Visiting the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – A view inside a strange world

On my recent trip through Korea, I had the opportunity to visit the demilitarized zone or DMZ between South Korea and North Korea. It was the one of the most unique travel experiences of my life – a view into a strange world where the Cold War is held in stasis and placed on disturbingly-close display.

Since neither side would admit defeat at the end of the Korean War, the armistice created the DMZ, a band of land 260 kilometers long and 4 km wide, as a buffer zone stretching across the Korean peninsula. There are three significant boundary lines within the DMZ.

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Southern Border: This border is fully controlled by South Korean and UN forces. Home of Imjingak Park, Dorasan Observatory and Dorasan station – the last train station before North Korea. Most DMZ tours only take you this far, and in doing so they miss the best part.

Military Demarcation Line: This is the true border between North and South Korea. It’s the home of the Joint Security Area (JSA), which is the best part of the tour. As its name would indicate, South Korea and North Korea split control of the Joint Security Area, along with support from the United Nations and a team of Neutral Nations (Sweden, Switzerland, etc.)

Northern Border: Fully controlled by North Korea. You cannot access this area unless you’re part of a North Korea tour group.

MORNING TOUR: SOUTHERN BORDER

The morning started in Imjingak Park. This area was originally created as a place where families that had been separated could gather to pray for reunification with their relatives in North Korea. Over time, the Park transformed into an amusement park. This led to some truly odd sights – the Peace Bell and memorials built from stones collected from battlefields around the world shared space with a neon-lit swinging pirate ship.

On our way to the next stop, we stopped for a passport check on a bridge filled with anti-tank blockades. Officially, we were forbidden to take photos during this time… but isn’t that what smartphones are for?

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The most stable image taken by a nervous photographer

Then it was on to the Third Tunnel, the largest underground tunnel yet discovered dug under the DMZ. Our tour guide mentioned that there might be at least 20 tunnels in all, and they’ve only discovered four. According to South Korea, North Korea dug the tunnels as part of their ongoing plans to invade Seoul. Some of my fellow tourists had gone on the same tunnel tour from the North Korean side, and according to their tour guides, of course South Korea dug these tunnels in order to invade Pyeongyang.

The path sloped at an 11 degree angle and went down the equivalent of a 23-story building. In other words, just like a walk to brunch in San Francisco.

Propaganda is strong in both Koreas

Propaganda is strong in both Koreas

Next up was the Dorasan Observatory. For 500 KRW (about $0.50), you got 3 minutes of viewing time on a set of high-power binoculars aimed across the North Korean border. We must have spent nearly half an hour here, feeding coins into the binoculars. If we hadn’t gone to the JSA in the afternoon, this would have been the coolest part of the trip.

Peering through binoculars at Dorasan Observatory

Peering through binoculars at Dorasan Observatory

North Korea knows that this Observatory exists and therefore constructed a very big and very empty village directly within its line of sight. It’s called “Propaganda Village” because up until several decades ago, no one lived there. Nowadays, a fraction of the tall, clean, windowless buildings are occupied by factory workers. These factories were built by South Korean companies and employed North Korean workers – further evidence of the bizarre and ever-shifting nature of the North/South Korean relationship.

Working South Korean factory in an empty North Korean village

Working South Korean factory in an empty North Korean village

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After observing that South Korea had built a flagpole 100 meters tall, North Korea responded with a flagpole 160 meters tall. Rather than responding again, South Korea decided that its money was better spent elsewhere.

Not far from the Observatory was Dorasan Station. Between 2000-2008, during the period of greatest cooperation between the Koreas, South Korea was permitted to build factories and to run freight trains into North Korea in order to supply their factories. Dorasan was the last stop before the North Korean border. The dream of eventually running regular passenger trains between the Koreas was dashed when Kim Jong-Il took power and took an extremely anti-South Korea stance.

To this day, South Korea keeps Dorasan Station immaculately clean in preparation so that when reunification finally happens, trains can start leaving from this station immediately.

Tracks that will lead to Pyeongyang

Tracks that will lead to Pyeongyang

Signs in three languages warned us not to place these stamps in our passports, due to the risk that we might not be allowed into South Korea again.

