Before I moved to Korea, I had no interest in ever visiting the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. In fact, just the thought of getting so close to North Korea scared me. Once I moved to Korea, and the months started to pass by, I heard more and more stories from foreigner friends who went to the DMZ, loved the experience, and highly recommended that I go, too. Pretty soon, I added “Visit the DMZ” to my Korea Bucket List, and this past weekend, I crossed it off with satisfaction.
The tour I signed up for was on Saturday at 9am, and our first stop was the Third Infiltration Tunnel. Before going into the tunnel, we watched a short video on the history of the tunnels: even after the North and South Koreans ended the war in 1953 and established the DMZ to prevent any more invasions, the North Koreans plotted a secret attack by building various underground tunnels that lead from North Korea to South Korea. The first three tunnels were discovered by the South Koreans in the 1970s, and the last tunnel was discovered in 1990. Talk about shady!
I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures of the actual tunnel, but here are a couple of the area surrounding the tunnel.
Our second stop was the Dora Observatory where we could get a closer look at North Korea. This was where I got my first good look of the evil, communist country. It looked just like I imagined it would: pathetic and depressing.
Our third stop was Dorasan Station: the last train station in South Korea before heading into North Korea. You can buy train tickets here, but you have to have special permission. (I’m guessing a visa? Not sure what kind of permission.)
After lunch is when the tour started to get really interesting. Our fourth stop was the Joint Security Area (JSA): the only part of the DMZ where North and South Korea stand face-to-face. Essentially, this is where the two Koreas “talk business” (e.g. diplomatic engagements, negotiations, etc.). The following picture is of Conference Row: U.N. buildings that are used for meetings. If you walk past the middle of the two buildings, that means you are in North Korea!
Did you see the North Korean soldier at the top of the second picture?
We were allowed to go inside one of the conference rooms where a couple of South Korean soldiers were standing guard. The soldiers wear their sunglasses to hide any emotion from the North Korean soldiers, and they stand in a Taekwondo stance so that they are always ready for defense.
The spot I was standing in meant I was in North Korea. Crazy!
After seeing the JSA, we headed over to Check Point #3 where we could get another close look at North Korea. From here, we were able to get a good look at the 1976 Ax Murder Site: On August 18th, 1976, a few UNC (United Nations Command) soldiers went to prune a tree that was blocking their view of Check Point #4 from Check Point #3. Even though the UNC soldiers had notified the KPA (Korean People’s Army) soldiers beforehand, 15 KPA soldiers appeared at the site and ordered the UNC soldiers to stop pruning the tree. The UNC soldiers ignored the KPA soldiers’ request, which caused the KPA to attack the UNC using the axes they had brought to prune the tree. Seventeen soldiers were left wounded, and two were killed. The tree was eventually cut down and replaced with a memorial for the murdered soldiers.
At the end of the tour, we passed by the Bridge of No Return: a bridge that crosses the Military Demarcation Line between the two Koreas and was used for prisoner exchanges at the end of the Korean War. After the war, many prisoners who were captured by the U.S. did not want to return home, so they were brought to the bridge and given a choice: they could stay in their country of captivity, or cross over to the other country. However, if they chose to cross the bridge, they weren’t allowed to come back.
Overall, my tour of the DMZ was beyond fascinating. The Korean War is a significant part of not just Korean history, but American history, too. Since I am American and have lived in South Korea for the last year, I’ve made efforts to learn more about the notorious war we helped fight, and visiting the DMZ was one of them. By visiting the DMZ, I was not only able to learn more facts about the Korean War, but I was able to see and feel the tension and hostility between the divided country. Never have I set foot on someplace so dangerous and evil, even if it was for only a short amount of time. And while the experience of doing so was extremely depressing and a little bit scary, it’s an experience I will always remember and one I will never regret having.