Still Divided: A Tour of the Demilitarized Zone

Almost sixty years since the armistice was signed to end the fighting on the Korean peninsula, the people are still divided, and the Korean War has technically not ended.  Like the Berlin Wall divided Germany, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ for short) separates North from South Korea.

A few Saturdays ago, with the help of the USO, we had the opportunity to take a tour of the DMZ, where at one point, we found ourselves standing in North Korea.

The North continues to deny that they are the ones who invaded the South prompting the Korean War, and they also deny that they have made several other attempts since the armistice to infiltrate South Korean soil.  Of these attempts they’ve dug four tunnels (that have been discovered), and our first stop on the tour allowed us to enter into the third tunnel discovered in 1978.  We put on the required hard hats and descended a 300 meter (984 ft.) ramp that led us into the dark confines of this granite passage.  Pictures unfortunately weren’t allowed in the tunnel, so I’ve provided some pics from Wikipedia and here.

Tunnel Entrance: Don’t forget a hard hat!

The roof of the tunnel was so low that I, being six feet and two inches (188 cm), had to bend over at around a hundred-degree angle to keep from smashing my head into the jagged rock.

Low granite ceiling.

I noticed as we walked further and further in, that the walls were in some parts caked in a black powder, while other sections, where dripping water had cleaned the surface showed the granite that Korea is so full of.  About half-way to the security wall that blocked us from going further, I came across an informational sign that said the North Korean diggers would cover the walls in coal powder so they could deny their plan to invade the South.  Instead, they claimed, they were mining for coal and “accidentally” crossed the border.

Upon coming to the security wall that blocked us from going further, we turned around and ascended out of the coal granite tunnel and departed for our next stop: Dorasan Train Station.

An ad for Korail, perfectly describing the essence of Dorasan Station.

Dorasan Station is the last station going north in South Korea.  Its tracks connect the still divided Korean people.  The intended use of this station was to transport goods and supplies back and forth between the South and Kaesong Industrial Complex, where both North and South Koreans work in  jointly operated factories.  However, the train only operated  for a year until 2008 when the new South Korean president took a more tough-love approach towards the North, and the North’s late Kim Jong Il reacted by shutting down the crossing.  Currently the only visitors to Dorasan Station are now tourists wanting to learn more about the North and South’s history.

The last stop between Seoul and the North Korean Capital of Pyeongyang.

On Mount Dora, there is a look-out that the South Korean government uses to monitor North Korean movements around the DMZ.  The aptly named Dora Observatory was our last stop before lunch.

Dora Observatory

From on top of this mountain, people touring the Demilitarized Zone can see miles into North Korea with the aid of powerful binoculars.  Just over the border from Dora, one can easily see Kijongdon, the propaganda village that the North built to project economic wealth and prosperity to anyone watching and possibly desiring to defect from the South.  Unfortunately for us, the weather was not in our favor and visibility was poor.

Powerful binoculars are no match for shrouded skies.

After a quick lunch break where we could also purchase North Korean beer, we headed to the place we had been looking forward to all along: the Joint Security Area (JSA) of the DMZ.  Before we could be escorted into the JSA by U.S. soldiers, they gave us a twenty-minute briefing on the history of the Korean War and the rules we must follow while in the JSA.  For example, making any sort of hand gestures or communication towards the North Korean soldiers who monitor the JSA from the North’s side is strictly prohibited.  As it turns out, making the two-fingered “peace” sign could promote the opposite effect.

Our U.S. Military Guide

Our U.S. military guide was friendly and informative, but this friendliness couldn’t drown out the electric atmosphere of the JSA.  It was an intense feeling to be in a place that felt as if it could explode with fighting at any moment.  The South Korean guards stood with fists clenched in their “Taekwondo Ready Stance,” while the North Korean Panmungak building stood looming above them.  At the time of our visit only one N.K. soldier was watching us.  It was an eerie sensation to see his binoculars trained on our group.

Panmunjom & a North Korean Soldier

The concrete slab between the gravel (near) and the dirt (far) marks the border between North and South Korea.

