Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Discovering Both Sides Of Korea's DMZ And My Hope For A Peaceful Peninsula

            (A painting of North Korea's amazing
            Diamond Mountain at Geumgang Hotel)

On my first trip to South Korea in 2004, one of the things I wanted to do was to visit the Demilitarized Zone, popularly known as ‘DMZ’. I had always thought that being meters from the fences decorated by barbed wires and the four-kilometer, no man’s land accessorized with countless landmines was the closest thing to being inside communist North Korea.
(The no man's land at the DMZ is full of landmines                     and exotic flora and fauna)

(We all went under and through the 2nd Tunnel)

My DMZ dream tour
Unfortunately, on that short visit, my dream DMZ tour remained just that – a dream. Who wouldn’t want to be at the DMZ right at the border of the only divided nation in the world?  I would have bragged about it when I flew back to the Philippines that time, and surely, it would have been a story to remember.
              (Korean Workers' Party Headquarters 
                         built by North Korea)

But months after I finally settled in Seoul that year, the dream tour came true! And not only that! I got to spend a night in a sleepy corner of Cheorwon County that was right next to the DMZ, went down and walked through the 2nd Tunnel dug by North Koreans, roamed the Korean Workers’ Party Headquarters Building whose steps still bear the scars of military tanks, and even visited the memorial sites of the Baekmagoji Battlefield.
         (Interesting sites at Cheorwon County 
                         in Gangwon Province)

Crossing the DMZ
And all that time when I was thinking of my visit to the DMZ as my dream tour, I never realized that I would be able to top that. In July 2006, I crossed the four-kilometer demilitarized zone on a bus and stepped into North Korea!

Way back then, the Geumgang Resort on the North Korean side of the peninsula was opened to tourists. Named after Geumgang-san, or Diamond Mountain, where it was located, the resort was built by a South Korean conglomerate to enable South Koreans and other nationalities see the natural beauties of North Korea. Although it was probably one of the priciest weekend tours I ever paid for, it was worth the story, and of course, the bragging rights!

Our tour bus left Seoul Friday night. We arrived at the Donghae Highway Transit Office by early morning after a quick breakfast stop along the way. This border crossing check-point was installed just for the purpose of the tours.

My tour bus was just one of twenty that drove through the DMZ in a slow, uniform speed. With paved roads, the drive was both smooth and eerie as when we arrived at the northern side, North Korean soldiers were lining up along the way, watching over the buses like cold sentinels in dark uniforms and rifles with rusty bayonets.

Diamond Mountain
The Geumgang Resort had hotels, a public bath and spa, and a small plaza with restaurants, convenience stores, and a performance theater.
              (A restaurant along a stony river that
               overflows during the rainy season)

Our first stop was a hike through the valleys, creeks and mountainside of Geumgang-san. With trails rarely visited by humans, it was nature untouched by progress, except, of course, for the occasional giant, red engravings on the rocks extolling the leaders of that side of the border.
                 (A hotel at Geumgang Resort)

      (The open area with the performance theater)

North Korean Circus
In the afternoon, we were treated to a once-in-a-lifetime experience! A performance by a North Korean circus! The emcee was a North Korean lady whose beauty was only matched by her exquisite hanbok whose colors and fabrics could only be matched by the best hanbok makers at the Dongdaemun Fabric Market! I was always told by my Korean friends from the South that the most handsome men in the peninsula are from South Korea while the most beautiful women are from the North.  Before that day, I had never seen up close a lady from the North, but that moment, as I sat in the theater watching the North Korean lady host the show, I believed the generalization.
                 (North Korean trapeze artists)
(North Korean circus performers and the lady emcee)

I had watched circus performances before, but this one was the most surreal. The music provided by the musicians dressed in white long sleeves up in the choir completed the very unique experience watching jugglers, acrobats, trapeze artists, and other performers who looked very proud in giving the ‘outsiders’ an entertainment they would never get at the southern side of the border.
             (Not exactly your 'The Greatest Showman' 
                              type of routines)

Geumgang Beach
When inside the tour bus and passing through villages and guard posts, no picture taking was allowed. Also, no one was allowed to take photographs of any North Korean, be it a soldier or civilian. A fine would be imposed on anyone violating the rule. Understandably, nobody dared violate the rule, lest he or she wanted to be left behind.
(Haegeumgang, the sea side of Geumgang Resort)

On Sunday morning, we were brought to the Geumgang Beach. The area was facing east and was littered with big and unique rock formations. We were able to walk around the formations as it was low tide, making it fun for photographs again. We were warned though not to point our cameras to a military outpost a couple of hundred meters from where we were.

Since the resort was the venue for the family reunions of North and South Korean families that were separated by the Korean War, heartbreaking photographs of these reunions were posted at the lobby of the transit office, reminding us that, perhaps, when the two Koreas finally unite, these reunions may someday be a thing of the past.

Filipinos in the Korean War
Though my trips to Geumgang-san, the DMZ and the battlefields of Cheorwon seemed to have accomplished a few in the bucket list of a tourist in Korea, it became a sentimental journey of sorts for a Filipino like me.  The Philippines was the first Asian country to send troops to defend South Korea. A contingent of almost 7,500 Filipino officers and soldiers came to fight during those years of conflict, and 112 of them died in the War.

Those brave and gallant Filipinos represented the Philippine Expeditionary Forces To Korea, one of whom was Fidel V. Ramos. He eventually became the 12th President of the Philippines.  Another prominent Filipino who came to Korea that time was Benigno Aquino, Jr., who, at 17 years of age, became the youngest correspondent to cover the Korean War. He later became a Philippine senator and the husband of Corazon Aquino, the 11th President of the Philippines and the father of Benigno Aquino III, the 15th President of the Philippines.

Although Geumgang-san may be out of reach for you right now, you can still head to Panmunjeom, the DMZ, or at the historic battle sites of Cheorwon. And if you get there, do remember the history and of the gallant men who fought for the freedom and peace everyone now enjoys.

Just like everyone else, I visited the sites to discover and enjoy. And although I arrived at these war sites as a tourist, I left as a proud Filipino.

            (Yes, these tourists were posing under 
                         the huge mosaic of 
                 you-know-whos in North Korea!)

A Peninsula Finally at Peace
Having lived in Seoul for more than a decade, I have roamed the country and saw the beauty of its people, culture and sites first-hand, including having experienced the regular evacuation drills, learning about the nearest shelters, and listening to everyone’s fear – all because the past provocations from North Korea.

But all this fear will disappear, I hope.

With the holding of the 2018 Inter-Korean Summit, I, just like everyone else, wish that peace will finally come to the Korean Peninsula because, after all, this is for the good of all the Korean people.

A lasting peace will honor those who have come before, will bring freedom and unity to the present, and prosperity and happiness to the generations to come.

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