July 2, 2016
I visited the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) last week. It is a strip of land that was created at the end of the Korean War in 1953 to buffer North Korea from South Korea. The 4 km (2.5 mile) wide area is the most heavily militarized border in the world. Visiting the DMZ is the closest that most people will ever get to North Korea. Scheduling a visit requires a special guide and a minimum of a few days to set up. My passport was checked by DMZ officials a minimum of four times.
As part of the conflict with South Korea, the North Koreans created four deep tunnels in an effort to secretly move its military from the north to the south. We were able to enter and go as far as possible through the third tunnel (pictured below, left), which the South Koreans discovered in 1978. The tunnel is 1.6 km (1 mile) long and 73 meters (240 feet) deep. Its intended purpose was to enable a surprise attack on Seoul. It could handle the transfer of an astonishing 30,000 soldiers per hour. North Korea is not happy with the fact that they built the tunnels and South Korea is cashing in on them from fees that people are paying to enter them.
As much as I wanted to see some of North Korea, I saw little. The skies were overcast and hazy the day we visited, so we could not see far. Even so, we were able to use stationary binoculars to see a bit of the countryside (pictured above, right) and some buildings. At this special vantage point, we were allowed to take pictures, but only if we stood behind a line that was about 10 m (33 feet) from the wall shown in the above picture.
A fake village, complete with nicely painted houses, a school, and even a hospital, was built by the North Koreans to give visitors of the DMZ the illusion that the country is healthy and thriving—contrary to everything I had heard and read about North Korea. The buildings are nothing but facades with no glass in the windows, lights that operate with timers, and maintenance workers that sweep the streets to show activity, although I did not see any.
I’m currently about two-thirds of the way through Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea by Jang Jin-sung, a North Korean that fled the country and lived to write about it. Most do not. The book is a fascinating account of what it’s like to live in a country where people are unable to communicate freely and are banned from basic privileges, such as travel, that we enjoy and often take for granted. During this Independence Day weekend, I sincerely thank all of those associated with our U.S. military and defense program for protecting our freedom.
I recently purchased North Korea Undercover: Inside the World’s Most Secret State by John Sweeney. Like Dear Leader, it received good reviews, so I’m sure it will reveal more of the repression, cruelty, and unfortunate state of North Korea.