On a freezing winter’s day late in 2014, I briefly traded the dazzling wealth and modernity of Seoul for a no-man’s land of guns, mines, and hundreds of kilometres of barbed wire … a place where the Korean War drags on even now in a strange, almost surreal state of suspended animation.
Welcome to the Demilitarised Zone.
I won’t dwell (much) on the logistics of arranging a tour to the DMZ, except to say that reserving a place should be done well in advance – a couple of weeks or so – and that one should make certain that the itinerary includes a visit to the Joint Security Area (JSA), perhaps the most iconic place in the entire region. Lots of DMZ-related tours don’t go anywhere near the JSA, so book with caution.
Several tour companies are authorised to conduct visits to the DMZ that include the JSA. One of the most well-regarded is KoriDoor, which is affiliated with the USO and runs tours out of a U.S. Army base in Seoul. Indeed, the only thing that stopped me from booking a seat with them was the difficulty of arranging the required advance payment: I have no experience with international bank transfers and I certainly wasn’t about to disclose my credit card details over the phone or by email. I eventually secured a place on a DMZ visit run by a different company, which charged a significantly higher price but allowed me to pay on the day of the tour itself (though I still needed to make my reservation far ahead).
Right then, so much for the preliminaries. Let’s have a look at the major stops on today’s itinerary. The gold star near the top of the map is the highlight of the whole tour, which is covered in the second part of this post.
The assembly point was a major hotel in downtown Seoul. There was nothing special about the vehicle we used, but it was reasonably comfortable and – most importantly – nicely heated, providing some much-needed relief from the winter chill of that frosty December morning.
The group was made up almost entirely of foreigners, more than half of whom were Japanese and the rest (myself included) a tossed salad of nationalities. With Koreans requiring special permission – and, so I’ve read, about a couple of months’ advance notice – to visit the DMZ, the only locals on board were the bus driver and a pair of tour guides, one of whom catered to the Japanese contingent in the front section whilst the other took care of us English speakers in the rear.
At some point during our journey from Seoul, as we were approaching the boundary of the DMZ, the guide called our attention towards the view outside the window. A highway in the foreground, then a line of barbed-wire fencing, followed by a broad waterway in the middle distance, and beyond that…
…was North Korea.
After a brief stop at an army checkpoint – where a South Korean soldier boarded the bus and made sure that the passenger tally matched a printed manifest submitted by the tour company – our vehicle continued northwards across a bridge over the Imjin River before turning southwest, towards our first main stop of the day. Whilst not quite within the Demilitarised Zone proper, we were now inside the borders of the Civilian Control Zone, a secure buffer area running alongside the DMZ to which civilian access is carefully regulated, hence the tight security at the bridge.
At first glance, Dorasan Station seemed little different from other major transport hubs in the wealthy southern half of Korea. A gleaming composition of slick modern architecture in glass, steel, and granite, with all the necessary facilities and then some.
Perhaps a bit much, though, for an isolated stop served by a tiny handful of trains, with no residential or commercial facilities of note for miles around. Hardly any real passengers to speak of, though the cavernous hall rang with the voices and footsteps of many bussed-in tourists.
The station did see considerably more non-tourist-related activity some years ago, when rail services bound for Kaesong were still being allowed through by the North Korean government. An entire section of the station lined with customs inspection counters – currently empty and walled off behind glass – is a legacy of that period.
In the end, one gets the feeling that Dorasan Station is part transport facility, part monument to a dream: a dream of a reunited peninsula where one might hop onto a train in Seoul and go all the way to Pyongyang without having to worry about getting one’s head blown off.
From here, we travelled north to the Third Tunnel, so called because it was the third to be discovered amongst several underground corridors secretly drilled by North Korea beneath the DMZ, across the Military Demarcation Line, and through to their southern rival. Four such tunnels have been found thus far, and it requires no large stretch of the imagination to accept that there are probably several more still awaiting discovery.
Before entering the tunnel itself, we were taken to an interpretive centre where museum exhibits and a short film helped put everything into context. A South Korean context, obviously, but I should hardly think there exists a single state-run facility anywhere on earth that doesn’t add a gloss of propaganda over the bare bones of history (what differs is how thickly they lay it on). In any case, the pain of what happened here – and what continues to happen here – is all too real, and I was glad for the opportunity to take in as much information as I possibly could.
At the entrance to the tunnel itself, we were asked to leave our cameras in individual lockers – neither the first nor the only time that I experienced the very strict rules governing photography in the DMZ and its environs. We were then issued hard hats and invited to board a small train, somewhat akin to a funfair ride, which brought us deep into the earth and into the tunnel itself. It was damp, chilly, and cramped, with visitors forced to walk bent over at times due to the low vertical clearance, but through it all I conceded a grudging admiration for the efforts of the northern labourers who carved this passageway out of solid rock.
Admiration, mingled perhaps with just a touch of fear … the fear that other, larger, deeper tunnels might be out there, ready to aid the passage of thousands of North Korean troops into the territory of their southern neighbour, igniting yet another catastrophic conflict on a peninsula that had already seen far more than its fair share of trouble.
And if we day trippers ever needed a bit of reminding that this was still a warzone, the hills just outside the interpretive centre were festooned with little triangular signs warning of the danger of mines.
One step out of place, and … boom.
Our itinerary originally included a stop at the Dora Observatory, which would have given us a clear view into North Korea; alas, snow and rain the evening before had rendered the way impassable and it was regrettably dropped from the list. We therefore proceeded back across the Imjin River to Imjingak, a tourist facility located just outside the restricted area and the closest point to the DMZ that can be visited without requiring special arrangements or permission.
Here, we were served a delicious lunch in the enclosed warmth of the visitors’ centre. Korean cuisine is one of my absolute favourites, and the meal was a splendid way to cap the first part of our DMZ adventure.
This was, of course, by no means the end of the day’s activities – and the very best was yet to come. In the next post, we’ll get the chance to cross the border itself and stand, briefly, within the territory of one of the most reclusive nations on earth.