One of the most amazing things about living in, or visiting The Republic of South Korea (ROK as it is regularly know or SoKo as it is known to expats living here) is the ability to visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that place between North and South Korea completely unlike any other place on earth. Let me start with some background information….
On June 25, 1950, the North Korean People’s Army, under the rule of Kim Il Sung, invaded SoKo by crossing over the 38th parallel. Kim Il Sung had decided South and North Korea should join forces as the entire country would be better off (in his not-so-humble opinion) being Communist. I think he took a leaf out of Mao Tse Tung’s book and determined that people didn’t really need to think for themselves when he could think and decide for them! But let’s go back a little further shall we:
Korea had been a part of the Japanese Empire since the beginning of the 20th Century (there is still some animosity towards the Japanese even today; some places wouldn’t service my Toyota because it is Japanese, and there are very few Japanese products available, but that’s an entirely different story). After Japan fell at the end of WWII, Korea fell into the hands of the Americans and the Soviets. What to do with this Imperial possession, became the question. In August of 1945, two aides at the State Department were given the task to divide the country in half. They drew a line at the 38th parallel. The top part (North Korea or NoKo) occupied by the Russians, the bottom (SoKo) occupied by the Americans. What followed was the emergence of two Korean Dictators, the anti-communist dictator to the South, Syngman Rhee, and the communist dictator to the North, our buddy Kim Il Sung. Understandably neither really liked the idea of their country being divided particularly by some outsiders, but even more so, they disliked each other and there were plenty of skirmishes along the border even before the Korean War began with approximately 10,000 soldiers killed.
On that day though in 1950, people, particularly the Americans, were taken aback. They thought this was the beginning of a communist uprising to take over the world and that just wasn’t going to happen on their watch! As far as America was concerned, this was a fight of good versus evil, east versus west. In Harry Truman’s own words: “the Soviet[s] will keep right on going and swallow up one [place] after another.” So when they readied their troops for battle, the USA wasn’t just fighting for SoKo, they were fighting a war against communism itself. At first the war went pretty badly for the allies with the South Koreans understandably scared, untrained and not disciplined at all, to top it off it was one of the hottest, driest Summers on record and I can assure you Summer in this country is pretty bloody miserable at times, and the American soldiers were getting incredibly sick and even dying from horrible gastro diseases, after drinking water from rice paddies (human waste was the main fertilizer). President Truman and his main man at the time, General MacArthur, decided to change things around and go on the offensive and this was great until the Chinese thought they were trying to take over Communist China and their crazy leader Mao Zedong/Mao Tse-tung/Chairman Mao wasn’t going to sit down and take that! He sent troops to NoKo and warned America to back off unless it wanted full scale war. Truman, the diplomat, didn’t want that, but General MacArthur thought this an appeasement to China and North Korea and he was all about a full scale war. The two men’s opposing opinions eventually led to MacArthur getting fired for insubordination and President Truman starting peace talks (new military commanders in tow) with NoKo in 1951. Obviously they talked each other’s ears off for the next two years with most of the problems stemming from what to do with prisoners of war. An armistice was signed on July 27, 1953 and allowed the POWs to stay wherever they liked, a new boundary was drawn that gave SoKo an extra 1500 square miles and created a 2-mile-wide “demilitarized zone” that we were going to visit today.
The alarm went off at 0500 (5am) Saturday morning. We’d had a late night the night before having decorated and been through a Halloween haunted happening, but having to also clear out of there by 2200 (10pm) as it was still a functioning location and all decorations needed to be removed in a timely manner. Awesome night though. We were all tired. The DMZ tour was only for kids 10 and older so we had left one child at a friend’s house after our haunted do and the other went to his friend’s house at 0600. Then we were off to catch the tour bus.
The tour had been co-sponsored by our Family Readiness Group (FRG – a group in the Army life made up of family members that supports the needs of both families and soldiers by helping to maintain morale, and if possible sponsor events). We had 24 people on the tour bus that were part of our group. Our bus tour was through Osan ITT (for any military or family members reading this and wanting to know more). We left at 0700. Unfortunately there was something going on with the speaker system/bus driver and we couldn’t hear a lot of what our guide said when we first got on the bus but then they put on a fascinating DVD from the History channel talking all about the history and the various skirmishes since the Korean War armistice. Yes, the war has never really ended and every time a new Kim comes into power they seem to get a little bit crazier.
