Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Seoul 7: DMZ and Cheonggyecheon (10/2/2012)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012
(Forgive us our acronyms!)
We had to make sure we were up early and at the Lotte Hotel by 7:30 am to check in for our DMZ tour. The best tour is supposed to be done by the USO, but they were not scheduled any day we were in Seoul. So we took the Panmunjom Travel Center combined tour. We had assigned seats on a big comfortable bus that left at 8:00 am:
Seoul is very close to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), only 40 km/25 miles to the nearest section. The border between North and South Korea is along the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) based on the boundary at the time of the Armistice. The DMZ encompasses 2 km/1.25 miles on both sides of the MDL along its length of 248km/155 miles.
As we left the city of Seoul and traveled along the Han River, the river was off limits with a barbed wire fence and sentry posts along the road. The Imjin River flows from North Korea into South Korea and joins the Han River. This was once a route for the North Koreans to infiltrate South Korea.
As an added bonus, we had a North Korean defector on the bus. The guide acted as interpreter as we were allowed to ask questions after hearing his story.
We arrived in Imjingak, a "resort" (there is an amusement park there) near the DMZ. An area of many monuments and memorials, called Mangbaedan, is where the South Koreans come to honor their ancestors who lie in North Korea. The Memorial Altar:
The remains of one of twin railroad bridges is called Freedom Bridge:
When POWs were returned from North Korea, they did not feel free when they crossed the MDL. It was here when they entered real South Korean territory that they finally felt free.
Tamiko on the walkway to Freedom Bridge:
From the walkway you can see that one of the railroad bridges has been repaired:
A war-damaged steam locomotive was left in situ:
Lots of bullet holes:
The train is next to a sentry post:
even though we are 7 km/4.3 miles from the MDL, which means 5 km/3 miles from the DMZ.
People have covered this portion of the fence with prayer/wish ribbons:
On this section of fence, stones have been pushed into the chain links:
Called auditory or hearing stones, sentries would hear them drop if someone tried to climb the fence.
These days, they use CCTV cameras:
A Unification Monument:
The Peace Bell:
The parking lot crowded with buses:
It was an unusually busy day with tourists, and we learned that most were Chinese. So we weren't able to avoid them after all!
We had a set time to leave, and had been warned we would leave without latecomers. And so we did leave without one passenger, but because he had a cell phone, he was notified and caught up with the bus. He claimed to have gotten on the wrong bus. This guy did not endear himself to the group, especially with his all-knowing attitude and questions designed more to make him look intelligent rather than expecting any real answers.
Bamboo Giants on a hillside look towards the North:
Golden rice fields:
Throughout the tour, we were told when we could take photos and when we could not.
As we passed over the Unification Bridge into the DMZ, we could not take photos. Entering the DMZ, a South Korean soldier checked our passports. These lads are aged twenty, as that is the age for compulsory military service in South Korea.
Some of the land in the DMZ is farmed by inhabitants of a small South Korean village, Taeseong-dong, called Freedom or Peace Village. The citizens are exempt from military duty and taxes.
North Korea also has its Peace Village, Gijong-dong, which is also called Propaganda Village by the South. It is said that the buildings of the North Korean village are just shells that are freshly painted on the sides facing the south, and have lights turned on at set times. They used to have propaganda messages blaring from loudspeakers until 2004 (probably turned off as they weren't too successful at getting South Koreans to defect to the North). The most notable thing about Gijong-dong, is that they have the world's third tallest flagpole, flying the North Korean flag at 160 m/525'. It was built in response to the South setting up a 98.4 m/323' flagpole in Taeseong-dong.
Most of the land in the DMZ has been left alone, and thus has become a wildlife refuge, especially for birds. One that you cannot visit, nor would want to because of land mines.

We could not take photos or even belongings into the Third Infiltration Tunnel. We stood in a queue to enter the tunnel, with hundreds of Chinese. Apparently there were a limited number of hard hats. 
This is the third of four known tunnels, and the closest one to Seoul. It lies 73 m/240' below the surface and is about 2 m/6.5' in diameter. It reaches 435 m/ about a quarter mile into South Korea from the MDL. We had to walk in single file down a steeply inclined tunnel (358 m/1174.5') to reach the infiltration tunnel. Then in single file along the 265 m/869' to the concrete barriers set up by South Korea. Much of the tunnel is reinforced with metal supports and air ducts line the length so that oxygen can be provided as necessary. But you can see the drill marks for placing dynamite and the portions painted black to make us think the North Koreans were actually digging for coal. However, we were wearing helmets in case we bumped our heads on the granite ceilings and walls!
