The Korean peninsula is home to the world’s most heavily militarized border. Separating the two Koreas is the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. It is 250 km (160miles) long, and 4km (2.5 miles wide). It runs from coast to coast, dividing the peninsula roughly in half along the 38th parallel. It’s also a hot tourist destination.
Many tour companies offer DMZ tours but only a select few include a trip to the Joint Security Area (JSA). The JSA is the famous bit where the blue United Nations buildings straddle the border, and North and South Korean soldiers stand face to face. I didn’t want to miss the JSA.
My friend and I joined our tour at Camp Kim, one of the American bases in Seoul. The bus left Seoul and headed north. The road followed the Han river, and as we approached the DMZ, the landscape became increasingly rural. And increasingly militarized. The shoreline was lined with high barbed wire topped fences, and manned guard posts appeared with increasing regularity.
The first stop on the tour was the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. South Korea has discovered 4 of these tunnels so far, although they believe there are many more. The tunnels cross under the DMZ and are believed to be part of a North Korean invasion plan.
The third tunnel visitors’ centre was mayhem. There were hundreds of hard hat-wearing tourists all jostling for a place in the line-up for the tunnel. The tunnel was accessed by a long, steep walkway which was just as busy as the tunnel itself. To be honest, the tunnel wasn’t particularly interesting. It was just a tunnel, 73m below ground. For some reason, we weren’t allowed to take pictures.
The intended use of the tunnel, and the fact that there were potentially several more as yet undiscovered tunnels was terrifying. Although I have to say that North Koreans must be tiny because I had to bend myself almost in half to get through the tunnel.
Next stop was the Dorasan train station. It’s a lovely, modern train station in the middle of nowhere. They have high hopes that one day, people will travel freely between the North and the South…
After lunch, we headed to the JSA. At the JSA gates, we were required to change from our original bus to a blue (presumably UN blue) bus. We were also only allowed to bring our passports and our cameras. Our new bus came with a young American soldier/guide.
Once we arrived at the JSA, we were required to sign a release form. With increasing amazement, I read through the document that had presumably been issued by some sort of government body. Not only was it riddled with spelling mistakes, it was also frequently grammatically incorrect.
“Please don’t tell us there are mistakes,” our young soldier guide implored. “We already know. We printed off about a million copies before the mistakes were noticed; we just have to use these papers up.”
I signed it with apprehension. Did spelling mistakes render contracts invalid? I didn’t know. Did I really want put my life in the hands of people who couldn’t even spell ‘Army’ properly?
At the JSA, one of our soldier guides gave us a fascinating briefing on the history of the DMZ. Impressively, he had memorized the entire briefing and delivered it at the same speed and volume used by officers on parade squares.
“TheKoreanwarbeganin1950. [deep breath] Afterthesecondworldwar,theJapanesecolonialperiodeneded…”
After the briefing, we headed out. I have to admit, I felt a little bit nervous. Once we passed through the doors, there would be actual North Koreans with actual guns. Yikes.
After the JSA, we boarded our blue bus and went for a drive along the DMZ. Our guide explained that while the border itself was HEAVILY militarized, the DMZ (2km on the South Korean side, and 2km on the North Korean side) were supposed to be weapon-free. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, plant and animal life in the DMZ has flourished, and all sorts of endangered species live there.
We drove past the Bridge of No Return, where at the end of the Korean War, POWs on both sides were given the choice: “Stay where you are or go to the other side. But once you make your choice, you can’t go back.” I bet it was a difficult choice for some of them.
Last on our trip was the memorial to the 1976 Axe Murder Incident.
Apparently soldiers from the JSA were attempting to trim a large tree to improve visibility between guard posts when they were attacked by North Koreans. Two American soldiers were hacked to death in the ensuing confrontation.
This is clearly an important story in the history of the DMZ as we heard it five times over the course of the tour. As a human being, I was appalled at the senseless violence and tragic loss of life. As an English teacher, I was puzzled by the language choices. “He was brutally axe murdered by the North Koreans.” Was there a kind and gentle way to hack someone to death with an axe? Surely ‘brutal’ was implied in the words ‘axe murdered.’ And while we were on the topic, was axe murdered a verb?
The last stop on the tour was the DMZ museum and gift shop. Once again, the Axe Murder Incident was brought to our attention with this amazingly detailed diorama,
The gift shop contained all sorts of interesting things. Perhaps you’d like a UN blue JSA beach towel? No? What about a plaque-mounted piece of genuine DMZ barbed wire? A model of a South Korean DMZ guard? A bag of rice grown close to the DMZ? What about DMZ chocolates shaped like eggs from the dove of peace?
It was a fascinating day out but all the tour buses and souvenir shops made me wonder if the DMZ was a war zone or a tourist trap.