One of the most striking aspects about South Korea is that it is still technically in a state of war.
Its adversary is its neighbor North Korea, which speaks the same language and has almost the same culture but is ruled by one of the world’s most despotic and repressive regimes. The two sides were divided after World War II and fought a devastating war in the 1950s, the Korean War, which saw the US and the UN intervene on the South’s side while China took part to help the North. It’s a sad development that has become part of normal life for the South so that for instance, military service is compulsory for all male citizens and subway stations have bomb raid instructions.
The most obvious indicator of this unresolved state of war is the 250-km border between the two Koreas, which is heavily guarded by both nations’ military forces, with a no man’s land buffer zone between them, the demilitarized zone (DMZ). The name is ironic because the immediate boundaries on both sides are heavily militarized. It is possible to visit the DMZ or the border (or both) from Seoul on guided tours that you can easily book while there, as I did. Actually you can only visit the DMZ while on a guided tour. It’s probably the only military zone open to tourists.
I chose a tour that went to the S. Korean border of the DMZ and the stops included a tunnel which North Korea dug in the 1970s in order to invade the South, the South’s northermost train station, and an observation post that overlooks the actual DMZ and from which you can see into North Korea on a clear day. Other tours actually go into the DMZ to Camp Bonifas, a US-S. Korean base, and the Joint Security Area (Panmumjeom), a place in the center of the DMZ where both sides meet and sign agreements, and which features an actual exit point to North Korea, though of course nobody can go through it. I would definitely like to visit Panmumjeom if I return to Seoul.
As you leave Seoul to go north along the Han river, you’ll notice barbed wire fences along the side of the river and the area increasingly resembles a military zone.
The first place the tour took us was Imjingak, a park built for Koreans who were unable to return to their homes because of the division and which is now a major tourist destination. It features statues, a pool, a chain-link fence covered with ribbons and flags, the rusty remains of a train locomotive that had been destroyed during the Korean War, and the Bridge of Freedom, a small wooden walkway that spans a stream. Confusingly, there is a rail bridge that spans the nearby Imjin river that is also known as the freedom bridge because thousands of freed Korean POWs used it after returning from the North during the Korean War.
Before we headed further towards the DMZ on our bus, Korean soldiers came on board to check our passports, which are necessary to pass beyond.
Then we went to the Third Tunnel, one of four tunnels North Korea dug to attempt an invasion of South Korea in the 1970s. This tunnel was 1,635m in length and was intended to go to Seoul but fortunately was detected after a defector from the North told the South Korean military. The South Korean army then dug into this tunnel and the other ones, and blocked them with concrete. The impish North Koreans claimed that these tunnels were for digging coal and they painted the tunnels black to give off the appearance that coal was dug. Visitors enter the tunnel down a long, gently descending ramp wearing hard hats (a must!) and walk along the tunnel, with some parts painted black by those dastardly North Koreans, until you reach a spot that is blocked off. Photos are not allowed.
The main site is an observation post on a hill (Dora mountain) that allows people to look down into the buffer zone and to North Korea. Unfortunately the weather was rather hazy so I didn’t get a good view. You can take pictures of the entire post and from the back of the observation deck but photos are not allowed right at the lookout point, our guide, a short vivacious Korean called Dora said, because any reflection caused by cameras might be seen by North Korean soldiers and induce them to open fire. Scary stuff. Further along the sides of the observation post, there were South Korean gun posts dug into the hill with soldiers manning machine guns.
The last site we saw was a brand-new and hardly used train station, Dorasan, that was meant to service a North-South train line which does not exist yet and is basically is just a dream for now. It is the closest train station to North Korea and trains actually run to here, as of 2014, but not any further.
Imjingak, with the rail bridge to the North in the distance
Nobody can take photos from the edge but we can use the binoculars
Soldier posts at the side of the observatory
Dorasan station, meant to be for trains heading into the north. For now that remains a dream.
Soldiers guarding the station. Notice the sign in blue saying “To Pyongyang.”