A symbol of peace. Something that is so close by yet so distant from the lives of South Koreans. The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is the true peacemaker between the divided South and North Koreas. DMZ in Korea is regarded as a sanctuary—a place to bow down to and a place that is often hard to approach. Many tourism organizations have arranged programs to guide people around the zone to observe not only the military bases but also the eye-widening landscape. However, not many Koreans have visited the place.
After three years of brutal battling between South and North Korea, as part of the armistice agreement among North Korea, the United Nations (UN), and China, the DMZ was created. Established in 1953, the area stretches approximately 250 kilometers across the Korean peninsula. Both sides of the land that are separated into the two Koreas are bound by barbed wire fences and landmines; they are overseen by watchtowers and heavily concentrated with troops who are ready to fire once the order is given. The former United States (U.S.) President Bill Clinton called it the “scariest place on earth.”
With those heavily fortified borders and the war-like atmosphere that chokes, not many South Koreans have plans to visit the truce village. The DMZ is just more than guns, bombs, and missiles, however. Historical monuments, the agony, and sorrow of the Korean War, as well as the alluring scenery all work to captivate the hearts of visitors. As any kind of military action is forbidden to take place two kilometers from either end of no man’s land, the zone is truly environmentally friendly. For over 60 years the area has been preserved, making it ecological and a safe zone for wildlife. In this way, the DMZ serves more than as a buffer zone between North and South Korea.
Although there are several companies that operate tours for most people who would like to view the nation’s diplomatic area, it is important to stress that this place is like no other tour. It should be noted that DMZ tours take place while soldiers stationed at the center are carrying out their duties. Certain regulations and restrictions must be met. The DMZ has restricted access to ordinary civilians and can only be visited by a tour group, which is then escorted by the military. Depending on the situation of the military activities, tours can be cancelled—two or three days prior or even on the day.
Most tour groups only offer early morning sessions, typically from 8:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M. A tour with VIP Travel allows those wanting to view the demilitarized zone with a breeze. Pick up is available from areas were tourists commonly stop over: Seoul station, City Hall station, Itaewon station, Hongik University station, and Gongdeok station. From then, a fifty minute to an hour bus ride ensues, arriving at Imjingak Park, making its way to The Bridge of Freedom, the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, the DMZ Theater & Exhibition Hall, the Dora Observatory, and lastly Dorasan Station. After passing by the Unification Village, tourists will be dropped off at Itaewon or City Hall station, marking the end of a marvelous trip to a historically significant area.
The DMZ Theater and Exhibition Hall
Before entering the border, a soldier on mandatory military service enters the tour bus to check the passport and identity document (ID) of every tourist. Once the scanning process is complete, the tour bus takes the group inside the borders. The first site observed is villages that are maintained on either side of the DMZ—it is called Unification Village on the South side and Propaganda Village on the North. According to VIP Travel tour guide, Ji Bo Geun, “Many people decide to live in this area as the soil condition is one of the best for producing ginseng and rice. Most ginsengs produced in neighboring countries can only grow up to four years. Yet, the perfectly balanced soil quality allows South Korea to cultivate up to six years— allowing abundant nutrients to fully develop.”
After another one to two-minute drive into the border, the group arrives at the DMZ pavilion that comprises DMZ Theater and Exhibition Hall. A small theater plays an eight-minute film on the Korean War in four different languages—English, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese. The short film highlights the military and social graveness of the relationship between the two separated Koreas. Outside the theater, the smallscale exhibition hall displays small monuments, including spike pins, hammers, train wheels, and other relics from the Korean War.
On the other side of the DMZ Theater and Exhibition Hall is the place where the Third Tunnel of Aggression or Third Infiltration Tunnel can be entered. In the center of the two attractions, there is a symbolic sculpture that depicts people pushing the two divided Koreas into one whole piece. Alongside that are natural ponds with a water wheel and traditional pottery. Integrating traditional Korean culture with historical features and preserved nature is a truly heart-touching view that is hard to come across anywhere else. On the other hand, there is one point that hinders this peaceful experience. K-pop music is heard at full blast. This propaganda broadcast can be heard throughout the trip to the DMZ.
