The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G.K. Chesterton

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Seoul Day 2, Part I: DMZ - the fine line between North and South Korea

One of the things Rob wanted to do during our Korea trip was to visit the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). Due to the, er, somewhat hostile nature of the area, I wasn't very keen on bringing our 18 month old to the DMZ, so we decided that we would split up for just a day during our trip to Seoul. When I was researching about DMZ tours, I was struck by how strict the tour rules are, which included restrictions on what kind of clothing you can wear, not permitted to bring cameras with lenses larger than 100mm, and prohibited from pointing, making rude gestures and sudden movements. And it turns out that for part of the tour, children under 11 years old aren't allowed to participate, so it was just as well that I'd decided to stay behind in downtown Seoul with Zak. I suppose the strictness is to be expected for a restricted military zone. Rob was booked to go on a full day guided tour to the DMZ on our second day in Seoul, and he took along the newly-purchased Canon. This is a lengthy post, because Rob took quite a lot of photos, all meaningful and interesting hence it was difficult for me to cull them down to under 15 shots for this post. Rob took the time to write captions for each of the shots, so that we too may take a peek into the world's most heavily militarised border between North and South Korea. Many of the shots would, at first glance, appear meaningless without Rob's explanation, so do take the time to read.

The writing from hereon are Rob's words (captions follow each photo).

During our trip to South Korea last weekend I did a tour of the demilitarised zone along the border of South and North Korea. Unfortunately Jean and I couldn't bring Zak so I went on my own while Jean took Zak elsewhere, but it was still an incredible experience.

One of the recurring themes I noticed was that the South Koreans seem to have no animosity toward North Korea and instead talk constantly about unifying the two nations peacefully (Kim Dae-Jung's longstanding sunshine policy may have been a factor?). One of the symbolic steps toward unification that came up often on the tour was the possibility of reconnecting the train line between South and North Korea. Currently South Korea is like an island; they have to use boat or aeroplane to get anywhere since their only connection to the mainland is through North Korea. Reconnecting that line would not only open up trade and passenger routes, it would signify a large step in peaceful trade and exchange between the two nations.

During the trip I was often unable to take photographs due to the heavy military restrictions in the area. I'll try to elaborate in the captions where appropriate.

This sculpture stood outside the entrance to the 3rd infiltration tunnel. I was unable to take photographs inside the tunnel. The tunnel was short in height (I had to stoop most of the walk) and covered in black coal. The North Koreans had painted the walls with coal in order to pretend the tunnels were simply old coal mines. When that bluff failed they claimed it was the South Koreans who had dug the tunnel. Evidence to the contrary was the direction the dynamite drill holes were pointed and the fact that the tunnel sloped downhill to North Korea to assist drainage during digging. They discovered the tunnel thanks to a defected North Korean engineer who claimed to have been involved in the building of the tunnel and knew where it was located. They placed PVC pipes into the ground at regular intervals and filled them with water. When one of the pipes exploded with water and started draining all water fed into it they knew they'd found the tunnel. Over the next 3 months they managed to dig their own tunnel to intercept it and block it off.

This was at an observation deck overlooking the DMZ. It was from here I could see the North Korean propaganda village. This yellow line indicates the point after which I was no longer allowed to take photographs. So my following pictures of the village are particularly crappy since I had to take the picture from 5 metres back with the camera lifted above my head to get a good shot over the wall.

(Jean's note - it looked like it was hazy that day because the image below was not very clear, but I've tried my best to edit this shot to show a clearer image)

The forbidden village. Visibility was pretty poor this day but you can see the North Korean flag pole. This is the tallest flag pole in the world. Supposedly nobody actually lives in this village and it was built soley to give the impression of affluence to South Koreans.

This was taken in a train station near the border of North Korea. It was recently built and opened in the hope that one day it would connect through North Korea to the rest of Asia and Europe. This map shows all the locations the train would be able to reach should that happen. The station was opened with much fanfare with the presidents of both South Korea and the United States symbolically signing railway ties to commemorate the occasion.

A sign above the gate to the platform for trains headed north optimistically declaring Pyeongyang to be the destination.

The bridge of freedom. This bridge was used by celebrating Korean war POWs to cross the river to South Korea and freedom at the end of the war.

The last train which attempted to cross the previous bridge during the war. It was disabled with artillery and the train conductor had to abandon the train and flee to South Korea. He claimed it "was like leaving his baby behind". Recently the train was reclaimed in its rusted state and restored. The same train conductor was given the opportunity to drive the train again. The train's also seen as a symbol of Korea's current division in much the same way as the new train line being a symbol of unification.

This was one of many monuments in Imjingak (the bridge of freedom and train are also here). The town has come to represent the broken families due to the division of Korea and people often come to this area to pay respect to their ancestors whose graves lie across the border. This particular monument represents 7 regions near the border which many families in the region originally came from but could no longer return to due to the division. Each pillar has a bas-relief sculpture depicting things its symbolised region was or is famous for.

This was a large monument dedicated to the nations which assisted South Korea in defending itself from the Soviet / North Korean invasion. The central section is large enough to walk around in and contains plaques of gratitude and more sculptures depicting various forms of military in battle.

This is a building which lies on the border of North and South Korea in the Joint Security Area (a camp controlled jointly by both North Korean and United Nations forces). The building is used for armistice agreements and peace talks and the like. The United Nations soldier is performing a bad-arse pose for people to take photos with. This is how all the UN soldiers stood during our visit.

Looking outside the window. That kerb is the Military Demarcation line lying precisely on the border between North and South Korea.

This is the table Peace talks and the like are held at. The line down the centre of this table is the Military Demarcation line lying precisely on the border between North and South Korea. I am currently standing in North Korea while taking this photograph.

This is a photograph of the outside of two United Nations buildings lying on the demarcation line (one being the one the previous photographs were taken in). Looking over to the North Korean side. The UN guards are all on high alert in case North Korea decides it wants to kill or capture some tourists.

This is in the same camp. This bridge is named the bridge of no return. POWs from both sides of the war were given the opportunity to cross the border here. This was there last and only chance to cross; whether they crossed or stayed they wouldn't have another opportunity to cross. Hence the name.

Just off to the right of this is the stump of the tree which played the stage for the Axe murder incident in the 1970s. As I said before this camp is jointly controlled by the UN and North Korea. Currently both must stay on their side of the demarcation line. However prior to the axe murder incident both sides could move freely through the whole camp. There were watchtowers throughout the camp with one particularly isolated UN one to the south west which was surrounded by two North Korean camps and only partially visible from a UN tower to the north. Visibility was obscured by a large tree. A UN Captain Bonifas decided one day to cut this tree to improve visability. A North Korean Lieutenant Pak Chul objected and when Capt Bonifas ignored him gave the order for his soldiers to kill him and those accompanying him with axes. This camp was renamed Camp Bonifas in memory of the Captain.

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