Kim Il Sung ruled for 47 years, the man called himself supreme leader and ensured all NoKo’s knew him by that name. I don’t really know a whole lot about his reign of terror, I mean reign of leadership, but I’m pretty sure he scared the bejesus out of most people and when he decided to pair up with Mao Zedung for the Korean War, they probably shared a laugh and knocked some torture ideas back and forth, collaborated a little, found best-practice methods and all that jazz. What is really crazy is that four years after Kim Il Sung’s death, he was named the Eternal President of the Republic! Seriously! A dead man is the eternal president and the presidency itself was written out of NoKo’s constitution! Where does that leave his son and grandson you ask? His eldest son, Kim Jong-il, became known as the Dear Leader and later, the Great General. As far as I can tell, he didn’t do much more for NoKo than his father, other than sleep around a lot. He fathered two sons before super crazy boy (I mean current leader), that were considered the black sheep of the family, in fact the eldest put it out there that his family shouldn’t have complete control of NoKo and on top of that, he got caught in a plot to visit Disney Tokyo! I mean seriously, that was it, he was done! And rightfully so! There’s no room for fun in NoKo! He apparently lives in China now, not sure how much fun he’s having there either, but the Chinese seem to have a sense of humor unlike crazy Kim. The second son was a bit too feminine to rule, not quite sure what that means, but nonetheless, there was no go for him to lead NoKo! That left the third son, to yet another mother, Kim Jong-un to lead the way (taking command in December, 2011) after his father’s untimely death. And we’ve all seen what a catastrophic, I mean, charismatic guy he is! I guess he wants to completely differentiate himself from his father and grandfather so has attempted to develop an academically-focused, extroverted and extremely masculine persona.
This video (I’m not sure if you would see it on any other tour buses) makes you understand a little more, the serious nature about living here in SoKo and how this isn’t actually a joke at all. Even though I may have made a few jokes about the crazy man to the north. It also only tells of the NoKo invasions/skirmishes but there have been raids or incursions by SoKo as well. Always two sides to a story but I’m far more inclined to believe the Americans and SoKo’s given the information I have researched and read/seen/heard since taking an interest in going on this tour to the DMZ. I can’t list them all but I’ll try to brief on the main points.
- 1958: NoKo agents hijack airliner en route from Busan to Seoul. 28 passengers released, 8 remained in NoKo.
- October 1966-1969: The Second Korean War or the DMZ Conflict occurred. 299 SoKo’s killed, 550 wounded. 43 US personnel killed, 111 wounded.
- January 17, 1968: The Blue House Raid. A 31 man detachment crosses into SoKo to kill President Park Chung-hee and very nearly succeed. 28 of them were killed, 1 captured but the other two were never accounted for. Unfortunately 26 SoKos and 3 American soldiers were also killed, with numerous more injured.
- January 23, 1968: The USS Pueblo (United States Navy) is boarded and captured with NoKos saying it was in their waters and US vehemently denying that saying it was in international waters. 1 sailor is killed the other 83 are captured and only released when US retracts its statement saying it was in NoKo’s waters. As soon as the hostages are released at the ‘Bridge of No Return’, the US retracts its retracted statement and says it only agreed to say that to get its people back. Fair enough, I say. The ship is still in Pyongyang and is apparently a museum now.
- Nov 1969: four US soldiers are killed in DMZ.
- Dec 11, 1969: a NoKo agent hijacks a Korean Airlines plane flying from Gangneung Airbase to Gimpo International Airport. 39 passengers were returned but the crew and 7 other passengers never came back.
- 1974: A second assassination attempt on SoKo President Park Chung-hee that went wrong, inadvertently killed his wife. a high school student was also killed.
- 1974: The first infiltration tunnel in SoKo is discovered followed by the second in 1975, the third tunnel (the one we visited) in 1978 and the fourth in 1990.
- August 18, 1976: The Axe murder incident. This one did break my heart a little and there are reasonably graphic photographs on the movie. Some civilians went out to trim a tree that was blocking SoKo’s view of NoKo in the DMZ, and the NoKo soldiers came up and started attacking them with the axes they were using to trim down the tree. 2 US soldiers died and 9 US and SoKo soldiers were injured.
- In between there were a number soldiers killed when they crossed the lines in both directions and a chinook was shot down when it strayed across the line with 3 airmen dead and one briefly held prisoner.
- Nov 1987: Skirmish at the JSA (Joint Security Area – also on the tour). 1 American and 1 SoKo soldier are killed.
- December 17, 1994: US Army Kiowa crosses 10km into NoKo border, one dead, one held prisoner for 13 days.
- May 1995: NoKos Fire on SoKo fishing boat killing 3.
