Friday, October 10, 2008

Imjingak - Korea's Cold War Heritage.

Imjingak Tourist Resort with its 4-storey metallic pavilion and the semi arch observation platform is perfectly located to view the iconic Bridge of Freedom. About 13,000 Allied prisoners-of-war made their final desperate dash for freedom across this wooden bridge at the closing stage of the brutal Korean War in 1953.

Since the new millennium, South Korean authority keen on reunification with its communist North brethrens has embarked on making Imjingak a heritage site. The venue makes an ideal living museum to prepare the uninitiated on the issues confronting the Korean dilemma.
Imjingak is even adeptly lauded by tourist brochures as the must-see venue to witness the only divided country in the world!

Getting to Imjingak is easy and travellers have a choice of car, bus or rail, and it is merely an hour drive away from Seoul.
Tourists will be greeted by its impressive Visitor Center which overlooks the heavily fortified banks of Imjin River and beyond the reclusive North Korea.
Unfortunately, most tour guides would want you to believe that Imjingak sits on the world’s most volatile border in modern history but soldiers guarding on the banks of the Imjin River are mainly South Korean.
Nevertheless, the much feared and trigger-happy North Koreans are in fact positioned a further four km north from Imjingak.

Needless to say, South Korean military fearing a potential large scale strike from its Red neighbors, has designated defence lines in by placing barbed wires and army lookout posts on the edges of the Civilian Passage Restricted Line (CPRL).

Thus, visitors often get the false impression that South Korea ends at Imjingak, and the Imjin River the natural border between these two hostile neighbors.

A quick check on the maps will reveal that the fences at Imjingak are actually the Southern CPRL, with a heavily guarded buffer zone lining parallel to the Northern CPRL inside North Korea territory.

There is also the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) central to the buffer zone and together they cut the Peninsula into halves.
During my visit to see first-hand the cold war frontier in late September 2008, it got off to an unexpected start when we were stopped in our car by heavily armed South Korean personnel and our guide informed us that the army is conducting a drill to detonate two nearby road tunnels leading to the north border. (Naturally no photos were taken for fear of antagonizing the M-16 guys)
The Military Demarcation Line is the de facto border agreed by these two warring factions, amid reluctantly, and explains why Korea is also home to 30,000 plus American infantrymen.

The entire stretch of land within the CPRL is a no-man territory, but is more popularly known as Demilitarized Zone or DMZ.

Interestingly, only foreigners holding valid passports are allowed near the epic center of DMZ or Panmunjum.

Here, one is only a breath away from North Korean guards smacking in their traditional goose attire from the Soviet era. Their Southern counterparts have their peculiarity too. Dark sunglasses and arms folded in karate pose are their choice of instilling fear and awe.

Panmunjum is however, a no-go for Korean nationals. The furthermost point Koreans are allowed to go near their Northern neighbors is the border town of Dorasan.

Today, tourists take the scheduled Korail trains on the reconstructed 4 kilometer long Gyeongui Line to Dorasan Station from Imjingak Station (Train fare - KW2,000 / US$2 return).

For many years, the railway line was the main steel artery for intra Korea travel but the war cut it short at Imjingak.
At Dorasan, one can spy with the coin operated binoculars (KW700) on the North Korean industrial city of Gaeseong. Not to be missed is the guided tour inside the 3rd Tunnel, a must for those who doubt North Korean aggressive ambition.
A rusty steam locomotive outside the Imjingak mini museum casts a vivid reminder of the once extensive railway networks connecting all corners of the Korean Peninsula prior to the devastating war.

Take a few steps towards the museum rear, more war relics and the scales of battles fought greet you – The Sherman that pounded on the Russian T34 or perhaps intrigued by the Sabres that triumphed over the MiGs in the Korean skies.

Even the most bewildered visitor is unlikely to escape the highly charged atmosphere between both sides at the border.

My visit to Imjingak has left me with an overwhelming realization of this long lasting border conflict and how all aspects of border life are teeming with military alertness.

Here, no one gambles with the peaceful existence or risk provoking enemies who have no qualms to unleash the perils of Cold War on all.

While it gives you the impression that human life is cheap at the border area, visitors will be surprised to find Imjingak is also the main venue to celebrate Chuseok - aka Korean's Thanksgiving.

Family members torn by the war come here on an annual pligrimage to express their longing for relatives living across the barbed wires.
Besides the ruined railway bridge and antiqued military displays, the visit to Imjingak offers visitors an everlasting view on the terrible human cost brought by idealogic conflicts.

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