DMZ trip

Posted on November 2, 2009


I have been interested in North Korea and situation in the Korean peninsula for a long time. Although I feel to know a lot about the country, I sometimes still get surprised by the insanity and cruelty of the North’s ruling regime. It seems that North Korea is probably the last country in the world, which firmly stands by its communist ideals. It is like a minor copy of Soviet Union and it therefore relates to me in a way that I have been technically born in the Soviet Union and always wanted to know more about the life behind the iron curtain (I was born just a few years before Lithuania regained its independence and my birth certificate is both in Lithuanian and Russian and it’s cover bears the coat of arms of the Soviet Union). However, the more I learn about North Korea, the more obvious it gets that the country has reached the levels of insanity far beyond those seen in the Soviet Union.

While its population is hungry and desperately poor, most of the money available is being spent for military purposes. They have an extensive gulag system with entire cities turned into labour camps. And a person can be sent there for merely singing a South Korean song or watching a western movie. They don’t really produce anything and some workers even pay the idle factories to be enlisted as official employees. This way they can be safe to work on their own to make ends meet.  The currency reform that recently took place effectively deprived the locals of most of their savings (There is a good article by The New York Times about this). This in turn increased the rate of suicides and the overall desperation of the population. Imagine the amount of work it takes to make even a couple of hundred of dollars in North Korea  and the feeling when it’s taken away from you in a second! North Korea, according to its official ideology, is a country able to sustain itself, but in reality it is a miserable place, a relict of the cold war and a disgrace for the whole international community.

Going to the DMZ and getting at least a glimpse of this mysterious country was something I wanted to do for a long time. DMZ stands for a demilitarized zone, which is a strip of land between the North and South Koreas 4km wide and 248km long. Very little activity is allowed in this area – most of South Koreans can’t even enter and foreigners are required to carry their passports. However, when the armistice agreement was signed in 1953, two villages were allowed to remain in the DMZ. The one on the Southern side, called Daesong, is administered by the UN, which means that the locals are free of any duties to the South Korean government. The village on the North Korean side, Gijeong, is the famous propaganda village, where nobody really lives. Due to the low human activity DMZ almost gained a status of a national park and wildlife flourishes there. One South Korean company even produces DMZ water and markets it as a healthy and natural product.

We started our trip with the Unification Observatory, which is located right outside the southern DMZ border and is as close as most South Koreans are allowed to get to North Korea. Virtually the whole area of DMZ is sealed off with a high fence and barbed wire on top (see photo below), most of the fields behind the fence are mined and there must be plenty of other military facilities that we don’t know about. Many South Koreans gather in this place for various occasions and demonstrations and leave a note or a flag on the fence to express their wish to reunite with their relatives behind the border. It’s really a grotesque sight. The only difference between this fence and the Berlin Wall is that the former is a fence, and the latter is a wall.

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The white railway bridge, called the Freedom bridge, leads to the Dorasan train station and to the North, photographed from the Unification Observatory

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A high fence with barbed wire on top next to the Unification Observatory

Just like the foreigners were allowed to cross the Berlin Wall, we were allowed to cross this fence into the DMZ – a no man’s land between the two Koreas. We had our passports checked by the guy in uniform before we could enter the DMZ. For the next stop, we were taken to Daesong – a village on the Southern side of the DMZ. We had a quick lunch there and then had some time to explore the village. It was really very small, just a few streets with small houses, not at all different from what I’ve seen elsewhere in Korea. A few locals were preparing vegetables in front of one house, they smiled at us and we smiled back. It all felt so normal, as if I was visiting just an ordinary village in Korea. There was no sense of danger or insecurity that you might expect in a village surrounded by minefields and subject to military action in seconds if war was to break out.

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Local Koreans working in front of their house in Daesong, inside the DMZ

Following the visit in Daesong, we were taken to the third tunnel.  Before coming to Korea I did not know that the North had dug at least four tunnels under the DMZ and into the South Korean territory. The sole purpose of these tunnels is to bypass the DMZ (which is highly fortified) and be able to organise a surprise attack on the South. In total, four of these tunnels had been discovered until 1990, but it is believed that many more are undiscovered.

The tunnel we visited is 1.6 km in length and 2m in width and 2m in height and supposedly 30.000 North Korean soldiers could pass through this tunnel in just one hour, giving them a clear edge in case of war. However, I doubt that figure, because the tunnel really is quite tiny and I don’t think two fully armed soldiers could run in it side by side.

Before being allowed in the tunnel, we were taken to the DMZ museum next to it. The museum started with a small cinema, where we were shown a short American film about the Korean War. You would expect a film in the cinema, but this one was really over the top: the narrator was speaking with an unmistakable American accent and a very dramatic voice and the film was made in the best Hollywood manner: a lot of action and a very happy ending with an obvious winner (the South and USA) and an obvious loser (the North). I think it was the first time that I saw a true “western” propaganda movie. As for the other side of the story, here’s what North Koreans have to say: “On July 27, 1953 the American imperialists got down on their knees before the heroic Chosun people to sign the ceasefire for the war they provoked on June 25, 1950”. It is obvious that both sides are clearly overly biased.

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Kristina, Agnė and me at the entrance to the third tunnel, no photos were allowed inside

Unfortunately, our trip to DMZ did not include a visit to Panmunjom (with the famous small blue buildings, where both countries meet for discussions). Therefore, the most interesting part of our trip was visiting the Dora Observatory. It is the northernmost observatory in South Korea, where you can see North Korea, its famous flag, and, with a good weather, even a statue of Kim Il Sung. Sadly, taking pictures is only allowed behind a yellow line, which is two or three meters to the edge and therefore you are not able to capture anything in the Southern part.

When I got to the observatory I completely forgot about the yellow line and started taking pictures. Immediately, a soldier came to me asking to delete all the pictures I took. I wonder how this would have ended if I was caught doing something like this on the other side of the border…

Gazing at North Korea through binoculars was really an exciting moment. The weather was not ideal and I couldn’t see much, but the huge North Korean flag (said to be the largest in the world) and some abandoned buildings gave me an unforgettable impression. What struck me the most was that I couldn’t really see any activity: no highways, no people. Kaesong, which is North Korea’s second largest city, is just a few kilometres behind the border. If it was South Korean second largest city, I think you would not only be able to see it, but also hear its buzzing life from such a short distance.

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The famous North Korean flag in the village of Gijeong (propaganda village), photographed from the Dora observatory in the South

For our last point of interest, we were taken to the Dorasan train station. A big ad outside claims it to be „Not the last station from the South, but the first station towards the North“. It is an impressive and massive new train station built by South Koreans probably as a sign of their willingness to reunite with the North. This station serves only six trains every day (and again, no South Koreans are allowed here, since it is in the DMZ). It reminds me a lot of the Yangyang airport, which was built for 400m dollars on the Eastern coast of South Korea, but sees virtually no passengers (there’s a BBC report about this). This train station, in the eyes of a European, might be seen as a waste of money, but you can’t really blame South Korea for expressing their wish to reunite with the North in such manner.

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Railway tracks that lead to North Korea (the border is just a few kilometres from here)

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Pyongyang is located 205km north of the DMZ, while Seoul is located 56km to the south, giving the North an edge to attack the capital in case a war was to break out

Posted in: Korea