North Korea is a place of intense intrigue. The world sits in collective curiosity about what goes on behind the borders of this country. What is it really like to live there? What does being at the border feel like? Although a lot of my questions could not, of course, be answered with a tour, it was definitely the start of building a further insight into North Korean life.
Having recently read Justice Kirby's United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korea, I was adamant that despite all the questions and curiosity I have, I would not visit the country itself. This is due to a personal reluctance to support the North Korean government with tourism dollars. However, after learning about Korean War and all the associated tensions for many years, a DMZ tour is something I could not turn down.
The Demilitarized Zone (or "DMZ") is the border between North and South Korea. Created in 1953, the border spans 250km from each coast of the Korean Peninsula, and is 4km wide. Within the DMZ lies the Joint Security Area (or "JSA") which is the connection between North and South, and provides a place for negotiations. By visiting the DMZ or JSA, you are not entering North Korean territory itself or providing money to the regime. I decided to go on a Half Day DMZ Tour with VIP Travel. Unfortunately, I was unable to go to the JSA as I was only free on a Sunday and the JSA only operates from Tuesday - Saturday. The guide for the day was Grace, a lovely lady who provided fantastic explanations throughout the day and patiently answered all the questions we had.
The day was a mixture of surreality, emotion, and learning. Among the bizarreness, there was a deep feeling of sadness for the enormous human suffering occurring here.
Imjingak Park and Freedom Bridge
From Seoul, we drove along a highway which had a tall, barbed-wire fence to the side. The wire was occasionally interrupted by a heavily-armed military guard post, complete with camouflage-clad South Korean soldiers. The road followed alongside the Imjin River, twisting and turning with the bends, with the land on the other side belonging to North Korea.
It was strange to see it with my own eyes.
After an hour we arrived at Imjingak, the last village before the DMZ, which has a park dedicated to consoling the families divided by the splitting of North and South Korea. Here is where the enormity of the impact sinks in. Thousands of families broken and displaced by the division.
Ribbons, flags, and ID cards, all covered with written messages of love and hope, cover the fences and flutter in the wind. The Freedom Bridge, a long white bridge over the Imjin River, is the former railroad bridge used for repatriation of POWs. It is a testament to the complexity of the long-standing tensions between these two nations. There are many parts of this site where photography is forbidden.
Ribbons lining the barbed-wire fence and Imjingak Park
Looking over the Freedom Bridge from Imjingak Park
3rd Infiltration Tunnel
The next stop on the journey was the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. It is one of four discovered tunnels built from North Korea into South Korean territory after the war. Made using dynamite with an unknown human death toll, the tunnel lies 73m below ground.
With a bright yellow helmet on atop my head, I descended into the tunnel. The wet and jagged sides of the tunnel still contained the holes used to place dynamite. As the walk down the tunnel continued, I was edging closer and closer toward North Korean territory. At the nearest point, it was just over 100m from the border.
Visiting the infiltration tunnels is not only a decent cardio workout, but it also provides an unparalleled insight into the tensions of post-War Korea. It explores the depths of espionage and sabotage, even in times of supposed peace. It was here that you first really notice the sounds of music and notices blared through a series of speakers. Grace explained that both the North and South play songs and notices, as well and exclamations of superiority, Apparently, at the moment, the South is winning in this battle of the broadcast due to superior technology.
You are not permitted to film or take photography within the tunnels themselves, and all belongings must be stored in a locker before entering.
The binoculars looking over the DMZ and into North Korea
The Dora Observatory is the crescendo of the Half-Day DMZ Tour. As the bus winds up the hill, a large camo-painted building makes its presence felt. The building (Dora Observatory), it turns out, looks like a military lecture theatre which overlooks North Korean land. Walking in there felt a little bit bizarre. Thinking back to my own closed-wall lecture theatres in Clayton, it was a little different to the panoramic view here over the world's most strict Communist State.
For 500 won, you can look through the binoculars over the North Korean territory. Although you can see the land and towns well without them, the binoculars serve well to actually see people and the details across the border. From this view point you can see the towns of Gaeseong and Songaksan, as well as the Cooperation Farm and a statue of Kim-Il-Sung. I could not see any people myself, although others in our group did, but was able to see the details of the flags and towns.
