Friday, February 8, 2013

Don't point, or make any sudden, strange movements.

So what did we do....

Lady PP's friend was visiting from California, and she had arranged for us to visit the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). We went on the USO's (United Service Organisations) morning tour. We had to be at the pick up point by 7.30 am, this meant I got up at 5 am. I think getting up so early, and lack of sleep contributed to my slightly dazed and bewildered state throughout most of the day. Since this was a Military services tour, I expected we'd depart promptly, so I arrived early. However, it turned out that we departed late due to a couple of stragglers (Lady PP and Cali).

Prior to this tour, my knowledge about the Korean war, and the DMZ was rather limited. It seemed like a pretty peculiar tourist destination to me. Following the tour, my knowledge and awareness has improved. However, I still feel that it's a pretty peculiar place to visit, although this is possibly one of the reasons that so many people want to go. This post is only a summary about some of the things I saw, and experienced at the DMZ, there are many other more detailed blogs and books on this subject. If you are interested, I suggest you undertake further reading and research.

USO Panmunjeom/JSA tour. 
The DMZ was created in 1953, when North and South Korea signed an armistice agreement. The DMZ separates North and South Korea, it's approximately 4 km wide and 250 km long. It's also anything but demilitarized, it's actually one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world.

Plaque from the Museum at Camp Bonifas
Firstly we were taken to Camp Bonifas, here we were given a debriefing about the history of the war, an explanation about the creation of the DMZ, as well as an overview of several incidents that have occurred in this area. We were warned we were entering a highly-volatile area, and we were asked to sign a waver releasing the UN of any responsibility should anything happen. Our pens didn't really work, so rather than sign, I more like scratched my name into the paper. I'm not sure how valid this made my waver, but I figured it wouldn't really matter if I was dead. We were repeatedly warned not to point, act strangely or suspiciously, speak, wave or make eye contact with Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) soldiers, and only take photographs when our USO guides gave permission.

After the briefing we transferred onto two military buses, then we were driven towards the JSA (Joint Security Area). This is a circular area that was a shared space until the axe murder incident in 1976. Next, we entered a building called freedom house, our guide explained this was built to accommodate family reunions. Unfortunately, it has never been used for this purpose. We were asked to stand in our corresponding tour group's line on the stairs, follow instructions, and refrain from pointing, or making any sudden, strange movements. Then, in single file we followed our guide outside, across a small road and into a little blue hut. Inside, he told us this was the MAC Conference room, where lengthy and tense discussions occur between the North and South. He proceeded to tell us that the people stood on the far side of the room, were actually now stood in North Korea (er, that would be us then).
MAC Conference Room B/North Korea
There were Republic of Korea Military Police (ROK MP) inside this room. ROK MP's stand in a modified Tae Kwon Do stance, with clenched fists, stern expressions and they wear sunglasses, to present a sense of strength, power and intimidation.  We were permitted to take photo's inside this hut. After a short time, we were asked to leave and follow the guide back towards freedom house. Here, we were asked to stand in a straight line along the steps at the front of the building, and then turn to and face North Korea (so somewhat akin to being lined up for a firing squad, I'm not sure if this is meant to add to the tension or not, since it's a pretty strange and tense atmosphere already).

View from the steps outside freedom house of the conference rooms, and the main North Korean building, Panmungak
We were told two Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) soldiers were stationed at the grey building in the distance. I could easily see the one outside on the front steps. We were advised the second soldier was stationed on the first floor by the window, I could see where the curtain was drawn back. We were told this soldier would be taking photos of us, at which point we were encouraged to take photo's of them, too. 

