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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Rosenbergs, H-Bomb, Sugar Ray, Panmunjom

Thanks to Billy Joel for the lyrical inspiration.

Yes, I finally made it up to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), the ceasefire line separating North and South Korea. This 4 km wide "no man's land" is one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world, with North Korean, South Korean and American soldiers keeping constant watch. It's easy to forget as you amble carelessly by, drinking ginseng tea from the concession stand, that these two countries are still at war.

Remnants of war -- bullet holes in a rusted train

Freedom Bridge gets its name from the 13,000 prisoners of war who returned from North Korea across this bridge, crying out with thanks for their freedom. The bridge is now closed off but people still visit to leave signs, prayer flags and notes for family members trapped in the north.

A highlight of the DMZ is a visit to the 3rd Tunnel. This North Korean-built tunnel is on course directly toward Seoul but was discovered before boring too far into South Korea. The North first insisted that the tunnel was built by the South to infiltrate the North, then said that it was meant for charcoal mining and smeared charcoal on the walls.

Either way, it's a fascinating place to see. 300 meters underground, you can walk along the tunnel up to a point and see how it was designed to allow 10,000 men to pass through each hour. It also makes you realize how short North Koreans are -- we were given protective hardhats, thankfully, because the ceilings are very low!

It's scary to hear about the four tunnels they've already found, all pointing directly toward Seoul. There are certainly more still undetected -- some people estimate up to 20 others -- but the South Korean government will neither confirm nor deny.

Because it's untouched by any human hands, the DMZ is actually one of the most pristine ecosystems in the world. Many environmentalists hope it stays protected after unification.

Dora Station will, after unification, be the rail link between Seoul and Pyeongyang. Until then, it's basically a tourist destination and gift shop. It's an ultra-modern station, designed by the same architect as Incheon Airport, but you can't help but wonder how sleek it will be by the time, if ever, Korea unifies. Most people certainly can't see unification happening any time in the near future.

The sign says that from Dora Station, it's 56km to Seoul and 205km to Pyeongyang.

Unfortunately, hazy visibility makes it difficult to see too far into North Korea. It's possible to make out the propaganda village on the other size of the Injin River but strict rules about photography make it nearly impossible to get a picture.

So just trust me that the land and buildings you can faintly make out below are North Korea. I promise. :)

I have to highly recommend anyone visiting Korea to take a day trip up to the DMZ. Not only is it living history -- the war ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty -- it's also a chance to peek into the most closed, secretive country in the world.

Peace bell

One of the men on my tour was a Korean War vet. He said he never imagined that 50 years later, tourists would be able to visit the border without a worry. It gives me hope that my children or grandchildren will have the same experience somewhere like Afghanistan or Iraq.

Prayers for peace and unification

There may not be peace on the peninsula yet, but one day...

Imagine all the people living life in peace
You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one.

(Oh, that's right: first Billy Joel, now John Lennon.)

Shadow of Freedom Bridge in a lily pond