Tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
A few weeks ago, the tensions on the Korean peninsula were high, and between our parents’ constant inquires about the “situation in Seoul” and my “one line per day” five year journal, I was reminded that it had been more than a year since my visit to the “North.”
The DMZ, a buffer region running along the military demarcation line (MDL), roughly splits the Korean peninsula in half, across the 38th parallel. Despite the “D” in DMZ, it is the world’s most heavily militarized zone. I was kind of ambivalent about visiting the DMZ because it seemed like such a hassle to provide my passport information ahead of time, to arrive at the Yongsan U.S. army base so early in the morning, and to sit through a group bus tour. But, my friend Renee was hosting a foreign exchange student from Germany, and she needed an escort, so, I went. My visits to the Third Tunnel of Aggression (or Third Infiltration Tunnel) and the joint security area (JSA) were surreal, and it was definitely a unique experience (although, I think once is enough).
Several days before the tour, I received an email that detailed the rules of the tour as well as the dress code. Because the North likes to make propaganda videos about how poor the U.S. and the South are, visitors to the JSA are not allowed to wear clothes that are torn, have holes, or look “too worn” in general. Bare shoulders and shorts aren’t allowed either. And comfortable shoes (preferably sneakers) are recommended. When Alex went on his tour in 2012, he was told to wear comfortable shoes, in case “they had to make a run for it!” More interestingly, he was told that sometimes the soldiers from the UN and U.S. would take one bite out of hamburgers and toss them on the ground, to spite the North Korean soldiers!
Our first stop on the tour was the Third Tunnel, a long, infiltration tunnel. It’s called the Third Tunnel because it’s the third such tunnel to be discovered- it’s believed there are at least 10 more tunnels that have yet to be found. This tunnel is viewed to be the most threatening- the closest in proximity to Seoul, its end only 27 miles from the South’s capital. It was discovered by South Korean soldiers in 1978, but the North denied making the tunnel, saying it was made by the South to secretly invade the North. However, looking at the walls of tunnel and the direction of explosions used to make the tunnel, it’s fairly obvious that the tunnel was made from north to south. Supposedly, 30,000 soldiers could move through the tunnel, PER HOUR.
Donning hard hats, we started down the opening of the tunnel (large, at 2m x 2m). As we descended, the tunnel became smaller, darker, colder, and much more damp, and we had to hunch over to avoid hitting our heads (so, that was what the hard hats were for!). The walls were smeared with coal dust to disguise the tunnel as a closed coal mine shaft. For someone who is sort of claustrophobic, the third tunnel was eerie and I was happy to walk back up, towards the light.
The Dora Observatory was our next stop, from where we could see North Korea’s Propaganda Village. We weren’t allowed to take pictures (beyond a certain distance from the edge of the observation deck) but could pay and use binoculars to get a closer glimpse of the ghost town just across the border. Made to look like a well-populated town from afar, with cars driving down the streets and tall buildings, upon closer inspection, we could see that the same few military vehicles were driving in loops, and most of the buildings’ “windows” were either painted on or just openings in the concrete walls. Apparently the North has several of these fake cities…
Negotiations between the North and South have taken place in the Joint Security Area, JSA, since 1953. When we arrived at the JSA, we had to quietly form two single-file lines, and we were told not to show any sudden movements or speak unless we raised our hands.
There are several conference rooms in the JSA, and the MDL runs through the middle of them. In fact, the MDL bisects the conference tables inside the rooms, and therefore, I technically stepped into North Korea when I walked around to the other side of the conference table! South Korean soldiers stand stock-still, in tae kwon do positions. Don’t walk too close to one, because their arms will punch out, into a defensive pose (one girl on our tour learned the hard way!).
On a (scary) parting note, we learned that the North has artillery aimed at Seoul and claims to be able to level the city in eight minutes… That made us all feel a little uneasy… to be living so close to the most reclusive country in the entire world.