The DMZ - Korea
Riding the Seoul subway I am reminded of the fact that the two Koreas, North and South, are still technically at war. Gas masks and breathing apparatuses adorn major stations, signifying the pressing risk of dirty warfare tactics from the North.
The story of the separation of Korea is as intellectually fascinating as it is deeply saddening. After 35 years of colonial oppression in the early 1900s by a ruthless Japanese Empire, freedom to the people of the Korean peninsula came in the form of proxy puppet governments from the East and the West. Not a unified and independent people, but an ideological battleground of the Cold War. An arbitrary division at the 38th parallel decided who would live under either a communist or capitalist society.
Families divided. One, now two. Overnight two identical apples were redefined as a red apple, and a blue apple. Imagine, the street that you live in being divided into two by a fence. One enjoys prosperity, one authoritarian oppression. And, you were never able to see your best friend, from across the street, ever again.
I think the easiest way to explain why North Korea is, as one Australian newspaper put it during the 2012 London Olympics, ‘naughty’ and that South Korea is ‘nice’ is with the following image of the artificial light on the Korean peninsula.
It is a simply stunning image as to the greater degree of economic development that will result in a democratic, free market system of governance, as opposed to authoritarian central planning. Stunningly, both North and South started out of the blocks jointly - one chose reclusiveness and communism, the other freedom. The result is a no brainer.
This little preamble is admittedly a scratch on the surface of the current state of play of geopolitics in the region. This post is not an assessment of that. Rather, a tale of how the intense multifaceted nature of the Korean question led me to travel to the hotspot of conflict and tension - the DMZ (De-militarized zone), about an hour north of Seoul.
The DMZ, a four kilometre stretch spanning either side of the Military Demarcation Line - created in 1953 upon the signing of the armistice between the UN, North Korean and Chinese forces - is the site of tension, the site of intra-Korean diplomacy and an amazing ecology.
First the ecology. Between the industrialised south and deforested wasteland of the north, the DMZ offers a safehaven (and a rare last glimpse) of pure Korean natural beauty. It is largely uninhabited ground, and thus provides a perfect setting for nature to thrive - including several species of endangered flora and fauna. I guess a corny poet might write; ‘the ecology is the beauty born from the horror, like a forrest after fire’. More info from the Guardian here.
The good stuff; the geopolitical DMZ and what you see on a tour from Seoul!
Tours are really the only way to go. There are many companies offering the trip, from half day to full day trips. A and B are both half day trips, but you can combine them to make a full day with lunch in the middle.
A) DMZ Tour - covering the following:
Imjingak Park and Freedom Bridge - the solemn park dedicated to divided family members. A site where southern families come on national holidays in memory of loved ones across the border.
The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel (incl. the DMZ theatre) - a trip down one of the four (known) tunnels the North has dug in an attempt to subterfuge the South. Not for those with claustrophobia, the 73m deep tunnel is just big enough for a huddled over white guy to get a really good feeling of the efforts the North have gone to in the past. And, a good example of some of the sillier things the North have done, i.e.; painting the walls of the tunnel with coal when they were discovered by the South in an attempt to argue the tunnels were merely old coal mines. The DMZ theatre provides a good historical overview of the current and historical state of play.
Dora Observatory - provides a great view into North Korean city of Kaesong, including the Kaesong Industrial Region: the only cooperation of any form between North and South Korea…i.e. South Korean companies using cheap North Korean labour to make textiles - win for all!
Dorasan Station - the last stop in South Korea before a train can, theoretically, enter North Korea.
Looking towards North Korea
No trains run. But, the hope upon reunification is ever present in the minds of the South!
B) JSA (Joint Security Area Tour) - this is the real deal, and is a must! It covers the area in which armistice administration and negotiations occur between North and South. This is the only area in Korea in which North and South Koreans come into close and regular, though always official, contact. And offers a chance to head into North Korea (technically)!
Obviously, tourists are taken through the UN forces side from Camp Bonifas. It is administered by UN forces (mainly South Korea and US, both others as well) and includes a briefing at Camp Bonifas as well as visting the JSA.
The highlight has to be the Conference room and viewing the whole set up from the South side. It is a tense situation - the South soldiers staring down the North side in their semi-offensive stances. The North, on the other hand, seem to be chilling. At my visit, their was only one North Korean soldier overtly visible - just having a look at us with some binoculars.
JSA tours usually include a visit to the Bridge of No Return and the site of the Axe Murder incident. Though due to the recent heavy rain, and the flooding of the Imjin river, this was not available on the day I toured.
Should you go?
Yes. This is a no brainer for anyone at least mildly interested in geopolitics, or the fate of the world generally.
How to do it? X Point
- Do both tours. A provides the background, B the exciting JSA area. Individually they are between $60-$80 USD, together about $120 (incl. lunch).
- BOOK AHEAD! You need to book at least 3 or 4 days for security checks, but the tours often book out so if you know you are going - book.
- Book early in your stay in Seoul! Tours often get cancelled for security or weather reasons. If you book your visit at the start of your stay in Seoul, you will have time to reschedule if the tour can’t run on your selected day.
- Read. Most of the basic information is given, you don’t need to know anything. But it will enrich your experience if you know a bit about the current geopolitical situation.
- Who to book with? There are a couple of options. The best is the USO (US United Services Organisations) but this books out months in advance. Otherwise, there are plenty that you can find by googling online. I went with TourDMZ.