposed to go to Pyeongyang, the capital of North Korea.

The second stop of the tour was to the Third Infiltration Tunnel. I wasn't able to take any photos of this stop, besides the outside of the building. The Third Infiltration Tunnel is one of four secret tunnels that has been found entering South Korea from the north. The speculation is that North Korea has been digging these tunnels for a potential future invasion.

Apparently, after South Korea found out about the tunnels, the North Koreans lied and said that they were only digging for coal. However, this was blatantly untrue, as the coal in the tunnels was merely painted on to give the appearance of a supply of coal. It's a bit scary - who knows how many other hidden tunnels there are? The ones that have been found have now been protected with motion-sensor bombs. We got to go down into a secured area of the tunnel to take a look.

Around 2PM we took a break for lunch at some sort of large immigration facility. I'm pretty sure not much immigration takes place these days.

Then we went to the Dora Observatory, a high point where we could get a good glimpse of North Korea through binoculars.

The mountains in the distance are all in North Korean territory. There are also some buildings, if you look closely, and a large radio tower which blocks telecommunications coming in from the South. The border is somewhere among the trees in the flat land.

There is a souvenir shop where you can get some pretty nifty gifts - such as a real piece of barbed wire from the border fence... well as liquor that is made in North Korea. There is minimal economic activity and trading that happens between the two countries. If you look at the lower right side of the label, you will see "Made in DPR Korea."

Finally, the most interesting part of the tour took place. We were taken to the Joint Security Area (JSA) near the de-militarized zone (DMZ). The visit was pretty intense. All of our passports were checked, and then we were given a briefing by a U.S. military officer. He was our guide for this portion of the tour. There were some pretty strict rules about our actions. For example, we could only take photos of certain buildings for security reasons.

We were taken onto a second bus, which drove us into the DMZ. This area is right up on the border, and there are guards from both sides which stand on duty twenty-four hours a day. Each shift is eight hours. I can't imagine standing completely still in the frigid weather for that long.

Below, you see the U.S. Army Officer in the foreground. We were only allowed to take photos straight ahead, towards the north. The blue buildings cross over the border, and the tall building in the back is on the North Korean side.

We were told to walk in a double-file line, and not to wave or make any sudden actions. Visitors are monitored at all times by North Korean surveillance, so we did not want to seem like we were trying to communicate with them.

Here is a close-up of the lone North Korean guard standing on his side of the border. The U.S. officer told us humorously that it always appears to be one guy standing there, and they refer to him as "Bob." There is no direct communication between the people on the ground in this area.

We then entered one of the low blue buildings - some sort of conference room with heavy wooden tables and chairs. At the front of the table stood a South Korean (ROK) guard. Throughout the whole time our group was in the room, he did not move or change his facial expressions. We were warned not to get too close to him or to touch him.

However, we were allowed to take photos with the guards! I felt like the situation was filled with irony - so deadly serious, yet surreal and ridiculous all at once. I guess people need to find humor in all types of environments. In this photo, I am actually in North Korea! The blue building was built crossing the border, so the northern end is in North Korea. I was excited but nervous about not getting too close to the soldier, who stood stock-still during the whole time.

Finally, we went to an outpost to get a good view of North Korea.

The flag in the below photo belongs to a village in North Korea, which we call "Propaganda Village." In the agreement that created the DMZ, both sides were allowed to have one village within the zone. The South Korean side has "Freedom Village." Actual civilians, mostly farmers, live in the zone, and are subsidized by the South Korean government. Though they seem to live comfortably, they live under very strict conditions and curfews. The population of Freedom Village is decreasing as the younger generations prefer to move out from this restrictive lifestyle.

Propaganda Village, on the North Korean side, is speculated to be more of a ghost town, built for political purposes. The huge flag was built to be taller than the flag on the South Korean side. Surveillance has determined that the village is mostly empty with certain clues, like the fact that they discovered that some windows on the buildings are actually painted on.

On the way back, the tour bus looped around the "Bridge of No Return." This bridge received this name because after the Korean War, there was an exchange of prisoners between the two sides. The prisoners were led to this bridge and they could make a decision to go to either the north or the south, but once they made that choice they could not change their mind.

It must have been a really hard decision, especially since at that time I'm sure the conditions of the two countries were not yet so clear and differing.

We got on our original bus, and drove back to Seoul. What an interesting experience! I highly recommend taking this tour if you are at all interested in politics and history, and want to experience some of it in real life.  

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