The 38th Parallel

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For Ric’s birthday in October, we spent a weekend in Seoul and had the opportunity to tour the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), doubtless one of the most politically tense spots on the planet.  It was definitely one of the most interesting things we’ve done since coming to Korea. 

For the historically uninclined, the DMZ is an area encompassing the 38th parallel and a couple of miles of land on either side.  The 38th parallel has served as the de facto border between North and South Korea since the cease fire in 1953 that halted the Korean War.  It is the most heavily armed military border in the world, the setting for a variety of armed skirmishes, a handful of defections, an axe murder, and what was perhaps the world’s most expensive landscaping event.

Despite the fact that access to the DMZ is highly regulated, there are actually two villages within the area–one in the North and Tae Sung Dong (“Freedom”) village in the South.  In both villages, people work (mostly farming), raise children, and go about their daily lives under nearly constant surveillance from both Korean governments. 

Tours of the DMZ are offered by several groups (we chose the USO) and depart from Seoul pretty early in the mornings.  From there, tour buses travel north up Highway 1, which is the only road that allows access between the two Koreas.  After stopping at several security checkpoints, we arrived at Camp Bonifas, the headquarters for the American and South Korean military presence near Panmunjeom. 

After a historical overview and security briefing at Bonifas, a military escort joined our tour bus for the actual trip into the DMZ.  Not only is the area under constant military surveillance, it is extensively mined and rigged with explosives that can be used in the event of an invasion from our neighbor to the North. 

I think the coolest part of the trip is definitely Conference Row, where you get to see the line of buildings actually separating the two Koreas.  The North was so close that we could actually see North Korean soldiers watching us watch them.  Needless to say, we were very well guarded by both Korean and American soldiers, and our movements were pretty restricted.  Still, it was kind of creepy to be so close to a place all your history books have taught you is basically evil incarnate. 

Though we were not allowed to take photos of the South Korean military installations, we were encouraged to photograph the North because, as our tour guide said, they were most definitely photographing us. 



Three RoK soldiers (in green) face the North. The gray building is actually in North Korean territory. The man on the steps is a North Korean soldier.

The coolest part of the tour, however, was still to come.  We got to go inside the main conference room where talks between the two countries are held.  This building, like all of Conference Row, actually straddles the 38th Parallel so that half of the room is in North Korea and half of it is in the South.  Which means Ric and I actually got to STAND IN NORTH KOREA.  How many people (Dennis Rodman aside) can say they’ve done that? 



Ric and I standing in North Korea


An RoK soldier. That door in the background opens into North Korea.

We also toured other parts of the DMZ, including the site of the Axe Murder Incident, the Bridge of No Return, and an observation point that allowed us a view of the North Korean DMZ village. 



The Bridge of No Return, used for exchanging prisoners of war and refugees after the Korean cease fire

After leaving the DMZ, we saw several other interesting places within the Paju City restricted area, including the Third Tunnel, one of four tunnels the North attempted to dig in order to access South Korea.  We also saw Dorasan, which for me was one of the most interesting parts of the whole day.  Dorasan is a train station built in hopes of eventual reunification between the North and South. In the event of unification or some type of reconciliation that permits travel between the two countries, Dorasan (which now stands completely empty and guarded by RoK soldiers) will be the first South Korean train stop on a ride from the North.  Should North Korean borders ever open, this railway could potentially connect the Korean peninsula to the Trans-Siberian Railroad.



The interior of Dorasan Station


Ric contemplates defecting North. I am the voice of reason.


There’s something really haunting about the wishfulness inherent in building a station like this, a kind of hoping beyond hope that Korea might be whole again one day.

So, in short, spend a day touring the DMZ.  It’s awesome.  Image

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