Wednesday, May 9, 2012

South Korea: Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)

Korea is the only divided country in the world-- with the two sides of the peninsula having their own government, beliefs and social practices. The conflict dates back to as early as the World War II and is deeply rooted in ideological differences, as well as international influence. Remember, both nations were supported by different sets of states. Earlier, the demarcation was between the US and Soviet. But after North and South established their own states behind two opposing social thinking, the tale of two nations all but just began. This is a very sad truth. While it's also true that we should not lose hope that one day, things will turn up for these two states, it does not look like that day is near. We learned this and more on our visit to the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ, about two hours from the city center of Seoul.
DMZ is the pacified, heavily-guarded area spanning the whole stretch of the border dividing the two nations. Interestingly, DMZ is owned and being run by the US and according to our tour guide, South Korea has little to do with it. I can launch into theories, but of course I won't in this blog. Care to enter my mind? ;) I know you don't so just read on for an account of our DMZ experience. 

DMZ covers a large area of land, many parts of which were turned into rice and ginseng fields. There are of course living quarters for the soldiers assigned there, a school, hospital and a church. All the crops and produce (rice, vegetable, ginseng) that come from DMZ are organic and of the highest quality, as taught to us during the tour. We could not, however, take pictures while inside the tour bus so please bear with whatever I have from the tour-- only from areas where picture-taking is allowed. 

The half-day tour we took costs 46000 W (or 1840 PHP) per person. It is inclusive of roundtrip tour bus transfers, an English-speaking guide and a visit to the Ginseng Center (where they will sell ginseng products).  There are many tour outfits offering DMZ tours, but we joined the one endorsed to us by the lady in the tourism information kiosk in Hongdae. There is no way to DIY a DMZ tour. It is impossible to access it by any public transportation mode. All guests must sign up with tour companies ahead of time.  

Please go to this link for a listing of Korean Tourism Office-recommended travel agencies offering half-day and whole-day DMZ tours: 

Getting there:
The tour bus will pick you up from your hotel very early in the morning (7-7:30 AM) and will drop you off in either City Hall or Itaewon at around 2:00 PM. Since we stayed in a hostel that's off the main road, we asked to be picked up in front of Astoria Hotel which was right in front of IPS Lounge. The drive time to DMZ from Seoul was two hours. 

1.You need to reserve slots a day before, at the most. Certain nationalities need to present other documentation before being allowed to join the tour. 
2. Bring your passport with you.
3. Only take pictures in designated picture-taking areas.
4. Follow the dress code the tour company will impose on you.

DMZ Theater
The first stop of the tour was the DMZ theater, where we learned of how DMZ came to be, what DMZ is composed of, as well as hopes and efforts toward unification. 
 DMZ Theater
 Unification Monument
 Landmine zone- Some soldiers are assigned to find and deactivate landmines in the DMZ area.
 South and North Korean soldier statues
Tourists. Haha! :))
3rd Infiltration Tunnel
After the movie, we were led to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, which was supposedly dug out by hand by North Korean soldiers to penetrate Seoul. This is the closest to the city but there are numerous others spanning the border. This stop is not recommended for those who are pregnant or have respiratory or heart conditions. You have to deposit your things in the lockers in the receiving area and also need to wear hard hats in case there are falling debris. The tunnel is like a long stretch of cave with water dropping from overhead. It was cold and wet down there.  

To get to the tunnel, you have to descend a very steep and continuous concrete ramp that runs for maybe 15-20 minutes. It was okay at first but since the pull of gravity is at work, you have no option but to keep JOGGING down and down and down to the dark, damp tunnel. Picture-taking is not allowed in the tunnel but inside you see an example of a bomb/landmine, natural coal produced in the tunnel and you can also take a peek in the first barricade guarding the South from the North. Now comes the more difficult part-- going back up. I swear I could have gotten an asthma attack there and was so wishing that I had brought with me my Seratide inhaler. There are a few chairs attached to the walls for those who need rest, but still that was one heck of a cardio exercise!

The next stop was the viewing deck where visitors can actually see a part of North Korea. We were so lucky because the day was very clear when we visited. According to Nikki (our guide), this only happens 20% of the time! We were able to see farm lands, mountains and even buildings and the flag pole (tallest in the world at 160 meters). No photos though because you can only take pictures until a certain designated line. Without a monopod, it's impossible to capture anything beyond the deck. The experience felt like being in The Wall for me. If you watch Game of Thrones, you'll know what I mean.
 Soybean chocolates, anyone?
 Viewing deck to get a sight of the North
Dorasan Station
The last stop was Dorasan Station, which was built to connect Seoul and Pyeongyang. It was built in better times, when affairs between South and North were more civil. However, upon completion of the project, North Korea claimed that they do not allow the train's entry. This was just so bad. Also, had this been ironed out, the train line would be transcontinental, allowing Korea access to Europe by land. Dorasan Station is really just another train station, nothing extraordinary about it. But the fact that it was constructed to unify the two Koreas makes it a significant landmark. 
 Donors to the project.
 Next destination: Pyeongyang?
 The only place in DMZ where it is ok to take photos with the soldiers. They are most 20-25 years of age because Korean males are required to render military service after schooling.
 A good vision nonetheless.
 Project prototype
 In front of Dorasan Station
Souvenir from the station. This would have been the stamp on tickets/passports.
Overall, the DMZ tour was a trip worth taking if you have the time in Seoul. It was very eye-opening and educational. I began to think South Koreans like making the peace sign in photos, as reference to their relationship with North Korea. But of course I know that's not the case. Nonetheless, I'm one with anyone who prays for the peninsula's unification. It won't be an easy road, I am aware, but not impossible. 

Read more about my Seoul adventure:
The 411 on our South Korea Trip
Seoul Walking Tour: Gyeongbokung, Bukchon, Insadong, Cheongyeccheon Stream
Nami Island
Garosugil Street
Hello Kitty Cafe (Hongdae)
N Seoul Tower
Namsangol Hanok Village

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