Wednesday September 5, 2012 – DMZ
|Our first view of North Korea today. Today saw us traveling by coach up to the DMZ.Only one company operates tours to Panmunjom and the DMZ and so we had to share a coach with a handful of other English speaking tourists, but that was not a problem and added a bit of extra variety to our group for the day.
It was interesting to drive north up to Panmunjom and to see the spreading sprawling prosperity of Seoul and South Korea in general. Seoul city has a population of 10.5 million people, and the larger metropolitan area has a population of 25 million – half of all South Korea (population 50 million). Whatever else Pyongyang and North Korea will prove to be, they will definitely be smaller (in terms of population, albeit not land area) – Pyongyang’s population is thought to be 3.3 million and North Korea as a whole is estimated at 24.5 million. South Korea these days is primarily an urban based industrial economy, whereas North Korea remains very much a rural and agricultural economy.
The guide talked a bit about the war, but not too much, and also spoke about re-unification and South Korea’s relationship with the North, although again, in mild and moderate terms that seemed to be reasonably fair. It was particularly interesting to learn that there is a diminishing interest in re-unification, which the guide said was due in large part to the younger generations who had been born and grown up subsequent to the end of the war (1950-1953) and who had no memory of when the two Koreas were one (and, the related flipside of that – people with direct relations in the North such as parents or children reducing in number).
She didn’t add, but could well have done, that the very incompatible political systems, lifestyles, and economies were growing wedges between the two countries – at least when Germany unified, the process was marked by the East’s abandonment of its former Communist system and its relatively enthusiastic embrace of the West’s democratic system and free enterprise.
Furthermore, the current South Korean government seems to be taking a harder line on its relations with the north than did previous governments, and – from the little we gleaned – it seems that, from the South’s perspective, re-unification is becoming a more distant, less essential, and therefore less likely possibility.
We visited a couple of monuments on the way north at the ‘Unification Park’ that were in only average states of repair – perhaps this was another indication that the country as a whole has put the Korean war behind itself and is now occupied with moving forward into its future, rather than endlessly looking back at its past? It is, after all, almost 60 years now since the end of the Korean war in 1953.
As we moved further north, we became increasingly aware of occasional tank traps (including collapsible ‘bridges’ above the freeway that could be exploded to fall onto the road) and other fortifications. It is an unusual feeling to be driving along a freeway that has a major barbed wire fence with closely spaced guard posts on one side, although it seemed that many of the guard posts were unmanned.
We visited a roadside stop which combined the last railroad station in South Korea with some mementos of the war, and also showed lots of colored ribbons left by people wishing to be reunited with family members now living in the north.
We stopped for lunch (included in the tour) in a restaurant that was split into two halves – a Japanese style room on one side with a highly polished wood floor and the requirement to remove shoes prior to going into that room, and a regular western style room on the other side.
After lunch we proceeded through the Civilian control zone and into the Demilitarized Zone itself, a narrow strip extending 2km north and south of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) that marks the border between the two nations.
A stop at Camp Bonifas (so named after an American soldier killed by the North Koreans during a border altercation in 1976) had a US military policeman join the bus ‘for our protection’. We were happy to have a fellow American with us, and after a while, the Private loosened up and started to chat less formally with us and ‘off topic’.
Soon we were at the Joint Security Area (JSA) or ‘Truce Village’ – the only part of the DMZ where North and South Korean troops stand face to face (at least, they do so in theory). This was what we’d come to see – we wanted a ‘book-end experience’ viewing the DMZ from both the north and south sides.
We noticed that there were almost no North Korean guards anywhere to be seen, just immaculately dressed South Korean guards staring aggressively north in Tae Kwon Do poses and with dark sunglasses on – this being to ‘intimidate’ the North Koreas, we were told (insert eye-rolling expression here!). Several of our group managed to spot one lone North Korean guard outside their main administration building, but after looking idly at us for a while, he went back inside and closed the door behind him, disappearing from view.
Our US soldier told us that the North Korean guards only came out and put on a show when there were tourists visiting the northern side. Further questioning revealed that this was true of the South as well – the alert looking soldiers we’d seen staring aggressively northwards also only came out to put on a show when tourists were arriving from the south! Is the entire DMZ little more than a tourist attraction and an unnecessarily perpetuated reminder of a past conflict that is unlikely to return?
The drive back to Seoul seemed much quicker than the drive up, but isn’t that so often the case – the return journey seeming quicker than the outbound journey.
We got back to the main tour headquarters and some of our group transferred to a second coach for the short ride back to our hotel, while a more intrepid group headed off to take a subway ride back to the hotel.
The Seoul subway was impressive. It was air-conditioned, smooth, well signed, relatively uncrowded (even though we were traveling in the heart of what was presumably rush hour around about 5.30pm) and the cars were large in size and quiet in operation.
We met for free dinner and drinks again in the club lounge this evening.
Thursday September 6, 2012 – To Beijing
|A misunderstanding caused a few anxious moments this morning. It seemed that our coach to transfer most of the group to the airport was late arriving, but in reality, it had been waiting for us all along, merely parked on the road adjacent to the hotel, rather than driving into the hotel driveway and having the driver come in to meet us.
No harm done other than a few anxious moments waiting until the mis-communication was resolved, and we got to the airport at the time we expected to anyway, whereupon we then flew the short flight to Beijing, landing at the enormous new Terminal 3 of Beijing’s airport, reportedly the largest airport terminal in the world.
Security at Incheon Airport was much more fastidious than in the US, but also less obtrusive – no need to take off shoes, only metal detectors rather than X-ray whole-body imagers, and if you beeped going through the metal detector, you just received a cursory wanding with a metal detector rather than an intimate groping experience such as with the US TSA.
On the other hand, the security staff discovered a miniature screwdriver in my carry-on (about one inch in length) and refused to allow me to take it onto my flight. Happily, they allowed me to go back to the airport check-in counter where the staff boxed it up and sent it on to meet me at Beijing as another checked bag.
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