It is a moment in history that not only divided a nation but also the world. A war that pitted brothers against brothers and families were separated and never to be reunited. Thousands of lives wasted by a cruel fate forced upon them. It was the tragic tale of the Korean War.
Picture this. A border that stretches 241-kilimetres long and four kilometres in width. Inside those boundaries is what is called the demilitarized zone. The DMZ. An area where Military action is forbidden inside. As of today, it is the most guarded DMZ in the world, with a large number of military from both the South and North Korea protecting their boundaries.
A trip to South Korea is not complete without reaching out and soaking in a huge part of a nation’s history. It is like going to Ho Chi Minh City and not visiting Cu Chi tunnels, or going to Turkey and not visiting Gallipoli. You get where I am going with this. The world is a history, explore, learn it, be fascinated and see how far a country a comes since it hardship of the Korean War.
The DMZ tour
It starts at the fabulous Lotte Hotel in downtown Seoul, through Panmunjeon tours. By bus you are taken to Paju, a good hour from Seoul and right on the edge of the border. It is officially the start of the tour as you get escorted through various locations on your to the demilitarized Zone.
– The defector
The first thing I need to touch on is the North Korean defector who joined us for the first part of the tour. She was not allowed inside the DMZ for protection purposes. Her story is sad but truly brave. With her only child, she left her husband and family and escaped the borders of North Korea to China.
With the help of the South Korean goverement, she was able to set up life for herself and her child in Seoul. She openly admitted through translation that she would never see her husband again, who never would have supported her defection and she had kept her plan to flee a secret from him. She did however, harbour hope of uniting with her parents again one day.
Her story was brilliant and Inspirational for someone who wanted the best for her child and would risk her life to do so. For obvious reasons, pictures were not allowed to be taken of her.
– The Observatory:
The first port of call is to go the Observatory. It gives you the best view of the North, from the South. It starts with a mini slide-show about the Observatory and its history before taken to the top to take a look into a North Korean village through the installed binoculars.
The difference between the two countries, from the view point, couldn’t be more startling. The North Korean village has unfinished infrastructure, no roads and barely any trees at all as they have all been cut down to help with heating during the cold winter months. The locals can be seen out in the paddocks doing their duties mainly farming the old fashioned way, with hard labour and no machinery. You can’t help but think it is a village long forgotten by their own government.
– Imjingak Park:
Imjingak Park is next on the map. A tourist zone best known for its freedom bridge where the South Koreans crossed to come home after the signing of the Armistice agreement. It also the home of The Last Train, named appropriately, as it was the last train to cross into North Korea before the war ended. It has remained in its location ever since and is now a photo sensation for the tourist who visit daily.
Imjingak Park also has another Observation point to check in on those North Koreans, it doesn’t reach the great height of the Observatory but it is still worth a look. But it is a great place to stop and be a real tourist, with cafes, traditional Korean dancers and great insights on the history of the DMZ.
– Barb Wire Fence and Lunch
The one thing that is clearly evident in the tour is the barb wire fencing that stretches for miles. Inside the fence is the official The Demilitarized Zone, it is so close, but first there is one more stop before going into the border, Lunch is bulgogi, grilled marinated beef, at a restaurant near the border.
Next stop is into the DMZ.
– Entering the DMZ:
It is time to enter the DMZ itself, a war zone you could say. At the entrance to the DMZ, which is quite hectic at best. It starts with both United States and Korean Soldiers, getting aboard the bus and checking everyone’s passport (oh don’t forget your passport). From this point a US soldier is with the tour for the duration inside the DMZ.
– Camp Bonifas:
In the bus and within the DMZ, the cameras are put away, unless given permission to take photos of certain areas. You are guided in the DMZ, past the one-hole golf course, which Sports Illustrated once named the world’s most dangerous golf course. It got a good laugh.
The bus stops at Camp Bonifas and a group photo is taken. From there you go inside a buiding for a twenty-minute presentation on the history of Korean War and how the DMZ became. There are some real hard stories told like the bludgeoning of South Korean soldiers within the DMZ in the 1970’s with added pictures. It was quite chilling.
– Joint Security Area
Back on the bus, next is the Joint Security Area (JSA) and the famous blue buildings. You are so close to the North Korea side of the border and while you always feel safe, you can’t help but have a little fear. You walk into a building on the South Korean side, it is flanked by South Korean soldiers, standing guard, protecting us. On the other side of the building is the blue buildings. You look across past the blue building and North Korea is right in front of you, with their own soldiers, standing guard and looking directly at us.
Once inside the blue buildings, two South Korean soldiers are standing guard once again, they don’t move muscle, their discipline amongst tourist is admirable. You venture to the furthest point in the building, you are officially in North Korea. It feels strange, eerie even, if only for a few minutes. But I can reiterate how safe you feel the whole time.
Photos are allowed to be taken. Everyone is snapping away and posing next to the soldiers, it is incredible feeling. This moment is what you do the tour for and it is well worth being inside a huge part of history and to mention you have been to North Korea, even if doesn’t feel so real.
– Leaving the DMZ
The tour is concluding. The bus takes you on anther little tour within the DMZ area. We go past the historical “Bridge of no return.” The name came from the prisoner repatriation operations after the Armistice Agreement was signed. The prisoners were given a choice to either return home or remain on the side of their captors upon the agreement being signed.
Next up is the Taesung-Dong “Freedom Village.” A special village that has been farmed since before the Korean War. The only way you can live in this village is to be born in the village or married to someone from the village. Taesung-Dong is not blessed with technology of the South and belongs to neither the North or South. The population is understandably small.
The tour finishes back at the Bonifas Camp, where you can have a little shop in Souvenir store full of memorabilia of the DMZ, the war and you can even purchase North Korean money. It wraps up the tour before being taken back to the magnificent Lotte Hotel in Seoul, which takes a good hour. A nice to nap after an exhausting day.
If you ever visit Seoul, South Korea, take the DMZ tour you won’t regret it. It is history before your eyes.