September 18, 2011


The best thing about having guests in your city is that you get to act like a tourist. It's been a long time since the original shock and awe has worn off on me. I find it refreshing to kind of relive that experience vicariously through other tourists who visit. It's interesting that they may notice something you haven't seen, or offer a prospective that you had yet to consider. With people's expedited schedules, things you put on the back burner are quickly brought to a boil. The DMZ was one such menu item.

Even on the back burner the DMZ was a trip that I had semi planned out. I knew that I wanted to go on the USO tour. Not for some love or trust in the military, but because of their unparalleled access to Panmunjom. Panmunjom is a town constructed in the middle of the DMZ, where the two Koreas meet for talks (when they feel like talking). It's an area that many DMZ tours cannot take you to, as you have to be guarded while in this zone. There are brief times where you enter North Korea (sorry grandma, I broke my promise), you're also apparently under constant surveillance while in this zone, from both sides.

While Panmunjom is the highlight of the tour, you are brought to other sites. My tour started at the 3rd tunnel. Because the DMZ puts serious dampers on an invasion of Seoul, the North Koreans started to build tunnels that run underneath the 4km stretch of land. The third tunnel, was the third tunnel that the South Koreans found. In total four tunnels have been found, and it is believed that the North Koreans have upwards of eleven tunnels dug underneath the DMZ. You aren't allowed to take photos in the tunnel, and I spent most of the journey inside the tunnel hunched over. It is not an area that plays kind with tall folk.

The ability to take photos while inside the Panmunjom was a question that not only I had, but other tourists on the bus. It turns out that you are able (as you can see) albeit with strict guidelines. The American troops escorting you through the zone strictly regulate when you are allowed to take photos. The basic rule of thumb is that you are allowed to take photos of communist North Korea, but you aren't allowed to take photos of the South Korean side of the DMZ. I know that I have photos of the ROK army, but my camera is pointed towards the North, and that is basically the big rule. Understandably they ROK is concerned with people taking photos of their fortifications, and if you're caught taking pictures of them your camera will be confiscated and your photos deleted.

The South Korean soldiers inside this zone, are apparently the cream of the crop. They are all black belts in various styles of martial arts, and standing in a 'ready' position (above, and below). The reason why one of the soldiers is standing partially hidden by the wall is to make him a harder target should the North Koreans decide to shoot at him. I liked how comfortable I felt knowing that, even as I was clearly exposed in the open. At least the trained soldier would be safe!

 Rule in check, the overall feel my time in Panmunjom was unreal. It was as close as I've ever been to an actual hot spot on global conflict maps. There was definitely a tense atmosphere (added to by our 'briefing' in Camp Casey) but it was a very odd feeling having to be under tight security, and knowing that you are being watched. It's something that I suggest to anyone on the South Korean peninsula to experience, but I'm not entirely sure why I'm making that recommendation, as I can't fully put into words my own experience there.

Besides the experience in Panmunjom, the most interesting part of the tour was the propaganda. I was expecting to hear a lot about the North Koreans, and the lines that they fed to their populous, but I was surprised to hear a lot coming the other way as well. The South Koreans seemed to be playing the game as well. There were a couple examples of this, the tunnels being one, the bridge of no return another (pictured right), but it was best exemplified through the last train station. There were many scripted lines that the tour guide said, but the poster that hangs in the station is nothing but propaganda. It's something that should be checked out for yourself, and make up your own mind, but I left the tour with a sense that the pro South propaganda wasn't required. I'm not a Northern sympathiser, but I feel that the South doesn't need to sell their side. A little less bias, and a rational perspective would have given the tour a bigger impact.

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