- April 1996: several hundred armed NoKos enter the DMZ at the JSA and elsewhere, breaking the armistice agreement. As with many other events, NoKo denies this ever happened.
- June 1997: 3 NoKo vessels cross the Northern Limit Line and attack SoKo vessels. 14 NoKo soldiers cross 70 metres south of the center of the DMZ. 23 minutes of gunfire are exchanged.
- June 1999: the First Battle of Yeonpyeong
- June 29, 2002: the second Battle of Yeonpyeong leads to sinking of SoKo vessel and 6 SoKo sailors deaths.
- Mar 26, 2010: SoKo naval vessel sunk by NoKo torpedo. 58 survivors recovers, 46 dead.
- Nov 23, 2010: NoKo fired artillery at SoKo island. 2 SoKo marines and 2 SoKo civilians dead, 16 injured. About 70 SoKo houses destroyed.
- Oct 6, 2012: NoKo Army Private defects to SoKo.
There are plenty more incidents to read about but these are the main ones in my opinion. What is interesting also is the whole loud speaker propaganda war going on at the DMZ. NoKo is known for its loud speakers talking the communist talk at the border towns, but I guess SoKo decided to get in on the action at some point and put their own loud speakers up. Unfortunately for the North, SoKo’s amazing technological advancements mean their speakers are louder and far superior. Every now and again SoKo plays its own propaganda messages talking about how great it is and how defectors are always welcome. They talk about soap operas and even play Kpop (SoKo’s own music version – Psy is the first well known world-wide Kpop artist with ‘Gangnam Style’). After the sinking of the ship in 2010, SoKo responded with the song “Hit Your Heart” by the Kpop girl group 4minute. If you get a chance, have a listen to it. NoKo were so pissed off by such a response amplified by 11 gigantic speakers that they responded by threatening to turn Seoul “into a sea of flames” if it didn’t turn off the music!
Back to our Tour
We arrive at what looks like an amusement park and in fact is an amusement park surrounded by shops and monuments and history. Only in South Korea. We are not sure how this is going to work as the guide really hasn’t said much to us but he takes us all to the toilets, tells us to be back on the bus at a certain time, then people seem to scatter to do their own thing. Hubby has run back to the bus to collect our winter gear as it is bloody freezing and the guide waits with us telling us to go with him. We literally get a personal tour of this place, avoiding all the crappy tourist stuff that he (and we) have no interest in seeing. We see this war memorial erected by the local people and listing the names of all those killed from this area in the Korean War, also known as the Six-Two-Five in SoKo after the day it started. There’s also a rusty old train that has over 2000 bullet holes in it from the train driver speeding back to SoKo after seeing the advancing army on the other side, he survived! We go and look at a statue of President Truman and a number of other monuments as well then return back to the area where the shops are to run into some of the other people we know, one of who is Korean and is eating freshly steamed, warm snails from a cup. My daughter says she should try one but then backs out, I tell her I will try one first then she can (what’s a mother to do but lead the way when it comes to trying new things! 😜) Big mistake! It was tiny, but the taste was big. Yuck. If I liked fishy tasting fish, then it might have been ok, but I don’t and it wasn’t!
We boarded the bus to the next stop which was the ‘Third Tunnel of Aggression’. This is really cool and you can’t take any photos due to security reasons when you get inside but it’s worth trekking down that tunnel nonetheless. It’s a steep walk with the need to stoop happening more often than not. There are hard hats available on either side as you begin your trek down but no one tells you to wear them. It’s weird actually because about 3/4 of the way down there is a tram to go back out (not sure if it was running, as we didn’t see it moving anywhere but the sign reads that you can’t ride it if you have a hard hat)! On another note, you will need your hard hat. The clanking of hats to ceiling was a constant throughout the trek both down and back up again with I, myself hitting mine twice. Seriously, you have to stoop unless you’re short. It’s a haunting experience when you get past all the usual touristy stuff with the walls narrowing and the ceiling getting ever closer. The lights begin to dim as you make your way down the 265m path. Once at the end, one pauses and wonders what all the fuss is about until one looks through the square hole into the other side of the tunnel where a North Korean could be waiting (not really, as SoKo has taken control of the tunnel and put machine guns in places we couldn’t go, but it does make it all the more real). The tunnel goes to a depth of 73m (240ft) (That’s a long way down and a lot of digging) and spans a distance of 1.7km (1.1 miles).