As we are standing in the 'firing squad line up', shooting photo's of the DPRK soldiers, one of the guides looks at us and says "USO tour?" At this point Lady PP realises we have somehow managed to join the wrong tour group, she smiles sheepishly at the guide and me. He seems quite concerned we are with the wrong group because they are about to leave. He asks us where our USO tour group is. So what do I do? Raise my arm and point towards the conference room, yes that's right, point whilst stood in the 'firing squad line up' in front of the DPRK soldiers. The other group begin walking back into the building in single file, we can't follow them. So, we attempt to inconspicuously shuffle our way towards the back of the line, and loiter on the steps whilst we wait for our tour group re-emerge from the conference hut. What are we doing and saying? What do people do and say when they're nervous, and realise they've done something rather foolish, yes we were trying shuffle inconspicuously, and stifle our giggles/smiles. Thankfully, we managed to rejoin our group without sparking a major security incident.    
Conference rooms and the main North Korean building, Panmungak
Next, we were taken to Checkpoint #3, the loneliest and coldest observation post in the world. Here, the USO guides proceeded to point (yes point, which made me feel better about my momentary lapse earlier) out various landmarks, such as the bridge of no return, the propaganda broadcast/camera towers, the propaganda village with one of the largest flagpoles in the world, etc.
Stood in front of Checkpoint #3
Flagpole war, propaganda village North Korea
The Bridge of no return
Plaque from the Museum at Camp Bonifas
Next, we visited the 3rd infiltration tunnel. This was discovered in 1978, when a North Korean infiltrator disclosed it's location. Four of these tunnels have been found, and it's suspected that there are many more. We were strictly forbidden to take photo's inside the tunnel. We walked 350 meters down/up a very, very steep tunnel to reach the 3rd tunnel. The tunnel was wider than I expected, but it was rather low. So although I walked in a stooped position, I still managed to bash my hard hat several times.   

Dora observatory centre

After the tunnel, we visited Dora Observatory centre. Again photography was restricted, but here we used binoculars to view the propaganda village more closely, this appeared to be deserted as we'd been advised. We also (fruitlessly) searched for Kim Jong Il's statue in the North Korean mountains.
Dorasan station
Finally, we visited Dorasan station, which connects North and South Korea. This railway line previously transported goods and tourists between the border crossing. Unfortunately in 2008, a South Korean Tourist was shot and killed by a DPRK soldier for being in an prohibited area, this led to a further deterioration of relations between the two countries, and the closure of the rail border crossing.
Tracks to North Korea

Monday, February 4, 2013

First day of spring

Today marks the first day of Spring on the lunar calendar...
Making Snowmen
Clearing the paths

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Chincha?! (진짜?!)

Confessions.... I attempt cute picture poses when friends take photo's. 

Regardless of what I'm wearing, I now walk to/from school in my trainers. 
Another 80's/90's throwback experience... 
I've even caught myself running for stationary buses.

I'm eating more meat (perhaps still a pitiful amount in Korean's eyes, but loads as far as I'm concerned), even more specifically pork and duck. Check out these three mouthfuls of pork I ate.
I have a love hate relationship with Kimchi. I hate the cabbage style Kimichi, mainly because it's the one we get served at school every day! I love the radish, cucumber and lettuce varieties. My relationship with rice? It's complicated. However, I have found 'the one'. It was simply love at first sight (I think it's because there's cheese and lots of vegetables). We met when I arrived in Seoul and we're still going strong. Dak Galbi! My true Korean food love ♥

I listen to people complaining about how expensive fruit is in Korea, but I haven't tasted strawberries this delicious since I went fruit picking with my grandparents as a child. Therefore, I think they're worth it. I tend to buy mine from the street sellers, because they're cheaper.

I use my umbrella when there's just the slightest hint of precipitation in the air, and when it's snowing. I very much doubt I'll use it in the summer, but time will tell...
I nod and bow automatically, smile and say Annyeonghaseyo (안녕하세요). I love how Korean's value greetings, particularly the gentlemen who work at the railway crossing and make an effort to come out of their little hut to say hello, rain, wind, or shine ♥

I regularly make last minute plans on the weekends, and during the week.

Where am I from? 
Oh, you mean where am I from? 
Not where I live in Seoul. 
I'm not American. 
Yong guk imnida