Exploring Korea’s Demilitarized Zone
For many people, North Korea is the last place they’d choose to travel to. For me, venturing into the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the strip of land that acts as a buffer between North and South Korea, was exactly where I wanted to go.
I was in South Korea when the bombastic rhetoric between North Korea and the United States was in the news. Interestingly, when I asked people in Seoul about the situation their comment was: “It’s the same old story. We’ve lived with it for 60 years.” I couldn’t help but be curious about the DMZ that separated one of the most progressive societies from one of the least.
There are a few ways to visit the DMZ: by car to Imjingak, by train to Dorasam Station, or simply by booking a tour. Needless to say, booking a tour is the easiest. Take your passport and remember the DMZ sites are closed on Mondays and national holidays. Here are five highlights not to miss.
This station was built in 2002 to connect North and South Korea but it was only operational for a short time. A few trains arrive each day from Seoul. I found the station a bit surreal. It was sparkling clean and modern but devoid of people while I was there. It is a good place to buy postcards.
Imjingak Park was built so refugees from North Korea could face the home of their ancestors to pay homage. Today the park is a popular recreation area complete with amusement rides. A viewing platform offers a glimpse of North Korea. It is home to the Freedom Bridge that was built to free 12, 773 prisoners in 1953 and the bullet-ridden train that once ran on the railway that connected North and South Korea. I paid $10 to ring the large Freedom Bell. It is from here that visitors must take the bus to the Dora Observatory.
Dora Observatory is the best place in South Korea to have a view of North Korea. There are binoculars for better viewing across the DMZ to the North Korea propaganda village. Take note of the large flag pole that was once the tallest in the world, and the statue of Kim Il Song. Picture taking is only allowed behind the yellow line, which is actually too far back from the viewing area to get a good image of North Korea. They are serious about this. I didn’t notice the yellow line at first, but it was quickly brought to my attention.
The Third Infiltration Tunnel
One of the unique aspects of the DMZ is the tunnel discovered in 1978 based on information from a defector. It is just one of several such tunnels but the only one open for tourists. Displays explain the building and discovery of the tunnel, which would have allowed 10, 000 soldiers to pass through in an hour.
The drive from Seoul to the DMZ follows a river lined with barbed fencing and guard towers. Recently a defector swam across the river, knocked on the door of the guard tower and asked for asylum. Interestingly, the DMZ is a no-man’s-land that has become a haven for wildlife.