THE DMZ—THE KOREAN DEMILITARIZED ZONE

We began our tour with a lengthy, two hour bus ride from the Air Force Base about 25 miles south of Seoul, to the Zone the same distance north of the city. Our luxury bus, a Daewoo with reclining seats, actual curtains on the smoked glass windows, and a complete media system including an HD monitor, from which we viewed a historical review of the events leading up to the Korean War, its subsequent Armistice efforts, and the continuing attempts of the North Koreans to create incidents using brutality, raids, and attempts of infiltration as their tools.

Having arrived last week at night and during a major rainstorm, this was my first opportunity to see the city, and I once again was reminded about how little I know about Korea. Seoul is a city of millions, and it is distributed mile after mile along the Han River, a very broad flow about a half mile across, and edged by high hills and low mountains covered literally with MILLIONS of apartment units like soldiers marching across the summits. Our route was a six lane, high tech “interstate” highway, frequently allowing exit to one of the many modern bridges spanning the river. As we progressed, I was a bit disappointed not to see any “countryside” until we neared our destination; it was one continuous parade of urban life interspersed occasionally with small areas of rice paddies drenched at this time of the year with mud and tiny plants poking their heads above the surface.

When  we finally reached our target area,  we visited several stops to see various components of the conflict’s history. The first stop was at a memorial area, located at the end of the bridge over which prisoner exchanges had occurred. We could not get on the bridge; the other end was in North Korea. On “our side”, there is an amusement park, complete with rides, restaurants and, of all things, A GIFT SHOP! One could climb lots of steps to the observation area above the restaurant, and see for miles in every direction. I was once again surprised to see how mountainous is the landscape, and hazily recalled the difficulties our armies had in “taking” one hill or another.

Our next stop was Tunnel #3. Tunnel? Yes, it seems that after the Armistice was signed, the North Koreans continued to try infiltration supplementing a series of vicious attacks on our security personnel. Upon information gleaned from a defector, our armies were told about a series of tunnels (five located so far) constructed deep underground, capable of transporting up to 30,000 men an hour along with supplies, weaponry, and vehicles. We were allowed to descend into this tunnel, about 240 feet below the surface—let me tell you, coming back up on a 45 degree slope was a real test of my neuropathic leg! As we went down, there was another group along with us, from a USO Army tour, abut 50 people combined. I only went a short way into the actual tunnel, the roof was built for Koreans and not Westerners. We had been issued hardhats, and mine occasionally banged on projections above. On our way up, three more groups of Japanese tourists were descending—I’m sure that the CO2 level zoomed, and I was happy to reach the light at the end of the tunnel. Oh, I almost forgot, there was a GIFT SHOP across from the tunnel entrance.

We then went to the highest observation point along the demarcation line, presided over by a watchtower and surrounded in the valley below on three sides by North Korea. We were warned not to make any hostile gestures toward the North, that we are under observation. Our bus then descended to a checkpoint where two of our Army officers were brutally attacked by a squad of North Koreans, and killed with axes that had been intended to remove a tree blocking the view from the upper watchtower down to this checkpoint. The bridge there was the one over which the Pueblo crew passed when they were released from their year of captivity.

We stopped for lunch at a Korean restaurant, then reached our final destination, the Joint Security Area (JSA) where the two sides continue to meet and do nothing. We were allowed to enter the actual room where the negotiations occur, and I had the luxury of standing “across the border” in North Korea when I was on the far side of the table. The demarcation line runs down the center of the room. Outside, we could look at an imposing, three story building outside of which a grim faced North Korean soldier stood at attention. Again, we were warned not to make any gestures toward that facility, the dark windows hide observers and we could start an “incident” if not careful. The building had been intentionally added on to, with the third story, to make it loom over the UN side. Another example of this path of thought is a giant tower having the North Korean flag flying proudly over a “town” near the border. Each side was allowed to have a town built to provide living quarters and supplies to their armies, the one on the South side is a thriving agricultural community, surrounded by rice paddies, farm machinery, etc. The one on the other side is actually a “fake” town, empty shells with painted-on windows, no people. But that flag, which weighs 600 lbs and takes at least 25 persons to hoist, flies proudly over —–nothing.

I spent a lot of time reading all the historical information at every location, and my skepticism about the North Korean was significantly increased, particularly after becoming aware of their violence and continuing lack of good faith. It’s puzzling, that they could be as prosperous as the South, if they would take a different fork in the road. And their support from China and Russia continues to be troubling.

ABH                                                              MY                                                     TOY

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