After almost a year of living in Korea, it was time to finally take a trip to the DMZ. The DMZ is the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea that was established in 1953 after the Armistice Agreement was signed during the Korean War. It is the safest war zone existing in the world since the South and North are technically still at war. The South and North Korea’s drew a truce line across the Korean Peninsula. On either side of the truce-line is a 2km-wide stretch of land where military activity is forbidden. The zone has been protected from human disturbance for about 6 decades and has unintentionally become a haven for wildlife, which was interesting to learn.
My friend and I had wanted to go to the DMZ for quite a while but hadn’t made the time or planned ahead enough to get on a tour since you have to book about 72 hours in advance. There are about half a dozen licensed tour providers that are allowed into the DMZ and they offer different types of tours. After a lot of research, we decided that we wanted to do a tour that went to the third tunnel and the JSA, not just one or the other. We found a company that we liked called Veltra and they offered a full day tour to both places, with a few stops in between and lunch. Since the DMZ tours are also a bit expensive we wanted to be sure to see as much as possible and ours came to about $125.
The day finally arrived and we got up wicked early to catch the subway into to Seoul for our 7:50 am check-in and our 8:10 departure. It was an easy enough commute and even though the directions on the website were not clear on exactly how to find the hotel where we needed to check in, we came early so we could figure it out. Once we checked-in it wasn’t long until we boarded our bus. From the hotel, it was about an hour to our first stop which was the third tunnel.
When we arrived we had to hurry to get on our little tram to go down into the tunnel. After we all got a hard-hat we got on and started our 7 ish minute descent into the Earth. It was a bit tight and some of the taller people even had their hard-hats scarp the top or sides of the tunnel ( so not for anyone that suffers from claustrophobia). Once we got to the bottom a guide lead us through the tunnel and told us about the history behind the tunnel and what the purpose of it and the other discovered tunnels were thought to have been for. This tunnel is considered more a threat since it is only 27 miles from Seoul, the Capital of ROK. It was fascinating how they go about to this day trying to find more tunnels. They essentially drill big holes all over the DMZ to see if they can find more. This one our guide told us was discovered in 1978 after they detected an underground explosion. The tunnel is incomplete and is 1 mile long, 6’5″ high and 6′ 11″ wide. It is about 240 feet below ground. The theory is it was designed for a surprise attack on Seoul from North Korea, and could apparently accommodate 30,000 men per hour along with light weapons. Once the third tunnel was discovered, the United Nations Command accused North Korea of threatening the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement. South Korea, of course, considered it an act of aggression on the part of North Korea, too.
The guide also said that at first North Korea denied building the tunnel and then said it was part of a coal mine. We could see black powder rubbed all over the walls that are clearly not coal. It was very interesting to hear about all of this and we even got to one point in the tunnel where they have blocked it off and you can see into the North Korea side of the tunnel. After a quick look, we went back to the tram and went back up. It was nice being on the tram since you can walk down into the tunnel, but it is quite a hike and a very steep incline to get back out. Once back in the light of day, we had about 15 minutes to take some pictures before we boarded our bus.
We went to a few places next each about 15-30 minutes. Imjingak Park, Tour of Dora Observatory, DoraSan Train Station, saw the Unification Village, had lunch at a Korean Restaurant, passed the Unification Bridge, arrived at the Unification Bridge( for passport Check), briefing, and the tour of Joint Security Area (JSA).
Our next stop was Imjingak Park, this park is dedicated to the 10 million South Koreans separated from their families when the peninsula was divided postwar. Also, here was the Freedom Bridge, connecting North and South Korea, where 13,000 Prisoners of War were exchanged in 1953, and a large steam train derailed during the war sits here. Also, here is Nuri Peace Park, a large grassy field full of pinwheels and sculptures all to signify peace. It was very sad to see the bridge and all the prayers left at the bridge in the form of small ribbons tied to a fence. The Peace Park was, well very peaceful and a nice place to walk around and reflect on what we were learning and the sad history of Korea.
After, we went to Dorasan Train Station. Dorasan train station stands as a symbol of hope for the eventual reunification of the two Korea’s. It was built-in 2002 and was opened with President George W. Bush, just a fun fact. Trains to Seoul still run here four times daily and is awaiting the next departure to Pyongyang ( North Korea, if one day they become unified). From there we stopped for some lunch at a Korean restaurant. It was all ready and we were fed bulgogi, rice, and various sides. It was very satisfying and delicious which we didn’t expect.
After lunch, we headed for the Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjeom. This is the place were the North and South are separated by just a line. When we arrived we had to stop just outside the JSA and a ROK officer fully armed came onto our bus to check our passports and attire. I was very frustrated since he told me my shoes were not ok footwear and I hadn’t bought any others. I had read the dress code many time and it said you may wear sandal type shoes if your toes are cover and you have a covered heel strap,( which I did). And it was annoying since many of the men were wearing shorts and that was said not to be allowed at all. Rant over. It ended up working out since the tour company had an extra pair of shoes, but it was kinda gross to use some strangers used shoes. Oh well… Once we drove through the winding barricade we got off the bus and went into a briefing room. There they showed us a video about the history of the JSA and DMZ. After the video they put us on a little bus to head up to where we would actually enter the JSA and the blue painted UN building. But not before they went over all the rules we needed to know to safely walk into the JSA and North Korea. The rules were no sudden movements, no loud noises, no pointing, no talking to the guards, and no photos facing the South only photos were allowed in the blue building were we where technically in North Korea or facing North Korea. It was a very somber and strange experience to be in a peaceful, but none the less active military zone. We went out and they made us stand in one area but without moving around. They told us a bit more about the line and the North Korean soldier we could see. Then they gave us permission to take some photos. After about 3 minutes they took us into the blue UN building. Inside looks like a meeting room with large desks and one UN guard standing at the door to the North. In this room on one side you’re in South Korea and on the other you’re in the North. We took some pictures and were then hurried out.
After we were escorted back to our bus and drove out past the place were the axe murders took place in 1976. This incident was the reason that the JSA was clearly divided into North and South sides. They said that in 1976 two US soldiers were hacked to death with axes by North Korean soldiers. The Americans were attempting to cut the tree down because it was obstructing the view from a watchtower and hindering their ability to protect the other watchtower that was in the middle of many North Korean posts. The North Korea’s said they killed them because it was a tree planted by their president. After that, the JSA was split into two very distinct sides which is the JSA we now know today.
After learning all of this we headed back to Seoul. This day was a very somber, educational, and a reflective day for me. I learned a ton about Korea’s history and the sadness the war caused. It was eye-opening to see that the North is still probably to this day actively trying to invade Seoul again even though they have signed Armistice Agreement. It was also really heartbreaking to hear of the horror of why the JSA is now divided the way it is. Overall, I would really encourage anyone to go on this tour it is definitely worth the money and your time to learn a little bit more about Korea and to deepen your understanding of what war means and what having a divided country does to its people.