A tourist description of the Korean Demilitarized Zone or DMZ

After meeting up in Seoul with a tour group, we traveled North along the Han River on the recently constructed Freedom Highway. Looking out of the window I could see that the side of the river was lined with barbed wire and there were military posts every few hundred meters. Some with soldiers in them and some, interestingly, with cardboard cut-outs of military personnel in them, to give the impression of them being manned.

The tour began at Injingak Park, which is located just south of the DMZ, some 50 km north of Seoul. This is the furthest point north that civilians can go without permission and was built in 1972 in the hope that one day, Korea would become reunified and reconcile those who were separated from their families in North Korea.

The main building is the North Korean Hall and there are exhibits and photos here relating to life in North Korea, its politics and history. Standing opposite this is Mangbaedan, a large granite and marble altar constructed by the government. It is a place where people who cannot visit their homes and families in North Korea can gather, to perform ancestral rites on holidays at New Year and Chuseok.

Lying just beyond this is the Freedom Bridge. It gained its name from events during the ceasefire between North and South Korea in 1953 when a total of 12,773 South Korean prisoners of war crossed it, when they returned from the North. The end of the bridge is blocked by a fence and surrounded by barbed wire entanglements. People come here to pray and leave messages for a unified peninsula and peace between the two nations.

There is also an open air museum here with planes and tanks from the Korean War, as well as memorials dedicated to those who lost their lives fighting.

After looking around Imjingak, we then boarded a bus with other tour groups and headed into the DMZ. We then crossed the Imjin River over the Unification Bridge which was constructed in 1998 to replace the Freedom Bridge, previously the only entrance point into the DMZ. Along the way we were forced to slow down because of the huge metal tank barriers which the bus had to snake in and out of, like a skier going down a mountain slalom.

We then passed through a checkpoint where our passports were looked at by South Korean soldiers and we were warned not to take photographs for security reasons. Out of the window, I noticed signs explaining the danger of landmines in the area.

Once through the civilian checkpoint, we passed an army barracks where there were South Korean soldiers playing basketball and football, before we finally arrived at the Third Infiltration Tunnel. This was discovered on Oct. 17, 1978, after the South Korean government was informed of its existence by a North Korean defector. One of four tunnels discovered in the 1970’s, it is believed that there may be as many as 20 in all constructed by the North as part of an invasion strategy. Situated some 73 meters below the surface, the Third Infiltration Tunnel is 1,635 meters long, and averages two meters in height and diameter. It is the nearest of the tunnels located to Seoul, and would allow a total of 30,000 troops to pass through it an hour.

Before descending into the tunnel we had to put on hard hats, and then we walked down a 400 meter decline which intersected with the tunnel. Upon entering, it was possible to walk into it another 400 meters, to where the edge of the DMZ exists above ground.

Upon returning to the surface, we boarded the bus once again and headed to Dorasan Observatory, which sits atop a small mountain overlooking the DMZ. From here it is possible to view the North Korean propaganda village Gijong in the DMZ and see even as far as the city of Gaeseong, North Korea’s second largest city.

Gijong was built as a tool to show the prosperity of North Korea to those living in the South and until recently also broadcast North Korean propaganda through the huge speakers installed there. Strangely, no one lives there, only soldiers are present. The streets are empty. There are no cars or people. At night lights come on in the buildings, yet no one is in the buildings.

It is also home to what is believed to be the world’s largest flagpole at 160 metres. Displaying the North Korean flag, it was built in response to the South Korean government erecting a 100 meter tall flagpole in the nearby village of Daesong in 1981.

After a short time we then all got back on board the bus for our final destination, Dorasan Station. Dorasan Station is a place which provides hope for the future but also shows the reality of the divide that exists today. It lies on a track known as the Gyeongui Line, which is slowly being repaired after a summit between the two Koreas in 2000. It is the northernmost station in South Korea and it is hoped that one day it will eventually provide a connection with the North and the rest of Asia. Presently, three trains arrive here from Seoul each day and it doesn’t currently serve much more real purpose than this, apart from providing people with tangible hope that things will one day change.

A South Korean soldier on duty stood in front of a ticket barrier, just below a sign that points the way for the track to North Korea’s capital Pyongyang. He had little to do except pose with tourists eager for a photograph. As bands of happy, smiling snappers stood beside him to have their photos taken, he remained motionless throughout with a cold icy stare.

On the bus heading home I had time to reflect on everything that I had seen throughout the day. One of the last remnants of the Cold War which still exist today, it’s a place of intense emotion that seems a world away from the comfort zone of my apartment in Seoul, an unbelievably short distance away. It really puts in perspective much of the sadness that Korea has experienced throughout its turbulent history and the tragedies and hardships that people have had to endure here.

Maybe, just maybe, Dorasan Station will one day not just be the last stop on a railway line at the border of North and South Korea, or somewhere people visit on a tour looking for something that little bit different, but a place where families are finally reunited after years of separation.

[Excerpt from article by Stephen M. Little, The Seoul Times]

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