Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Today I woke up early to take a guided tour of the DMZ. For those of you who don't know, the DMZ is the dividing line between North and South Korea that was agreed upon in the 1953 cease-fire. There are currently two towns in the DMZ, one on the Northern side and one on the South side. I forget their names.

The South Korean town is largely comprised of subsidized farmers and in true Korean fashion, also get free high speed internet access. You can actually buy DMZ rice at the gift stores. The barbed wire seasoning is sold separately. Nobody lives in the North Korean town. All the lights in the entire town go off at precisely 11 PM. They keep having a competition to see who can build a larger flagpole, which simply reaks of masculine insecurity on the part of all Koreans. If I remember correctly, North Korea currently has the bigger one.

Descending into the 3rd tunnel was the coolest part of the whole tour. The third tunnel was discovered and sealed off some time ago. Upon retreating from the tunnel, the North Koreans painted charcoal on the bedrock in an attempt to pass it off as an abandoned coal mine. They did this despite the fact that the paint quickly comes off and the obvious lack of coal deposits in the granite bedrock. When the 4th tunnel was discovered, the North Koreans accused the South Koreans of building it! Kim Jong Il and his dad are pretty silly aren't they? Anyways, the tunnel was cool, and I walked to the end where there was a South Korean made barrier of concrete and barbed wire.

What I can't figure out is this: the tunnel is barely big enough for 2 peole to walk side by side in. The guides say 30,00 troops can move through in an hour, but where are they going without any tanks, trucks or even just a few jeeps? Even the most austere of infantry units in modern armies require all sorts of equipment (and the trucks to haul them all) to fight effectively. A bunch of guys crawling out of a hole somewhere would simply be slaughtered I would guess.

They also took us to a train station where (someday) Koreans hope to go all the way to Pyeongyang on a newly built rail station.

I hate to say it, but this guided tour was kind of weak. There just wasn't very much to see, besides a river, and two tiny towns with gigantic flagpoles. They showed us a video about the history of the war and the current status of efforts for reunification. It showed Kim Jong Il shaking hands with the South Korean president some years ago, but mentioned nothing of the North's latest thermonuclear antics. The video largely consisted of a tanks and mechanized infantry montage with grim looking ROK army dudes peering through binoculars set to the theme of Top Gun). Then it cut to an adorable little girl walking around rice fields crying with a sob-fest choral ensemble. Then back to soldiers with night vision goggles crawling through the bushes (and more bad 80's music). I wasn't sure what to feel.

But while the video was forgivable, the thing that really turned me off was that the tour organizers (for no obvious reason) wouldn't let you take pictures, or the DMZ. You could only take pictures of the front if you stood behind a giant yellow line that pretty much blocked out everything. Certainly the ROK Army routinely takes pictures of the DMZ with far more sophisticated equipment than any of us had. They did the same thing in the tunnel. What's up with that? I hereby challenge any military or safety expert to provide even one mediocre reason (besides selling picture books and postcards) for not allowing people to take pictures in the tunnel!

I have to concede I did learn some interesting things from the video. Several years ago, the 2 Koreas agreed to create a special economic zone in North Korea, funded by South Korean investors in an effort to alleviate some of the economic disparity standing in the way of unification. Judging from the movie, they make pots and pans in North Korea now.

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