[personal profile] niori_1709
If there's one thing that pretty much everyone knows, it's that North and South Korea don't have the best relationship. Even when there's an apparently amicable (or, at least, neutral) relationship going on, it's still very contentious. If you were watching the news a few months ago, you know said relationship has been a bit more contentious than normal. That said, I'm not here to talk about the international politics of North Korea (as fascinating as the topic is). I'm here to tell you all about the DMZ, and while I will go into some detail about the relationship between the north and the south, it'll (mostly) be in a more historical context.

The Demilitarized Zone was established at the end of the Korean War, back in 1953. It's an expansive, fairly underdeveloped area that covers either side of the boarder. There's a two mile no man's land that goes from the actual boarder to the edge of the DMZ. With the exception of two very small 'peace villages' (fifty people max) on each side, no one but military personal go into that zone. After those two miles, on the South Korean side anyway, it's not only a tourist (yet still underdeveloped compared to many other areas of the country) area or place where they is a high military zone, but there's also towns and a permanent population. If it wasn't for the military checkpoints, barbed wire and landmine signs, it'd be just like any other area of Korea I've visited. In fact, because the DMZ is so underdeveloped and tightly controlled, it functions as nature preserve. While it's not an official designation , a number of rare species have possibly found a home there. Some very rare animals, including the Korean tiger, amur leopard, Asiatic black bear and both the red-crowned and white-naped cranes, are thought to live in the DMZ.

Oh, and fun fact? If North Korea were ever to starting bombing South Korea, the DMZ is actually the safest place to be in Korea. The reason? A good chunk of the tourists who go to the DMZ are from China. North Korea isn't going to risk losing their one ally by killing their nationals.

There are two main areas of the DMZ (three, if you count the area in North Korea itself, the Joint Security Area and Panmunjom, but you can only get thee with one of the officially sanctioned tour groups). There is a lot of ground to cover, so you usually tackle one of those areas. The group I went with did both areas in one day. Because of the sheer amount I need to talk about, I'm going to divide my guide to the DMZ into two parts. This month I'll cover the The Jin Gok Area, and next I'll cover the Cheol Won Area.

We started out at the Freedom Bridge, where prisoners of war were traded at the end of the Korean War. The bridge is blocked by a wall at the end, but you can walk partway on the bridge. The area around the bridge was made up really nice, with a lovely sitting and walking area. There are also quite a few monuments in the area, including a monument to the veterans of the Korean War. The other really interesting monument was the Stones of Peace Wall. It is a glass encased wall that has individual stones placed on it. The stones are from battle fields all over the world. These stones aren't only from recent battles, but from as far back as the Second Punic War (a war fought between Rome and Carthage between 218-201 BCE). There was even a rock from Canada, though the explanation plaque said a civil war (I'm assuming it was one of the English/French battles from before Canada became Canada).

The Peace Bell is one of the other main attractions at the Freedom Bridge site. It's a traditional dharma bell in a traditional pagoda building that was erected at the end of the 20th century in hopes that the 21st would bring the re-unification of the Korean peninsula. That's something that the Korean people talk about a lot, and not only at the DMZ. All the tours I've taken have talked about the hope that one day Korea will be unified again.

The final thing to see at the Freedom Bridge is a rusted, beat up train with countless bullet holes. Back during the Korean War, it was a supply train that got ambushed by the Chinese communist forces (North Korea's allies). They shot it up pretty bad, and they eventually destroyed it when they stopped at a station. Quick history lesson: Back after the U.S joined the Korean War, it looked like it was going to be over fairly soon. They even managed to take land within North Korea. Just when it looked like it was getting over, North Korea revealed that it had allies of its own. China joined the war, and blindsided the other side. The war only got bloodier from there, and went on for another three years.

After the Freedom Bridge, we hopped back on the bus and headed to the Third Tunnel of Aggression. Back in 1974, the South Koreans noticed some suspicious things going on, namely steam rising from the ground and unusual seismic activity. Upon investigating, they found that North Korea had dug a tunnel under the boarder. That was the first incursion tunnel they found. Since then, they've found three more, the last in 1990. While they're not big enough to let big equipment pass through, but it would have allowed a full infantry division to get to Seoul, and to do it quickly, if war ever broke out again. North Korea claimed that they were mining tunnels, but the lack of coal pretty much proves they were lying through their teeth.