Signs in three languages warned us not to place these stamps in our passports, due to the risk that we might not be allowed into South Korea again.

AFTERNOON: MILITARY DEMARCATION LINE at the JOINT SECURITY AREA (JSA)

The passport check at the Southern Border was a mere formality. The South Korean soldier that boarded the bus barely glanced at our faces before waving us through. The passport check at the JSA was a whole different story. The soldier that boarded the bus scrutinized our passports and faces intensely, matching it against a list provided by the UN.

He also confirmed that all passengers met the dress code. Before I joined the tour this morning, I’d been told that my shirt collar was too low and to cover it up with a scarf – making the JSA dress code more conservative than the Vatican’s. I would find out the reason for the strict code later that afternoon.

IMG_0115We were told to wear this badge in the most visible location, therefore identifying ourselves as a guest of the UN. The idea was that if the North Koreans attacked, they would know that shooting us would seriously anger the UN.

What followed next was a 15-minute safety briefing. We would line up, walk and turn when we were told. No standing up in the bus. No pointing, no gesturing, no taking photos unless explicitly invited. It felt a lot like being back in elementary school, except that you were surrounded by heavily armed soldiers.

Just to make sure that we understood what we getting into, they had us sign a waiver that reiterated how our trip would “entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”

We all signed our lives away on the dotted line and walked into the heavily guarded border.

We walked in two orderly queues into a low building that was painted light blue. The table in the center of the room was where they signed the armistice ending the Korean War. The table itself was a country border: North Korea sat on one side – in North Korea – while the South Korean representative sat in his own country on the other side of the table.

The soldier stands at the country border. I’m in South Korea, and Jeremy is in North Korea.

The soldier stands at the country border. I’m in South Korea, and Jeremy is in North Korea.

Only UN flags were allowed on the table. The Koreas had launched another flag height war when their countries had been permitted to place their own flags on the table.

The concrete slab is a country border. The pebbly ground is South Korea and the plain sandy ground is North Korea.

The concrete slab is a country border. The pebbly ground is South Korea and the plain sandy ground is North Korea.

Outside the building, South Korean guards stand half hidden behind the low blue buildings, ready to duck back to safety should the North Koreans start shooting. This did not put my mind at ease when we were told to line up in rows directly facing the white North Korean building.

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Before we entered the JSA, our tour guide had told us – almost as if we were visiting a zoo – that since the weather was nice, we had a good chance of seeing North Koreans. Apparently they liked to stay hidden behind the mirrored doors of their main building, spying on the tourists with cameras and binoculars. They especially loved taking pictures of tourists behaving badly that could be used as propaganda material back in North Korea. And that was the reason for the strict dress code and the restrictions against pointing or gesturing in any way towards them.

We were lucky today since we could clearly see a single North Korean soldier staring at us through binoculars. Our tour guide told us there were at least a dozen other soldiers also staring from behind the mirrored doors.

Our North Korean paparazzi

Our North Korean paparazzi

We were only given two minutes to look and take photos, after which we obediently took two steps back, turned 180 degrees and then formed two queues into gift shop.

My entire experience of the DMZ, especially at the JSA, felt like playing a minor role in a theater drama – at once cheeky and deadly serious. On one hand, the JSA has a history of violent skirmishes that have left people dead, so the danger is real. On the other hand, the guards on both sides were minimally armed and carefully selected. The requirements for a soldier to be stationed at the DMZ were: be proficient in at least one martial art, be taller than the average South Korean male, and finally – be handsome.

The primary purpose of the JSA in the present day appears to be one of posturing.

Why, after all, did the UN and South Korean troops encourage civilian tourism if not to show the watching North Koreans how little of a threat they posed?

This general aura of indifference was not isolated to the military. Our tour guide admitted that each new generation of South Koreans has fewer family members and memories from North Korea. While they admit that reunification would be ideal, fewer than half of South Koreans in their 20s think that it’s necessary. The Koreas have been different countries for so long that the Peace Bell is surrounded by an amusement park and North Koreans are now the people that you can see on a sunny day, if you’re lucky.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1990 to cheers and euphoria. Only time will tell when the DMZ will be removed and whether it will be greeted with joy or indifference.

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