Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Demilitarized Zone: An Unforgettable Silence

In July, I was invited to go on a tour of the Demilitarized Zone with a few co-workers. Ever since I attended the tour, I have been wanting to do an in-depth write up about my thoughts of the area and the history. My tour of the DMZ has stood out as one of the most eye-opening experiences in my life, so naturally I feel inclined to share it with the world. I'll start off with a little bit of history and then go into the tour and it's contents.

I've Heard of the DMZ, but what's the history behind it?
Map of the DMZ
The DMZ, demilitarized zone, is a buffer zone 2,000m on each side of the military demarcation line (MDL), totaling 4km from north to south. The MDL is the 'line' that cuts the ground portion of north and south Korea roughly in half at the 38th parallel. It runs 248km from east to west and, along with the Northern Limit Line (NLL), are used as the center-point of ceasefire activities between the two nations. The NLL is the used to cut the sea portion of north and south in half, allowing for each country to have fishing grounds and lanes to their respective islands.

The DMZ was put into place in 1953, when North and South Korea, along with NATO, signed  the armistice agreement. The DMZ was used to push back each side's troops 2,000m on either side of the DMZ to prevent aggression and outbreaks of violence. The MDL pinpoints the exact line where the two fronts were separated. Behind the 2,000m buffer, both North and South house a large number of troops, estimated at over two million troops on the North and two hundred and fifty thousand on the South side. Throughout the many years the DMZ has been in-place, there have been numerous acts of aggression, mainly from the Northern side. You can find a list of these on the DMZ Wikipedia Page.

 Traveling to the DMZ from Seoul
Han River fortifications
Getting to the DMZ is a fairly simple, roughly hour and a half excursion. We left Seoul through a highway on the west side of the city. When we reached the edge of Seoul, I begin to realize just how serious things were about to become. We passed under a massive tank trap, which is essentially a large concrete block held up by two supports which could be blown at any time to block entrance. On the left side of the car is the Han river. Within the city of Seoul, the Han is lined with bike and running paths, pools, mini-marts, and workout areas. Outside the city, the Han now has a quarantine of about 100ft, blocked off by barbed wire fences and armed guard posts. There are anywhere from 1-4 guards at each post, which seem to be every half kilometer or so. In the water are buoys, which we are told are for submarine nets. In the 1990's, North Korea was able to infiltrate Seoul with a mini-sub, so I guess this makes sense.

Tongil Bridge
It's a warm summer day, but the feeling is chilling and dark as we get closer to the DMZ. Fortifications are becoming larger and more elaborate. Troops are increasing in numbers. Cars on the road are dwindling. There is a sign on the highway showing the distance to upcoming cities, and to my surprise, Pyeongyang is listed as a mere 250km away. Our guide tells us later that the South Korea government hopes to one day run this highway to Pyeongyang and further. The tour-able part of the DMZ is located near Paju city about 40km north of Seoul. Paju city contains a number of Korean and US military bases, including the main base used for NATO command, Camp Bonifas. Camp Bonifas is just south of Panmunjom and the MDL. In order to get to Camp Bonifas, you have to make it through the initial checkpoint at Tongil bridge. Guards check your vehicle against a list of allowed vehicles and provide you access to the Joint Security Area (JSA), a NATO-run neutral zone.

Camp Bonifas
Camp Bonifas is the first stop on the tour, not counting check points and other various security areas. We are provided with a history lesson on the Korean War and given a rundown on the days events. The base is small and is home to ROK and NATO forces, mainly US troops. There is a helipad and a small golf coarse, but beyond that, the base seems small for being less than 300yds from the DMZ. After our in-brief, we are bused off to the JSA at Panmunjom. We are told not to take pictures of the area leading to Panmunjom, but there isn't much to see anyways. The only notable thing is the entrance to 'Freedom Village', or Daeseong-dong. After about a 15 minute ride through checkpoints, tank traps, and barbed wire, we finally arrive at the Freedom House Pagoda, the main building on the South side of the MDL. This building was built with the intention of housing family reunions between North and South. However, due to the Northern fear of defection, no such reunions were ever held.

NATO building #2. In the distance is Pamungak.
As we exit the rear of the building, I am met with a view seen in many movies and news articles. Ahead of me, multiple blue buildings build by NATO in the 1970's. Beyond that, I see Panmungak, the main building on the North Korean side of the MDL. I see three North Korean guards, all dressed in their tell-tale brown dress uniforms. Two are standing guard, watching our tour group, while the other patrols between buildings. This is as real as it gets. I am less than 100ft away from people who hate me with the utmost intensity. (thanks to Tom Cruise for that line) It was so quiet there. All you could hear was the tour guides and the cicadas which were out this time of year. Our guide explains that only one building is still actively used on the MDL and that is building #2. This building is where dignitaries from both sides meet to hold talks. Many generals and high politicians have been through these doors. 

