The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is one of the many things that make the two Koreas – North and South – famous. Riddled with land mines, the 4km-wide DMZ cuts across the Korean Peninsula along the 38th parallel and runs 250km from coast to coast. Despite being one of the most militarized borders in the world, the DMZ is a major tourist attraction for visitors to South Korea and while you can’t go into it, you can most certainly go under it! Tours to the DMZ include visits to tunnels that the North Koreans dug a number of times over the decades since the Korean War unofficially ended in an attempt to get to Seoul.
A tour to the DMZ is not a drop in affair. It must be booked in advance with details of who you are and where you’re from being handed over to the powers that be; some nationalities – South Korean in particular – are not allowed in some parts of the zone. Upon arrival, the tour guide hands over a list of people authorized to enter to the fully-armed Korean soldier who comes onto the bus to do a head count. Officially they are to check your passports or other identification, though on our visit they did not. It would be wise to keep it handy, though, as they will likely check it more often than not.
The bus then drives through what I can only describe as a border before the border. There are check points on every road and also elevated road blocks, which are actually on most roads, train lines or routes that the North Koreans could use in an unlikely though possible invasion. The front legs under the blocks are reportedly packed with dynamite so if that invasion ever happens, the stations can be blown, resulting in massive boulders blocking the way.
The first stop on our tour was the Freedom Bridge in Imjingak. This is a railroad bridge that crosses the Imjin River and was used by POWs and soldiers returning from the North. At the stop you can see an old locomotive that was recovered from the DMZ with over 1000 bullet holes in it! The rail bridge is now used to go to Dorasan Station, the last station before North Korea. At the foot of the bridge are, quite literally, thousands of brightly coloured ribbons with messages scribbled on them in Korean. Our tour guide explained that the messages are from loved ones writing to their family members who have not come back from the North. This is surely a futile gesture given the chance that anyone from the North will ever see them and that they’ll find the message intended for them if they do, but a powerfully symbolic image nonetheless.
The next stop on our tour was the third of the tunnels dug by the North Koreans in an attempt to get to the south. It was impressive. Like the other clandestine passageways that snake under the DMZ, it is scraped large enough to allow the passage of an entire infantry division in under an hour, but is not wide enough for tanks or vehicles. Visitors enter the tunnel by walking down a steep 350m long slope and can then walk along some of the 1,600 m length of it, stopping well short of the main border, obviously. Keep in mind that the taller you are, the more uncomfortable the trip through the tunnel may be as you’ll have to crouch a bit along the way.
After going through even more check points and passing threats of mines in the fields and Korean soldiers stationed everywhere, we made our way to the second tunnel, which was even more impressive. The guides and signs let you know when you are above land mines, where dynamite was and, very importantly, where there is a stone wall. On display are some of the items found upon discovery of the tunnel, such as guns and digging tools.
Another stop on our itinerary was the Peace Observatory. On a clear day, this post gives you amazing, panoramic views of this part of the DMZ and – if you’re lucky – some of the exotic animals that now call it home thanks to the absence of people – though no one is allowed inside the DMZ, there is one small village of around 50 people who live inside it (together with all the land mines!). From the post you should also be able to see a bit of both countries, the guard towers on each side, the virtually empty north Korean propaganda village and the industrial site which until recently allowed South Korean workers into the North to work at a huge industrial plant. You’ll also easily see the towers the hold each country’s flags, respectively once the tallest flagpoles in the world.
We then moved onto Dorasan Station, which was built to connect the North and South with the slogan ‘not the last train from the South but the first train to the North’. The train station is finished, however one major thing is missing: the trains! The only running train goes between Dorasan and the stop near the Freedom Bridge, and is really only for tourist so they can go across. Keep in mind, though, that not all tours include this option and you need to get permission ahead of time before you can make the cross. The train station was built in the hopes of connecting not only North and South, but also the Korean Peninsula with China, Russia and Europe. Unfortunately, the trains stopped working in 2008, with no talks slated to discuss getting them up and running any time soon.
The last stop on our tour was at White Horse Hill which, during ten particularly nasty days of battle, changed hands 24 times as a strategic vantage point that everyone wanted their hands – and guns – on. The fighting was so intense than almost a meter was shaved off the hill, which was left barren and littered with spent shells. Today the hill is a war memorial for the thousands of soldiers who lost their lives, and is home to two very impressive memorials that are constructed from the many thousands of casings left behind on the hill.
There are many tours available in and around the DMZ, so you’ll have your choice of things to see. Regardless of the tour you choose, however, don’t expect to take lots of pictures of or venture over to the North Korean side of things; despite the sometimes-touristy feel of the place, it’s still one of the most heavily armoured and watched borders in the world and not one where over-the-top tourist behaviour is welcomed.
Jennie McKie is a 26 year old English teacher from Scotland who has travelled to and/or taught in the United States, Canada, Australia, Thailand and South Korea, as well as in a number of European countries. She is off to Europe again soon before heading to another live-work adventure in Taiwan. She plans to settle down one day, but for now “seeing the world is too much fun”. You can read more of her adventures at http://teacherjennie.com.