Last month we completed, by far, the most intense tour either of us have ever experienced. We were lucky enough to take a trip to the Demilitarized zone (DMZ) of South and North Korea.
This is the border of the two Koreas and unlike the name suggests this is one of the most militarised places in the world!
As most of you know, North and South Korea have technically been at war with each other since 1950. No agreement was made and tensions are still strong on either end. The tour that we went on began quite early. We drove from Seoul towards the border. I immediately noticed that once we were out of the main city area there were high wire fences with spikes on top around the rivers. There were watch towers spaced frequently along the fences. It felt so different from where we were 20 minutes before. The closer we got to the DMZ the more sparse the area got. We arrived at our first army check point.
The DMZ area itself is about 4km long (2km in South Korea and 2km in North Korea) But there is another 5km on the South side that is heavily guarded and there is also a ban on anybody living in this area (bar one village that I’ll talk about later).
Our tour began in Panmunjeom at the Joint Security area. This is where North and South meet and where most buildings on the line are. Like the rest of the DMZ it is very heavily guarded and before entering the area you must sign a declaration saying that if you die, it is not their fault! After a briefing from an American solider we made our way closer to the line on a bus driven by a South Korean solider. From here we got our first glimpse of North Korea (well their flag)
Before arriving at the JSA we first passed one of the two villages that exist within the DMZ. Tae Sung dong (freedom village) is a South Korean village that is just about one mile from the border. To live there you must have been living there prior to the Korean war or be of direct ancestry to someone that lived there. In exchange for living in one of the most hostile areas in the world, the South Korean government gives the residents lots of land to grow rice. The town is guarded 24 hours a day and when the farmers tend to their crops they are also guarded. There is a curfew on the town, so at sunrise everyone must be indoors. But because they are located on the DMZ they are technically not in South Korea so they don’t have to pay taxes and get paid a relatively high income.
North Korea then decided to have their own version of the freedom village and built a bigger more extravagant village on their side of the DMZ. But of course, North Korea being North Korea, nobody lives there. They pretend that people do, but the windows are painted onto the walls of the buildings and there are no floors in the buildings. But they do have one of the largest flags in the world flying. South Korea built a big flagpost so they had to go one bigger.
Once at the JSA we got to go to the border. There were about 7 or 8 South Korean guards guarding the border for our protection, but only one North Korean who was standing quite far away. We visited the buildings where peace talks between the North and South happen and got to cross over the border into North Korea. (literally step into the North)
From here we went to a point where we were surrounded by North Korea on three sides. We got to have a closer view of Kijong-dong (North Korean town) and of the mine infested border. For somewhere so dangerous and volitile, it was really beautiful. There were so many birds peacefully in the sky away from humans and North Korea looked so rugged and beautiful. We also got to see the bridge of no return. This is the bridge that crosses the line and where both sides exchanged prisoners.
After the intensity of the JSA we drove to the Dora observatory. This is on a mountain on the South Korean side, they have telescopes that you can look into to get a closer look at North Korea. There is a city right near the border where South Korean companies manufacture goods in the North, thus giving jobs to North Korea. It was interesting to see this city and the cars driving around…even if it was just through the scope.
The next stop on our tour was the third infiltration tunnel. During the 70’s the South Koreans found four different tunnels that the North had built as a way to attack the South. When these tunnels were found the North gave the pathetic excuse that they were mining for coal and actually painted the walls of the tunnels with coal. There is no coal found anywhere in this area!
We got to walk down the tunnel, it was quite small and cramped, quite interesting to see it though and the coal was still on the walls!
Our final stop of the day was to the Dorasan train station. This is the train station at the border. It’s the last station in the South. If the Koreas ever reunify then you could travel all the way from Busan to Portugal or England by train! Maybe someday this will happen…but for now this is a beautiful new train station that is never used.
The DMZ tour was such a great tour. It really brings it home to you that you really are living in a country that is still at war and that anything could happen at any time. I hope someday that the people of the north can be freed of their agony and poverty, but unfortunately I don’t think that day will happen for a long time.
*I have just finished reading Escape From Camp 14. It’s a great book about the only known person born in a North Korean prison camp to have escaped. I would definitely recommend it to read.
Thanks for reading everybody, I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas,
love Grainne, Jason and Willy