A peek into the North
Trip Start Aug 28, 2009
48Trip End Sep 28, 2010
We had originally planned to do a full day tour of the DMZ later that week, but due to a last minute schedule change at my work we were forced to cancel. Unable to visit Panmunjom (the village located on the ceasefire line), with this part of the DMZ being closed on Sundays and Mondays for some reason, we decided instead to do a half day DMZ tour taking in the Dora observatory, the 3rd infiltration tunnel, Dorasan station and Imjingak Park
The DMZ is a strip of land 4km wide and 248km long, which divides the two Koreas and is one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world. Both sides are lined with high fences topped with barbed wire, watchtowers and anti-tank obstacles, and the area in between is littered with minefields. Ironically, given the area is sealed off to people it has become somewhat of an environmental haven. It is well preserved, and home to all kinds of wildlife, including large flocks of cranes and eagles, which we were fortunate enough to see.
We left Seoul shortly after 8am, and it didn't take long to cover the 40 or so kilometres to Imjingak Park. This was only a short stop though, where our cute but ditzy tour guide Wendy registered us with the authorities. From here passed through a checkpoint where our passports received a fleeting glance from some soldiers, and then on up to our first major stop, the Dora observatory.
The Dora observatory was located on the highest hill in the region, and offered a spectacular view out across the DMZ and into North Korea. It was a perfect day with clear blue skies, and as such we could clearly see the city of Kaesong and it's Industrial village (where more than a thousand South Koreans work during the week), a huge statue of one of the Kims, and some stunning snow capped peaks
Our next stop was the 3rd infiltration tunnel. This 1.6km long tunnel was dug by the North Koreans and uncovered by the south in 1974, and if completed it could have allowed approximately 30,000 North Korean troops to pass through it in an hour. Somewhat disappointing was the southern propaganda here though, with a number of signs highlighting "the deceit of the North" and places where you could "clearly see the evil plans of the North". Even our young guide got in on the action, boasting that it took the North Koreans more than two years to make the tunnel, whilst the South had dug a tunnel for tourists in a mere three months. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see, as was the exhibition hall and short film
The next part of the tour was probably the strangest, being Dorasan station. This modern and huge train station, the northernmost in South Korea, was built to connect to the Gyongueisun line in North Korea, and link the South to the European continent via the Siberian Railway. It was in use, with some freight trains passing through, but otherwise it seemed to be more of a showpiece given it was located in what was probably the most uninhabitated part of the country. It wasn't in use by the civilian population, but seemed to serve only the tourists on tours such as ours who were ready for a snack at this part of the tour. It did raise some hope in a unified peninsula though, with the thought that perhaps one day you could get on a train in Busan and travel right through to Paris. George W Bush echoed the same sentiments in a speech he gave at the station in 2002, before he named North Korea as part of his Axis of Evil.
We returned to Imjingak Park for the final part of the tour, where we had almost an hour to look around. There was a bit to see here, including the Freedom Bridge, which some 12,000 Koreans made the choice to cross at the end of the war, leaving family behind in the North. A rusting locomotive destroyed during the war was also on show, riddled with bullet holes from what must have been an epic battle
It was disappointing that we couldn't visit Panmnujom, but the sites we saw were interesting enough, making the tour better than we both expected. The surprising thing was the touristy nature of it though, as the atmosphere was hardly tense given the situation. I could only find myself hoping that some day the fences would be torn down and all Koreans could appreciate the beauty of the region.