Visiting Korea's DMZ: South Korea's Most Popular Tourist Attraction
By Susan Miles
friend and host Haemee asked me "Is there anything particular you
would like to see on your trip to Seoul?". Knowing my interest in
history and art, I suspect she was expecting me to mention the Changdeokgung
Palace, the National Museum or one of the many beautiful Temples and shrines
as desired sights on my Seoul itinerary.
I tentatively sent my reply by
email, "Haemee, what I would really like to visit is the DMZ".
heard years ago that visits to "The DMZ", the Demilitization
Zone between North and South Korea was a possible excursion for visitors
to Seoul, this trip to visit my old friend and her new husband seemed
like an opportune time to fulfill this unusual travel ambition.
I prepared for my trip, I read the daily press reports of the growing
tension in this part of the world, in particular, North Korea's reported
restart of their nuclear programme.
As the reports became more alarming,
it appeared that my planned New Years visit to the DMZ would be impossible
to achieve. I was therefore surprised at my friend's very matter of fact
reply, only days before my departure, that she had booked me on a day
trip to the DMZ!
Companies offer Tours
Any illusion I was doing something daring and unusual were soon quashed
on my arrival in Seoul. As I scanned the tourist brochure stand at a downtown
hotel and I noted no fewer than four companies were offering this "adventure"
as either a half or full day trip from Seoul. I felt like just an ordinary
tourist when my Korean friend dismissed my strange request with a "Oh,
everyone who comes to Seoul wants to visit the DMZ".
while the expert's continued to theorize in the opinion pages the various
catastrophes that will fall upon Korea in 2003, I found myself on a tour
bus with approximately 20
like-minded tourists who were curious to see for themselves the 38th
I found my mind wondering to thoughts of old MASH episodes as I watched
the landscape from the comfort of my cosy coach seat change from sprawling
city to simple villages surrounded by snow covered farmlands. Embarrassingly
this is my only source of information about the history of the Korean
War. My tour guides mention of the truce village of Panmunjom reminded
me of the episode where Hawkeye gatecrashes the stalled peace talks. During
a later viewing of a museum display within the DMZ, I was horrified to
read that the negotiations represented in this single episode were repeated
over 700 times without a peace being achieved.
Barbed Wire Fences
we got closer to the DMZ, the road skirted the edge of the Han River.
What could have been any waterway in rural Asia is distinguished by the
barbwire topped fencing and regular military guard stations that runs
for miles between the road and the river's edge.
entering the DMZ we stop first at the "Freedom Bridge" a simple
wooden structure, no more than 15 feet wide that was the access to freedom
for the thousands of North Koreans who poured over this tiny structure
at the conclusion of the fighting.
Visitors, huddled in their winter coats
against the minus 10 temperature, left the warmth of the coach long enough
to retrace their steps pose for pictures in front of the message covered
gate at the north end. These handwritten messages, scrawled on bed sheets,
have been left by South Koreans for family and friends in the North.
It is estimated that over 5 million Korean families are dived by the DMZ.
With no method of communication available for South Koreans with family
in the North, this simple gate represents their only avenue to reach out
to loved ones that they have not seen or heard from for over 50 years.
With no chance of these messages being read by the intended recipients,
this act is more symbolic than practical.
changing buses, passing a simple checkpoint where our passports are viewed,
without fuss or fanfare, we are taken into the DMZ. Here we are taken
to view the newly constructed Woljung Station, the northern most train
station in South Korea.
In an act of "Field of Dreams" optimism,
this modern, spacious station has been constructed in preparation for
the day that trains can run freely from Seoul in the South to Pyeongyang
in the North. The platform signs already direct passengers to the "Track
for Seoul/Pyeongyang". With only 3 trains a day from Seoul, the South
Korean soldiers on duty have little to do than pose good-naturedly for
photos with visiting tourists and watch over the concrete sleeper signed
by President Bush at the opening in May last year.
Next, its time to go underground. We head for the 3rd infiltration tunnel.
Our guide tells us excitedly that this is one of 4 tunnels found in the
1970's on evidence provided by a North Korean engineer who defected to
the South. According to her explanation, up to 20 tunnels were constructed
by the North through the DMZ as part of an invasion strategy. This 1.6km
tunnel would apparently allow 30,000 invading soldiers to pass through
per hour into South Korea.
access the tunnel we are taken 75 meters below ground by an open top train
so we could walk 400 of the 600 meters in the South's side of the DMZ.
Not surprisingly, a dispute exists between the two sides over who built
the tunnels, with each point an accusing finger at their neighbor. As
we walk along, our attention is drawn to the "evidence" of the
North's construction of the tunnels. drill marks on the walls facing the
entering the tunnel, we are taken through a detailed history display of
the Korean conflict. Included in the museum is an elaborate 3 screened
display on the past present and future of the DMZ. In this 6 minute multi-media
presentation are heart wrenching scenes of the two family reunion events
of North and South Korean families.
My guide told us with considerable bitterness that those chosen to participate
in these events were from the wealthy, well-connected or academic elite.
Her own family had applied and were anxiously waiting for the opportunity
for her 88 year old grandmother to meet with family that she had not seen
or heard from since leaving the north at the age of 36. The images on
the screens of the reunions showed such raw emotion that many visitors
walk away wiping tears from their eyes (myself included).
final stop on our bizarre DMZ tour was the Unification Observatory on
After coming so far and braving bitterly cold weather, it appeared that
a view-obscuring snowstorm was going to rob us of a view of the actual
We filled in our time at this stop by taking in the displays in
the Unification Exhibition Hall, a collection of exhibits featuring North
Korean produced electronic goods, clothing, food and school books. The
products by western standards were simple, cheap looking and everything
from the paper of the textbooks to the material of the mismatched business
suit was of poor quality.
I admired the bottles of North Korean snake wine (complete
with snake!), I notice that the snowstorm had calmed enough to reveal
the landscape across the estuary where the Han River in the South meets
the Imjin River in the North.
I realised I was finally getting my first
view of North Korea! As our guide pointed out in disgust the fake, Propagenda
village with its token residents on the other side, my ears were filled
with sounds of a Korean broadcast from our side of the river. When inquiring
what this was, we were matter-of-factly told that this was just information
to tell the few residents the wonders of South Korean life!
visit to the DMZ greatly enhanced my knowledge of Korea's tragic history
and fragile present. I "saw" North Korea (or at least the view
the North was willing to provide and the South wanted me to see).
saw examples all through our tour of propaganda being thrown by both sides
in a practiced and deliberate fashion. With over 50 years of practice,
both sides are experts in this art, mores the pity.
Footnote: For my Korean friends, Haemee and Hisai, and their precious
baby due in May. Little one, I pray you be born into a peaceful Korea.
Susan Miles is from Australia and teaches English in Korea.
Read more GoNOMAD stories about Korea