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    Monday 12 September 2011

    Day Six - DMZ, North Korea and Olympic Park

    Our earliest start yet, at 7:40 we were being picked up from out Hotel to join the DMZ tour. We set our alarms for 6:30 to allow time for breakfast and preparation time of our packed lunch for the day. Today is a national holiday, Korean thanks-giving. Usually all tours and museums are closed Mondays, today is an exception. All civic places are open an most free to encourage the locals to learn more about their history.
    Our packed lunch for the DMZ tour
    The DMZ (Demilitarised Zone) is a 4km area, a buffer zone between communist North Korea and democratic South Korea. The history of how/why there is this division is too great to document on this blog. South Korea is still technically at war with The North. When the country was divided, The Americans helped The South whilst the Soviets help The North. South Korea rebuilt from nothing, a third world country of slums and shantytowns since 1950 to what it is today, a global leader of technology with super cities likes Seoul leading and setting the pace. However The North is apparently suffering from famine with no connections to the rest of the world. Both countries want a reformed country, but both want it on their terms. The UN stepped in after a 3-year civil war and set up the 4km buffer zone between both countries. The UN patrol and keep order. North Korean and South Korean soldiers (over 1 million) protect their respective borders. No one crosses. Thousands of long-range missiles are permanently pointed at Seoul which is around 40km from the DMZ. 1 million mines are placed inside the DMZ and all roads approaching from The South have dynamite underneath, a tank trap, ready to blow up anyone attempting to come over the border. This is the most armed and fortified border in the world, and we were travelling up to visit it.

    We were picked up promptly at 7:40. There are two types of tour. The first keeps you within the 2km South Korean Buffer whilst the second takes you right to the border, face to face with the North Korean Army. The later is a full day tour with very strict dress controls, apparently no jeans or shorts. We opted for the first, a half day tour costing around €30.

    The approach to the border takes you along a highway adjacent to a river. As this river flows up to North Korea, its heavily protected in case of a water invasion. Barbed wire disturbs the view with army huts every 100 metres or so. We had seen army men in the city, young adults usually, teenagers doing their 2 years military service but nothing prepared us for the massive military operation unfolding as we travelled further north. Its very clear this is a county engaged in a war. US troops are still present, over 30,000 of them in fact.
    Vinnie with Freedom Bridge behind
    A burnt out train is left on site
    We visited the area of Imjingak just before entering the DMZ. Here there are two bridges built to allow movement of people over the border at the end of the civil war. One bridge, freedom bridge, allowed movement from the North down to the South. The other, the bridge of no return allowed people to move North. People could choose which side to live on, travel could only be made once. Here thousands of families were displaced. As today is their national thanks-giving holiday, many people were gathering to be close to loved ones long separated. At this holiday Koreans travel back to their family homes to share meals with their loved ones. Alas the many people gathering here cannot as the DMZ separates the county in half. 

    After getting the passports and paperwork done, our coach made the trip into the DMZ. No one is allowed free entry here. It's tightly controlled and monitored. That said some 500 farming families do live here growing crops like rice and ginseng. We were told that for those who farm here its very safe as it's only them and controlled tourists allowed in. There is no crime or robberies. They are guaranteed an income, live tax-free and avoid army conscription. They can leave at any stage, there is a waiting list of other farming families waiting to take their place.
    At the DMZ, Third Tunnel
    Vinnie with a solider at an exhibition
    The second stop on our tour was the Third Tunnel. This was the 3rd tunnel found by the South Koreans dug under the DMZ from the north. It was found in the 1970s after a tip off from a deflected Northern Spy. If left undiscovered 30,000 Northern Troops would be able to pass into the Seoul area every 1 hour. The Northern government deny digging the tunnel. As with most of the areas around here, the taking of photos is off bounds except for certain areas. We really wanted to take lots of pictures descending into the tunnel, but it's all monitored. Only 250 metres of the tunnel is open for tourists to walk. It's cold, damp and narrow. Hard hats were supplied and needed.
    Vinnie inside the third tunnel under the DMZ
    Patrick inside the third tunnel under the DMZ
    We next visited a look out point to observe on the North. This is as close as we can get. At the border, 2km into the DMZ you have a small South Korean Flag and a massive North Korean one. The Northern Flag is officially the biggest flag in the world. Clearly showing off their strength. There are 10 million members of the North Korean Army! Alas you are only permitted to take picture from behind a yellow line, reason is the army have bunkers right below us that are not to be captured.
    Vinnie at the lookout to North Korea

    Only photos can be taken behind this yellow line
    The DMZ tour ended with a visit to the Dorasan train station. This station is more of a statement and aspiration. It has been built to connect with the North then onward into Russia and Europe. Trains do arrive into it 7 times a day from Seoul. But these wouldn't carry civilians and naturally doesn't go any further. The locals see this as a progress step; they are ready to embrace a unified Korea.

    Patrick Outside Dorasan Station
    We travelled back into Seoul and spent the afternoon in the Olympic Park. Built for the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, the park is now a popular family recreational ground. Over 200 pieces of modern art are scattered about the park. Some Olympic venues are still being used. We found out the main Olympic Stadium isn't on site, but a few kilometres to the west. We were tempted to visit, but decided to settle for a picture in front the Olympic swimming pool!

    Heading to the Olympic Park from the Metro

    These apartments must have been used by the athletes?

    Vinnie outside the Olympic Park. The rings in the background.

    Patrick inside the Olympic Park.

    Vinnie in front of the Olympic Swimming Pool

    We rounded off the evening with a walk along the Cheonggyecheon stream that runs throughout downtown Seoul. This stream, originally a tributary of the main Hangang River, was covered to clean up the city, but 10 years ago and almost $1billion later; the stream was restored as a recreation area with ornate bridges and art installations. We had seen live musical performances during the week and this evening as we strolled we took in several light and laser shows. As it’s sunken beneath the city, you get to escape from the city rush when down there. It’s a great addition to the city. Well worth it.

    Vinnie relaxing under a bridge along the Cheonggyecheon

    Water flowing under a bridge on the Cheonggyecheon
    Patrick along the Cheonggyecheon

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