Saturday, March 21, 2015

Demilitarized Zone

On Thursday, March 12th, we left early in the morning for the DMZ, or Korean Demilitarized Zone. It is the most heavily militarized border in the entire world, separating North from South Korea along what became known after the Korean War as the 38th Parallel. It is approximately 155 miles long and 2.5 miles wide. This was definitely the site I was most looking forward to visiting during our trip.

First, we watched a brief film about the establishment of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, and were led into an area we were told was one of four tunnels South Koreans have discovered. It is estimated there are around 20 total: most of them have yet to be discovered. The North supposedly built them as coal mines (painting the walls black), although holes found in the tunnel (used to store dynamite) prove otherwise. It was a strenuous journey down into and through the tunnel, but definitely worth it. At the end, we could see a concrete wall and a window through to the other side that the South has built to ensure the North does not carry through with their intentions.

Then, we went to an observatory where were able to see the two North and South villages facing each other – Kijong-dong in the North (also known as Propaganda Village, because it is merely a fa├žade to fool people in the South into defecting across the border), and Daesong-dong in the South, home to about 225 residents. We were also able to see Kaesong, an industrial district in the North which the South Korean government has agreed to pay the North for labor. It was definitely both an exciting and eerie experience.

Unfortunately, we did not get to see the JSA (Joint Security Area) – the famous site of the literal border between North and South Korea, where visitors can observe the North and South guards facing each other, inanimately, all day long. It houses what is known as Conference Row, where occasional talks between the two countries take place.

On the way back, we stopped at a train station called Dorasan. This not only brings in visitors to the DMZ from Seoul, but also has a track built to take Southerners to Pyongyang – however, it serves more as a ghost train. No trains have ever left or arrived from said destination. It seemed more like it was built on the hopes of reunification than for actual useful day-to-day transit.

One interesting fact we learned on the way there was that the actual area within the DMZ has been uninhabited by humans for so long that it has become a paradise for plants and wildlife. Very ironic. Despite its nasty history and the conflict it represents (various outbreaks of violence have occurred along the border since the Korean War), I still found it to be one of the most surreal and enlightening experiences.

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