Today we took a tour of a place that required us to sign a paper accepting responsibility for injury or death as a direct result of enemy action! Even so, it was probably the coolest experience of my life.
Our trip started out at Imjingak Resort Park. Imjingak is the farthest north that anyone can travel in South Korea, without special permission. Our tour guide said that South Koreans that travel beyond this point wait for months to get the permission to go on a tour. Imjingak is a little memorial park that has many different statues and monuments regarding the Korean War and the reunification of the peninsula. The park also had a small amusement park, which was weird haha.
There are four known tunnels along the border of North and South Korea, and believed to be up to 20 more. These tunnels were dug by North Koreans as a way to invade South Korea. The Third Infiltration Tunnel was discovered in 1978 based on information given by a North Korean defector. The tunnel begins in North Korea, obviously, and ends just 27 miles north of Seoul! The tunnel is 1.1 miles long, and supposedly 6.5 feet wide and high. I say "supposedly" because we walked through it and even I had to duck most of the way. I am not 6 foot 5 haha! This tunnel was built so that as many as 30,000 North Korean soldiers could move through it every hour! That's a ton of tiny little men running in the same direction! South Korea has blocked off the tunnel at the Demarcation line by 3 GIANT barricades made of concrete. These things are HUGE. We were able to walk all the way to the third barricade, which had a hole cut in it so we could see how thick it was and how far it was from the second barricade. Ain't no body getting through that tunnel.
This is the only picture I was able to take. I'll explain it in the caption!
After we walked through the tunnel, we climbed back up the super awesome incline and explored above the tunnel a little bit.
*(Ignore the random speck of dust on the right corner of the lens. I just noticed it as I was uploading the pictures. OF COURSE it's in every single picture! I'm so sad!)*
After we were done at Dora Observatory, we got back on the bus and drove to Dorasan Station, the only train station that connects the two Koreas.
We arrived at Camp Bonifas, the United Nations Command military post that is part of the JSA, also called Panmunjeom. This post is named after the US Army Captain Arthur Bonifas, who was one of the two men killed by North Korean soldiers in the Axe Murder Incident. (More on that later, I promise!) We were not allowed to take any pictures of the base. However, I have a sweet post card that has a picture of it, so here ya go.
After our brief, we got back on a bus and drove into the Demilitarized Zone. Amazing. We got to see the fields that are farmed by the villagers of Taeseong-dong, or "Freedom Village", one of only two villages that were allowed to remain in the DMZ. (One village is on either side of the Demarcation Line.) Villagers of Taeseong-dong are some of the richest farmers in South Korea. They don't pay taxes or rent, they are exempt from the mandatory military duties, and each family farms about 17.5 acres of land, much more than the average 4 acres per family on the rest of the peninsula. These families are part of this elite community because they, or their direct ancestors, lived in a certain village before the Korean War. The families farm the land on the Southern side of the DMZ and they make somewhere around $85,000 a year doing so! There is an elementary school in the village, but if families want their children to get a higher education, they have to leave and go somewhere else. Since these families are all extremely wealthy, their children often go to very prestigious schools. The families in this village live in very nice homes that they don't even have to pay for! There are many rules and regulations in Taeseong-dong, such as an 11pm curfew, but they are still free citizens of South Korea. Another interesting fact is that women are allowed to marry into the village, but men are not because of the mandatory military service for all South Korean men.
Also-- another fact about this picture. The grassy area in front of the building is in the same place that the Sunken Garden used to be, which is the site of the Soviet Defector Incident of 1984. That incident occurred when a Soviet tourist defected into the South and was followed by North Korean soldiers. A gunfight broke out and it ended with one South Korean casualty and two North Korean casualties. (The soldier that briefed us said he has heard five North Koreans were killed, but who knows.) If you're like me and wondering what happened to the Soviet tourist, he successfully defected and left his communist country through another communist country. Lucky dude.
MOVING ON. (I am sorry this post is so long. There's just a lot to say!)
After walking through the Freedom Building, we were at JSA, Panmunjom, the border of North and South Korea. We were being watched by North Koreans. We were literally staring at the enemy.
North Korean soldiers stand guard on their side too, but not all the time like these guys. The way North Korean soldiers stand guard is very interesting.
The last time the bridge was used for prisoner exchanges was in 1968 when the 86 members of the USS Pueblo crew were released to South Korea after being held as prisoners for 11 months. (If you don't know about that story, look it up and read about it! It's very interesting; especially the part about them flipping people off in propaganda films! I won't talk about it here because I'm taking too long as it is!
So, there were over like 30 people that went down to this tree to chop it down. Captain Bonifas was not armed because there were rules against how many armed soldiers could be at one place at one time. The Korean workers brought axes to prune the branches off the tree before it was chopped down. After the trimming started, a group of North Korean soldiers appeared and watched the trimming for a while. Then, suddenly, the North Korean commander ordered them to stop trimming because Kim Il-sung had personally planted that tree there and blah blah blah, lies lies lies. Captain Bonifas told his men to keep working and ignored the North Korean commander. More North Korean soldiers showed up, but Captain Bonifas told them to keep cutting. Then all hell broke loose and the North Koreans attacked with axes, crow bars, and clubs. Captain Bonifas was beaten to death and all but one of his men were injured. Finally, they were able to retreat and escape the attack. Once they were to safety, they realized they were missing Lt Barrett. It turned out he had found a dug out to hide in, but the North Korean soldiers found him. He was beaten with an axe that had been dropped by the Korean workers for over 90 minutes. He was rescued by a search and rescue team, but died on the way to the hospital.
If you are like me and can't get enough of these stories and history lessons, start watching the documentaries on North Korea. There are two on Netflix that are decent. You can also find TONS of others online. "10 Days in North Korea" is a really good one. The History Channel also has an awesome one that focuses on the War and the DMZ. Seriously, there are so many with so much information. It's an interesting, but scary topic to learn about.
The division between the two Koreas is so sad, and was never meant to be such a permanent thing. The North Korean government is just... crazy, and the North Korean people are prisoners that don't even know it. I am so thankful for all of the men and women who have helped and who still help protect not only my home country, America, but also this gracious country, South Korea, that has opened it's doors to me. I know that one day, trips to the DMZ will be just for a glimpse at what was. The people of North Korea will no longer live such terrible, isolated lives. One day there will be no North and South Korea; just one, unified, free nation.