Visiting the DMZ in Korea

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From a small coffee shop in Itaewon, I sat on the phone trying to set up a visit to the DMZ. It required my passport number, which at that moment I didn’t have on me, and despite having been on the road for 6 months already, I didn’t have it memorized. After a phone call home and relying on the cafe’s iffy wifi to send emails, plans were finalized. On my last day in South Korea, I would spend 8 hours at the DMZ learning about the division of Korea and the country’s hopes for the future.

The DMZ is the demilitarized military zone running 160 miles across Korea creating a high security border (2.5 miles wide) where nobody in the country can enter or exit from either side. It is said to be the most heavily militarized border in the world. The tour I went on visited the outer perimeter of the DMZ in the morning followed by the Joint Security Area (JSA) in the afternoon. The JSA is essentially that 2.5 mile stretch between the two fictitious borders where soldiers from both sides stand guard 24/7 facing the enemy.

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Going on the tour requires you to be on your best behavior, bring your passport, and dress appropriately including tennis shoes and no unkempt hair. The detailed itinerary for the day looked a little something like this:

  • Imjingak Park – Freedom Bridge
  • Dora Observatory
  • Dorasan Station
  • Lunch – ID Check point
  • Camp Bonifas (Slide show and Briefing)
  • DMZ Theater / Exhibition Hall
  • The 3rd infiltration Tunnel
  • JSA Tour (Freedom House, Conference room, Bridge of No Return)

If you’re interested in booking a DMZ tour for your visit in Seoul, the company I went through can be found here.

The first stop of the morning was Imjingak Park memorial, home of the peace bell and Freedom Bridge which is now cut off prohibiting movement from either side. As I walked along the barbed wire fences decorated in prayer ribbons, I couldn’t help but feel how broken and divided Korea has become and how strongly they wish for unity once again. Imagine having family on the other side that you’re not allowed to visit because doing so would be asking to die. Tragic is an understatement.

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From the Dora Observatory, people can look out over North Korea with the nation’s flag flying 60 meters higher than the South Korean flag. On a good day, you can see soldiers roaming the NK side, farmers, and residents riding their bicycles to work. Photos can only be taken behind the yellow line painted on deck. Any photos taken beyond that point and the soldiers will stand over you as they watch you delete the photos from your camera. Exercise photographic caution.

Afterwards, we made a brief stop at Dorasan Train Station that was once in use and accessible by Korea’s KTX trains. Now, it’s a ghost station with a pathetic souvenir stand and soldiers standing guard. When/if the day comes that Korea is reunited, the station will reopen, and people will be able to travel all the way to Europe from there. That’s one of many dreams.

Twenty minutes into our first bus ride of the afternoon, we got word that North Korea had successfully launched a missile. Making history, we were indeed. Fortunately, our tour carried on as normal, but it did give us something even more interesting to discuss in transit.

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After lunch, at a one-off restaurant in the middle of nowhere whose existence depends on these tours, we arrived at our first stop in the JSA, Camp Bonifas, after passing through a few checkpoints. We were designated an American soldier who traveled with us for the remainder of the tour, and from there on out, we were bound to a strict schedule and kept a watchful eye on.

In the midst of the Korean War that is essentially still ongoing, despite what the history books may say, the short presentation of Korea’s history proved more insightful than all the movies, textbooks, and study materials used in school.

Did you know that those who have tried to escape North Korea to China and other S.E. Asian countries through the “underground railroad system” have to hide out for some time, sometimes up to one year or longer? Because they are so undernourished, they must be properly fed again so they could blend into a normal, thriving society and not get murdered upon exposure in China or entry to a 3rd country. Should they be discovered en route in China, they will either be killed or sent back to NK. What kind of lunacy is that? I could write a long post (and probably will) about my thoughts on the North Korea situation.

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After such an eye-opening and heart-breaking presentation, we were escorted to the conference rooms behind the Freedom House where we were met with SK soldiers forming their own human border. Across the way, you could see the observatory that tourists can visit should they travel to NK. Inside the conference room, even the tables were divided by microphone lines running down the center, and people even had the option to take pictures with the soldiers. It was absolutely bogus.

Our day ended with a walk through the 3rd tunnel constructed by NK to try and attack the South. Running about 1,600 meters in length, it would have allowed 30,000 NK soldiers to pass through in one hour’s time. After being discovered in 1978, two barricades were put in place at 1 meter thick as well as an additional barricade at 3 meters thick. The group got to take a dark, damp walk down to the barricades, hard hats bumping the rock ceiling every few feet, and the occasional water drop falling from the ceiling. It’s a very depressing, low energy space, and as different as it was from anything I did on my trip, I’d be okay never visiting again.

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The thing that really bothered me about the tour was how commercialized it was. For something so steeped in history and heart wrenching stories of division, it sure had a nonchalant vibe about it. Something about souvenir stands, convenience stores, and a high volume of foreign tourists says that the DMZ shouldn’t be taken seriously, but perhaps that is just my opinion.

The whole experience left me with a mixed bag of emotions, and I’m still unsure if it was truly worth the money. Although, it sure did leave me feeling more curious and hungry to visit North Korea.

Have you visited the DMZ? What were your impressions? If given the opportunity, would you visit NK?

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