Monday, May 19, 2003

As we pulled out of Seoul, past a skyline shrouded in the early morning haze, our tour guide cautioned us: ¡°Remember, once you get to the De-Militarized Zone - there¡¯s no more De.¡±

As if to reinforce that point, while drove up the Unification Highway, winding north along the Han River, the road was lined by barbed wire, machine gun emplacements and manned pillboxes.

It was a beautiful Sunday morning and we were on our way towards one of the last remaining Cold War hotspots in the world.

The De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) is 61 KM from Seoul. Following the signing of the ceasefire in September of 1953 at the close of the Korean War, negotiations between the United States (under the auspices of the U.N.), China and North Korea established a Military Demarcation Line (MDL) between the two Koreas. Both sides in the conflict agreed to withdraw their forces a minimum of two kilometres on either side of the MDL. The space in between became known as the De-Militarized Zone.

Imjim Park

About an hour out of Seoul, we pulled into Imjim Park to see the so-called ¡°Freedom Bridge,¡± an old wooden-trestle bridge where, following the signing of the armistice, 13,000 Prisoners of War returned to the South.

Legend has it that as the former captives crossed the bridge they cried out in thanks for their freedom, giving the bridge its name. Fifty years later, the gate to the bridge is draped in colourful banners with personal messages all expressing a desire for reunification. There are still nearly 10 million separated Korean families and in the small park surrounding the bridge, small vigils and photo displays had been set up recognizing just some of families that had been reunited.

As we left the park and approached the first military checkpoint over the Imjim River, we drove under several collapsible concrete overpasses that could be dynamited to slow a military invasion. On either side of us however, were rice paddies and ginseng fields, evidence that even in one of the most highly militarized locations in the world, rural life continues unabated. Less than 500 people live in the DMZ and for their patriotic efforts they are rewarded with free land and exemptions from taxes and compulsory military service.

At the checkpoint on the Unification Bridge we were greeted by South Korean (ROK) troops standing side by side with their US Army counterparts. A young ROK official, clad in a dark suit, boarded our bus and asked for identification from all passengers. Cleared through the checkpoint, we proceeded down the bridge and our bus had to slalom in and out of iron tank barriers for several hundred metres till we reached the other side.

3rd Infiltration Tunnel

We wound our way up past camps full of bare-chested soldiers playing soccer in the mid-day sun and arrived at the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel where we filed in to a Interpretive Centre to watch a slickly produced multimedia presentation.

To our pounding soundtrack, the video called the DMZ the last remaining scar of the 20th Century¡¯s ideological battles and showed heart-wrenching scenes of divided families reunited interspersed with patriotic images of South Korea¡¯s rapid modernization and technological prowess. Surely a little propaganda never hurt anyone.

More interestingly however, it talked about the ecological value of the DMZ, which has existed in a nearly primitive state of nature. No human has stepped in it for nearly 50 years. And for good reason too, there are over 4 million landmines in the DMZ. All around the parking lot of the Interpretative Centre were red triangles and warning signs in English and Korean indicating the presence of minefields.

The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel is one of four officially recognized tunnels under the DMZ, the latest having been found as recently as 1990. We were told that the South Korean Government suspects there are upwards of twenty other infiltration tunnels, but will not confirm exact numbers in order to prevent any panic amongst a skittish population.

This particular tunnel was discovered in 1978 when a North Korean engineer in charge of its construction defected to the South. While hospitalized, he revealed the existence of the tunnel to authorities.

In order to find the tunnel, ROK forces dug more than a hundred boreholes in the location he had roughly described and filled them with water. They waited to see if the water levels in any of the boreholes descended. Sure enough, in one of the boreholes, the water drained out indicated the presence of a cavity below.

From that borehole, they dug an interception tunnel at roughly a forty-five degree angle in order to intersect with the North Korean tunnel.

We descended on a little monorail 300 metres down into the earth through the same interception tunnel. The trip took about 5 to 7 minutes to get to the bottom and is no trip for claustrophobics, as the walls of the tunnel brush your hardhat and shoulders all the way down.

Once at the bottom, our tour guide reminded us once again not to defect to the North and pointed us down the tunnel. The sheared granite faces of the tunnel walls were dripping with ground water and you could even stop to sip ¡®official¡¯ DMZ bedrock water from a small filled cistern.