Next stop was the Dora Observatory or as we called it, the overlook. Basically we listened to a KATUSA (Korean Augmentation To the United States Army – a SoKo enlisted person drafted from a pool of qualified volunteers who are subjected to mandatory military service then ensconced within a variety of departments/areas within the Eighth United States Army) talk about some of the history and tell us about what lies on the other side in NoKo. There are binoculars to provide zoomed up views of life in NoKo, there’s even a fake town called Kijong-dong. I guess this town was built in the 1950s in an attempt to lure SoKos to defect and move over there. But observations throughout the years have noted windowless buildings and no inhabitants since its construction. There is a huge map on the ceiling showing you what and where are located, as you are looking into the real life view of North Korea. It was a foggy day for us, so my view wasn’t that great through the camera lens but still incredibly interesting. Most people seemed to flock to the binoculars on the center and right side of the viewing point but if you head to the left, you can hear more clearly the propaganda being put over the loud speakers from the NoKo side.
This was followed by a trip to Dorsan Train Station – the train station that would unite the NoKo and SoKo if it could ever happen. It’s a touristy trip with lots of money invested by many in a dream that will probably never happen but a dream that needs to be kept ignited nonetheless. We got our souvenir train tickets to Pyongyang and went out to the train tracks. Like I said, interesting but not my favourite site on the tour.
Our next stop was lunch and unfortunately, this wasn’t anything to write home about. If you do the same tour as we did, it’s a Korean buffet, the tour guide and bus driver sat at their own table with the owners and had special food cooked for them whereas the rest of us just got to eat the 5 or 6 choices given including mini pork cutlets, want-to-be chicken nuggets/fried chicken with a choice of two sauces, one of which was awful and definitely not sweet and sour as we know it, the other though was good. The spaghetti looked terrible and my daughter spat it out, so I’d give that a miss too. There were fries but they’d been sitting out for a long time and were quite mushy. The beef bulgogi though wasn’t bad.
Finally we went To the JSA – Joint Security Area. Very interesting. Somber, haunting, weird. Somebody asked me if we wanted to make the guards laugh, my response was an immediate no. It’s not like the Royal Guards at Buckingham Palace, this is a real life war zone. Millions have been killed throughout the past 70 odd years. It is really quite haunting to stand there looking into North Korea, seeing a guard over there who has been brain washed into thinking his country is the finest there is to offer.
When you sign up for a tour to the DMZ, you will be informed of the dress code and it is a very strict dress code at that; a “neat and presentable appearance.” No faded or ripped jeans, no flip flops, or open-toed shoes, no clothing with profane or provocative text, no sporting gear, nothing excessively baggy or sleeveless. It’s a propaganda thing, basically we don’t want NoKo to be able to use anything you wear as propaganda, no possibility of them saying, look how poor those people are and how great we’ve got it here. There’s also strict rules about pointing or gesturing of any kind. You feel kind of intimidated standing there and don’t want to do anything to draw attention to you or your group. There’s also restrictions on what nationalities can go to the DMZ and if you’re South Korean, you want to book way in advance as you will face a rigorous background check before being allowed to go.
When you are standing there looking into North Korea (not pointing, not gesturing, not making faces, not doing anything but taking a gazillion photos and looking in awe) you will see in front of you lots of blue buildings. The two buildings in the center are marked by a cement line which is literally the division between SoKo and NoKo. On your tour, you will be allowed to enter the United Nations Command, Military Armistice Commission (UNCMAC) room. This room has held numerous conferences, peace talks and not so peaceful talks. Half of it is located in North Korea, so when you enter the room and cross over the concrete border, you are literally in North Korea! Very cool indeed, Vern with all the surrounding hoopla and rigmarole. And the guard who stands at the NoKo door is the coolest looking Korean I have ever seen. I’m pretty sure these guys are picked out for their looks and ability to wear shades and that helmet and still look frigging cool. I know they’re picked out for height. Seriously, is this guy cool or what?
Never in the world has there been a place like this. A country so advanced in technology bordering, even hinging to another country to the North that is so repressed. A country divided and still at war some 70 odd years later! I have had mixed emotions throughout my time living here in SoKo but I have to say this piece of history opened my eyes to a much bigger picture and made me appreciate the South Koreans so much more. I also understand the serious nature behind the US Forces’ motto ‘Fight Tonight!’ We never know when this country will go into another all out war and with Kim Jong-un (crazy) leading the way, it is a very real possibility.
I don’t want to scare any of my fellow military spouses living here as I think war is a possibility in a lot of places in this day and age, but I just want to reinforce the seriousness of where we are living. When your spouse is involved in an exercise, it’s because they need to be ready for anything. When they have to do so many things and obey so many rules that are very different to both the United States and Australia, it’s because this place is like no other. But it offers opportunities like no other also.