Published: August 28th 2012August 24th 2012
So.....that was intense! I'd read in a few reviews that the atmosphere at the border was supposed to be quite tense but it is definitely one of those things that you have to experience in person. And on a plus it turns out I'm the perfect height for tunnel warfare.
We travelled by coach from the USO office in Seoul, based next to the US base, and drove for about an hour and a half to the DMZ (Demiliterized Zone) to begin the tour. There was no mistaking that we were in the right place. The road is a mass of wire fences, barbed wire, road blocks and is heavily armed by South Korean soldiers. Once through the checkpoint we drove over a bridge known as 'Reunification Bridge'. There was a lot of perhaps over optimistical talk about reunification and the 'reunification era' and bridges such as this are basically waiting for the day it all blows over and Koreans can drive north to south and visa versa.
Once inside the DMZ our first visit was to the third of four tunnels that the South Korean army has discovered, dug by the North Koreans in preperation for a surprise attack. Of course the North Koreans deny this, claim they're looking for coal and even painted the walls with coal dust. But those little dynamites holes drilled in to the walls gave them away.
We walked down quite a steep path ( for those interested, no I did not fall) and in to the tunnel itself. At the furthest point we could reach we were just 1.4 km ( 0.8 of a mile) from North Korea. There are now, thankfully, 3 concrete blockades between the two countries because, should it take their fancy, 30,000 armed North Koreans could be along that tunnel in an hour. So I didn't hang about just in case. However, unlike the three 7 foot Danes on the tour I had no issues at all with the tunnel's height. I hardly had to bend my head. Perhaps pot holing will be my next hobby. Or cave search and rescue.
From the tunnel we drove to the Dora Observatory for our first glimpse of North Korea. The visit started with a short video, probably produced by Fox , with big boomy American voices telling us how the whole situation came about and ended with the UN Command's slightly stomach churning motto "In Front of them All". Definitely an American who came up with that. But to be fair the film did point out some useful things to look out for including the uninhabited 'Propoganda Village'. Once out on the balcony I got my first glimpse of North Korea. It looked mountainous and quite pretty and very....empty. Using the powerful binnoculars available you couldn't make out a single vehicle or person. You were supposed to stand in a yellow box miles away from the edge to take photos but that was rubbish because all you got was the back of the heads of the Korean group in front of us so, copying everyone else, I took a few from the balcony. So keep your eyes peeled for illegal photos of North Korea :)
From the Observatory we drove in to the local camp, Camp Bonifas, and here's where it got serious. A US soldier borded the bus, checked out passports and was then our guard/guide for the rest of the trip. First we had a briefing, explaining the history of the Joint Security Area (JSA) and telling us that on no account must we talk to, wave or gesture at the North Koreans. Then we were given a declaration to sign, which explained that we were entering a hostile area and that the UN, US Army and South Korean Army could not be responsible for if it all went pear shaped and we were all killed during unexpected enemy action. So I signed, what better way to go than in a shower of bullets at the infamous DMZ?
Then we visited the JSA and this was where the intensity began. We walked through a building called the Freedom Building and then out the otherside to a square. On the otherside of the square was the large North Korean building, with a soldier posted and staring at us through binoculars. He was perhaps 100 metres away. In between were a selection of T-hut type buildings, which lie across the border. We went inside the building used for cross border meetings and were then able to stand on the North Korean side of the room and therefore, effectively, in North Korea. Once outside we were able to take more photos of the North Korean side. The atmosphere was quite intense with South Koreans and our American soldier quick to prevent people from pointing at the other side. Four South Korean soldiers, all highly trained in Taekwondo, stood facing the North Korean side throughout. You could sense the animosity that each side felt for the other and it was eerily quiet, no birds or anything.
What amused me though was that, as we left, the South Korean soldiers, effectively trained assasins, stood on the side of the road and waved at us like something from Disneyland with big smiles on their faces.
I'll try to get the photos up as soon as possible so you can get a better idea of what I'm talking about!