Overlooking North Korea from Dora Observatory. The photo is not clear, but to the right hand side is the town of Kijŏng-dong, or "Propaganda Village", with a 160m North Korean flagpole.
The town of Kijŏng-dong was the most prominent. Mostly due to the dominating 160m flagpole rising from the sky-blue and white buildings, with a large red, white and blue North Korean national flag waving surreally in the summer breeze. And just across the demarkation there was a slightly shorter flagpole proudly displaying the South Korean flag. Grace carefully recounted the tale of the flag poles to our group. The two sides contended to have the largest flag pole, constantly making their flag poles taller than the other. It all began with the 94m South Korean flagpole, which was countered with the North Korean 160m pole. Nicknamed the "Flagpole War", it is a blatant display of propaganda which, eventually, the North Koreans won. Or, as Grace explained, the South Koreans simply gave up on playing the game and let them have their win. The North Korean flag pole remains the fourth biggest in the world.
As at the Infiltration Tunnels, the South Korean propaganda speakers are blaring music and messages. Except at Dora Observatory it is slightly different, because occasionally you can hear the propaganda coming back from the North. It is more marching songs with a military and nationalistic feel, as opposed to the South which feels more like pop music.
Kijŏng-dong is nicknamed "Propaganda Village". I had heard quite a lot about this "Propaganda Village" so it was weird to see it in person. Although it is hard to know exactly what the truth is, apparently Kijŏng-dong itself is nothing more than a charade. The South Koreans claim that the buildings are uninhabited (having looked with telescopic lenses to find that none of the buildings contain glass in the windows, and no signs of life), whereas the North claims that it is a collective farm. It was all rather intriguing to view.
After finishing at the Dora Observatory, it was time to head to the final stop of Dorasan Station. It is the last train station in South Korea before the North. I had recently watched a video about the journey to Dorasan from Seoul so visiting here was an added bonus to the itinerary. Dorasan was built when tensions with the North were low and served as a train line across the border to ferry workers from the North to work in the South. However, since tensions have increased, the train line and factories have shut, leaving it empty of visitors. If the lines were open, this station would connect South Korea with the Trans-Siberian railway, and hence Europe.
The station itself is modern and clean, and it feels as though it should be packed with commuters. However, it is empty.
I bought a train ticket and headed to the platform to check it out. It was like any other station in appearance, except there was a looming and eerie feeling that it was rather different. The platform was empty aside from myself and several fully-armed Korean guards. It was hard to believe that only a few years ago this was an active station between South and North Korea, with hundreds of people passing through every day. There was a sense of optimism that one day it would again reopen.
A train ticket has to be bought to enter the Dorasan railway platform
The Dorasan Station platform, empty of people except for myself and several South Korean guards
Both the historic and present relationship between North and South Korea is tumultuous and complicated. Visiting the DMZ was a way to explore this relationship and dynamic without funding the regime. It was an eye-opening day and has prompted me to continue reading and further educate myself about the situation. I hope this post can demonstrate some of the complexities of the relationship and the DMZ itself, as well as provide assistance to those who also wish to visit the DMZ. For deeper reading about the occurrences in North Korea itself, I would strongly recommend reading the United Nations Commission.
The DMZ and JSA are part of a civilian controlled zone so can only be accessed by tour.
Tour options: Half-Day (4 hours) or Full-Day; can be DMZ only, DMZ plus JSA, or JSA only. JSA and DMZ tour is the recommended option.
Cost: between $40 and $200USD depending on the tour type and operator
Leaving from: Most tours leave from Seoul
Photography: allowed at many sites, but there are particular areas unable to be photographed. It is important to obey the signs as they will be enforced.
Dress codes: dress codes apply if you are visiting the JSA, but not the DMZ. Requirements will be supplied by your tour company.
Food and drinks: there are plenty of convenience stores at each point to purchase food and drinks, these are more expensive than buying it before the tour.
Have you visited the DMZ or have questions? Leave a comment below - would love to hear from you
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During my trip to Seoul, South Korea, I was a guest of VIP Travel on their Half Day DMZ Tour. As always, all opinions are my own. If you are interested in booking a DMZ Tour with VIP Travel make sure you check out their website.
Again, I will remind you that Travel Textbook in no way condones travel to, or financial support of, North Korea itself.