The Blue Conference Room

Entering the blue conference room where the United Nations holds talks with North Korean officials added to the feeling of a charged environment as we crossed to the north of the conference table, geographically placing us in Communist North Korea.  Two S.K. soldiers looked on with stoic faces behind dark glasses, allowing us to take their photos as long as we didn’t come within one foot of them.

To the left of the table, South Korea. To the right, North Korea.

Allowed only five minutes in the conference room, we were quickly ushered out to visit one of the observation posts in the JSA that the S.K. government uses to keep a watch on N.K.  The U.S. soldier who was guiding us pointed out the fact that because of the way the border is drawn around the observation post, we were currently surrounded by the North on three sides.  I made a mental note that even though it was a true statement, he was likely trying to get a rise out of us for his own entertainment.  He then pointed our attention to the village Kijongdong.  From this post, we were closer to the propaganda village than at Dora Observatory, and even though the weather was still cloudy, we had a better view.

Kijongdong and its massive flag.

Kijongdong is known as a propaganda village because of the propaganda broadcasts it blares from loud speakers aimed at the South.  These broadcasts used to paint pictures of a prosperous land and a loving government in an attempt to lure possible disgruntled South Koreans to defect to the North.  After years of unsuccess at obtaining any defectors they just began blaring broadcasts criticizing and blaming South Korea as the reason for North Korean problems.

The massive flag you see was built in response to a flag put up by the South Korean government in what has been called the “Flag Pole War:”

In the 1980s, the South Korean government built a 98.4 m (323 ft) tall flagpole with a 130-kilogram (287 lb) flag of South Korea inDaeseong-dong. The North Korean government responded by building a taller one, the Panmunjeom flagpole, at 160 m (525 ft) with a 270 kg (595 lb) flag of North Korea in Kijŏng-dong, only 1.2 km (0.7 mi) west of the border with South Korea (37°56’30.24″N, 126°40’48.07″E), in what some have called the “flagpole war” (source).

The illusions portrayed by the propaganda village are further realized with high-powered telescopes from the South.  These instruments have allowed the South to see that this village is not actually populated, and the few people who are randomly seen in it are likely people from the nearby Kaesong Industrial Complex doing upkeep.  In fact, it’s easy to see from these telescopes that most of the buildings are only four walls and a roof.  The multiple story structures have no floors, as can be seen at night when the lights inside at the top of the building slowly fade near the ground floor.

Our last stop on the tour of the JSA in the DMZ was just that: a stop.  Due to high security restrictions, we were not even allowed off the bus.  We had to settle with taking pictures through our windows of the “Bridge of No Return.”

The Bridge of No Return

After the armistice agreement of 1953, prisoners of war were traded on this bridge.  Those held captive on either side had to make a choice on which side of the newly created DMZ they would remain, the north or the south.  But after making this decision, they could never return to the other land, hence the name, “The Bridge of No Return.”  Maybe the inability to get off the bus was to keep careless tourists from crossing and creating a PR nightmare.

Our tour of the Demilitarized Zone was a valuable experience for learning more clearly about the relationship between The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and South Korea (aka, The Republic of Korea).  It was informative and sobering.  The DMZ is a line that still divides living mothers and daughters, fathers and sons.  As one of the last standing relics of the Cold War, the barrier reminds us that war should be avoided in all measures, as their ends rarely justify their costs.

12 thoughts on “Still Divided: A Tour of the Demilitarized Zone

  1. Andy, this was so information and the pictures wonderful. My dad, a Korean war vet, will be visiting tomorrow and I will show him all this, I know he will be very interested. Great for me to read this Memorial Day weekend.

    • Thanks Cathy! I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and tell your dad “Thank you” for his contributions. We wouldn’t be here in this now prosperous country full of opportunity if it weren’t for sacrifices such as he made.

  2. My father was a Korean War vet. and your tour guild is my son.. Thank you for the pic. It was nice to see my son at work.

    • Wow! That’s great! As you can see, I blurred out his name to give him some privacy, so I’m really surprised that you came by this blog post. Thank you for your comments!

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