Ken’s Epic Korean Vacation Adventure: Day 5

Posted: August 17, 2012 in Ken's Epic Korean Vacation Adventure, South Korea

My horribly, horribly long-overdue and no longer relevant attempt to shore up some loose ends in South Korea and share a few more experiences.   I’m considering firing myself for missing so many deadlines but nonetheless, enjoy!

Day 5: The DMZ

The North Korean flag just across the border at the DMZ. A flag that takes several slave laborers well-paid professionals to handle due to its enormous size and weight.

We saved the most tense and important destination for our last full day of tourism in South Korea — The Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ.  Naming this area the “Demilitarized” Zone is like calling the Middle East the party capital of the world.  Nearly all of the people inhabiting the DMZ are members of the military, both from South Korea and the United States.  The only non-military residents within the DMZ, on the South Korean side, live in a town called Tae Sung Dong (one mile from its North Korean counterpart, Kijong-Dong) and are a certain group of South Koreans who are descendants of the people who inhabited that particular area historically.  The residents of Tae Sung Dong are considered South Korean civilians and thus fall under South Korean law; however, they’re able to farm their land without being subjected to South Korean taxes and the males are not required to fulfill the mandatory military requirements like all other South Korean men.  It’s important to realize that, besides the small farming community of Tae Sung Dong and any tourists taking the bus through the area, the DMZ is only inhabited by members of the military, not to mention it is still approximately 40% mined from the Korean War.  Basically, the DEmilitarized Zone is actually one of the most militarized borders in the world.

The only way to see the DMZ as a tourist is through a guided and extremely controlled bus tour.  There are two options to the tour: the DMZ tour that takes you to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel and the DMZ Observatory, among other stops, or the JSA (Joint Security Area) tour that takes you to all of the above as well as down to the actual border where soldiers from the two sides stand off, face to face, in one big, sketchy staring contest.  Unfortunately for us, the JSA tour wasn’t available the week my Dad came to vist (holding true to the pattern of poor vacation planning by yours truly) so we were forced on to the standard DMZ tour instead.  My Dad, being the good sport as he had all week, took the disappointing news in stride and made the most of our day spent at one of the most historically significant places in recent memory.

Cameras aren’t allowed down in the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, so this will have to do while you use your extensive imagination to picture what a very rudimentary tunnel, carved deep in to the earth, might possibly look like.

The first stop on the DMZ tour, besides the obligatory detour to the DMZ Gift Shop (seriously –You, too, can take home your very own piece of oppression and sadness!), was the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel.  The appropriately-named 3rd Tunnel is the third (Shocking!) of four tunnels discovered deep underground that allegedly start in North Korea, go under the DMZ, and all appear to head in the direction of Seoul.  Supposedly intelligence has shown that up to 15 total tunnels exist, although the remainder have not yet been found.

A mile-long, 45-degree access ramp takes you down in to the tunnel where hard hats are required thanks to an incredibly low ceiling — apparently they don’t grow ’em too tall in North Korea.  You can walk the tunnel all the way to the effective underground border where barbed wire, cameras, and a giant iron door prohibit you from going further.  It is almost creepy to stare at a door, deep in the bowels of the Earth, that will literally take you in to one of the most secretive and secluded nations in the world.  This was one time I did not want the “What’s behind Door #2?!?!” question answered.

The DMZ Observatory with the South Korean flag in the background…and apparently South Korean civilians in the foreground.

The second stop on our tour was the DMZ Observatory where, on a clear day, you can see miles in to North Korea with the naked eye and even further with the coin-operated binoculars (Capitalism at it’s finest!).  The picture at the very top of this post is essentially what the North Korean town of Kijong-Dong looks like through the binoculars, along with their massive flag and flag pole built only slightly higher than the South Korean flag pole pictured just above in what amounts to nothing more than a Cold War-esque pissing contest.

The first village you see across the border in North Korea has come to be known by the good guys as “Propaganda Village” as it appears to be a Utopian society with beautiful, modern buildings…until you realize the buildings have no windows, let alone inhabitants, and the collection of buildings really only amount to one big Hollywood sound stage.  The propaganda of a better life is further debunk by the rolling, naked hills seen in the distance that are a product of extensive and severe deforestation, not to mention the numerous tales of famine and food shortages heard on a regular basis.  [“Propaganda Village” is the blue-roofed buildings at the base of the flag pole in the picture at the very top of this page.]

Us: “We’ll take two tickets to North Korea…JUST KIDDING!” Him: (Not amused.) — OK, so this exchange didn’t really take place, but a cool picture nonetheless.

The last major stop on our tour was Dorasan Station, otherwise known as the last train station headed north in South Korea.  There has always been some level of hope for a unified Korea that would allow for a train system to run from the south end of the peninsula all the way to China.  With even more cooperating countries, the dream would be to connect the train systems through Asia and in to Europe and everyone living as one big, happy family.  Unfortunately, this scenario sounds more like a lyric from John Lennon’s “Imagine” than it does reality and there doesn’t seem to be much of a chance of it ever happening thus Dorasan Station stands a symbolic reminder of the struggle, as well as an eternal hope for progress.  This also means the terminal must be guarded by angry-looking South Korean soldiers to ensure American GIs such as myself don’t try to defect (this has actually happened more than you’d expect).

Looking back, there was no better way to cap off our adventure through South Korea than by visiting one of the most historically-significant areas that, for better or for worse, most people think of with they think of South Korea.  With my Dad being the history buff that he is, I felt that the DMZ was the pinnacle of our week together.

Sign reads: “The two most eligible bachelors in South Korea.” Take a number, ladies.

Below are a few more pictures taken at a later visit to the Joint Security Area (border) that my Dad unfortunately didn’t get to see.  I know he would have been as fascinated as I was.

I wonder who will blink first?

The South Korean soldiers at the JSA are specifically picked for their height, weight, soldiering skills, and prowess in Tae Kwon Do.  Their stance is a modified martial arts stance nicknamed “RoK Ready” and they stand with half their body concealed by the blue buildings to serve as both protection and to conceal from the North Koreans any hand signals made by their hidden hand to the headquarters not pictured behind us.  They also wear super-sweet Ray-Ban aviators to hide the direction of their focus.  And as expected, the RoK-issue Ray-Bans are now available at the DMZ Gift Shop! (Seriously.)

I think I’ve got the look.

The North Korean compound, as welcoming as a visit to the in-laws.

And last but not least, my friend and yours: The North Korean Soldier (being a totally creepy Peeping Tom, no less)

  1. Bake says:

    I thought everyone knew that the Middle East was the party capital of the world. That’s why I’ve been here for so long…

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