The length of the entire tunnel is 1635 metres, 1200 of which are in North Korean territory.
Designed to allow an entire battalion of troops (10,000 men) pass through each hour, the tunnel was intended, had it not been discovered, to reach the outskirts of Seoul.

Tourists are only allowed in the first 200 metres of South Korean tunnel. At the end of the tunnel is the last of three blockade walls sealing off the tunnel to the North. The wall is guarded only by some barbed wire and a small video camera pointed at the inlayed door.

Apparently, in the hopes of obtaining some tourists dollars for themselves (Canadians can visit North Korea via Beijing), North Korea has also opened their side of the tunnel to tourists, which made me think how strange it would be if there were tourists on the other side of the wall and just what they were being told by their handlers.

Despite repeated denials from the North, the evidence seemingly indicates that they were behind the tunnel¡¯s construction. They even went to extraordinary lengths to disguise the tunnel, once it had been discovered, by claiming it was a coalmine and painting coal dust on the walls.

Our tour guide even adopted the linguistic fashion of the day, pointing out the so-called ¡°Smoking Gun,¡± or incontrovertible evidence of the North¡¯s intentions. It seems that the direction of all the boreholes for the dynamite sticks are pointed towards the South.

Mt. Dora (Dorasan) Observatory

From the tunnel, we drove up to the top of a small mountain to the Dorasan Observatory. After being herded into a large theatre we received a short briefing from a ROK soldier who stood by a scale diorama of the DMZ in front of a large plate-glass window overlooking the real thing. In a clipped, practiced speech he identified some of the various landmarks of the area.

In the distance lay Gaesong, North Korea¡¯s second largest city, where the North has recently established a special inter-Korean economic zone to try and attract investment capital from the South. In the heart of the city stands a massive gold statue of Kim Il Sung, one of the more than 25,000 statues of the Great Leader that dot the North Korean landscape. Standing three to four stories high, it is easily visible on a clear day.

Also visible is the North Korean ¡°propaganda¡± village of Gijeong-Dong where the only permanent residents are the hired hands who tend to the rice paddies. We were told by the ROK soldier briefing us that the proof of this fact was that all lights in the village are turned off at the same time each night, though this may be more likely due to the North¡¯s chronic power shortages rather than some malign propaganda scheme.

Directly opposite Gijeong Dong, on the other side of the barbed wire, is the South Korean city of Taeseong-Dong. In 1981, the South Korean government gave the residents of Teaseong-Dong a new 100-metre flagpole. Not to be outdone, the North set about building an even bigger flagpole in Gijeong-Dong. Completed at 160 metres, the North Korean flagpole is claimed to be the largest in the world - the dry weight of the flag alone is over 300 kilograms.

It all seemed like a ridiculous attempt at one-upmanship, except that both parties are heavily armed.

From the Observatory deck, you could power up large binoculars and scan the length of DMZ and eyeball, albeit from a distance, one of the most secretive and reclusive regimes in the world. Unfortunately, photographs of the DMZ were not permitted, except from behind a clearly painted yellow line. The ROK soldiers that were accompanying our group strictly enforced this rule.

Iron Silk Road

Scanning the binoculars to the left, we could see ROK troops were busy building a railway line northwards through the DMZ.

In June 2000, former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung visited Pyeongyang, under his ¡°Sunshine Policy¡± designed to engage the Communist State. The summit addressed a wide range of economic, cultural, sporting, and transportation issues, including the development of a new trans-Korean rail track.

The goal is that, once completed, the railway will link Busan to Paris via the Eurasian Land-Bridge and the Trans Siberian Railroad. Dubbed the new ¡°Iron Silk Road¡± the railway line now awaits only the completion of a narrow 300-metre strip of track through the minefields to restore transportation links between North and South.

We visited Dorasan Station that is currently the last stop on the line to North Korea. Many hope that this railway will serve as a beachhead towards reconciliation and eventually reunification of the two Koreas.

As our bus rolled south back into Seoul, I sat and digested everything I had seen; it was an intense day that was at same time both fascinating and tragic, and a little bit scary too.

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