I’m not a huge morning person, so the fact that we were out the door of the hostel by 6:30 am should tell you how excited I was to go to the Demilitarized Zone–a.k.a. the DMZ. It is the single most militarized piece of land in the world. If I had to make such a claim, I’d say this was the main reason that I wanted to come to South Korea.
The DMZ Welcome Center
We went as part of a tour, though there are ways to get there without going as a group. However, I’m not sure if we could get access to all the things we wanted to see without being in a tour group (since security is pretty tight, I hear).
The drive to the DMZ takes about an hour. Our first stop was the DMZ Welcome Center. There were several memorials to the war as well as those who have died outside the conflict. I don’t know what this says, but I’m sure it was very moving.
The Peace Bell:
There was the UN Memorial that was dedicated to the international soldiers who were killed in the war.
And lastly, before you scroll down, ask yourself: “What’s something that I’d expect to see at near DMZ?” Was it this?
I certainly wasn’t expecting that. And, for those who might be wondering, I didn’t see a lot of Popeyes elsewhere in the country. But this is a place with a lot of tourists, and know your audience, I guess.
Lastly, I got my picture with a friendly border guard.
This is the train bridge into the DMZ. It’s been out of use for a few years due to rising tensions (I hear that leader of North Korea is one bad apple).
The Third Tunnel of Aggression
Our first stop actually inside the DMZ was The Third Tunnel of Aggression. Now, I didn’t get any actual photos of it because they made me check my camera and strictly forbid photography, but they rebuilt a model of it outside so you could get photos of it and with it.
The tunnel itself began with a very steep and very long downward slope (that’s designed for tourists, so it’s well lit). The tunnel made by the North Koreans was narrow, craggly, and damp; if you’re claustrophobic, I wouldn’t recommend visiting this.
The tunnel was one of four discovered that run under the DMZ, but it’s the best preserved and has become the best example of the challenges faced by a 4 mile stretch of military forces. After initially denying digging a tunnel, the North claimed that it was in fact a mining tunnel but as we walked down it, you could clearly see the granite walls. I was also really thankful for the required hard hats that we were given because I knocked my head against the ceiling no less than 12 times, though I eventually lost count.
At the end, they have several signs that tell you the door is rigged with an alarm and to not try to cross into North Korea. The model version did not.
It all looks so friendly and open when in reality it’s a very serious and guarded place.
We definitely weren’t screwing around.
Looking into North Korea
Next, we were taken to a lookout point where we’d be able to see the model village on the North Korean side of the DMZ. For those who don’t know what it is, it’s a fake village designed to convince people that North Korea is a glorious workers’ paradise even though it’s thought that no one actually lives there.
Because of security concerns, there were two rules we had to follow.
- No pointing. Yes, they were serious about this.
- No cameras within 15 feet of the railing. They didn’t want the North thinking they were trying to spy on them.
Other than that, go wild. So I clamped on my zoom lens and tried my damndest to get a decent picture. Unfortunately, it was hazy that day, so the best photos I got were merely silhouettes. There isn’t much cleaning up I can do with these pictures, but you can just make out the world’s largest flagpole.
While there actually wasn’t much to see (it’s neat but it’s just a village), we could hear the loudspeaker constantly blaring with propaganda which is something that residents have to deal with on a daily basis.
Next we went to see the last railroad station to the north.
If I had to describe this in one word, it’d be “optimistic”. I know, not a word you usually think of when you think of the DMZ, but everyone we spoke to wanted it to be over. They saw the North as their brothers and sisters with whom the relationship had soured. They looked forward to the day where they’d be together again which was refreshing because I expected it to be antagonistic. But there was no antagonism, just optimism. All signs like these were hopeful:
Maybe next year, train sign.
I also took a screenshot of my phone to prove that I was near the North Korean Border:
An Unexpected Stop
I’ll end it on this: If you go to the DMZ, book a tour that include the Joint Security Area. We didn’t because it cost three times as much, and it is honestly one of my biggest regrets from this trip.
Also, a word of advice is to plan for your tour to go longer than you expect. Our tour was a half day, but on our way back we were diverted to a Korean Ginseng Museum–what our guide assured us would be a unique and wonderful experience.
Spoiler: it was not.
Our tour guide disappeared and we were handed off to a woman in a clean white dress. We were shown through a quick “history” of Korean Ginseng including what it’s believed the cure, which is basically everything if you believe the tour guide. The tour ended with us being put in a closed room and given a sales pitch for Ginseng. They offered samples, and after they finished their speech, they silently waited for people to form a line to buy Ginseng. No one did, and it became an awkward standoff. Eventually, we realized the door wasn’t locked and simply left.
Outside, the bus had gone somewhere; clearly we were meant to spend more time in the Ginseng room. If we hadn’t left our belongings on the bus, we could have left. But instead, we had to wait for the group to finish (some people bought stuff, apparently). By the time we got back, it was about 4:30. We were hangry and a little cheesed that this “quick stop” took about 2 hours, but we found food and tried our best to finish out our planned day.
Up next: Korean War Museum