There have been two Korea’s since the end of World War II; The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North) and the Republic of Korea (South). This past weekend on our trip to Seoul, we toured a small part of the Demilitarized “buffer” zone (DMZ) between the two countries. It was Friday he 13th, and just days before the front page headline was North and South Korean Warships Exchange Fire. Really though, it did not seem like a big deal. They run tours through the Joint Security Area at Panmunjeom all the time, and we were just one of at least 10 other tour buses passing through that morning.
A highway built for 1001 cattle
As we drove along the river just outside of Seoul city, our tour guide mentioned that South Korea used to have a real problem with North Korean spies sneaking through the forest and swimming down river to infiltrate Seoul. “See the mountains?” she explained. “They are naked because we cut down all the trees and put the barb wire in this river. Now, there are no more North Korean spies.” Her next story was about the highway itself. Former CEO of Hyundai, Chung Ju-Yung, apparently stole a cow from his parents before fleeing with it to South Korea. With the money he got from selling the cow, he was able to get his start. After decades of success, Chung decided it was time to give back what he had stolen. He arranged to have 1001 cows sent across the DMZ and into North Korea as payment (with interest). But there was no major highway leading to the DMZ, so Chung had to build one first. The length of highway with which we were traveling was originally built for this purpose. I’m not sure how true this really is, but it makes for a good story.
Freedom Bridge. Was this used in that James Bond movie with the guy that had diamonds in his face?
The Joint Security Area in Panmunjeom is not actually in the Demilitarized Zone, but on the South Korean border of it. Our guide explained that tours within the actual DMZ were possible for 47 nationalities only. However, last year a tourist was shot near the Bridge of No Return, so viewing of that area has been suspended.
Kaesong City, North Korea
As close as we could get to North Korea.
The most interesting portion of the trip was walking through the Third Incursion Tunnel at the Joint Security Area. North Korea had been digging tunnels under the DMZ as planning for what I presume would have been a massive invasion of the South. The first three tunnels were discovered in the 1970’s. The first tunnel was discovered by accident by a South Korean patrol, and North Korea responded with machine gun fire. Knowing that the North was tunneling under the DMZ must have made South Korean officials shit them selves. The fourth tunnel wasn’t discovered until 1990. According to a North Korean Defector, there are probably 20 tunnels, and one of the jobs of the South Korean military today is to continually drill and comb the DMZ for these. They must also sweep the wooded areas surrounding the DMZ for land mines. Our tour guide mentioned that Korean soldiers were “disappointed” to be given this job. An understatement, I’m sure. Anyways, tunnel 3 is 490 feet underground and will take a visitor 150m into the DMZ. The remaining 1000 meters or so has been thoroughly blocked from accessing. There was not enough room to stand up straight or fully extend my arms. Imagine all the poor bastards who broke their backs building the thing in preparation for a day that would never come. Now, instead of advancing the revolutionary cause, their hard work helps line the pockets of South Korean tour companies.
Our last stop on the tour was a state of the art train station. Abandon and never been used, Dorasan Station is the single rail link between North and South Korea, built in preparation for the fabled reunification of the peninsula. A mural above the lobby shows two hands stretched towards each other with a bright future in radial focus — the dark past gradually fading away.