DMZ (demilitarized zone), South Korea: WEEK 26 MAY (spring time in Korea, sunny days 24 DEGREES)
18.05.2017 - 18.05.2017 23 °C
The DMZ (demilitarized zone) is a 4km buffer of no man's land running 155 miles across the Korean penisula, splitting North and South and marks an uneasy truce which is the longest military deadlock in history. To understand why Korea was split in two, the events after the World War II and the secret plans of Kim-Il-sung come into play.
Korea was ruled by Japan from 1910 until the closing days of World War II. In 1945 the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and sent troops into Korea. During an emergency meeting in August 1945, high ranking officials with no in-depth knowledge of the peninsula, sat with a map and sketched a line across the 38th parallel - a solution that was to have grave repercussions for Korea. U.S. forces subsequently moved into the south and by 1948, as a product of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, Korea was split into two regions, with separate governments. Both governments claimed to be the legitimate government of all of Korea, and neither side accepted the border as permanent.
The first of the Kims, Kim-Il-sung was holding meetings with Stalin, secretly planning to invade South Korea, and on 25th June 1950 troops burst across the 38th parallel. South Korea was ill equipped for war and Seoul fell 3 days later. The UN stepped in and sent a sixteen nation coalition to fight against North Korea and the majority of troops were from the US.
After the first two months of war, South Korean forces were on the point of defeat. In September 1950, an amphibious UN counter-offensive was launched at Inchon, and cut off many North Korean troops. Those who escaped envelopment and capture were rapidly forced back north all the way to the border with China at the Yalu River, or into the mountainous interior. At this point, in October 1950, Chinese forces crossed the Yalu and entered the war. Chinese intervention triggered a retreat of UN forces which continued until mid-1951. After these reversals of fortune, which saw Seoul change hands four times, the last two years of fighting became a war of attrition, with the front line close to the 38th parallel. The war in the air, however, was never a stalemate. North Korea was subject to a massive bombing campaign. Jet fighters confronted each other in air-to-air combat for the first time in history, and Soviet pilots covertly flew in defense of their communist allies.
The fighting ended on 27 July 1953, when an armistice was signed. The agreement created the Korean Demilitarized Zone to separate North and South Korea, and allowed the return of prisoners. However, no peace treaty has ever been signed, and the two countries are technically still at war. Periodic clashes which we have never heard about in the West, many of them deadly, continue to the present day.
Today, Kim Jong-un rules North Korea but Kim-Il-sung still remains the country's official president despite having died in 1994, and his eldest son Kim Jong-il is stilled referred to as "Dear Leader". In fact, the locals must wear a pin badge portraying at least one of the deceased leaders. Not sure whether this is an urban myth, but our guide told us that the first words your child must say is "Kim Jong-un".
Our tour started at Imjingak after crossing an army check point where we had to show our passports. It is a park located on the banks of the Imjin River in the city of Paju which was built to console those from both sides who are unable to return to their hometowns, friends and families after the end of the Korean War. It is also where the "Bridge of Freedom" lies which is a former railroad bridge used by repatriated POWs/soldiers returning from the north. Thomas was fascinated by the steam locomotive which is being used as a symbol of the South-North division of Korea. During the war it was bombed and has 1,020 bullet marks.
We then explored the Third Infiltration Tunnel which was our chance to set foot in the DMZ, even if it was 78 metres underground. The tunnel was detected in 1978 and is one of four that has been discovered so far, only 52km from Seoul. The North Koreans claimed that they were looking for coal but the geology of the area is granite, hence the sloppily black painted tunnel walls which must be one of the lamest excuses ever used. The incomplete tunnel is 1,635 metres (1.0 mile) long and was apparently designed for a surprise attack on Seoul that could accommodate 30,000 men per hour along with light weaponry. It is a steep descent and we had to wear hard hats in case we bumped our heads.
This is just one of many incursions by North Korea, many that have led to loss of life. One of the most notorious is the "Axe Murder Incident" in 1976 when two American soldiers were killed by axe wielding North Koreans. A poplar tree, next to the Bridge of No Return, was obscuring the line of sight at an Allied Checkpoint so a five man detail asked the North Koreans for permission to prune the tree. However, when they turned up, sixteen KPA soldiers appeared and demanded that the pruning stop. When the US soldiers refused, they were set upon with axes but North Korea denies any responsibility for the incident. Three days later, Operation Paul Bunyan took place, where 800 men in a convoy of 24 UNC vehicles turned up to finish the job, backed up by attack helicopters and B-52 bombers. This must be the largest tree-trimming exercise in history and the tree was successfully cut down without any reaction from North Korea.
As the threat of North Korea invading is ever present, all South Korean men are required to complete two years national service (strangely women are exempt) either in the army, navy or air force so that the country is battle ready.
Up on the Dora Observatory, we got the chance to peer through binoculars at North Korea and I could see the North Korean flag rippling in the breeze in the haze of pollution (from China). It is easy to see where North Korea starts on the otherside of the DMZ as the land is devoid of any trees or vegetation. All trees have been chopped down on the hillsides and the mountains, a stark contrast to South Korea. The North Koreans blast out military music for two hours from their side of the DMZ and then South Korea reciprocates from Dora Observatory, but chooses to play the local radio station.
Our last stop was Dorasan Station on the Seoul-Uiju Line that continues to China via Pyongyang in North Korea. Built in 2007, it was heartbreaking to see the list of relatives that had donated to the construction in the hope that one day they will be reunited with their family members in North Korea. No trains are currently running, but everyone hopes that reunification will happen one day.
How do South Koreans feel about the present situation? Our guide explained that as they have lived with the threat of North Korea invading for the last sixty years, no one dwells on World War III breaking out on their door step - they just get on with their lives. One of the worries if North Korea attacks, is that China would become involved and attempt a land grab on the peninsula, if the North Korean regime crumbles.