Visiting the other Korea…

Last Saturday Faraaz and I did one  of our famous day trips. This time we went to the DeMilitarized Zone(DMZ).  The DMZ is the no-mans land that separates the two Korea’s–countries that after more than 50 years are still technically in an active state of war. Of course, you can’t actually tour the DMZ, seeing as it’s heavily land-mined and such, but you can do a tour of the area within South Korea that borders the DMZ.I don’t want to bore you with a history lesson so here the basics:

Brief history:
-From 1910 to 1945 the Japanese had control of Korea (until the end of WWII).
-North Korea (NK) was then supported by the Soviet’s and South Korea (SK) by the Americans.
-NK wanted to then unite as a communist country and that is when the Korean War began (1950-53).
-After the Korean War there were 10 million people divided from their homes.
-The war ended when the armistice was signed and that created the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). The North has 2km and the South has 2km.
-The DMZ area was violated and now there are many armed camps and it is the most heavily armed place in the world.
Ordinarily, Faraaz and I would have been happy to do this by ourselves, but the DMZ is only accessible through military approved tours. So we signed up for one and off we went!
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Faraaz booked our tour with Adventure Korea. With this tour, we visited Imjingak Village, the most northern village in Korea that’s open to all South Korean civilians, climb into the 3rd tunnel, a tunnel North Korea secretly dug to tunnel into South Korea that was discovered in the 70′s, an observatory that looks into North Korea, and Dorasan Station, the station that will eventually connect the two Korea’s should they ever reunite.
Before we left, we were warned that we had to dress appropriately and that in many places we would not be allowed to take photographs. It was Faraaz’s first DMZ trip but it was my second so I was not fazed by such supposedly ominous warnings.
Here are some highlights of our tour:
We started our tour early on Saturday morning from Seoul. At 9am the bus left Seoul and headed north.  The road followed the Han river, and as we approached the DMZ, the landscape became increasingly rural.  And increasingly militarized.  The shoreline was lined with high barbed wire topped fences, and manned guard posts appeared with increasing regularity. The more northern we got, the higher and more armed the fences were. There were soldiers stationed along the river the whole way up. (NK used to send spies down along the river).
In SK, all men are required to do 2 years of military service. In NK, all men are required to serve for 10 years and all women for 7 years.
None of the people in NK have enough to eat, including those in the military. They are all very poor.
A common phrase in SK is “당신은 먹었” (“Have you eaten?”) because their biggest concern (a generation or 2 ago) was that people were always hungry.
When we arrived on our tour bus at the DMZ checkpoint one of the military officers had to check our passports. She (our tour guide) told us there are three requirements for the SK military. 1. They have to be 175cm tall. 2. They have to be trained in one martial art. And 3. They have to be handsome.
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We rode over “cow bridge” which has its name because the man who started Hyundai came from NK with just his cow. He turned out to be pretty successful, right?
During the time the DMZ was being created/tension about borders there were 1 million landmines placed within the area. The SK army has only recovered 10% of them so there are still about 900,000 left to be found.
We started our tour off at Imjingak Village. Imjingak Village is the furthest north point in South Korea than South Koreans can go freely. After this point, you must be granted government permission to go any further north. Our tour’s first stop was in Imjingak, where our guides took all of our passports and Alien Registration Cards to register us with the Korean government for permission to enter the civilian-restricted areas. While they did the paperwork, we were free to roam around the village. Here we bought some North Korean money and took a look at the numerous things in the park.
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Next was lunch. We didn’t take any pictures because we ate nothing interesting…

After lunch we were off to the Dora Observatory, and in my opinion the most interesting part of the tour.  From there, we could see into North Korea.  We paid ₩500 (about 50 US cents) to look through binoculars and saw the North’s Propaganda Village, one of the world’s tallest flagpoles, and many guard towers.  Here, we were only allowed to take pictures behind a yellow line, which resulted in pictures of basically nothing. Maybe Shaquille O’Neil would have been able to see the sites from behind the line, but we were way too short.

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In NK there are over 25,000 statues of leaders, but the people are starving.
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One stop on the tour was the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel.  South Korea has discovered 4 of these tunnels so far, although they believe there are many more.  The tunnels cross under the DMZ and are believed to be part of a North Korean invasion plan. The tunnel was accessed by a long, steep walkway which was just as busy as the tunnel itself.  To be honest, the tunnel wasn’t particularly interesting.  It was just a tunnel, 73m below ground.  For some reason, we weren’t allowed to take pictures.The intended use of the tunnel, and the fact that there were potentially several more as yet undiscovered tunnels was terrifying.  Although I have to say that North Koreans must be tiny because Faraaz had to bend himself almost in half to get through the tunnel (I was ok though!).
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Lastly, we went to a deserted train station near the border, called Dorasan Station. From 2007-2008 it was open and went to the capital (Pyongyang) of North Korea to transport goods back and forth. In 2008 a South Korean woman was killed by a NK soldier so the train station was closed. When we saw this station it was deserted an eerie, somewhat like a ghost town. According to our tour guide, a train used to run along the track once a day, Monday – Friday, during the last president’s term, however the current president Myung-Bak Lee, put an end to that and many other factions of the Sunshine Policy, which encouraged trade between the two Koreas.
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The hope is that in the future the train station will open again. We were allowed to take photos in and around the station & train tracks:
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One of the most interesting and touching things about Dorasan Station is that once it is fully functional (and the trains can safely pass through North Korea), this line will connect with the Trans Eurasian Railway Network, meaning that someday, you could in theory take a train all the way from Busan (the southernmost city in South Korea), all the way to London (via North Korea, China, Russia and then through Europe). I found this fact extremely moving–once North Korea opens up to the world, the world will be more connected.
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In summary, our tour guide told us we saw the past, present, and future. The past was the tunnels that were built and we got to experience that by going inside of them. The present was the observatory where we saw the village and the people in North Korea. And the present is the hope that the train station can open again one day and that the countries can be unified.
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14 thoughts on “Visiting the other Korea…

  1. I could just kick myself that I never went to the DMZ in the year I lived in Korea. I kept meaning to go and meaning to go, and then I left, without ever getting it in. Thanks for sharing. By the way, I just read the most amazing book about the Japanese occupation and the Korean War called One Thousand Chestnut Trees by Mira Stout. It is a fabulous book and I think you would love reading it while you’re there in Korea. I never thought I would say this, but I kind of miss Korea. 🙂

  2. Fascinating! (yells the history nut) I would definitely visit DMZ. That is crazy about the train station…creepy that it’s deserted, but I love the hopefulness in keeping it there for the day when this conflict will find a peaceful resolution.

    • It was a real eye-opening experience! With the election of a new president this month, Koreans are hoping for some sort of resolution between the North & South soon.

  3. I got to visit the DMZ when I was in South Korea this summer. Looks like we went to different parts of it. It is so moving to hear the hardships of these split countries. Great post though!

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