While planning our trip to Korea, I made sure to include time for a visit to the DMZ. While not the most exciting tourist destination I can think of, it is one of the those things you just feel compelled to see. Like going to Auschwitz, the Berlin Wall, or the Peace Museum in Hiroshima, you don’t make the trip to be entertained, but to become more culturally and historically aware of the country you are visiting. The Japanese prison in Seoul that we had visited earlier was a somber lesson about Japan’s involvement in Korea. Now we wanted to learn a little about the situation between North and South.
There are a plethora of English-guided tours you can sign up for. You can only visit the area with licensed guides, and you must make reservations at least a day in advance. The bus came bright and early. We spent about an hour gathering the other tour guests and another hour driving out to the border on the highway they call “Freedom Road.” The bus made a stop in Imjingak, a small city below the DMZ that contains monuments to the Korean War, the Bridge of Freedom, a nearby Unification Village, and a small amusement park, oddly enough.
We stopped here only for half an hour, to allow our guide to pick up our entrance tickets. We checked out the remains of a freight train on display that had been practically obliterated during the war, as well as an installation detailing the fall of the Berlin Wall. According to our guide, South Korea has always maintained hope that the two countries will be reunited one day, which is why this area was made to focus attention to unification. This idea of unification gave us a lot to think about, and we talked about what that could even look like for Korea as we headed back on the bus towards the Dorasan Observatory.
We officially crossed into the Civilian Limit Zone, an area inside the four kilometers’ width of the DMZ. As we arrived at the security checkpoint, our guide told us about the explosive tank traps we had just driven over. In case of an attack on land, South Korea has wired bombs in various locations so they can detonate if necessary, preventing soldiers from entering on the ground. A little spooky, although our guide followed this up by explaining that they are almost obsolete, due to the fact that North Korea would now attack from the air with missiles. Well that’s reassuring. A few idiots, no, that’s too harsh a word, let’s say careless tour participants apparently didn’t realize that North Korea is indeed its own country and forgot to bring their passports. Our bus did have to be inspected and we showed the Korean MP our official documents in tense silence. Our guide had explained that the military police there have to meet rigid qualifications to make the post, including a minimum height of 160 centimeters, written exam, and according to her must be “good looking.” While I’m not the best judge of what makes Korean men good looking, I checked out the MP during his inspection none the less. Meh.
Good to go (even the dummy passport-less people were made an exception for), we reached the Dorasan Observatory in a few minutes and were briefed about what to expect. Our guide explained about the condominium facades we might be able to see. The North Koreans, trying to keep up appearances and make life look glamorous to the South, built a bunch of nice looking apartment complexes with electric lighting that on further inspection prove to be empty concrete shells where no one can live. The little town you can view from the observatory, called the Kaesong Industrial Region, was actually being used for manufacturing, with South and North Koreans working together in factories to produce a variety of material goods, but all activity was recently suspended by North Korea. There are also strange photography restrictions here. Cameras can only be used in a small, specified viewing area about twenty feet back from the perimeter, making it hard to get a decent shot. However, we were warned that getting a good shot may be hard in general because the weather (and smog) is not always clear enough to afford a good view. There had been quite a few clouds in the sky that morning, so we crossed our fingers and headed in.
Inside the actual observatory building there are no photos allowed, but a spectacular view with a detailed scale model for comparison. A soldier proceeded to brief us on particular aspects of the DMZ and Korean military service, which is compulsory for males in South Korea once they turn 18. He pointed out the location of the recently shut down factories, and noted that the beautiful mountains that predominate the area are basically bare with deforestation. Since North Korea does not have an advanced electrical infrastructure, they still rely on burning wood for energy and heat. Even with most of the lush greenery missing from the hillsides, the landscape was stunning. Luckily, we had perfectly clear views that day. Our guide was amazed at our good luck, as the soldiers don’t normally provide guests with a briefing either. We headed outside for a closer inspection, tried to snap some photos, and made our back to the bus for the next stop, Infiltration Tunnel No. 3.
Yay, more descending into caves! Well, not exactly, and not exactly as majestic as the lava tubes. The South Koreans discovered four infiltration tunnels dug by the North in 1974, which the North Koreans had tried to disguise as coal mines. They even went to the trouble of lining the walls with a graphite-like substance to lend it credibility. There are believed to be some twenty other tunnels, as yet undiscovered. After waiting in an awfully long line, made longer by all the Chinese tourists simply cutting in front of us, we put on our hard hats, hunched over and walked the course of the tunnel. If I had been alone in the dark tunnel, I made have had the sense of how truly eerie it was, but with hundreds of other tourists in tow, it just felt like a waste of time. After our group was reassembled, we made our way to Dorasan Station.
Dorasan Station is an operating train station, and the farthest north you can go in Korea. While the train tracks were extended into North Korea and had been running freight trains to Kaesong industrial plants in 2007, wishy-washy Kim Jong-il restricted all access in 2008, even though he had just agreed to open the train lines a year prior. President Bush (Jr.) had even visited this station in 2002 to encourage South Korea in its efforts toward unification. His speech is memorialized in the lobby. Ironic, I know. This station only receives trains from Seoul four times a day, for the purpose of transporting DMZ tourists. It is immaculately clean and eerily quiet. The fact that it isn’t buzzing with humanity like all the other stations is a bit unsettling. You can even see the entrance for the north-bound train line, with signs for Pyeongyang listed above. In all appearances it is a perfectly functional train station, but something about the sterile emptiness was more disturbing than the rest of the tour. Outside of actually getting to see the view of North Korea, I found this stop to be the most meaningful.
We left the DMZ on that note. If you purchase a longer, more expensive tour, you can go to the JSA, the Joint Security Area where North and South Koreans stand guard face to face. While I’m sure this also would have been interesting, it was a little out of our budget, so our bus began its return to Seoul, with a last stop at the Metropolitan Government Ginseng Distribution Store. This fancy little building is where you can buy really expensive duty-free Korean ginseng licensed by the government to ensure its quality. The employees there show you the farming process of ginseng, explain why Korean ginseng is the best in the world, and then give you various samples of ginseng in different forms. One was a hot tea blend, one is a powder, and one is a candied like rind. Then you exit through the gift shop where more free samples of Korean snacks and candies were on display. This turned out to be a good thing, because our bus driver, who had been sleeping it off between stops the whole day, had disappeared and turned off his cell phone. Our poor guide finally managed to get ahold of the hungover slob, and we were dropped off at Seoul City Hall.
I have debated since the trip whether it was really worth the $50 and seven hours of my time. Peak season is not the best time to visit anything in Korea, so I would recommend this excursion if you find yourself in Korea sometime other than the summer. Chinese tourists are the worst. However, we were told we had a very rare experience with the good weather and military brief, so I can’t guarantee you’ll see the same tour I did. In retrospect, I am still glad that I went, and I got what I had come for: a better understanding of the conflict in Korea and a personal experience that will temper my thought process on the matter. Ultimately, the goal of traveling should always be to broaden your world-view, and the DMZ will definitely do this. For that very important reason, I recommend a visit. Plus you get some free government-grown ginseng, yum!