Monday, August 4, 2008

I Stepped into North Korea on Wednesday!

I decided that for my first vacation in Korea that I would stay within the country. I decided that I would go to the DMZ. My copy of Lonely Planet said that the USO had tours to the DMZ that included the Joint Security Area and the Third Tunnel. I made a reservation but I was afraid that I might not be able to go because I had to submit my passport to immigration so that I could get an Alien Registration Card, which is a permit to live in South Korea. Without it, I would not be able to open a bank account and then I could not get paid because there is no checking system in Korea--all payments are made through bank transfer. I thought that I could not go, but then my branch manager told me that I could with a copy of my passport and my driver's license. I was so happy then.

Wednesday, I had to get up early and go to Camp Kim in Seoul because the bus was leaving at 7:30 a.m. I had to follow a dress code and anybody who did not follow the dress code was not allowed on the tour. On the way to Camp Bonifas, our tour guide told us about the fence that was along the river. This river started in North Korea and it had a fence along it in South Korea because North Koreans would use their marine skills to get into the South. There were also white stones in the fence. The stones would fall if anybody tampered with the fence. There were also watchtowers along the river with soldiers in them.

As we got closer, there was a bridge that we had to get military clearance to pass. There were blocks set up every few meters on alternating sides of the road. We had to weave around these blocks. We we got to Camp Bonifas, a US Army soldier had to check everybody's ID. We later had to switch buses and get onto an ROK Army secured bus. We went to Ballinger Hall where we were given a briefing about the Korean War, the history of the DMZ since the war, what we must not do, and the requirements to be a soldier stationed at the DMZ. Right now, there are about 600 soldiers there. About 40 are American soldiers and the rest are ROK. All South Korean men have to serve in the military for at least two years. Most South Korean men there are fulfilling their military obligation.

ROK and US soldiers at the DMZ have to have spotless civilian and military records. US soldiers have to have above average height, size, and aptitude. ROK soldiers have to be taller and bigger than the average ROK soldier. They must also have basic fluency in written and spoken English and they must have a black belt in Taekwondo or Judo.

We went to Reunion Hall, which is right on Conference Row. The building was built so that families separted by the DMZ could reunite; however, because the DPRK will not allow its people to go there, the hall has not been used for that purpose. There are six buildings on Conference Row, each side has three and the buildings are divided in half by the Military Demarcation Line. We went into one of these buildings and I stepped onto the side that is in North Korea. There is a door there and the door is guarded by an ROK soldier and anybody who tries to go past him will be stopped.

I'll tell more about the JSA and the two villages within the DMZ after I reveal the answer to this week's question. To do so beforehand would give away the answer.

Our last stop of the day was to the Third Infiltration Tunnel. This tunnel was discovered in 1973 after a North Korean defector who had worked on it had tipped off the ROK. The entrance into the tunnel is very steep. Before going in, the tour guide told us not to go if we had asthma, heart problems, claustrophobia, arthritis, etc. The tunnel was very short. We all had to wear hard hats. There were a few places where there was some metal-pipe canopies. I hit my head a couple of times. They said that the tunnel was two meters deep, but I do not think that it was that much. The tunnel is big enough that 30,000 North Korean soldiers could march into South Korea within an hour.

The tour guide on my bus said that the PAK soldiers were the short, skinny, brown-skinned soldiers. The other tour guide said that the tunnel is so small because it was made for North Koreans. His two kids are taller than he, just like all of us. The South Koreans have better nutrition than the North Koreans and this is why. I have seen several South Korean men who are over six feet tall. Their nutrition while they were growing helped them to get that tall. I have seen adults in other countries who did not grow to their full potential because of poor diet.

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