Jan 31

DMZ Tour

by in Travel

DMZ01According to William, our guide with When in Korea (WinK) Tours, the safest place in all of Korea is actually the Demilitarized Zone. This may in fact be true because there are so many international tourists on DMZ tours at any given time that North Korea would not dare cause trouble with so many countries all at once.

The DMZ is a buffer zone between North and South Korea, running along (or near) the 38th Parallel and, despite the name, is the most heavily fortified piece of real estate in the world. Approximately 4 km (2.5 mi) wide and splitting the width of the peninsula, the DMZ was created in 1953 as part of the Korean Armistice Agreement between North Korea, United Nations Command forces, and the People’s Republic of China.

As far as DMZ tours go with WinK, there are two main areas to explore. First, there is the Im Jin Gak area to the northwest where we viewed  the Freedom Bridge and across it, Infiltration Tunnel #3. Also, we spent time on the the observation deck where you can vaguely see the Gaesung Industrial Complex and a few North Korean towns. If you are lucky like we were and use the provided binoculars, you can even see some actual North Koreans milling about. Outfitted with hard hats, we made the brief decent into the tunnels and the reality of the tensions that still remain in the region as no official truce has ever been signed.

Then there is the Cheol Won area which is about 1 hour to the East from Im Jin Gak and due north of Seoul, where we went up on  a very nice observation deck via monorail, before descending into Tunnel #2. A total of four infiltration tunnels under the DMZ were discovered in the mid-70s. According to Jim Sides’ book, Almost Home, North Korea claimed upon their discovery that the tunnels were actually being used for coal mining. However, no coal has been found in the tunnels, which are instead dug through solid granite. Some of the tunnel walls have been painted black to give the appearance of anthracite, and it is quite something to think of the countless hours spent by North Korean soldiers digging these tunnels in secret.

(Please click on each image below to view full size or as a slideshow)

The tunnels are instead widely believed to be for a military invasion from the north. Although a bit claustrophobic, each shaft is large enough to permit the passage of an entire infantry division in one hour. Though the tunnels are not wide enough for tanks or vehicles, it is scary to think of them ever being used to stage a secret invasion of an unsuspecting south. After reemerging, we enjoyed a brief lunch of Dolsot Bibimbap (my favorite), and then hiked down into a beautiful ravine nearby. The real tragedy was the desolate feeling of the area which is primarily gorgeous farmland and marshy wetland filled with wildlife oblivious to the tension and significance of the area.We also saw a statue of Im Kuk Jeong, the Korean Robin Hood before being treated to a battlefield lecture where a highly animated and enthusiastic English-speaking soldier gave us a great history and visual tour of the landmarks of the area. The only upside to the area may be that because of its military designation, the area has been allowed to return to a more natural and undeveloped state, with birds and wildlife returning to what was once a ravaged war zone.

The main difference between the two tour locations is that Im Jin Gak area is more famous and heavily traveled. With the main bridge that would connect north and south as a gateway to the Gae Sung business complex, as well as to Panmunjum and the more crowded and developed areas. With a theme park for kids, souvenirs, food stalls (including Popeye’s), and coffee shops, this site has much more more (surreal) tourist-trap fanfare. The Cheol Won area was much more conservative and has preserved more of the way this beautiful region has been for decades. Also, in this area they were more lenient regarding picture taking and direct observation across the border. Most people say this part of the DMZ is much better, but its really difficult to skip the more famous Imjingak side for comparison and both can be easily accomplished in a well-planned afternoon.

Overall, our tour guide was friendly and knowledgeable, but the tour (though exhausting) was not as complete or informative as I would have hoped. The benefit of going with a travel and culture group like WinK was the casual and friendly nature of the guests on the tour, as well as the reasonable cost of about 50,000 KRW. Our tour guide was also able to relate the history from a more personal viewpoint, which was refreshing and free of  the editorialized propaganda that surrounds the real story of Korea. Most tour books recommend taking U.S.O.-organized trips instead, and if you are only in Korea for a short time, I recommend exploring some of the tours they offer, particularly to the Joint Security Area. Be sure to make reservations at least a month in advance, however, as these popular and well-run tours book fast and require time to complete a check of all proper credentials.

 

If you go, be sure to bring your Alien Registration Card (ARC) and passport. Also, be sure to pay close attention to signs permitting photography and sightseeing areas if you want to avoid a potential international incident. There is no dress code except that you should not be wearing something obscene, inflammatory, or anything that could be a problem walking about in Seoul. The floors of both tunnels were damp and were highly uneven surfaces, so certain types of shoes (like high heels) would not be advised and hikers or boots are actually preferable.

After all my time living here, this was the one destination that I was glad to scratch off my “Bucket List”. It was a long and tiring day by the time our bus dropped us off back in Seoul, but for the price and the experience, I can’t imagine coming all the way to this part of the world and not taking the opportunity to glance over the border safely into a mysterious, tragic, and altogether foreign land.

DMZ from Matthew M. Vacca on Vimeo.

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