The tunnel we went to was Tunnel Three (there are four in all, but only Two, Three and Four are open to the public). This tunnel was discovered in 1978, and was found because a North Korean defector tipped them off. In fact, a North Korean defector often speaks to tour groups in the area, though it's only in the afternoon (we went in the morning, which means we missed him). Before entering the tunnel, we watched a video explaining the history of the aggression tunnels and then walked through a small museum on the same topic. I can't recommend enough to do them both. It gives the tunnel some much needed context and depth. The tunnel itself is brutal (I mean that in a physical sense). You walk down a very, very steep incline for a good five minutes before you get to the actual tunnel. Then, it's a long, low rock tunnel that goes on for another five minutes, where it reaches a dead end (the rest of the tunnel has been completely blocked off by the South Korean military). I literally had to walk hunched over for the entire passage, and if you're claustrophobic, the tunnel is not the place for you. It was interesting, don't get me wrong, but I don't think it was worth the nearly ten minute, steep. uphill hike back to the top. If you're not in fairly good shape, I don't recommend going down into the actual tunnel. For me anyway, the history behind the tunnel was much more interesting than the tunnel itself.

After Tunnel Three, we went to the Peace Observation Deck. The first thing you do is go inside and watch a quick film that explains all the highlights you can see from the deck. It's helpful, because otherwise you wouldn't know what you're looking at. There are binoculars, both on the inside and outside deck, which makes viewing easier. Here's where the fact that it was foggy really sucked. There are a ton of things to see, but I couldn't see any of them. Though I couldn't see any of the sights myself, the main things to see are interesting ones. You can, of course, see North Korea (mostly mountains), which is the main draw. You can also see the Peace Village, a couple of North Korean towns, and on a particularly clear day, see North Koreans going about their daily lives.

The Gaesung Industrial Complex, which is in the Kaesong Industrial Area, can also be seen from the tower. More context: It's an industrial complex built in 2003, when South Korean companies were given permission to build in the territory of North Korea, and hired both North and South Koreans (mostly North Koreans). It's cheap labour for the companies, and a source of foreign currency (the workers' wages are paid directly to the government). This is the complex that North Korea closed a few months back.
You can also see the North and South Korean flag poles, which is kind of a funny story. Back in the 80s, South Korea built a flag pole to fly their flag. Not to be outdone, North Korea went and built there own, making sure that it was taller. So tall, in fact, that it was the tallest in the world until 2010. That's just so comical that it boarders on ridiculous.
Believe me, it was very disappointing that I wasn't able to see any of these things. That said, it's an excuse to go back, so there's always that silver lining.

After the observation deck, we went to Dorsan Station. It's the train station that marks the end of the line of the rail road that goes into North Korea. Back in the 90s, there was a period called "The Sunshine Policies", which was the best relations between the north and sould had had in a long time. There was open dialogue and joint projects, such as Dorsan Station. Dorsan Station currently takes the South Korean workers to the industrial complex, but that's all it's used for. You can go inside the station, and even get a passport-like stamp to mark your visit, but the train itself is off limits. The railroad would have eventually connected with Seoul, and would have made both Koreas connected to the Transcontential Railway. If that had happened, a person could have hopped on a train in Seoul, and eventually got off in Portugal. Alas, it was not meant to be. Sadly, any and all Sunshine Policy ended resolutely when the U.S named North Korea as part of the Axis of Evil. As the current tense political situation shows, things have gone a bit down hill from there.

It's actually a little sad, standing in big, nearly empty Dorsan station. It's a symbol of what could have been. It represents a dream of a unified Korea, and it's a dream that fell through. It's possibilities that never came to pass like they should have, and I think the world is poorer for it.
So there you have it- part one of Nicole's Travel Guide to Korea's coverage of the DMZ.



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