One of the things we wanted to do while in Seoul was visit the DMZ, the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Due to recent events, this area held significantly more importance than we imagined when we were booking the tickets. The DMZ is a 4-kilometer wide border that runs the length of Korea, dividing the peninsula roughly in half from top to bottom. Within the DMZ there is the JSA (Joint Securities Area, or Panmunjom), the building used for diplomatic engagements between the two Koreas. This specific location has been in the news lately with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea meeting with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un to make progress towards a once again unified Korea. This historic meeting marked the first time a North Korean leader has set foot into South Korea since 1953. This area was closed for the day when we were there.
Our tour consisted of several stops, starting in Imjingak. This is a park 7 km south of the DMZ, the closest you can get without security clearance. From here we could look across the river and see the DMZ and the edge of North Korea. This park was built to console Koreans who are unable to return to their hometown, and many North Korean defectors come here on major holidays, when one would normally visit their families. This is also where the Freedom Bridge is, the bridge leading out of the DMZ and into South Korea. This was a former railroad bridge that was used by repatriated POWs/soldiers returning from the North. They had a partially restored train engine here as well. Going past Imjingak, we went through a checkpoint, where a solider came onto our bus and checked the passports of everyone onboard (this was done again while leaving to make sure no one defected)!
From the checkpoint we slowly got closer to the DMZ and went on to the next stop, the Third Infiltration Tunnel. Discovered in 1978, this tunnel was built in secret by the North Koreans with the aim to sneak into the South and attack. A few other tunnels were also uncovered by the South, but there are believed to be many more that exist. We were able to walk into the tunnel, going underground 350 meters to reach it, then another 200 meters walking through it. We were brought within 150 meters of the Demarcation Line dividing the two Koreas; past that and you are in the North’s territory. Inside the tunnel was the closest we got to North Korea, and also the only time we were actually inside the DMZ. The tunnel itself was rather cramped and made for an uncomfortable journey, having to be hunched over almost the whole way (Elly was fine though). It was interesting to imagine if the tunnel had actually been used, and scary as well.
Next was Dora Observatory, situated on top of Mount Dora and overlooking the DMZ. From here you could see into the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea. We saw the 3rd largest city, Kaesong, as well as Kijong-dong, or what’s more commonly referred to as the ‘Propaganda Village.’ This is an uninhabited village built in the 1950’s as an apparent attempt to lure possible South Korean defectors to the North. This is one of two villages located within the DMZ, the other being Daeseong-dong on the South Korean side. People do live in this town, but only those who lived there before the Korean War or are descended from those who did. They have most of the same rights as all South Koreans, but they are exempt from taxation as well as compulsory 2-year military service. The villagers are mostly farmers as they were allocated large plots of land from the government. Safety is paramount within the village, with it being so close to the border. There is a curfew and headcount every night.
We ended our tour at Dorasan Station, the last stop on the railway before North Korea. The railway is not currently in service, but the line runs all the way from Seoul to Pyongyang. The railway is a relatively recent one and was used starting in 2007 to connect South Korea with Kaesong (the North Korean city we could see from the observatory). A daily train would run taking raw materials to the Kaesong Industrial Complex and return with finished goods. The employees at the factory interestingly consisted of both North and South Koreans. However, this lasted only one year. Hopefully soon, the station will be opened back up for real, and be used to connect the two sides.
During the trip, there was a lot of hope from our tour guides that the North and South will be unified once again in the near-future. The recent South/North Korean summit had both sides pledge to work towards denuclearization of the peninsula and the agreement to later this year turn the Korean Armistice Agreement into a full-fledged peace treaty, thus officially ending the Korean War after 65 years. While this seems to be a step in the right direction, not everyone seems to agree within the South. When we were dropped back off at city hall in Seoul, we saw many protestors arguing for appropriate punishment of the North, who are seen to be getting off lightly here. It will definitely be interesting to see what happens in the future.