Sunday, March 27, 2011

DMZ: Hey North Korea

I'm back from a little blogging break.  So after sharing stories and pictures from winter vacation, it's back to talking about where I live: South Korea.  I've lived here for about seven months now and life has pretty much settled in to a sense of normality.  The public transportation system is no longer confusing, I'm well acquainted with the food (more kimchi please), this teaching thing is getting easier, and I've located every bar, store, or restaurant that I need to.  Sometimes I need to remind myself where I am.  "Oh yeah, I live in a little peninsular Asian country on the other side of the planet."  I don't even call it South Korea anymore, but just Korea.  However, this little peninsula is still split in to two very different halves.  There is still tension between the two and it has become one of those normalities in Korea just like when I see two older business gentlemen holding hands.  Last month I was reminded of this reality of being on the brink of war when we visited the DMZ.

The DMZ, demilitarized zone, runs along the 38th parallel from coast to coast.  It's 2.5 miles wide and nobody is allowed inside.  The walls and landmines keep the people out so the natural life in the DMZ has flourished.  Ironically, some endangered species have found protection in between the walls of the North and South.  However, there is one place where people are allowed to enter.  It's called the Joint Security Area or JSA.  This area functions as a place where officials from the North and South can have talks.  It lies in the middle of DMZ and consists of a bunch of military buildings, conference rooms, and soldiers staring face to face with the enemy.  When there are no talks going on (which is most of the time) it's a place where tourists can get as close as they can to North Korea without a bullet entering their body.  Last month we were one of those tourists that got a close up look at North Korea.

The JSA is controlled by the military and can be somewhat dangerous, so the only way to get there is by joining a tour with the USO.  The DMZ was created at the end of the Korean War in 1953.  Technically the war never really ended because the North and South are still enemies and kill each other now and then.  The DMZ acts as a buffer between the two countries and the United States has been hanging around since the first "Do Not Cross" sign was posted.  So why are there 30,000 troops stationed in South Korea in 2011?  First, South Korea has been a long time ally of the United States ever since we saved their half of the peninsula from communism, Russia, and batshit crazy dictators.  Since then, we have been pen pals and South Korea has turned in to a developed and powerful nation.  So the United States doesn't want our wealthy friend to be attacked from the North.  Second, we also don't want our friend to get drunk at a bar and start a fight with a weaker but annoying asshole.  So we hold our friend back and say "Not worth it man, let's just get out of here."  We say this because we know the asshole has a big college football player friend at home who might seek revenge on you and your buddy.  Then before you know it there is an all out gang war and a lot of innocent people in the neighborhood are getting hurt.  Not cool.  Of course I'm talking about China's response if North Korea were to be attacked from the South.  No one is really sure what China would do but no one really wants to find out.

We arrive outside the DMZ and we are introduced to our tour guide who is an US army officer.  He basically tells us to do what he says or you will be quickly dismissed.  We get on a bus and drive past barb wire, cement blocks, tank walls, and land mines to get in to the DMZ.  No pictures are allowed on this portion of the tour.  We arrive at the JSA a few minutes later.  We are informed that when we get off the bus we must stay in single file line and never gesture towards anything.  There is no pointing and especially no waving.  If you see a North Korean soldier near the border then don't look him in the eyes.  Stay in front of this South Korean soldier and never pass this South Korean soldier.  No wearing shorts, flip-flops, baggy clothing, etc.  Only take pictures when the tour guide says it's OK and never leave the group because there is not telling what those North Koreans will do.  Everything is orchestrated military style and there is a looming sense that someone is watching your every move through the scope of a sniper rifle.
Please don't shoot.
 We stand there for a few minutes just facing the North Korea side of the JSA.  There is a row of conference buildings along the border and a large communist style building on the North Korean side.  There are several South Korean guards at their post.  Some of the guards stand half behind a conference building and half exposed to the border.  This is so that if North Koreans start shooting at them then the guards can quickly step behind the building.  They can also signal their commanders from behind the building without the North Koreans seeing the signal.  The guards wear helmets and sunglasses to show as little emotion towards the North Koreans as possible.  Sometimes the South and North Korean guards will stand face to face at the border.  This day the North Korean guards would not be making an appearance.  However, there was one soldier near the big North Korean building who had his binoculars and he was checking us out.
The line that separates.

See if you can spot the North Korean.

We enter the conference room that straddles North and South Korea.  It's just a long room with some chairs and tables.  However, because the building sits on the border, when we stand in the north side of the building then we are technically standing in North Korea.  I'm probably not going to fill in North Korea on my "Countries I Have Visited" map though.  It just doesn't feel right.  Anyway, there are two South Korean soldiers in the room, one in the middle of the room and one blocking the door that goes on to North Korean soil.  They are completely still without any facial expression what so ever.  Everyone in the group becomes fascinated with the two soldiers standing in the room.  Our tour guide says that they are there for our protection and constantly stand in what is called the "tae kwan do ready" position.  We are allowed to take pictures next to the guards but NEVER touch one of them.  To quote our tour guide, "They will strike you and it will hurt!"  Don't even think about passing the guard who is blocking the door.  These guards are masters of hand to hand combat and will have you on the floor faster than three bottles of soju.
Do not pass this man.

Don't get too close Caroline.

We learned a lot about the history of the DMZ during the tour but perhaps the most interesting, yet frightening, story is the axe murder incident.  In 1976, the American soldiers decided that a tree was just too big and obscuring the view from one watch tower to the next watch tower.  If something were to happen at one of the watch towers, then the other one wouldn't know about it until someone called for help.  The tree had to be trimmed.  A team of American and South Korean soldiers went to the large poplar tree and began using axes to trim it.  A group of North Korean soldiers gathered around the border and watched for a while until the commanding officer yelled at the South to stop cutting the tree.  Apparently the tree was special to the North Koreans.  The South ignored him, so the North sent over a truck with twenty soldiers armed with crowbars and clubs.  The North Korean officer yelled to stop again but the South kept on trimming.  Then the Northern officer yelled, "Kill them!"  Two American soldiers were beaten and then murdered with the axes that they had dropped.  It was an unfair fight with the North Koreans well out numbering the soldiers of the South. The fight was eventually broken up and three days later Operation Paul Bunyan took place.  With the support of hundreds of troops, artillery, jet fighters, bombers, helicopters, and an offshore aircraft carrier, the South cut down the tree.  If the North Koreans would have made a move, it would have been the beginning of World War III.  It resulted in the most expensive tree trimming in history.

The most hilarious thing we saw was the flag competition.  Near the JSA, there is a peace town in the South and one in the North.  The one in the South is a little community of a couple hundred farmers that get to live tax free.  They actually save lots of money.  However, they're under constant surveillance and have to be indoors by 10pm.  The one in the North is a propaganda village because it has several big buildings that are empty shells and no people live there.  Yet the North claims it's paradise on Earth.  Each of the peace villages boasts the flag of their respective country and they've been growing in size over several years.  When one side would build a bigger and taller flag, then the other side would respond by "one upping" them.  North Korea then decided to really give it to the South by building the world's tallest flag pole and attach the world's largest flag.  The flag pole is 160 meters tall, and the flag is 30 meters long and said to weigh 600 pounds.  The South finally said that's enough and that's how North Korea won the flag war.

The DMZ is an interesting and exciting place to visit.  Where else are you allowed to be on the border of two countries that are technically still at war?  It's an adventure with a hint of danger in the mix.  I would recommend it to anybody.  Visit this website to find a USO tour: USO Tours 
The Good Guys