When I started planning my trip to South Korea I had to do some research. I knew very little about the country beyond the cuisine I’d sampled in Japan. One thing I was vaguely aware of was the Demilitarised Zone. I had next to no factual knowledge about the place but in my mind I pictured two armies of grim-faced soldiers locking steely eyes and clenching jaws in a frozen tableau of timeless animosity.
I was a little bit right.
A Bus Into The Mist
I booked the tour online. There were a number of different itineraries and I chose the one which included the most sites. The bus was filled with a variety of nationalities plus our stylishly extrovert Korean guide. It was a rainy morning and a light mist greyed the skies ahead.
Our first stop was at the last train station heading north. It was very clean and new but apart from some staff and military types occasionally glimpsed through doorway cracks the place was eerily silent. I got the impression that it was only really frequented by tour groups. The station was built as a beacon for reunification between the South and the North. Obviously that hasn’t really happened yet.
Next we went to an observatory or “lookout” station on the edge of the DMZ. The Demilitarised Zone is a thick strip of land between the North and South parts of the Korean peninsula, situated on the 38th parallel which is where United Nations forces battled to a stalemate with the Chinese and North Korean armies in 1953. From the observatory we could see what this stalemate looks like in the modern age; it looked like a bunch of gnarled trees, brown bushes and ton of mist.
Inside the observatory there was an amphitheatre-like arrangement of green plastic chairs that looked over the Zone. My tour group spread out across the seats. Some announcements were made and from where I sat I heard some confused Japanese voices behind me. Without hesitation I span round and attempted to translate the last part of the announcement, which they had apparently not understood. Eyes wide with surprise they thanked me and I turned back to enjoy the view. It had only been a simple exchange but I felt good for helping someone out as well as getting a chance to use the little Japanese I knew in a practical situation. Then again, maybe the surprise on their faces sprang from the mad gibberish being projected at them from a bearded loner …
We were shown a brief video about the history and positioning of the observatory. After the video we were allowed out onto a viewing area designated for photography. However, about a meter away from the edge of the area, looking out over the DMZ, there was a thick yellow line on the ground. We were only allowed to take pictures from behind this line. I’m not sure what military advantage stepping a meter closer to the edge would have given us; especially considering how many visitors wield hefty zoom lenses nowadays but I wasn’t exactly going to argue with the armed guards watching us.
Hovering out there in the mist were a few solitary guard towers. I wondered what the men in them might be thinking. Was war on their minds? Every day? Or was it just a job, like any other?
I’m Going Deeper Underground
Next stop on our magical mystery tour was at one of the tunnels that was built under the DMZ by the North. There are a number of these tunnels but we visited the largest and most well-known one, which has now become a regular tourist spot, with plenty of gift shops and photo ops. It was from there that I bought a bottle of North Korean wine. I drank it when I returned to Japan; it was good. The interesting thing about it was that it still had some bits of grapes floating around in the bottom of the bottle, suggesting the producers weren’t able to filter it properly.
The path down to the tunnel was long, but not particularly steep. We were each given a hard hat, which was especially handy for me as I did scrape my bonce on the tunnel ceiling a few times. Although it wasn’t especially high the tunnel was wide enough for three or four people to walk abreast. My perceptions were a little thrown off by the lighting but to me the tunnel seemed to be perfectly straight.
We eventually reached a dead end. A wall had been erected some ways along. In the middle of it there was a small hole. Peering through we could see only darkness. Darkness that extended across the Demilitarised Zone and into the North.
Like A Bridge Over Troubled Water
Our penultimate spot was a small bridge. I believe this place was used as a neutral area to exchange prisoners after the Korean war. On one side of the bridge there was a large, firm gate that was presumably accessed from the North somehow. This gate was decorated with a multitude of ribbons, flags and banners all crying out for peace and unification. The gentle rain drops from a grey sky brought almost cliché gravitas to the occasion.
Our final stopping point was the Joint Security Area. This is place I’d heard about. This is the place I thought was “the DMZ” before I actually did some research. This is the place were you can step foot on North Korean soil.
Well, not soil … floor boards.
Before even getting off the bus there was some business to attend to. We were all required to sign a form stating that we understood how to act and behave whilst in the Area. It gave such explicit instructions as what kind of clothes not to wear and to avoid any fraternization with staff on the opposite side.
We were marched, single file through a large building. It’s halls shimmered with modernity and expense but there was an eerie stillness all about the place. It was not long before we were led outside. We stopped on a raised veranda. In front of us there stood another large building. Although it was of roughly equal size to the building we’d just exited the one opposite looked distinctly more dishevelled and ageing. In the courtyard between the two large buildings there stood a number of blue shacks.
There were quite a few South Korean guards on duty; they each stood facing north with clenched fists, Judge Dredd jaws, and aviator sunglasses that were presumably left behind by the American forces. In contrast, over by the northern building I could only spot one guard, who seemed to be leaning against the wall whilst trying to make it look like he wasn’t leaning against the wall. I think we all know that trick, mate.
With stiff authority a guard instructed us to stay within a boundary marked on the ground. From there we could take pictures but (as laid out in our signed agreement) we were not to point at things or people in an obvious manner.
After a few minutes of pic snapping, a guard took us down to the central shack in the courtyard. This building stood on the boarder between the two countries. There was only one, medium sized room inside the building. In the centre of the room there was a large table. Halfway across the room stood a guard; he straddled the two countries. At the far end of the room was a door with a second guard; that door led to another land. Walking from our side of the room to the other was a simple matter and can’t have been much more than fifteen steps, but in doing so we were walking through time. Living history; in the future that site will be devoid of those simple buildings and there will be a placard with an artist’s rendition resembling what these shacks looked like.
The significance of this location was somehow highlighted by the simple furnishings of the room; just chairs and desks and a few photos. The guards added their own level of sombre foreboding to the experience. I felt sure that they were either cybernetic organisms with living tissue over metal endoskeletons or just … you know, really well trained. None of them flinched at all except for when one of our group walked slightly too close to the opposite door. Like a silent cobra strike the guard’s arm whipped out in front of the straying tourist. All of us in the vicinity hopped and made little “oh!” sounds. Nobody went near that door again.
After a few minutes we all filed back on the bus. The was a brief hush of contemplation before everyone burst out with various observations and opinions.
Visiting The Demilitarised Zone
Booking a tour to see the Demilitarised Zone is a easy enough thanks to plenty of English language support and online booking forms. The tour buses depart regularly, picking up from multiple places in the Korean capital, Seoul. So there’s really no reason not to check out this fascinating insight into recent history and the ongoing pressure of two countries staring each other down.
Have you ever visited the Demilitarised Zone? How was your experience? If not, are you interested now?
Interested in reading more about South Korea? Look Here.