At the top of our bucket list for South Korea was to visit the DMZ. The Korean Demilitarized Zone is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula that serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea. Its 250 km long, approximately 4km wide and is the most heavily militarized border in the world. One of the only ways you can visit the DMZ is on a private tour, so we booked a spot on the Adventure Korea bus for 40,000 won (per person) and off we went.
Imjingak Tourist site is the first stop of the day, it’s as far as civilians can go North without permission. Historically, this is the place where the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950, and it was built to console those who had to leave their homes in the North. Nowadays it’s a Tourist Park, home to memorial statues, the unification pond, the Bridge of Freedom, the Bell of Peace, a theme park (yes they have a pirate ship Dad) and a collection of military equipment. We took time exploring the various attractions whilst our tour guides registered us with the military to allow us to pass through into the DMZ.
Back on the bus we made our way across the Civilian Control Line and into the DMZ. This was our first look at armed South Korean soldiers, complete with barbed wire fences and serious road spikes. We had lunch at the Unification village, in Tongilcon and then headed off to see the third tunnel.
After having our picture taken with the DMZ sign we are invited to watch a short documentary on the Korean War and South Korea’s vision for unification with the North, not sure it’s high on their agenda at the moment… After wandering around in the museum we made our way to the entrance of the third tunnel. Unfortunately no cameras are allowed here, so we placed everything in a locker and put on our yellow hard hats to begin the 300m descent to the entrance of the tunnel. The third tunnel was discovered in October 1978, and unlike the previous two tunnels, this one was discovered following a tip from a North Korean defector. The tunnel is 1.6 km long, 150m below ground and 2m by 2m wide, hence the hard hat prerequisite. It’s estimated that it could take an hour for 20,000 soldiers to move though the tunnel, located 52km from Seoul. When the tunnel was first discovered, North Korea insisted it was made by South Korea in a plot to invade the North. However traces of blasting inside the tunnel indicated a southerly orientation and thus proved this theory false. According to our guide this is one of twenty or more tunnels constructed by the North with the intention of invading the South. After an exhausting climb back up the descent we grabbed some refreshments and headed back to the bus.
Next stop was Dorasan Observatory, the northernmost observatory in South Korea. From the observation platform (on a clear day), you can get a glimpse at North Korea through a telescope. Unfortunately it was a little too hazy to view the North Korean city of Gaeseong, or the Kim Il-Seong statue, though we did get to see the tallest flagpole in the world (160m) at Kijong-dong. We thought we’d try our luck and take some pictures from behind the photo line, however a South Korean solider politely reminded us that I can take pictures from behind the line and NOT from atop Neil’s shoulders. Doh!
After a couple of ice-creams and another attempt at pictures we headed to our last destination, Dorasan Station. Built in 2001, it’s hoped that when the railway is fully connected, this station will be a transportation hub on route to North Korea, China and Russia. Services usually run between Gaeseong in the North and this station, transporting goods from the industrial park into South Korea, however this has been suspended until further notice as a result of current relations. We had a look around and received a commemorative stamp in our passports showing we had been to the last train station in South Korea. Nice!
Back on the bus we headed back past the guards and out of the DMZ, back towards Seoul.
Unfortunately this tour didn’t head to Punmunjeom, the joint security area between the two countries and as such the military presence wasn’t what we were expecting. We were expecting mine fields (there were areas with mines), soldiers and baron landscape, instead we got lush rice paddies, soldiers and mountain views. It was still a fascinating journey into a beautiful part of Korea that not many people get to see, but we’d recommend choosing a different tour operator if you want to see Punmunjeom.