We ran out of time, and had to U-turn before reaching the concrete barriers. Most people were just as happy to turn around, since walking such a distance in a crouch is tiring. There also seems to be a sort of monorail to bring visitors down to the beginning of the infiltration tunnel, but obviously that costs more. We had to hike back up that steep entry tunnel.
Our next stop was Dorasan Observatory:
First, no pictures allowed inside. Apparently a couple people didn't get that message. The soldiers will make you show your pictures and delete any you weren't supposed to have taken. We saw a short video about the  DMZ, the railroad, and the Peace Villages.
Outside on the terrace, you could pay 500 Korean won (about 50 cents) to view through the binoculars towards North Korea:
And you could take photos, only if you were standing in the photo area marked off at least 20 feet from the edge of the terrace!
This is my telephoto shot aimed between the binoculars:
The world's third tallest flagpole is just to the left outside the photo...
The big bonus of the day was that it was exceptionally clear viewing.
We could take as many pictures as we wanted at Dorasan Station.
Our guide standing at the unbelievably long list of donors who contributed to the building of this railroad station and of the railroad's re-connection to North Korea:
In 2000, North and South Korea agreed to link their countries through the old Gyeonggui Railroad line. The station was completed in 2002 and the railroad was connected in 2003. Freight trains ran to the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the DMZ where South Korean companies manufactured goods with North Korean labor. Our guide reported that one passenger train did bring South Koreans to Pyeongyang to see relatives and returned in the same day. Since then, no other train has yet been allowed through by North Korea, including freight trains. Kaesong Industrial Complex is now reached only by highway.
Our guide said that she and 7 million South Koreans have family in the North. The one train was only a drop in the bucket of people wishing to see relatives.
The route of the railroad:
The station roof is supposed to resemble two clasped hands:
No passengers waiting:
Painting of the war-damaged locomotive:
Posing with the ROK/UN soldier:
We paid 500 Korean won/ about 50 cents each to get a ticket just to go out to the train platform.
There are a couple "commuter" trains that run from Imjingang across the repaired bridge at Freedom Bridge to this station, "not the last station in the south, but the first station toward the north:"
Kent with a photo of G. Dubya Bush signing a railroad tie:
Many people noticed that Dubya was holding his marker upside down for the photo.
Tamiko is 205 km/127 miles from the capital of North Korea:
We drove back to Imjingak, or is it Imjingang, to have lunch:
Vending machine for sweet Korean coffee-milk:
Our lunch sides:
Bulgogi/marinated thinly-sliced beef cooked at the table:
What are those things?
In South Korea they have these structures that look like train bridges across the road/highway. Apparently they are loaded with explosives and can be remotely detonated to cause blockage of the road; anti-tank barriers in case North Korea invades again. (Funny that North Korea also has similar anti-tank barriers, in case the U.S. comes to attack them...)
Back in the bus, we crossed into the DMZ once more (no photos), heading into the Joint Security Area (JSA) and Panmunjom, a supposedly neutral area administered by the United Nations Command (UNC). Although a UN area, the only troops assigned here are from South Korea and the U.S.
More anti-tank barriers and fences along the road with barbed wire and signs warning of mines.
We had a passport check again before entering Camp Bonifas, and were given a UN soldier, this one was from the U.S., as our escort/guide.
We did not get to see the one-hole golf course, where you should not go looking for stray balls because of the mines. At a meeting hall, we had to sign a Visitor Declaration which outlined some of the "rules" and waived UN responsibility in case of hostile activity.
All the rules were given verbally in a "briefing." I am not sure what would happen if you refused to sign, probably you would not go on the rest of the tour, but would be allowed to spend your time in the gift shop!
We then boarded a blue UN bus to be driven to the JSA. Once North Korean and South Korean soldiers were able to wander about this neutral area, but after a couple incidents, this area also was divided into North and South.
We were dropped off in what used to be the sunken garden next to a building with a raised roof called the Peace House, built in 1989 for non-governmental talks between the Koreas. (Still no photos.) We walked in a line of two-by-two through the building with a sweeping roof called the Freedom House, completed in 1998 for inter-Korea talks and exchanges. Coming out on the terrace, we maintained a double row as the line stood at the edge of the terrace to face north. Here we could take photos, but only in the forward direction:
The grey building is Panmungak, North Korea's version of the Freedom House, built in 1969:
It is said to house military offices and waiting rooms for those participating in talks. I read that Panmungak is built to look larger than it is, but someone had interpreted that as meaning the building was a shell. Americans who have been to the North Korean side have said it is a real building, which I don't think was ever disputed.
