2km from North Korea – Visiting the DMZ

This morning Corliss and I left really early so that we could join a tour group visiting the DMZ (demilitarised zone), that lies across the border between North and South Korea. The most heavily guarded area in the world. You can only access the places we saw on as part of an official tour group, and you must abide by a dress code – genuinely because, if people are deemed to be dressed ‘shabbily’, photos can be used by the North as propaganda about how bad the South is.

Before we left, we had our passports checked and signed a document waiving our rights to sue the tour company and acknowledging our responsibility for all the risks involved (including paralysis and death). A good (early) start…

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The DMZ was established in 1953, at the end of the Korean war (1950-3) which killed 3.9 million civilians. In armistice agreements, the UN helped to determine a ‘military demarcation line’ (border) between the two halves of the Korean peninsula, and the DMZ comprises the 2km south and 2km north of that line. South Korean’s call their country ‘Han-guk’, which translates ‘great nation’ (similarly, the largest river in Korea is the Han River). But, as this tour made all too clear, this great nation is also a divided one.

Dora Observatory

The first stop on our tour, an observatory 150m above sea level, allowed us a view out over the area. It wasn’t a great day visibility wise (only about 70 days a year are clear), but the binoculars allowed you to pick out all that was on the maps.

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In particular, I was able to see the two ‘peace’ villages located either side of the line. One North Korean, and one South Korean, one mile separating them. The North Korean village is called Kijŏngdong and it is effectively a ghost-town, with just a people to maintain it. The South Korean village, Daeseong-dong, lies only 100m from the line, and is home to around 200 people. It is a village that existed before the war, and some of the residents chose to stay as the DMZ was set-up. Their living there is fairly perilous, and they must obey curfews and other restrictions, but nevertheless it remains their home.

In a childish game of one-upmanship, when at one stage South Korea built a 100m flagpole in the village, a short while later, North Korea installed a 160m flagpole. This flagpole was actually the tallest in the world for a decade (and the tallest flagpole now is not much higher, at 170m). Sadly no photos for you, as clear views could only be found by looking through the binoculars.

The most surreal part of this observatory was that this site was extremely loud. Both North and South Korea are engaged in a bizarre form of propaganda war, broadcasting music and speeches across the DMZ at each other. Being able to pick out the noise of North Korean propaganda beyond the roar of ‘Rudolph Red Nose Reindeer’ being blasted out is not an experience I’ll easily forget. The lyric ‘then one foggy Christmas Eve‘ was, weirdly, actually true – altogether though, the situation was truly incongruous. Also featured on the South Korean propaganda blast playlist was ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’, which, with the lyrics ‘good tidings we bring/ to you and your kin‘ wasn’t faring much better on the incongruity scale.

We smiled on.

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The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel

On the way to the second point of our tour we saw a military base, and we were informed by our tour guide, Vincent, as to the work they do there. They scan for landmines, of which there are 2 million apparently at large within the DMZ.

You can see a chapel in the photo, and there were also a couple of other crosses dotted around the different locations. When we were on the bus back to Seoul I was listening to Psalm 139 (by the Verses Project) and one of the lines goes ‘if I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol (hell), you are there‘. Seeing the chapel and those crosses was powerful. Even in the place of ‘ax-murder incidents’, situations that seem of hell, the Lord is present. The sign of the One who gives peace in the place where there is none.

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The 3rd infiltration tunnel is the third tunnel (you guessed it!) that South Korea found leading under the DMZ from North Korea. It is 1.6km long, running for 400m into South Korean territory. Going down the tunnel wasn’t the most fun as the tunnel isn’t so high in places and once you get to the military blockade 265m in, all you can do is turn back! But it was interesting to see the yellow marks showing dynamite holes, and the coal painted onto the surfaces (the reason North Korea gave for the presence of the tunnel was digging for coal – but it’s made of granite and a lick o’ paint wasn’t gonna help their case).

