250 kilometres in length from coast to coast and 4 kilometres wide, the
Demilitarized Zone or DMZ divides North and South Korea roughly in half at the 38th parallel. The controversial DMZ draws over 3 million Korean and foreign visitors annually, and is one of the most unusual and interesting places I have ever toured.
Along with a half-dozen travellers, Rick and I exit South Korea's high tech, yet traditional capital city of
Seoul. Our matronly 60-ish driver, Mrs. Wong, handles our tour van like a jet-plane, while our guide Lee imparts facts: "This division between countries follows the original boundary decided by the USA and Russia at the end of WWII. During the Cold War, this border was a hotbed of tension.
The Korean War began in 1950 when the North invaded the South. In 1953, with international intervention, both sides pulled their troops back and DMZ borders were set with a 4 km buffer zone in between."
Shuttled from our van to a bus that is authorized to enter the DMZ area, we are taken to
Dora Observatory. No photos are allowed from the viewing platform, but for 500 Korean Won (50 cents CDN) crowds line up for a peek through a telescopic lens for any movement on the North Korean side. Instead we walk up the hill alongside the observatory where not-far-off barbed wire defines the South border and the no-man's-land beyond.
Dorasan Station is next. This $40 million structure was built in 2002 for inter-travel and freight between the countries in conjunction with the development of
Kaesong Industrial Complex, (located 10km inside North Korea). Owned by South Koreans, Kaesong utilizes the North's cheaper labour for the manufacture of items such as shoes and clothing. "For whatever reason," says Lee, "in 2008 the North Korean government chose another route for this collaborative economic venture - leaving this station as a useless shell."
We are the exception - tourists vying for photos with soldiers who, although appearing much younger, must be at least 18 to comply with 21 months of military service by South Korea between ages 18 to 35. Women's duty is optional. In North Korea 10 years of military service is mandatory for men, 7 for women.
It is onward to the 3rd
Infiltration Tunnel - out of the 4 (that have been discovered so far) dug by the North to invade the South. The 3rd Tunnel was found in 1978, based on tips from a North Korean defector. Its location is a mere 52km from Seoul. It runs through bedrock at a depth of 73m; the tube length is 1.6km, and it is approximately 2m wide and 2m in height - said to be capable of moving thousands of soldiers through per hour.
Chilled by more than cold damp air, I forge deeper and deeper into the tunnel with wet rubber mats underfoot and dripping rock walls; the hardhat I am wearing often clunks on an irregular piece of jagged ceiling rock. Before reaching the border, there is a barricade of stone with a small opening from which to see that the tunnel indeed goes on into North Korea. "The North claim the South dug the tunnel," says Lee, "but proof it was the other way around is the orientation of the blast lines and downward slope towards the North, so digging debris could be removed as the tunnel progressed." This slope is readily apparent by the way I propel down with ease and labour to get back to the entrance.
Our tour only passes by the village of
Panmunjom, located inside the DMZ. Known as the JSA (Joint Security Area), buildings lie on both sides of the Military Demarcation line (DML) separating North and South Korea. Some situated right on top of the dividing line is where the 1953 negotiations were held, and all meetings between the countries since. "There are currently 28,000 US military stationed in South Korea", says Lee, "and English language tours to the JSA are conducted by US soldiers".
Our last stop is a small theatre for a short historical documentary film, from which we glean that one of the few good things from this 60-year standoff is that the buffer zone between the fortified fences has morphed into an
Ecologists recognize it as one of the world's best preserved wild-life refuges with a vast array of plant, bird and mammals species - including some that are near extinction, such as the Amur Leopard.
The feeling of being at the DMZ is sobering and unsettling; what you don't see has more prominence than what you do see; it is the lurking unpredictability of ongoing tensions between the Democratic South and the Communist North. This remains one of the most heavily guarded zones on the planet with a long list of sporadic hostile outbreaks with casualties in the hundreds between 1953 to present day. The tour is a mix of history, today's reality, and hope for peace between nations.
South Korea's official name - Republic of Korea
Official name of North Korea - The Democratic Peoples Republic in Korea
Access to the DMZ must be arranged through one (of many) Government authorized tour companies. Companies offer variations of what the tour entrails, making it important to know exactly what the tour offers - (especially if it includes entering the village of Panmunjom and the JSA (Joint Security Area). Tour companies can and do suspend or cancel tours in the event of political tension or circumstances that would put tourists at risk - so confirm with your tour group that everything will go as scheduled up until the day of the visit.
Some basic rules for DMZ entry:
Bring your passport
Follow the strict regulations regarding photography in the DMZ area and JSA.
Check with your tour group about the dress code visitors must follow (basically dress conservatively and no military attire).
Know that children are usually prohibited from taking the tour
Most tours stop for lunch at a restaurant or military canteen along the DMZ. If not included in the tour price, you may want to bring money to buy food, or bring your own.
Irene Butler is an award winning travel writer and author of "Trekking the Globe with Mostly Gentle Footsteps" now on Kindle. Her articles have appeared in national and international publications. From their home base in Kelowna BC, she and her photographer husband Rick explore the world for six months of every year.