DMZ, Deoksugung Palace

We have been here for less than three days and are already tired out of our minds. Maybe it is the jetlag, maybe it is the thousands and thousands of steps we take every day or all the commotion all around us all the time. Either way, we are seeing tons of things and I have already started to feel that the days left are not enough.

Today we had to get up early because a bus picked us up at 7:30 and took us to the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone. The border. The war since June 25th 1950 is still very active since they didn’t sign a peace treaty, but they maintain the peace by cease fire and at least the South Koreans are hopeful of a united future. During the Korean war the North pushed down the South so they only had the area around Busan. But then the south pushed back and got the country back. Now, there is a 4km DMZ, 2km on each side where you can only go by a tour. In this zone on the South Korean side, 200 families live. They follow rules, like they have to be in te zone 260 days every year and follow the curfew 6:30pm to 6:30am. But there are benefits as well, they don’t pay any taxes at all and they don’t have to serve in the military at all. The rest of South Korea does, or at least the male population, for 21 months due to the still ongoing war. In North Korea women have to do 7 years and men 10. Or perhaps it was 10 and 13. Our guide was super sweet but really hard to understand sometimes.

Along the highway toward the border, there were barbed wire fences and military outposts. Before this climate change, the water froze and North Koreans could just walk over.

Our first stop was at a Memorial site (I think), right outside the DMZ.

Then we went to the Third Infiltration Tunnel, which was very close to the actual border, we realized later on. We walked down a tunnel that the South Koreans had built to get down there, and then walked along the 260m long tunnel, 73m below the surface. The ceiling was so low that I had to duck most of the time. Lucky short people! It was tough walking that far, bent over. It was wet, all rock, but really cool. At the end of the tunnel (in total it was 1600m, but most of it was on the Northern side and we only had access to 260m), there was a blockade with a window in it, looking through it you could see the second blockade and through that window the third blockade which was on actual North Korean ground. Scary close! No phones or bags were allowed down there and absolutely no photography, so no pictures from the tunnel today. Didn’t seem worth it to risk it, haha!

The next stop was the Dora Observatory where we could see the DMZ on the North Korea side. It was foggy, but not as bad as yesterday apparently and we did actually see something. At first we didn’t really understand what we saw. But the barbed fences in the middle, going almost straight from us north, was the actual border. Right on the right side of the fence was the entrance to the Third Infiltration Tunnel, we then realized we were really close to the border, scary stuff! On the left side of the fence, there was nothing. Absolutely nothing, except a fake propaganda village straight above the tunnel entrance. The North and South had a competition on who could have the tallest flag pole and raised it a little all the time. Eventually North Korea won and got a record in Guinnes World Records. We saw it fairly clearly, but it was hard to see on the pictures. A while back, there was a girl who managed to get away from her group and actually pass the border. She was instantly shot to death. I wonder from where, they didn’t have any visible outposts, or basically anything on their side.

South Korea from the Dora Observatory.
The other side where the border is like an S. To the right of the barbed fence, in the middle where there are buildings, is the tunnel entrance.
The proganda village right under the “G” in the word propaganda. Or at least right  under the G is the huge flag pole and to the right of the pole is the city.

Right above the left-most buses in this picture, can the flag pole be seen.
Dora Observatory and our guide, Yeoni Jin in front.

We learned about defectors on the way back. Around 1 000 each year, and only 10% survives. Most go north and try to cross the border to China and then go directly down to Thailand where the Thai won’t send them back directly like Vietnam. A year ago there was a guy who managed to drive across the border, he was shot, but dragged himself across and was rescued by South. This was all over the news last November. When he was in the hospital the doctors found out that he was full of worms. Even the military are starved and in extremely bad health! Anyway, there was no real reason for him to cross the border from the JSA (Joint Security Area, where the presidents met up until recently when it became only a tourist attraction) because that was apparently THE place to be. Only high-ranked and trusted soldiers were stationed there. So many didn’t really understand why he would risk his “good” life and crossing the border. It turned out that he was drunk and had driven South. It is forbidden to drink in the North and maybe he was facing a death penalty anyway? Don’t know if it is true, but the tour guide said it and it felt like it was something fun to post here.

The defectors coming to South Korea are tried and when it is determined that they are not spies, they get benefits, like free housing for 5 years and a mentor to help them adjust to the rich life of a South Korean. Not too bad.

The both countries also speak the same language, although the North has some extra words and a very thick accent.

Fun facts are fun :).

Another quick stop was at the Dorasan Station where hopeful South Koreans donated money to build this station in hope of a united Korea one day. The rail is connected, but no trains go North from here, only South and for tourists.

On the way back to Seoul, we stopped at the Korean Ginseng Center. Ginseng is a root that has magical properties according to Koreans. I’m sure it is good, but not 300 USD good for a 9 month supply. I’ve never tried, so I am not missing anything. The root is as best after 6 years, and the government of South Korea takes all the 6 year ginseng for South Korea. The younger ones are exported.

Ginseng 1 year old to 6 years old.

Lunch was included at a restaurant in the city at the end. Beef stew that was very sweet and good. Mom and I talked to a Mexican guy and an American girl who sat at our table. The girl was from San Diego, what are the odds?

The rest of the afternoon was spent in Deoksugung Palace. We wanted to see the changing of the guard, but due to the dusty air today, it was canceled. But we got to see beautiful trees again and some traditional Korean buildings. These were also from the beginning of the 1900’s. Even if basically all the palaces were destroyed in the Korean war, they were rebuilt, but from what I understand, most of them are from the early 20th century. I think I read somewhere that at least one was reconstructed several times from a palace originally built in 1300-something. I want to see that one. If I don’t misremember architecture history 101 from Cal Poly, Asian architecture didn’t really change that much, they were very conservative with their buildings. And culture.  

We then quickly met up with Felix at the War Memorial of Korea. Unfortunately the museom closed 30 minutes after we got there, and we had a Korean walking behind us, making noises to hurry us up and almost kicked us out 15 minutes before closing. Too bad, it would have been interesting to learn more about it. It was free admission, so maybe another day if we have time?

A quick stroll through Myeong-Dong again to have some street food for dinner. I then felt adventurous and bought a bottle of something Korean. One sip was all it took for me to go back in the store and get a Coke, haha! At least I tried and got a cool bottle.

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