Thursday, March 19, 2009
The world's most serious tourist spot - the DMZ
Whenever you travel to a new place, especially in another country, it is natural to look into local conditions and to be concerned about news events there, especially when they are much different from at home.
As most are aware, South Koreans thrive economically and socially within the international community, in stark contrast to their neighboring brethren in North Korea. The communist country again has gotten the world’s attention with its plans to launch a missile in early April.
North Korea also has been in the news here for briefly closing its border to the Gaesong Industrial Complex, a special economic zone where South Korean-owned factories employ about 39,000. Our guide told us that North Koreans there earn about $70 a month – which they consider a good salary – making clothes, watches and other small items.
Daily life here in Seoul seems largely unaffected by these things. Many people have told us that they feel safe, while acknowledging that conditions in North Korea are “not good.” We have felt safe here – in fact safer than in many U.S. cities. Many IU faculty have come to teach here, in addition to the sending students here, without need for concern.
However, the picture was less clear when our group visited the Demilitarized Zone, which marks the border between the two countries. It was established on the ceasefire line at the end of the Korean War in 1953, when only an armistice was signed.
As we made our way up the hour drive northwest, we gradually saw increased signs of security measures. Initially, we saw barbed wire lining the highway and occasional guard towers. Eventually, as we entered what has to be one of the most usual tourist destinations on the planet, South Korean soldiers stopped our bus and came on to check passports.
It was not a time for humor, although we felt at ease.
The first place we went to was Imjingak Park, where the so-called “Freedom Bridge” is located. To many, especially older Koreans, it is better known as the “Bridge of No Return.” It was a place where many Koreans had to decide at the end of the war on which side of the border they would reside.
Many Korean families were divided as a result and many South Koreans come here on the Lunar New Year and Korean Thanksgiving Day to pay their respects. It is the closest place they can be to relatives and ancestors (ancestor worship is common here).
Being here is sobering. One look through the fence placed part way across the structure and you’ll see that it is the real “Bridge to Nowhere.” A train passes by quietly, just across the border. Someday, many South Koreans hold for a unified country as indicated here by a pool in this park in the shape of the complete Korean peninsula.
About 2 million people come here each year.
We then boarded a local tour bus for the Third Tunnel of Aggression, which built into granite about 300 meters underground by the North Korean army. Discovered in 1978, the tunnel is 1,635 meters long and 2 meters both in height and width.
To get there, we put on hard hats and rode a tram into the ground. According to information we were provided, it was large enough to accommodate 32,000 fully dressed soldiers in an hour.
“This is the largest one among those that have been discovered up to now, and we can certainly guess how strong a North Korean plot to invade the South was at that time,” the brochure reads.
Based on our experience in the tunnel, they would have had to be short in size.
Next, we boarded the bus up, which usually provides an excellent view into North Korea. But Thursday’s heavy fog obscures the view. Many took an opportunity here to get souvenirs instead.
Our final stop on the tour was Dorosan Station, a thoroughly modern train facility about 700 meters from the southern boundary of the DMZ. Built about a decade ago, it is a symbol of the countries’ division. It completed the Gyeong (the Seoul-Sinuiju) railway line and it is connected to track that could talk you through North Korea, China, former Soviet republics, Russia and beyond.
Three trains run each day to north to Dorasan, but the train stops at that point. Interestingly, the theme on the DMZ brochure said, ironically,“Yes, We Can!”
Once back in Seoul, the bus dropped us off at a museum dedicated to the Korean War. While a few went inside, others chose to re-entered today’s more hopeful city.