Visiting the demilitarised zone (DMZ) in Korea was something I wasn’t too keen on doing when I first arrived. Why would I want to go as close to North Korea as possible? But as time went on, I came around to the idea of visiting. It is the only place like it on earth. Katie went on a trip there while she stayed and had come back with all of these facts and stories, which of course it tugged on my curiosity even more. Ramsey’s brother, Shariff, was visiting in late November and we decided it would be a great opportunity to go there together.
It was a very early start on Saturday morning, and after our taxi driver decided to take us on a tour of the city we finally made it to the meeting point at Camp Kim on the US army base. We signed in and were soon on the coach on our way north. As we left Seoul behind us the roads got quieter and quieter until it was just us cruising down the four lane motorway. We crossed a bridge which forced the bus to weave in between roadblocks and it felt like we really were heading somewhere quite intense. The bus soon stopped at the entrance to the army base and we waited; for ages. It seemed like no-one knew what was happening. We were a bit worried the trip had been cancelled. Just a week before a man had defected to the South by running across the Joint Militarised Area (JSA), maybe something else had kicked off? In the end, it turned out our soldier guides had just overslept and so we were finally on our way again. We were given a briefing by a sergeant that I literally didn’t understand a word due to the thickest of American accents, but he basically asked us kindly not to run across the border into the North.
We transferred buses and headed to the JSA. We had to line up in pairs, almost in a throwback to school days if the atmosphere hadn’t been so tense, and walked out of the Freedom House. In front of us stood the two blue UN buildings, guarded by South Korean soldiers. And there in front of us was North Korea, with its one guard standing outside Panmon Hall and looking back at us. We headed into one of the blue buildings and stood around the negotiating table. Technically as walked to the far side of the table we crossed the military demarcation line and were officially in North Korea with the door at the end of the room leading into the country itself. The South Korean soldiers in stood in completely emotionless and motionless, with black sunglasses hiding their eyes. They didn’t move the entire time we were there, whilst the microphones on the negotiating table apparently record 24/7.
Whilst we didn’t stay in the JSA for long, it certainly brought the war between the two countries to life for me. It was difficult to ignore the tension in the air and it really felt like anything could happen at any minute. The blissful calmness of my Korean friends, colleagues and students in Seoul seemed harder to comprehend after visiting the JSA.
Before lunch we headed to the most northern train station in South Korea, Dorasan, whose line runs directly to Pyeongyang. Standing on Unification Platform, it seemed unbelievable that such efforts had been made to reunify these two countries and yet not one train had made the journey to the capital of the North. After a canteen style lunch we headed to the Dora observatory, where we really could look out over North Korea. Using our binoculars we could actually see people working in the fields and riding horse and carts. They seemed so close and real, and yet a world away. In the 4km wide DMZ, North and South Korea each have a village, and from the Dora observatory we could look out into the North Korean village of Kijong-dong, or Propaganda Village, as it is known in the South. Whilst the North claim it is home to around 200 Koreans, it seems like the buildings are simply painted facades and that no-one actually lives there. It’s ridiculously tall flag pole was built just to be bigger than that in the south and for years stood as the tallest flagpole in the world, whilst blasting out propaganda music in the hope of enticing south Koreans to the north.
The last stop on our tour was to the Third Infiltration Tunnel which was dug by the North and discovered by the South in 1978, thanks to a North Korean engineer who defected. He said that at the time the North Koreans were digging around 20 tunnels into South Korea, but only 4 have been discovered. We headed down the steep incline and soon found ourselves walking along the narrow damp tunnel, our heads down to avoid hitting the ceiling. Parts of the walls were marked black in an attempt by the North to prove they had been tunnelling for coal. The tunnel was surprisingly long and I couldn’t imagine being forced to work in such an environment. Needless to say I was happy to make it back to daylight.
We were soon heading back to Seoul with the whole evening ahead of us, which would be filled by eating delicious “chon” and singing karaoke. It seemed hard to believe that a city so developed and full of life is so close to an area of such tension, guarding against a country that stands in stark contrast.