The middle table in building #2
The building is simple. Inside are 5 tables: two on the North side, two on the South side, and one in the middle. Each side of the building also houses a booth with tinted windows. Inside the room, the guards are positioned at the head of the table and at the North Korean entrance to the building. 

Our escorts
Our tour guides told us a few stories about various incidents that have occurred inside the building. On such incident involved a South Korean guard who was locking the door after a North Korean tour had come through. When he got to the door, two North Korean soldiers opened the door and grabbed the guard. The second South Korean guard in the room tried to pull his comrade back, but was unsuccessful. A firefight ensued and the guard was eventually recovered uninjured. Because of the incident, whenever a South Korean guard goes to lock the door, he must have a buddy who is holding is arm and braced by the wall.

The Bridge of No Return
After our tour of building #2, we hopped on a bus and headed for a quick round-a-bout tour of the area. We stopped at the famous Bridge of No Return. The bridge got it's name in 1953 when it was used for large prisoner exchanges between the two sides. Prisoners were given the choice of what country to return to, and when the made their choice, there was no turning back. The bridge was closed in 1976 after the axe murder incidents, which I'll get into in a bit. After the bridge was closed, NATO told the north they had 72 hours to build a new bridge east of the old one. This new bridge is known as the '72-hour Bridge' and was mainly used for the Polish and Czech NATO personnel to reach Panmunjom.

'Axe Murders' Memorial
We also visited the memorial to the two that lost their lives in the 1976 axe murder incident, which is right in front of the Bridge of No Return. In 1976, NATO ordered a small group of workers, accompanied by a security patrol, to chop down a tree by the bridge that blocked it's view from a guard post. The detail had three officers with it; two were American and one ROK. The trimming started of with no problems, but after about 15 minutes, the detail was ambushed by 30+ North Korean soldiers armed with crowbars, clubs, and the axes used to cut the tree down. The Northern soldiers killed two of the officers, Capt Arthur Bonifas and 1Lt Mark Barrett. Following the incidents, NATO organized a large operation known as 'Operation Paul Bunyan' to finish cutting down the tree. The detail was accompanied by a 23-vehicle convoy, two 30-man security details, and close air support. The North postured soldiers, but did not show aggression this time around. The tree was cut down and a memorial was put in it's place. Since the incident, the bridge has not been used.

Dora Observatory
After visiting the bridge and memorial, we headed back to Camp Bonifas, where we switched buses and went to our next location: the Dora Observatory. This observatory is west of Panmunjom and provides a great view over the DMZ area by Kaesong Industrial Complex. Kaesong is a complex built North of the MDL and DMZ by South Koreans to encourage companies to hire North Korean workers. We were given a run down of what the South is doing to encourage trade and cooperation with the North. Near Dora is the last South Korean rail station before the DMZ, known as Doransan Station. The last stop on our tour was invasion tunnel number three.

Paju City tourist guide at the tunnel
Unfortunately, I could not take pictures of the tunnel. I can give you a quick run down though. In the 1970's, Kim Il-Sung issued a sweeping order that required every Korean People's Army division along the Demilitarized Zone to dig and maintain at least two tunnels into South Korea. Only four of such tunnels have been found, meaning there could be anywhere from 10-20 more tunnels waiting to be found. The tunnel tour was pretty interesting. They take you down into the tunnel, which is about 73m (240ft) underground, and show you all of the blast marks, while letting you walk the distance to the MDL. The tunnel itself is only 2m by 2m (6.6ft by 6.6ft), so it makes for a pretty cramped environment. It's dark, damp, and cold. At the MDL, the South setup multiple barriers to prevent the tunnel from being used again.

Well, that's about it. I think I covered everything from my tour. Being a history buff, this tour was probably the most fun traveling opportunity I've been given. I got to learn a lot about a topic I've always been interested in, and to be honest, it's made me take my role in Korea more seriously. The conflict between these two is alive and well today, and the DMZ stands as living proof. It also showed me that the North is a lot more capable then I thought they were originally. It's a sobering thought to know that they have tunnels we haven't discovered that could be under Seoul as I type.
For more information about the DMZ, check out the Wikipedia page here
To see all the pictures I took while at the DMZ, check out my web album here

No comments:

Post a Comment