Third Infiltration Tunnel
The tragic Korean War began in 1950 when North Korea attacked the South formally and ceased fire when the armistice agreement was signed in 1953. However, even after the armistice agreement, North Korea dug tunnels below the demarcation line with plans to invade the South. The third tunnel was discovered in 1978 when the North Korean engineer who was working on digging the tunnel from the north escaped to the south. Kim Bu Seong fled the communist country and informed the South Korean military of the rough location of the tunnel in 1974. It took four years for the secret passageway to be found and until this day the North refuses to accept that the tunnel was for the purpose of invading South Korea.
However, there are several pieces of evidence that clearly suggest the underground passageways were strategies for attack. The tunnel is sloped slightly at an angle—0.003 degrees—towards the North, allowing water inside the tunnel to naturally drain out of North Korea. The direction of the dynamite hole found inside the tunnel, which was used to blow up base rocks in order to create a path, was all facing south. North Korea tried to refute this, saying it was a coal mine, but the walls of the tunnel are only with coal to disguise the path as an abandoned coal mine.
Tourists are allowed to walk down to the third infiltration tunnel up to 265 meters along the tunnel—the third blockade—which is 170 meters away from the military demarcation line (MDL). To reach the tunnel, tourists enter through the interception tunnel that was installed by the South Koreans to operate the tunnel of the invasion route. The interception tunnel, which took three months to build, is inclined at eleven degrees and stretches along 358 meters. The tunnel is the most dangerous stop of the entire tour. Bright yellow protective helmets must be worn at all times.
The underground passageway was built by average-sized Asian men. The tunnel is said to be two meters tall, however, there are a couple of regions where it is only 158 centimeters high. Having to crouch down to walk several meters in the humid and dense atmosphere may not be pleasing for some.
The Dora Observatory
The Dora observatory might be the most intriguing platform from the tour as it is the closest point tourists have at getting the chance to see North Korea through a DMZ tour. Inserting 500 won, the binoculars allow tourists to get a glimpse of the reclusive outskirts of North Korea. If the weather plays nice with no fog or fine-dust pollution, the statue of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the North Korean flag can be viewed. The fake North Korean propaganda village located in DMZ is easily seen and, once on the Dora observatory, the propaganda broadcast from the North Korean side is not easy to miss.
Dorasan station is a place where the dream of unification begins. It is the northernmost stop on South Korea’s Gyeongui railway line and the starting point into the North. This transcontinental railroad was open to civilians in 2002 after removing landmines and barbed wires following the South-North Joint Declaration in 2000. From Pyeongyang station, Dorasan station is located 205 kilometers away, and from Seoul station, it is at a distance of 56 kilometers. An interesting feature of this building is the roof that shows “a figure of clasped hands using a Taegeuk pattern as an expression of sincere wishes that Dorasan station will play a decisive role in linking South and North Korea,” as written in the explanation provided by Korail.
This station is expressed as the first station to the North, not as the last station from the South. Unfortunately, the North Koreans halted freight trains entering its borders in 2008 after accusing the South of a confrontational policy following the election of a conservative government. Subsequently, the station has sporadically opened and closed till now. This modern, hardly used station is all set and ready to operate once unification takes place. South Korea hopes Dorasan Station can be a gateway towards Eurasia in the near future.
The Bridge of Freedom
The Bridge of Freedom is covered with brightly colored ribbons all with hopeful messages written on them. At the end of the Korean War, this is the very bridge where nearly 13,000 war prisoners returned to South Korea. The purpose of the bridge was to avoid the explosion of the land mines that covered the land of the DMZ. The bridge holds a symbolic meaning of returning to freedom. As a symbol of remembering family members separated by the border, South Koreans cover the walls of the bridge with messages wishing for unification or mourning the loss of their family.
▲ Hopeful messages written on the walls in Dorasan Station
▲ Messages wishing for unification on The Bridge of Freedom
Visiting the military zone has been on the bucket list for many, drawing in hundreds of visitors from a variety of countries under a treaty set in 1954—if any one of the North Korean forces ever crosses no man’s land, then the U.S. is immediately at war with the North. Heavily fortified borders, tank-traps, and stiff soldiers gripping their weaponry on the ready are not the only features of DMZ. Tourists can enjoy the spectacular landscape, eco-friendly sites, and feel the strong hope of unification from this trip. The DMZ is the place that bears the tragedy of the time in the past. As former U.S. President Bush said during his visit to the DMZ for the opening of Dorasan station, “Someday we all hope the stability of this peninsula will be built on reconciliation of its two halves.” The DMZ presents hope along with the endless work towards the day of peace, prosperity, and stability on the Korean peninsula.