We got up early on Tuesday to get back to the US base by 8am. We had scheduled a tour with the USO for about US$25 each. The tour is a little cheaper than the one run by the KNTO and is only available to US citizens, I think. This is not the most exciting tour that you will ever take, but especially for Americans, it is highly recommendable.
It seems to me that many Americans are surprisingly unfamiliar or unaware of what their government and military does in the world. Especially younger people have not learned anything about the US role in Korea or Vietnam. Anyway, I am not much of an expert, but the tour of the Panmunjom on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was quite an eye-opener. Where I come from there are no soldiers walking around and the our border with Canada is the longest undefended one in the world. However, over forty years after the cease fire was signed between North and South Korea, the border between the two is a very cold place.
Panmunjom was designated as the meeting sight of North-South talks. It is where the cease fire was signed in 1953 and it is also where talks are held occasionally in order to establish a permanent peace (a cease fire does not mean that the war is over). The village is split in half by the area used by the North while the South is part of the UN joint forces. We had an American soldier give us a rather detailed explanation of the history and present situation.
Aside from the routine talks that are held now and then, there have been a couple tense moments in Panmunjom. Once a Russian tourist ran across the line into the South in order to defect from the communist world. This immediately started a big shoot-out and at least one person was killed.
Another time, the UN forces were cutting down a tree that was hindering vision between two UN lookout towers when they were attacked by Northern soldiers and axed to death. After this little incident the lines dividing the North side of the village were re-drawn so that no Northern soldiers could enter the South at all (before they were allowed to have a checkpoint in the South side).
At any rate, the tension is still pretty high along the division line. The meeting room sits directly on top of the line so that the meeting table is actually half in the North and half in the South. Soldiers from both sides stand outside and stare at each other all day long. Tourists are told not to wear anything offensive or make any attempts to communicate with the Northern soldiers because it may show up on the six o-clock news as propaganda against the outside world.
It is really amazing how slowly this thing dies. There are two villages besides Panmunjom that lie in the DMZ. The one in the South is known as freedom village. The residence are actually not so free because they have to be inside by dark and are only allowed to travel a few times per year. However, the farmland is fertile, so they are happy to live where their ancestors have lived forever.
In the North is Propaganda Village, which was given that name by the Americans because it is only a facade. Nobody lives there. The streets and buildings are deserted and the only activity is the blaring noise of loudspeakers. "Come to the North. Everything is great here," they say in Korean. The South also has its own huge billboard inviting those from the North to join their paradise.
The fact of the matter is that the South has been supported by the US and the Western world and is rather prosperous these days. The North on the other hand is having trouble just keeping food on the table. People are talking about some kind of reunification, but after seeing the tension at Panmunjom, I am not sure. Most South Koreans seem to think that it is their duty to reunite with their "brothers and sisters" in the North, but after forty years apart, that might not be too easy.
War Memorial Museum
Back in Seoul we went to lunch at the USO Canteen. They had Snapple!! I enjoyed some good old french fries and a grilled cheese. We watched some silly tabloid talk show on the US TV and headed across the street to the War Memorial.
This was one of the biggest museums that I have ever seen. Considering the location, I am surprised that the military would waste all the time and money on glorifying war. Anyway, it is quite an impressive structure and sits across from the office of the Dept of Defense. There are lots of planes, tanks, and guns on display. It is interesting as history and very thorough. There is even an old manned torpedo, a sort of underwater kamikaze. We passed some more time there before meeting my friend, Soo for dinner.