The smaller blue buildings were built in the 1960s as the United Nations Command (UNC) Military Armistice Committee (MAC) conference buildings. The Korean Conflict began on June 25, 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea, quickly taking over Seoul and almost three quarters of the country. With UN intervention, commanded by General Douglas MacArthur, the North Koreans were pushed back well into their own country. North Korea then received assistance from the People's Republic of China and the battle lines retreated back towards the 38th parallel. Supposedly it was North Korea that requested an armistice/ceasefire, which was signed on July 27, 1953. The UNC MAC mission is to enforce the armistice agreement. This conference building was for the face-to-face meetings between the two Koreas:
Our U.S. soldier escort/guide keeps an eye on the group to make sure we are only taking photos in the correct direction.
The UN-assigned Republic of Korea (ROK) soldiers stand in a ROK-ready position of Taekwondo:
They are positioned half behind the building for protection and to be able to signal to people behind them without the North Koreans knowing. It's kind of cool that the South Korean soldiers can be called ROKs. (North Korea is officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea - DPRK and their military is the Korean People's Army - KPA.)
We were apparently lucky to actually see a North Korean soldier standing guard:
We were told many more soldiers are observing us through the windows. They say they don't like having their photos taken, and at one point I did see the North Korean guard hold his hands over his face.
When it was our turn, we entered the UNC MAC conference building:
Apparently there were no North Korean-side visitors today, as we would have to take turns with them to see inside this building.
This building sits on the MDL, which is indicated by the pen-holders down the middle of the conference table:
Outside, the MDL is marked with a cement curb:
Earlier this line was not a factor in the JSA, but because of incidents between the North and South, a line has been drawn and neither side can cross to the other, except inside this building. So here we are in North Korean territory:
Kent stands near the South Korean/UN guard, who is ostensibly there for our safety. In fact, all the military presence we have seen in the DMZ and JSA are said to be for the tourists. When we leave, it is said they go back to camera surveillance.
All the soldiers on the South Korean side wear dark sunglasses when facing their northern counterparts. In the past, glaring with the eyes (eye-fights) has led to physical fights, so wearing sunglasses hopes to prevent that. I suppose the sunglasses helps keep them from "being identified" by visitors from the North. The North Koreans might want to adopt this policy instead of hiding their faces behind their hands...? (Don't take any of this as factual, please!)
Back in the bus, we drove to the site of the Axe Murder Incident of 1976. The South had sentry posts to the west in the JSA, at a time when the North was able to surround them with their own sentry posts. A poplar tree grew between two of the posts of the South, and in order to see each other to communicate, the South  went to trim the poplar tree. It seems that eventually about 35 North Koreans attacked the group of 19 South Korean and U.S. personnel, keying in on and killing the two U.S. officers, one of them was repeatedly axed. Now, the tree is gone, but there is a marker:
Camp Bonifas is named after the officer who was instantly killed in the incident. Later when the JSA was divided, the North could no longer have sentry posts south of the MDL. The sentry post near the Bridge of No Return is now empty, because they have camera surveillance.
Next the Bridge of No Return, where the MDL is across the center of the bridge:
The POW exchange in 1953 took place on this bridge, and it takes its name from the fact that once you crossed into North Korea, you would never return. I also read that up until the Axe Murder Incident, the North Koreans often tried to kidnap sentries from this post and drag them across the bridge.
Both North and South Korea would like to be unified, but these incidents (of which there are many and some at a much larger scale) seem to be a hindrance rather than motivation for getting people to sympathize with and join with the North.
Time to drive back to Seoul and reflect on what we had seen and heard today.
An unusual Jongno Building in Seoul:
The Lotte Hotel is close to the Cheonggyecheon Stream:
A stream once hidden by a truck bypass has been revamped into a kind of secluded park 4.6 m/15' below street level along 8.4 km/5.2 miles. Lots of greenery, bridges:
"More couples than Central Park," whatever that means:
A bridge once used for the king's carriages:
Right in the downtown area:
Rooster sculpture:
Marionette sculpture:
Stepping-stone bridge:
Waterfall at the beginning:
Sculpture titled "Spring" (2006) by Coosje van Bruggen:
Along with the city mascot of "Haechi."
Kent saw a sign "HOF" and we immediately thought of German food. However, it seems that many bars in Korea use the term "hof."
Kent in the window seat of the Hof 55 Avenue:
Many Korean restaurants seem to have a buzzer at the table to call the waitstaff:
We enjoyed spicy chicken and pork cutlets (more of a Japanese-style pork cutlet):
That's all for Seoul! Tomorrow we fly back to Shanghai.

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