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  • Day28

    Visiting the DMZ

    September 24, 2019 in North Korea ⋅ ☀️ 23 °C

    A guided day trip today, and one that I'd been excited for since we first booked the trip: we were going to the DMZ, the De-Militarized Zone that sits aside the "Military Demarcation Line", the border between North and South Korea. The last vestige of the cold war.

    Quick bite from a bakery, subway a few stops away, and we were on our bus with about 30 others heading north out of Seoul. Apartment buildings gave way to fields, and then a riverbank which was lined with barbed wire and studded with guard towers. Parts of North Korea ran along the far side (a long way off), but I guess it's still considered a potential avenue of attack.

    After an hour or so we arrived in the general area which is surprisingly close to Seoul, only about 50km or so. After passport checks, the first stop was the observatory. This is outside the DMZ but just near it, sitting on top of a tall hill. Here we watched a movie about Korean war, then headed out on the terrace where a bunch of binoculars were set up and you could see fairly clearly into North Korea, still a few kilometres away.

    It was fairly easy to pick out various NK guardposts and towers, and I even saw one guard leave his hut to pee in the bushes (well that's what it looked like he was doing anyway!). You could see Kaesong as well, the third largest city in NK, though not much action was happening. Occasional guys on mopeds, one platoon of soldiers, and at one point I saw some people in a bullock-cart. You could vaguely make out the Joint Security Area as well, which we'd get to later in the day.

    Next up was the Tunnel. This was a long tunnel underneath the border dug by NK that was only discovered in the 1970s after information from a defector. The tunnel runs several kilometres under the border about 70 metres below ground, emerging in a wooded area south of the DMZ. I think the idea was to deploy troops behind enemy lines in a surprise attack scenario; this was the third tunnel found and it's suspected there might even be hundreds more.

    Unfortunately for us it was absolutely crawling with Chinese tourists! There must've been at least 50 bus loads of them, and the queue to enter the tunnel was a hundred meters long. After a brief survey of the bus, we decided to alter our itinerary for the day.

    So next we ended up at the train station. This is on the old north-south railway line that runs through Korea. The station was built in the early 2000s when relations were thawing - the Hyundai corp and both governments set up a joint industrial complex just across the border, and this is where workers would pass through going back and forth. Eventually it all fell apart and the station is disused these days, though it still remains as a symbol of hope. It's also the only overland way of leaving South Korea.

    We also visited a cafeteria here for workers in the reunification ministry and had lunch; a bit expensive but I loaded up my plate to get some serious value.

    We returned to the tunnel and found the place almost deserted, I guess all the Chinese had departed for the local Chinese restaurant for their lunch! So the tunnel was completely empty when we went in - a bloody long walk! It was quite small as well, only about 1.5m in height so quite uncomfortable for me to walk in. Even by NK standards it's small - our guide said the average Northerner is 5'6", though the guards they put on the border are always 6-foot plus!

    Tunnel finished, it was back to the bus where we headed for the Joint Security Area, the spot controlled by the UN and US forces, along with guys from the ROK army. This is the spot where the blue huts are located, and where recent peace talks took place between North and South (and Trump also visited here).

    Armed only with cameras and passports, we boarded a US Army bus accompanied by several soldiers and finally actually entered the DMZ - everything else had been outside of it. One village from each side is allowed within the DMZ, so we drove past where about 200 people live within a kilometre of North Korea. They don't pay taxes and are excused from conscription, so it's a good deal for them. The highest flagpole in South Korea is here, a gift from some country or another; though of course the highest flagpole in the Korean peninsula sits just across the MDL in the North Korean village. Of course!

    Finally we arrived at the JSA, where after another quick briefing we were escorted out into the blue huts area. There's actually five buildings there - three blue ones controlled by the UN and US, and two silver ones controlled by North Korea. Though apparently they don't use their ones. There was the border, right there, only a few metres away. We went into the central building, where many peace talks over the years have taken place.

    The border runs directly through the centre of the room, so crossing to the far side technically puts you into North Korea. Technically. I still went! They showed us a few other highlights, like some bullet marks from when a NK defector drove his jeep across the border back in 2017. A peace tree planted by Kim Jong-un and President Moon. A blue bridge that's a shortcut to the UN camp nearby.

    While we were being escorted around, a group of North Korean soldiers had come out onto the balcony of their building overlooking the area and were keeping watch. Most likely they were running a tour as well, which they apparently do a couple of times per day for rich Chinese visitors. Close enough to hear them talking! We were under strict instructions not to wave at them though, and technically any sort of fraternising without express permission is considered a crime in South Korea.

    So we just looked, then headed back for the bus back to Seoul.

    Last stop for the day was a quick visit to Seoul's N Tower. It's a tall TV-transmission sort of observation tower sitting on a hill in southern Seoul. It's apparently quite a nice spot to see the sunset from the top, but we decided to walk up and couldn't quite find the entrance to the park it's located in, so in the end we missed it! Great view though. Back home where we had 7-11 noodles for dinner - it's been an expensive day.
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    Trish Forrester

    Nice view!

    10/8/19Reply
    Trish Forrester

    Very interesting day. I think I would have been a bit on edge!

    10/8/19Reply