As our vehicle made the uphill climb towards our destination, I glared through the window and spied a double chain link fence topped with barbed wire which marketed the beginning of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. In the distance, I had my first look at North Korea.
The two countries had been split at the 38th parallel in 1945 after the second world war. Korea had been a Japanese colony for decades but when the Imperial Japanese government suddenly capitulated after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the colonial era came to a very abrupt end on the Korean peninsula. The US Army quickly dispatched troops to southern Korea, while the communist forces of the USSR raced into the north. America and the Soviets came to an agreement that they would each occupy the peninsula until democratic elections could be held a year or two later. Until then, the nation would be divided in two.
The Korean War adjusted that border a bit in the early 1950’s, with South Korea gaining some ground above the 38th parallel. That was where I was heading, to an area known as Cheorwon. As a fertile plain, Cheorwon was bitterly contested during the war but the communist menace was driven north. An American tank drove right up the steps of the local communist party headquarters, the cement stairs that had been cracked by tank treads as visible to this day.
On the way there, I spotted a deuce and a half filled with South Korean soldiers. With military service mandatory for all males, seeing troops walking around is a common occurrence. As I snapped some pictures, the South Korean soldiers smiled and gave the thumbs up.
While the American news media has been freaking out for weeks about North Korea, life goes on as normal here. The South Korean people are desensitized to the Kim family regime and their over the top antics. Forefront on their mind is a national election on the 13th, not North Korean aggression. What Americans are losing their minds over is something they deal with every year, not just when the US news networks are bored and need something to report. In an era of fake news, American audiences should be more skeptical of alarmist reports and not let their emotions lead their understanding of international politics.
Our first objective is to visit Tunnel #2. One way the North Koreans have planned to get through the many obstacles present on the DMZ is to dig beneath them. During the 70’s and 80’s a series of tunnels were discovered by American and South Korean Tunnel Neutralization Teams (TNT). These tunnels were dug from the North Korea, right under the DMZ, and into the South. Had the four tunnels gone undiscovered, the North could knock down the last bit of rock and invade the South overnight, swarming their way south with a military that consists of over one million conscripts.
After the tunnels were discovered with acoustics and other means, engineers dug their own way down to intercept the subterranean passageways. Tunnel #4 was wide enough to drive a jeep down. As I descended down into Tunnel #2, I could quickly see how fully armed North Korean soldiers could easily pass through this tunnel in a single file. There was one other thing to note, Koreans are a bit shorter than Americans. This is why you are issued a hard-hat prior to going into the tunnel as I busted my head numerous times on the ceiling.
The tunnel runs for 3.5 kilometers and we explored perhaps 500 meters up to where the DMZ begins. Using the zoom on my camera, I focused on the gate blocking off the rest of the passage. Part of me has to believe that the South Koreans did not simply secure the tunnel with a gate but must have sealed it under the DMZ by using explosives or cement. There was something I wasn’t being told here.
After leaving the tunnel, we proceeded to Cheorwon Peace Observatory. Here we were shown a short film, and were able to observe the DMZ and North Korea itself. Using a pair of binoculars, I scoped out the North Korean military guard posts positioned about every 500 meters along the border. In the distance, a lone soldier could be seen standing next to his guard post. This was all I got to see of the Hermit Kingdom. One can only surmise what the North Koreans think when they look back at us.
Technically, you are not supposed to take pictures from the observatory, but I snuck a few anyway. What I believe they really didn’t want to be photographed was the South Korean defenses, which as quite extensive and practice some well thought out defense in-depth tactics that are likely to help stymie North Korean forces in the event of an invasion. It won’t be enough to stop them, but would help slow them down while South Korean forces mobilize and the American military arrives from Hawaii, Okinawa, and the continental United States.
With information coming out of the North so scarce, there is no way to know if the Kim family regime will collapse tomorrow or if it will continue for another 70 years. For now, the two countries simply stare across from one another with binoculars and high-powered optics with the possibility of reunification so distant as to not even be seriously considered at this point.