The DMZ is still an active military zone. // © 2013 Vacclav
Before I left for South Korea, I was often asked by friends and family, “Is South Korea safe?”
I was reminded of this question on my first day there, when I visited the barrier between North and South Korea known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Perhaps surprisingly, the atmosphere felt more like an amusement park than anywhere dangerous, yet I still felt unnerved looking through the barbed wire into the barren North from the fertile South. When the DMZ was set up 60 years ago, I’m sure no one could have guessed that it would become one of South Korea’s most popular tourist attractions, with more than 5 million visitors a year.
This 155-mile cease-fire line that slashes the peninsula in two was created at roughly the 38th parallel after the Korean War. Lined on both sides by electrified fences, armed sentries and land mines, it is a surreal place — it is both historically fascinating and a reminder that hostilities still exist. On the day I visited, people from all over the world poured out of tour buses and cars to visit Imjingak, a tourist area that was developed jointly by both countries in 1972. Here visitors can see monuments to the war, such as the Bell of Peace, the Gyeonggi Peace Center and the Bridge of Freedom that was built to free more than 12,000 prisoners in 1953.
To visit other sites besides Imjingak, visitors must book a tour either through the USO’s website or a travel company in Seoul. Many people want to visit the Joint Security Area (JSA), the abandoned village where the truce between North and South Korea was signed. Not every tour goes there, so agents should be sure to verify that beforehand. Sometimes tours are canceled, so pick a tour that gives a refund or rescheduling option. Also note that lunch is included on some tours, or visitors can bring a packed lunch.
Sights of the DMZ
On my tour, we were driven by bus along a road with greenery and wildlife on either side, since no development is allowed at the DMZ. We passed by JSA but, because talks were taking place between the North and South, we could not visit. There was still plenty to see, however, including the Dora Observatory, where we looked through binoculars at the North’s Kaesong city, and the Kaesong Industrial Complex, where the South and North used to do business until it was closed in April of this year by North Korea due to political tensions. The North and South agreed to reopen the zone in August, and thousands of North Korean employees went back to work.
We also saw the pristine Dorasan train station, a testament to the optimism of the South Koreans. They built the station hoping to have train service through North Korea to Pyongyang and into Russia one day.
Since 1974, four tunnels have been found in the DMZ that were constructed by the North in case of renewed fighting, although many more are believed to be still undiscovered. We visited Tunnel #3, which is over a mile long, 6½-feet wide and 6½-feet tall (in certain areas). It was designed to enable 30,000 soldiers to invade South Korea in just one hour.
Tourists can visit the tunnels either on foot or by taking a tram part way. We donned hard hats and took the tram down — occasional drops of water falling on our heads. We still had to walk part of the way into the tunnel, and I was happy to have a hard hat because I had to stoop over to walk in some areas, bumping my head at times. It didn’t hurt but it did give me a bit of a claustrophobic feeling.
I was glad that I visited the DMZ at the beginning of my trip, as it helped me better understand Korea. Reportedly 10 million families are separated by the DMZ, yet South Korean people continue to believe that someday there will be reunification. Visitors to the site come away hoping so too.