One of the first things you get asked when you mention you live in Korea is ‘North or South?’.
Luckily and like 99.9999% of the people who head to Korea I do live in the South but the North is a beautiful and scary mystery. The rest of the world is terrified by this small unpredictable land. While living here it can sometimes feel like Korea ignores it like an annoying younger sibling that wants to play in their room. During the scares and threats from the North last year it was only parents and families back home that even alerted most teachers to there being a problem. When I asked my co-workers opinions on their neighbor’s threats I was met with blank stares…“It’s just North Korea, they just want food and then they will be quiet for a while”. It was an interesting opinion and not one I think we have in the West.
All this being said, I knew at some point during my stay in Korea I would have to pay a visit to the scary area that is named the DMZ (De Militarised Zone) . Last year when a few of my friends wanted to go we jumped on board.
We headed up to Seoul on the KTX after school, Soju and Beer in hand. Ready for a well needed week of celebration in Seoul before they departed Korea with the added bonus of visiting the DMZ. We arrived at our pleasant enough hostel and decided to get a ‘quiet’ dinner.
Eight hours later, two bars, six buckets and a night club later we were running around the hotel desperately trying to wake ourselves up enough to catch our bus to the DMZ.
We rallied and caught our bus that took us up North.
When we arrived at Panmunjom (the area of the demilitarized zone that brings the guards face to face with each other 24 hours a day) the snow was falling and the area seemed as grim as its past. It was at this moment we all felt horribly guilty for being so blase about this trip. I think as travelers who are use to seeing tourist sights we had allowed ourselves to forget where exactly we were and the gravity of the situation we were walking into.
The American army guards gave us a fantastic tour but it was eerie. I have never been in an area with so much tension. This was a tour but at the same time we were warned that North Korea was taking our pictures to use as propaganda. We could see camera lens poking out behind curtains. We were warned that if they were to give us the finger or try to spit on us that there was nothing we could do. If you approached a guard to closely they would punch you. Even the South Korean ones. They were taking no chances.
The blue buildings you see in the picture below are the mid way points between two sides. All meetings take place here between the two countries. Many decisions have been made in these very rooms. To be stood in a room that has seen so many conversations deciding the fate of millions of lives left me with a really sense of the weight these countries are under. It upset me to think that I live in a country with such a delicate and painful past.
As well as Panmunjom we were also taken to the location of the 1976 axe murders. This was an incident cause by cutting down a tree. The tree was cutting off all visibility for the only South Korean viewing station. North Korea delayed the confirmed time because of rain but a small team of South Korean and American unarmed guards went to cut the tree down. The N.Koreans watched for 15 minutes without incident but suddenly the North Koreans attacked with over 20 men all carrying crossbows and clubs. The North Koreans got hold of the axes held by the two South Korean and American guard and attacked them. There are horrible photos of the incident in which the guards were brutally murdered.
There is also a photo of another guard Capt. Bonifas who was bludgeoned to death by 5 North Korean guards.
I realise this isn’t a nice story but it shocked me to the core to see the photos and realise that the area we were in was so volatile.
There are many other stories I could tell you but it was all pointing to the forgiveness shown by the South Koreans. Tunnels built by North Korea for miles into areas beyond the DMZ created purely to attack South Korea which created no reperpussions from South Korea or America, as well as endless rants and abuse hurled daily from the North Korean guards to the South Korean men. I would like to think that the UK or America could be as forgiving in the same situations but it’s hard to believe. Ovbiously we only saw a very one sided version of events being on the South Korean side so please don’t take this as fact but it was strange to see.
There is break through, such as the completely deserted and fully built train station to North Korea at the DMZ that is fully functional but full of nothing. It’s incredible to think that one day there will be a link to these two countries via this train.
Being a tourist area as well as the historical sight there was also a shop that let us stock up on North Korean memorabilia. We left with some North Korean Brandy that we aren’t planning on drinking. It will be a weird memento of our time in this country.
It was a fantastic and haunting trip but I’m really glad I did it. I’ve been trying to decide recently whether to visit the killing fields in Cambodia when we visit or the prisoner of war camps in Vietnam. Remembering this trip makes me think it is definitely something we need to do. I think that sometimes its a way of honoring the country you are in. Showing that little bit of respect and a way to show you do care about the places you are visiting. Obviously the DMZ is very different since it is a working and active area but I think it is still the same as other historic areas in the way that it helped to form the country you are in and deserves tourists to take a second to respect the country they want to be a part of.
I do regret how blase we were before we arrived
but this sobering and somber place really hit home.
The one piece of advice I would give to anyone heading on this trip is:
If you are tall then be wary of the tunnels. These tunnels were secretly created by using dynamite. Their purpose was to attack the South Koreans. They are quiet errie when you are walking in them since you understand their purpose but on a practical level….they are small. Watching Lee and our friend, who are extremely tall men, crawl their way through it while shorter Koreans laughed at them was quite funny.Especially when groups of tourists would stop just to point and laugh at their predicement. I had to duck and i’m only 5 foot 5 so you can imagine how a 6 foot 3 man and our even taller friend fared. The comedy was short lived when we all had to walk up the steep 362km hill to get out of the tunnel….my poor legs.
It was a gratifying and interesting trip that expanded my knowledge of a country I like to call home. I once again want to mention that we are in no way experts or even consider ourselves vaguely proficient on the subject of the DMZ but we wanted to share our experience with your all for anyone else thinking of visiting this site.
Hopefully there can be some peace between the two countries some day but it does seem a very long way away when you are stood at Panmunjom.
Have you been to the DMZ? What did you think? Would you like to go if you haven’t been or have you been to any other sad locations considered tourist spots? We look forward to hearing from you.