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SOUTH KOREA | Wednesday, 24 May 2006 | Views [874]

There are two bus-loads of people with me on the (American army) USO's tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). When we get to the first check point, we are shuffled off the bus and herded like cattle into two single-file lines. Our passports are checked by Korean soldiers and then we are shuffled back onto the buses. This shuffling and line formation exercise comprises the main part of the 3-hour tour.

After we drive past the first guarded check point into Camp Bonifas, I notice a road sign that states: "Caution. You are entering the Demilitarized Zone" as if anyone driving on this road would be unaware of this information.

First, we enter a small theatre-type building, where an American G.I. gives a short presentation on the history of the DMZ. Not once does he say the words 'North Korea' without adding 'Communist' in front of them. Just to be clear. (And dramatic.) After the presentation we are given a waiver to sign that absolves the UN from being responsible for us if anything should happen. I look for the clause that says they would at least try to protect us if something should happen, but to no avail. I go ahead and sign.

I end up in the tour group with the extremely monotone and sarcastic G.I. tour guide. He gets onto the bus and explains, with chewing gum in his mouth, that we are about to enter the Joint Security Area (JSA), and we are about to come face to face with "the enemy". He gestures to indicate quotation marks and makes a little half smirk before continuing to chewing his gum loudly. The JSA is manned by soldiers from both South Korea and North Korea (as well as the Americans to back up the South). The two sides have little or no control over what the other side does, so he explains that we may or may not see North Korean soldiers. If we should see any of them, we must avoid all contact with them, which includes not waving, pointing, or making any other gestures of any kind to them. We must follow our guides instructions at all times for our own protection.

The first place at which we arrive is called Freedom Hall. It is a large hall with a grand staircase and beautiful crystal chandelier. It is cold, silent, and completely void of human-life until we arrive. We are lined up in our double lines on the staircase with our tour guides waiting at the top to give us their speech. As soon as each person enters the building, they stop speaking. Once the echoes of our footsteps end, the whole place is quiet. There are probably about 80 people on this tour and I don’t hear a sound. Then, one of the soldiers says that this hall was built as a place for South Koreans to visit with their North Korean relatives, but the North Korean government will not allow the visitations to occur.

Next, we are shuffled into a small building that is built so that its center lies exactly on the South-North border. It is guarded by South Korean soldiers who stand rigidly in a stance that looks like they are about to blast off with jet packs strapped to their shoes. The image is enhanced by the fact that they are wearing helmets and sunglasses as well. Really, they look menacing. Our tour guide explains that they stand like this because it is a ready-stance derived from Tae Kwon Do. When we walk into the building, there are two more soldiers in this same stance at the end of the building. They’re still like mannequins and I feel strange about staring at them, but I do it anyway. After it's explained that I am technically standing in North Korea, our tour guide invites us to take pictures of the soldiers. We may pose with the soldiers, but we are warned not to try to touch, make contact with, or try to pass the soldiers in any way because the soldiers will, without hesitation, use force against us. I toy with the idea of ‘accidentally’ bumping into the soldier just for the sake of pushing a button. Just to see how fast I get thrown to the ground. At one point, Andrew, my co-worker, is standing near one of the soldiers to have his picture taken and he leans a little too far into the soldier’s bubble. Faster than my eyes can follow, the soldier moves his feet together and swings his arm out stopping an inch short of Andrew’s chest. Andrew goes pale. I decide there will be no accidental bumping on my part.

Outside of the building, we are lined up so that we may take pictures. “And all those good tourist things that you do,” snickers my tour guide. This is a strange place. There seems to be so few people in this area, but we are being monitored so closely in every direction we turn. Everywhere, there are people hiding and watching us. A North Korean soldier on a hill above us is sitting in a bush snapping photographs of us. In the building 100 meters away is a soldier spying on us with binoculars.

As we are herded back onto the bus, I notice a beautiful little garden lined with trees between buildings. A Chinese ring-necked pheasant strolls through it.

Next, we drive up to a high view-point where we are surrounded on three sides by “Communist North Korea”. From here, we can see “Propaganda Village”, a small village built by the North Koreans that doesn’t actually house any people. In the center of it is the world’s largest flag and flag pole and speakers which at one time were used to spout ravings about The Great and Dear Leaders of North Korea towards the JSA. We can also see “The Bridge of No Return” from this point- a bridge over which prisoners of war and others have been allowed to cross to get to the other side- and yes, once they cross, they can never go back. Also, we can see North Korean farmland, but unfortunately, it is a foggy day and we can not see far. More than any of these sights, however, I am transfixed on the ‘jungle’ area between where I stand and where I can see North Korean farmland. This jungle looks more dense than any of the forests I’ve seen elsewhere in Korea, and over top of the trees are a dozen or so storks and herons whose white wings, which are a stark contrast to the dark green of the trees, ripple in flight. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in Korea. Later, I learn that the jungle is studded with landmines.

From the viewpoint, we drive down into the jungle. From this level, we can see into the trees where a surprise awaits tourists: There are hundreds, probably thousands, of large rare birds sitting under the canopy of the trees. Every two feet there is another bird resting on a branch. Most of them are White Herons, some of them are Egrets, and others are a type of heron I’ve never seen and that I can not find a name for anywhere in a google search. They are white except for their heads and necks which are a pinkish-orange color. The herons have wispy soft feathers that make them look like stuffed animals. The whole scene looks like an illustration out of a whimsical children’s story.  

The tour continues, making stops at The Bridge of No Return, a gift shop (odd), and then a cafeteria-style hall for lunch. Afterwards, we go to a large theatre building with binoculars which can unfortunately not see past the fog into North Korea, although I do make out the silhouettes of a few people walking down a road. In other words, it sucks. Then, we go to another theatre building in which we watch a short film. Not only is the film NOT informative, but it also gives me the impression I had somehow walked from Korea to Universal Studios in California by entering the building. The film begins with a soundtrack befitting of an action film and shows a video montage of the Korean War. Then, in a highly dramatized scene, a poor, dirty, little Korean child walks along a barbed wire fence sobbing her eyes out. When the confusing film comes to an end, it states “The DMZ is no longer a symbol of war and division. Now it is a symbol of peace and co-existence,” and the same little girl who was sobbing earlier is now clean and well-dressed and is smiling up at the sky. What?

Lastly, we trek down a tunnel that the North Koreans had dug into the South several decades ago. To read about it is more interesting than actually seeing it, in my opinion, but I’m thankful for the exercise. It’s much better than getting on and off a bus every ten minutes.  

Tags: Sightseeing

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