Well I'm back from the DMZ where North Korean and South Korean soldiers stand face to face in a constant state on war and I survived.
This visit was the main reason I hopped over from China to South Korea. I wanted to continue on my historical tour with an inspection of the infamous De-Militarized Zone (although after visiting it I can't think of a less apt name). I went on a tour with the USO (basically an entertainments wing of the US army) rather than some of the tours on offer at the hostel. It proved to a wise despite the difficulty in booking and arranging it as it offered much much more and for a much lower price (50% less).
So I started the tour from the US Camp Kim in downtown Seoul. The first sign that this isn't an ordinary tour is the fact that there is a dress code (no jeans, shorts, skirts, open toed sandals etc.) and that you sign a long waiver of your rights saying the UN, US and ROK (Republic of Korea) are not responsible in the case of your death from "enemy action". You also state clearly that you will have no interaction with anyone from the north, right down to not waving or pointing at anyone or anything on the northern side. They are also very strict on where you can and cannot take photos, by the looks of it you can't take photos anywhere the KPA (Korean People's Army (the North)) can't see for themselves.
Our first stop was the third infiltration tunnel. This tunnel was dug by the North and was discovered in 1974 by the South using intelligence from a defector. The tunnel is 384 metres below the surface and was large enough so that 10,000 infantry troops could pass through in an hour. The other interesting fact is that the North Korean army had smeared all the walls with a light coal surface and insisted when the tunnel was found that it was an abandoned coal mine. The fact that the entire surrounding area consisted of granite made the story less plausible. The tunnel did cross under the DMZ and extend into the south so it was a viable threat. The south still routinely test for new tunnels. Although perhaps the north side has stopped digging once they realised how much tourist revenue this stuff generates for the south :-).
We also quickly stopped at the most northerly train station in the south, Dorasan Station. It is here that the north south train tracks meet. No trains have passed through it for the last 2/3 years due to soured relations with the new elected ROK government and the north. The one funny thing about the place was the rail sleepers signed by GW Bush and the ROK president. All the Americans were snapping away as I couldn't help but point out the fact that Bush had the pen the wrong way up. He just cracked me up sometimes ;-) and I'm sure we'll all miss him in many ways!
Now it was on to the main event, a visit to Camp Bonifas and onward to the JSA (Joint Security Area) i.e. the actual border were soldiers from the two sides are feet apart. There was a check of all of our passports before we entered Camp Bonifas. (Bonifas was one of the guys who were axed to death in 1976 while trying to trim a tree that was blocking the US and ROK army’s between two of their guard towers. Because of this incident they rename the camp after him.) 2 days after this incursion by the KPA the most expensive tree pruning exercise was carried out. The USS carrier Midway was on full alert in the Yellow Sea, two B52 patrolled the skies along with a fighter squadron and a full armoured division was poised to blow Panmuncheon back to the stone age if the KPA so much as picked its nose. Under this protected an engineers corps surrounded by a full infantry platoon cut down the popular tree that was blocking the line of vision between the guard towers. Overkill or adequate security - I'm not sure!
From here we visited the conference room where all armistice related talks are held. The room straddles the border so that one side is in the north and one side is in the south. The line of microphones in the centre of that table marks the border.
All the ROK soldiers here are an elite guard who are trained to kill in four different martial arts. Outside this door is North Korea proper and one step more and that guard is fully within his rights to take me down - hence the lack of any smile.
I'm taking a photo across the border from the South of the North Korean HQ.
This is the North Korean HQ which was constantly taking photos of us.
The last stop was a look out post were we were surrounded on three sides by communist North Korea. From this vantage point we could look at "Propaganda Village". It was so called as it often broadcasts radio propaganda about how great life is in the North trying to get southerners to defect to the north. If anyone did defect across the DMZ (without being shot) and made it to this village, they'd be a little lonely. It's a fraud, no one lives there and is only built to look impressive and try lure southerners to the north. Periodically some goes around and turns on/off the lights etc. but no one actually lives there. The other interesting fact about this village is that it has the world's largest flat at 160metres tall. The flag itself weights over 300 kilos dry and needs a near hurricane level wind to get it to fly. It was erected the day after a 100 metre flag went up on the south of the DMZ. Talk about your one up man ship!
Anyway, that was my trip to the DMZ ( the 4.5km wide division that runs for the entire 250km width of the Korean peninsula). It was a fascinating and surreal visit to a live war zone ceasefire. It at times did seem a bit showy but you always knew the place was for real and that this was a volatile zone between two armies that despise each other (did anyone know that during the 2002 world cup a short naval encounter between the two armies left 6 dead?? I heard nothing about it at the time!)