Korean DMZ

See accompanying photos here.
In 2002 I went on a short trip to Korea with a few friends for the week of Christmas. We mostly stayed in Seoul, but one day we took a guided tour to the South Korean side of the DMZ (DeMilitiarized Zone) surrounding the border shared with North Korea. Driving from Seoul, only miles from the border itself, into the DMZ is a strange experience. My knowledge of the geography of the Seoul area is far too weak for me to try to describe the passage from the heart of the city, so all I’ll say is you pass through thick suburbs on the way to the surrounding less populated areas. After leaving the boundary of the greater Seoul metropolitan area the building density drops dramatically, and after passing the first military checkpoint is almost zero- except for the occasional watchtower or guardpost. They are very serious about these military checkpoints, guarded jointly by South Korean and US soldiers.

The highlight of the tour, and in a way of the entire trip to South Korea, was the invasion tunnel. According to the museum, the invasion tunnels were first discovered by the South Korean military with intelligence gained from Northern defectors in either the late 60’s or early 70’s (I don’t remember the date) and over the next few years three more were found. According to the best estimates of South Korean and US military intelligence there are around twenty more tunnels waiting to be discovered, but none has been uncovered in many years. The tunnels aren’t very wide, but it is said that 30,000 North Korean troops could pass through one every hour in the event of an invasion.

When the invasion tunnels were first discovered by the South Korean government, they naturally asked the Northerners for a statement of some kind. At first they tried to claim it was a natural geological formation – for some reason occuring in a North-South straight line about the height of an adult human. When the next tunnel was found, the North tried to claim that it had been dug by the South. This story was easily discredited when measurements of the tunnel showed that it sloped so that water would run out of the Northern mouth. With the next tunnel they claimed it was an abandoned mine shaft. To back up the story they pointed to the coal residue coating the walls. The South pointed out that mine shafts generally go downwards at some point, and more importantly tend to have chunks of coal in them, not just coal dust spray-painted on the rock surface.

The third tunnel has been turned into a museum for tourists like us. Of course photography is prohibited but I managed to snag one fantastic shot of the end of the tunnel – at least the farthest point any tourists are allowed to go in. (I’ll post it tomorrow.) The invasion tunnel was the beginning of my fascination with North Korea.

Here is an article about one tunnel hunter in South Korea, ostensibly from the Wall Street Journal.