After walking up and down the tunnel itsefl, you have to go back up the walkway that allows to access the tunnel, which is a few hundred metres on a 20 degree incline. Our tour guide Vincent said that the walk up out of the tunnel hasn’t got any easier even though he’s been there a couple of hundred times. I believe him.

You can’t take anything with you when you go down the tunnel, so no photos were taken. Fortunately a) there isn’t all that much to see, b) they’ve built a little reconstruction outside, c) even though the reconstruction is only about 60% likeness and you wouldn’t be missing out, Corliss and I took a photo with the reconstruction.

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Dorasan Station

This is the last train station before North Korea.

If there was anything that represented broken dreams, this would be it. Appropriately, there is an artwork in the station named ‘Broken Dreams’.

Many South Korean families donated to the building of this station and the line that was built connecting it to points within the North Korean side of the DMZ – in particular, the city Gaesong (also visible from Dora Observatory). It was their way of contributing towards re-unification, part of their wish to be taken closer to being connected with North Korean family members. Seeing the list of donors made the pain of the division more stark, let me tell you.

The train-line was completed in 2007 and it ran weekday services to the Gaesong Industrial Complex. (This complex was the result of a deal struck in 1994 – machinery and equipment provided by South Korean companies in exchange for the cheap labour of North Korea, with payment for the labour made direct to the North Korean government. The train carried goods back to South Korea.) The train service ended just one year later after an incident whereby a South Korean citizen was shot by a 15 year old North Korean soldier. The industrial complex was shut down in Feb 2016 after the weapons testing by North Korea in January.

The dream for many is that someday the South Korean railway will be connected to the Trans Eurasian Railway Network. To not have to behave like an island which can only be accessed by boat or aeroplane.

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This dream of re-unification is also visible on the platform. There is a segment of the Berlin Wall, and a railroad cart that was manufactured in 1960 to operate across the East-West border of Germany. It is one of only three, and is on display because of the support of Zonengrenz Museum Helmstedt in Germany.

Either side of this segment of the Berlin Wall is a display, firstly showing the time it took for Germany to be re-unified – 41 years – and then a counter showing, in real time, the time passed since the division of Korea – currently 71 years.

Throughout the tour there was a strange tension in the information being presented. Different things swung between despair, apathy and optimism. (A video shown before the 3rd infiltration tunnel talked about the 3.9 million deaths and the tragedy of the division and then went straight onto saying the DMZ was a paradise and had really good wildlife?!) In the train station is a sign that says ‘Not the last station from the South but the first station toward the North’. I’m sure there are some days when Dorasan station feels much less like the latter and too much like the first.

Freedom Park

This was the final stop. Given the context told to us by Vincent – that this park was built by the South Korean government (before the other places opened) so that those separated from their family in North Korea could go and pay respects, in particular on New Year’s Day (Seollal) – I was expecting a memorial park space.

This was the first thing we saw.

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This place had convenience stores, make-up stores and food. This, I felt, was unexpected.

However, soon enough we were directed towards a monument and altar, which was much more like what I was expecting. You can see flowers placed on the altar in remembrance of those in North Korea. The seven stones behind the altar represent the seven provinces of North Korea. There are South Koreans who don’t know if their parents in North Korea are dead or alive, no information is ever exchanged.

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By the side of this was a monument to a TV programme which begin in 1983 and managed to reunite family members who lost each other in the war. It was hugely successful. The theme song ’30 years lost’ played with the press of a button on a sign. It can be found on YouTube here.

We had twenty minutes free time at this stop, and I decided to by a ribbon to pin to the many others, hung up on a barbed wire fence. Ribbon wishes for the re-unification of Korea. I think Vincent was quite touched by this because he came and asked to take a photo of me with the ribbon and said ‘now I will see you every time I come here’.

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And with that, the tour ended and the forty of us on the tour got ready to head back towards Seoul. I feel like I got on that bus a slightly different person. In spite of the smiles you see in the photos, the loss of the people of Korea had become real to me.

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