The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), South Korea
With a Sunday off and nothing to do I decided to pay for a tour of the DMZ, where South Korea meets its communist, totalitarian-regimed neighbour. After being picked up from my hotel quite early in the morning we set off along the Hangang river, which actually forms part of the border itself and is lined with razor wire and guard posts almost immediately after leaving Seoul. If anything is seen moving in the water it is shot. The DMZ is only around 50km from the centre of Seoul (and about 200km from Peongyang in the North) so getting to it takes an uneasily short amount of time.
The guide pointed out a few things on the way and gave a brief history of why the DMZ exists. I have to say I was pretty ignorant of the Korean war and the history of the peninsular generally, which is shameful given the number of times I have visited. It is a fascinating and unique situation that seperates a people in a terrifying stalemate. The Korean war had to end as nobody was winning and 6m people had been killed in 3 years – truly horrific. The armistice (not peace treaty) was signed in 1953 and the DMZ was formed, leaving the two countries still officially at war with each other.
The Zone runs all the way across Korea from one coast to the other and is filled with millions of mines. The razor wire is dotted with mine warnings.
The DMZ is made up of a 7km militarised zone on the South which leads into the 2km DMZ proper, where the two countries can meet for talks. Our first stop was The 3rd Tunnel, which was dug by the north under the DMZ in an attempt to invade. It was discovered in 1978 because a defector told them about it’s construction and gets its name because it was the third one to be found. They have found 5 but other informants lead them to believe there are up to 25, the guide joking that one could be right under my hotel. We went down the interception tunnel built by the South Korean army once they had discovered the location of the North’s tunnel. It is pretty steep and goes down about 75m, then it meets the main tunnel which runs for about 1.5km. It is all blockaded at the bottom now for obvious reasons. Interestingly the north Koreans painted the walls with coal dust whilst building Ito they could pretend it was a coal mine.
At this point I was starting to realise just how popular the DMZ is for tourists. Around 5 million come every year and it seems most of them are incredibly loud Chinese middle-aged women on huge organised tours. They were ruining my day a little.
We pushed on to the observatory where you can look over the DMZ into North Korea. This is where you get an idea of how terrifying the place is. The south is covered in trees, the north is totally bare, the reason being that they don’t want to offer defectors cover to escape (and also that they need the wood in the winter to heat themselves, they can’t afford to import oil). The north has a flag on a pole that is 159m tall, dwarfing the south’s 99m pole. These were the subject of a petty flagpole race to see who could have theirs flying higher. There is a large aerial that sits ominously behind the DMZ to the north that is a signal jammer, stopping any tv, radio or phone signals to the north to keep the people in the dark. Such a bizarre place. Unfortunately you have to stand behind a line to take photos and can’t from the edge so the photos I have don’t really give you an idea of scale or any detail.
People that do try to defect or even try to communicate with family in the south face public execution and this happened recently when phones were used near the Chinese border to call the south. They were caught and executed. Makes you mad that a regime can abuse its people to stay on power, to deny them the freedom and wealth that the south benefits from because they want their throne. If the two countries were now united (very unlikely) it seems to me that the south would face a huge issue economically.
Some fun facts:
– North Korean men have to do military service from 16 until they are 24
– They have a standing army of 1.6 million compared with South Korea’s 600,000
– The “Sunshine Policy” from 1997-2007 saw the building of an industrial site owned by the South built in the North. Cheap labour, but fantastic for relations. This ended with the reelection of the conservative government in South Korea and tensions have since escalated again
My last stop was the train station built during the Sunshine Policy years that now lies unused. It was hoped this would link South Korea with the north but also China, the trans-Siberian railway, Asia and Europe. The facility is amazing, but there are no trains and no people. You can get a commemrorative stamp with Pyeonyang on it there, but not in your passport or some governments have a hissy about it at their borders. I stamped a 1000 won note.
I’m glad I visited, purely for my understanding of the political situation and Korea’s history. It’s an eerie place that almost doesn’t seem possible and I just wonder how long it can last without something going very wrong.