When planning our trip to Seoul, the only part of our itinerary I was certain about was a tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) running between the borders of North and South Korea. We had pre-booked a tour with Koridoor, which operates in conjunction with the non-profit United Service Organizations (USO) and is widely considered the most informative. Established in 1953 at the end of the Korean War, the DMZ roughly cuts the Korean peninsula in half along the 38th parallel. Running 250 kilometers from coast to coast, the DMZ is actually one of the world’s most heavily militarized borders. We hopped a bus from Seoul at 7:30am and headed north.
Our tour officially began at the Joint Security Area (JSA), a series of buildings located inside the DMZ and overseen by the United Nations Command (UNC). After watching a video about the history of the area and receiving a serious rundown of the safety protocols, we were led into one of the conference rooms that straddle the border. The Military Demarcation Line (DML) runs through the center of the DMZ, and by extension, straight through the room. A long table sat horizontally across the DML with a UNC flag directly in the center. Two ROK military guards stood stock-still inside the room, so intent that at first they appeared made of wax. We were allowed to step over the DML while in the room and spend a few controlled minutes “in” North Korea. Outside, North and South Korean soldiers stand facing each other, continuously, only meters apart, as they ensure that no one crosses the line. Though I felt safe behind the protective stance of the military, it was a surreal experience I won’t soon forget.
Our U.S. military escorts took us to see the Potemkin village North Korea constructed on its side of the border as a propaganda effort to encourage South Korean defectors. From years of monitoring, it has been determined that the buildings are hollow shells and the only people living in the village are those responsible for raising and lowering the flag. The North Koreans erected the 160-meter flagpole to best the 98 meter one on the South Korean side, and its 270 kilogram flag has to be taken down in inclement weather so it doesn’t rip under its own weight.
It is also possible to see the so-called “bridge of no return.” When the Korean War ended in 1953, thousands of prisoners on both sides were given the opportunity to return to their home countries or defect. They were brought to the bridge and given the option to cross, but once their choice to go over was made, there was no going back. The bridge is surrounded on three sides by North Korea and very heavily guarded. In 1976, a small work party attempted to cut down a tree on the South Korean side that was blocking the view of one of the check-points near the bridge. North Korean soldiers attacked and killed two U.S. Army officers in what would become known as the Axe Murder incident. Three days later, the U.S. and South Korean armies launched Operation Paul Bunyan, and with a terrific show of force, cut down that tree without further incident. A memorial stone now marks the spot of the tragic event.
After the DMZ was established, the North Koreans dug a number of tunnels underneath in preparation for an attack on Seoul. Four of these tunnels have been uncovered; we got to tour the third tunnel which was found in 1978. After donning yellow hardhats, we descended 350 meters to the tunnel via a sloped walkway. Going down was a lot easier than coming back up. Inside, the tunnel is wide enough for two people to stand shoulder-to-shoulder and is approximately 1,600 meters long. Be prepared to crouch while you walk as the ceiling isn’t that high. The South Koreans built two concrete walls to block the tunnel, with a massive water tank stored between the two walls. If the North Koreans ever breached the first concrete wall, the water tank would be exploded and the infiltrators would presumably drown.
I was prepared to be underwhelmed when we pulled up to Dorasan Station, the last stop of our tour. How interesting could a deserted train station actually be? Pretty darn interesting, as it turns out. The Gyeongui train line originally opened in 1906 and linked Seoul and Pyongyang until hostilities started in the 1940s. Dorasan Station was built as the northern-most station on that line within South Korea, with the hopes of one day reuniting the two sides. Between 2007 and 2008, this dream was realized as a commuter train started taking South Korean workers to and from the Kaesong Industrial Region 16 kilometers inside the North Korean border. Now the trains are restricted to carrying goods and the workers have to commute via highway. With the purchase of a train ticket, we were allowed to pass through the security gate and take goofy photos on the platform beside the idling train.