Day 3, Wednesday, February 26, Seoul, Korea

The Crystal Symphony is in Lombok, Indonesia. The Crystal Serenity is at sea from Halong Bay, Vietnam to Chan May, Vietnam. The MS Amsterdam is at sea from Yap, Micronesia to Manila, Philippines.

I set a 5:30 wakeup call but was up a few minutes earlier. The weather in Seoul is colder than Baltimore when I left but warmer than current Baltimore weather, with quite a haze. My room at the Grand Hyatt comes with a daily breakfast buffet and I was down early to be ready for my 7:50 tour departure.

The tour was to the DMZ. There were about 15 of us in an 18-passenger minibus. We didn’t actually enter the DMZ proper, but were a barbed wire fence away in a “Civilian Control Area” The DMZ is about an hour North of Seoul, almost all expressway.

Our first of several stops was at Imjingak, a site just outside the Civilian Control Area. A complex with many facets, there is a summer amusement park, several memorials and exhibits, a place where people can honor their loved ones in the North (and in times of unusual openness there may be some family reunions), and the place where our guide secured our permits to enter the Civilian Control Area. Our time here was quite short, and there was a space with a number of ribbons that appeared to be family memorials, but I didn’t quite get there.

On leaving Imjingak we entered the Civilian Control Area via a bridge. We stopped at a check point where MP’s (all young Korean men are required to perform 21 months of military service, although steps are under way to reduce it to 18 months) came on the bus and inspected all our passports.

Our first stop in the Civilian Control Area was “The 3rd Tunnel”. Our time there started with a 7-minute video depicting the war and hostilities since. After the video we saw a model of the Panmuneom village where the cease fire was hammered out. While the intense warfare has stopped, there is nothing like peace. The north has made several actual and attempted attacks over the years. In the attempted realm, it is believed they have dug about 20 tunnels across the DMZ although only 4 have been discovered. I’m not sure when the tunnels were dug, but ours was the 3rd to be discovered, in 1978. It is about a mile long, and 73 meters below the surface, and I think is the only one open to tours. The authorities are very restrictive about photography, and especially here. We had to put our cameras in a locker and go through a metal detector before entering the tunnel. Our guide Sue did take photographs of us starting down the tunnel, but she went no more than 50 meters down the 350 meter access tunnel. Once down, we had access to about 250 meters of the original tunnel, but I turned back quickly to save my strength for the climb back to the bus. The tunnel was about 6 feet wide, and I bumped my helmet on the roof, although there was pretty much room to stand up.

Our second stop was at the Dora Observatory. This hill is probably about 70 meters above the surrounding countryside, and a viewing platform is mostly reserved for the military but one end is accessed by visitors. Photography is allowed, but only from behind a yellow line about 10 meters back from the wall at the edge of the platform. Standing near the wall I could see a little bit through the fog and haze, but from the camera’s vantage it was pretty much just fog. There were military observation towers all along the fence and one was within camera range. Dora also had a souvenir shop.

Our final DMZ stop was at the Dorasan Train Station. South Korea is geographically a peninsula, but is effectively an island since land access to the rest of the world is blocked off. There have been times where the North Korean Regime has been relatively open, and in the past train tours to the North have been possible. Tracks exist that would permit rail access from Seoul all the way to Europe, but of course it isn’t politically possible. The people of South Korea have improved the facilities with first rate track and a lovely station, all ready should the political climate allow it. A map in the station shows rail access to Beijing, Moscow, and Paris, a pipe dream waiting to happen.

Returning to Seoul, we made that imperative shopping stop at an Amethysts store, and we were dropped off at Itaewon station about 1:30, where a Hilton shuttle returned me to the hotel. I spent most of the afternoon and evening in the hotel, but did take a couple of short walks. Dinner was at the hotel.

As today’s parting shot, this has been a once in a lifetime experience. I had just passed my 10th birthday when the Armistice was signed. I have few real memories of the Korean War but it certainly influenced my early childhood. Seeing a little of the area as it was then and is now has been a real eye-opener. At this time Korea’s President is talking of unification, but the prospects seem quite dim at the moment. I think our best hope is that the extremely repressive regime will be the spark that brings the will to end it. Let it be soon.


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