South Korea with Maarten

March 4/5 2008

One of the popular tourist tours from Seoul is a trip to the border with North Korea. When searching the internet I found some comments that the commercial tour had much more to do with selling souvenirs (and "rolexes" etc) and that the guides didn't know/tell much about the origin of the conflict etc. It was recommended to take a tour by USO, the support organisation of the US army (USO website). I think it was a good deal. In the morning we went to Camp Bonifas where we got a breefing about current situation and how it has come so far.

From there we went in a military bus to Panmunjeom where the agreement ending the Korean war was signed in 1953. It is in the Joint Security Area meaning that both North Korean and South Korean (and international) soldiers are present/allowed there. The blue barracks are South Korean property, rest is North Korean property (there are more white, nort korean barracks left and right of these blue ones). The thin concrete threshold in the middle between the 2 barracks marks the "border" between North and South Korea. "Border" between quotes, as no border has been decided yet. It actually marks the front line between the North & South Korean armies when they agreed to stop fighting. A zone of 2km on either side has been kept "Demilitarized" ever since.

Our guide there, the american soldier in front explained and answered questions very well and made some funny comments here and there. Much better than the bus guide (afternoon part) who didn't seem to know too much and had trouble with English as well. He was more the type "you must be very scared now because you have to follow the dress code, you cannot point, you cannot take pictures everywhere, ..." and "you must feel very uncomfortable because you had to show your passport twice today" (once at the USO to enter the tour and once at the camp Bonifas to enter the Demilitarized zone).

We went into the barrack, where they have a table exactly at the "border" line, so the leaders can meet without having to cross. The soldiers are "for our protection" and have a special intimidating pose to impress the North Korean soldiers...

This building was built for some later meetings, but never actually used.

The "bridge of no return" was used at the end of the war by the last non-North Koreans to return and by people in the border area who could choose freely to go to either side (although some North Koreans are said to have been told they had better go North, because otherwise their families would be murdered).

After this we went to the Dora observatory, where they had some line behind which you had to stay for taking pictures (no clue why, maybe just because otherwise the souvenir shop would not be able to sell any postcards...). After that also to the 3rd tunnel, according to the South Koreans it was dug by the North Koreans as a part of a plan to get lots of soldiers to the south. The North Koreans told they were just digging for coal, and painted the inside of the tunnel black to support that alibi. Also no photos allowed there... no clue why. Ow by the way, in the museum at the 3rd tunnel there was a horribly suggestive/dramatized/North-Koreans-are-bad movie which had an even worse ending bringing in the point that several unique plants and animals flourished because the Demilitarized zone (DMZ) had been left untouched 50 years and some hyper-idealized computer animation about mines turning into rabbits, fences turning into trees, flowers and benches sprouting out of green, green grass and how beautiful it all could be...

After the DMZ tour we went to the Namdaemun gate (south entrance gate of Seoul). It had been burnt down by some moron a few weeks before. It was one of the most treasured historical buildings and many Koreans felt deep emotions about it burning down.

Anyway, there is still the east gate (Dongdaemun), but no-one seems to care.

That evening we went to a "Nanta" performance. It is a music/theatre show where 4 people are drumming with kitchen tools (pots, pans, waste baskets, but mostly using knives and cutting boards with all kinds of vegetables going into the air. There is still a story (3 cooks get a trainee who is much favored by the restaurant owner and they have to prepare many dishes for a wedding in a very short time) and there is quite some humor in the show. Definitely fun to watch. After that, on the way back to the metro, we took some pictures of the city hall (this one).

The last day, we spent in the Korean folk village. It's a 40min bus ride from Gangnam subway station, and if you have enough time it is a good option. The park is pretty big and there are several kinds of houses (this brewery, governmental stone buildings, reed huts, wooden buildings, ...) and some demonstrations and a museum. We spent about 2 hours there, because we had to get back to be be at the airport in time for our flight. Otherwise we would have stayed some longer to see some more demonstrations and a few more houses I guess, but we had covered most of the park (due to good planning).

This would have been the set of "the king and I". Maybe it's a movie or otherwise probably some korean drama series.