When I went to summer school in the summer of 2017, it was at the peak of tensions between North & South Korea. I remember a conversation we had with a Korea University student in class: we had to talk about our fears, and he listed ‘North Korea’ as his top fear.
South Korea is a great place to visit for the food, the fun, and the scenery, but sometimes we forget that the Korean War is technically still ongoing, and Korea is, well, still at war.
After that conversation, I read up & watched documentaries on the war, and I finally booked a tour to DMZ & JSA last November with Changi Recommends. Unfortunately, our JSA tour was cancelled at the last minute due to due to newly added operations (for the removal of the mine) between North and South Korea – and while we were already in Korea!
We were left with only the tour to DMZ, and we got a full refund for JSA. I was definitely disappointed, but of course still happy that we got to go to the DMZ.
As a quick introduction, the demilitarized zone (DMZ) is a border barrier that divides the Korean Peninsula into North & South, and was created by agreement between North Korea, the People’s Republic of China and the United Nations in 1953. Ironically enough, DMZ is probably the most heavily militarized area in Korea. If you want to visit, you have to book a tour because you are not allowed to travel without a licensed guide. Our tour bus picked us up in the early morning, and then drove for less than an hour to Paju, which is one of the South Korean cities closest to the North (Seoul is only 53km from the North!)
We had a few passport checks by the military, who came onto the tour bus to take a good look. I think certain nationalities are not allowed in the DMZ, though you’ll have to check with a tour operator on that. Our bus drove slowly throughout the journey: Our Korean tour guide told us that along the road, there are still patches of land that potentially still have landmines that are not cleared – these are marked by a red flag with a skull on it. She assured us that the road we were driving on was safe and totally clear of landmines – they just can’t ensure the same outside of that road.
Our first stop was Imjingak. Imjingak was built in 1972 with the hope that someday unification between the North and the South would be possible. The three-storied Imjingak is surrounded by several monuments, Unification Park and North Korea Center.
There is a place here called Mangbaedan Alter, which stands opposite Imjingak. It is where Koreans separated from their families in the North visit perform ancestral rites by bowing toward their hometowns every New Year’s Day and Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving).
The Bridge of Freedom, which South Koreans crossed when they came back from North Korea after the signing of the Armistice Agreement, stands behind Mangbaedan Alter.
Rails and cross-ties that were left behind by the then functioning Gyeongui Railway Line are now used to provide a glimpse into the past. The names indicated on the cross-tie were the major stations of the then functioning Gyeongui Railway Line. Apparently, works are underway to restore the railway.
This steam locomotive train served the Gyeongui Railway Line before it got derailed by bombs during the Korean War and has been left at the DMZ since then. More than 1020 bullet shots and its bent wheels showed the cruel situation during the war.
Our next stop was Dorasan Observatory. Here, you can catch a glimpse of North Korean villages through binoculars. Do note, however, that the village on the North Korean side is most likely a fake! Our guide told us that as part of a friendly peace agreement, the North & South governments created villages for residents to stay near the border. However, while the one in the South is real, the one in North is a ghost town for people like to us to peer at. Oh well.
Unfortunately for us, we went on a cloudy morning, so we couldn’t get a very good glimpse of North Korea. My guide gave one good tip to differentiate between the North & the South: the South side has a lot of lush greenery, while the North is barren land. She didn’t explain why though.
Another unfortunate thing was that we went on a Tuesday, when tourists from China would take a boat to Paju to visit the DMZ. If you want to avoid crowds, don’t come on a Tuesday!!!
The 3rd Tunnel
Now, after the 38th parallel north was drawn up and an armistice treaty was signed to cease fire, 4 infiltration tunnels that were constructed to link North Korea to Seoul were subsequently discovered. The underground tunnels were constructed and were meant for North Korean soldiers to infiltrate the South Korea’s capital from different directions.
My guide told us a list of excuses that the North Koreans tried to give to explain the existence of the tunnels, which were rebutted by South Korea. For example, South Korea found that the tunnels were dug in such a way that more water would flow to the North, away from the South.
Except for the 1st tunnel which is too small for tourists to visit, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th underground tunnels are open for tourists’ visit. The most popular one is the 3rd tunnel, and so that’s what we visited.
Before we went into the tunnel, we were ushered into a DMZ movie theater situated right next to it. Over there, you will listen to an 8 minutes movie which explains the 4 underground tunnels that were built by the North Korean soldiers to connect the North to the South. Certain parts are quite graphic and chilling, and it reminds you of how serious the Korean War is.
This 3rd tunnel was discovered by South Korea in 1978 and can move approximately 30,000 soldiers per hour. However, tourists can only get to walk through about 265m of the tunnel to get a glimpse and feel of it. To get to the underground tunnel, we had to walk down a separate constructed pathway which is about 400m to bring you to the underground tunnel opening. Unfortunately, no photography and bags were allowed inside, so we kept them in a locker for safekeeping.
My guide said she does this tour 2 times a week, and she still never got quite used to walking through the tunnel. I finally understood what she meant when we got around to it: it was hot, damp, and so short that you have to either squat or bend over. You have to wear a helmet as well – don’t ever take it off – I bumped my head twice on the ceiling because it was so short, I would probably have been knocked out if not for the helmet protecting my head.
Now the tough part is not over yet: have fun walking back up the pathway. Yes, uphill. Underground. In a hot, damp environment with barely any resting points. It’s the good workout you need from all that feasting in Korea.
Is it really that tough? Well, there were a group of South Korean soldiers in there with us, and they were grunting and grumbling the whole way. On the other hand, some elementary kids were having a whale of a time (cos they were short ya), and even said ‘hello’ to all the tourists. I waved at some of them and they waved back cheerfully – so cute!
This was our last stop on the tour.
Dorasan Train Station is a railway station situated on the Gyeongui Line. It once connected North and South Korea and was restored and opened in 2002. In 2007, it was used to transport goods to and fro North and South Korea but railway operations were eventually ceased in 2008 due to some conflict. However, there is a DMZ train that runs from Seoul to Dorasan station. The round train trip operates once a day daily during weekdays and twice daily during the weekends.
In DMZ, they grow a lot of organic produce, because the soil here is said to be the most fertile in the whole of Korea. You can purchase soybean chocolates made from soybeans grown in DMZ – can’t find them anywhere else!
With that, our tour came to an end.
I was left with many mixed feelings as we headed back to Seoul. As an outsider, I don’t think I can comment on whether unification (some call it reunification) will happen, whether it is good for both sides. I do know, however, that the Korean War is very tragic, that there are families who remain separated, and that there are people still suffering today from the war.
All in all, I do hope that the Koreans find true closure and peace.