It turns out that Seoul is close to North Korea. Like, really close. Worryingly close if you think about it too much. Hence, visiting the famous DMZ seemed like a must do.
The DMZ is the de-facto border between North and South Korea and was established after the Korean war in 1953. It is 250 kilometers long, running through the entire width of the Korean penninsula, and four kilometers wide. Despite the ongoing hostilities between the two Koreas – they are technically still at war, and there have been numerous altercations at the DMZ with shots being fired as recent as 2010 – the DMZ (at least on the South Korean side) has turned into a popular sightseeing attraction. It is definitely a surreal scene and I recommend you to check it out. (It’s also a bit surreal when you suddenly realize that there are air sirens going off while you write this. False alarm I guess. Phew.)
Of course, access to the area is restricted. It is still the most heavily militarized border in the world, and almost nobody is allowed to enter the actual four kilometer wide buffer zone. However, there are numerous tours that allow you to visit the DMZ. Some of them are run by the government I think, but there are also private tours. We had to submit our passport id beforehand, so you have to plan ahead a little bit if you want to visit.
The logo of one of these tour agencies, and possibly my new life motto.
There are a bunch of different tours available as there is probably too much stuff to visit in one day. Hence, there is some stuff I could not see, such as the infamous Joint Security Area (JSA). Alright, let’s get to it:
Our first stop was Imjingak Resort, which is located about seven kilometers from the military demarcation line and which serves as a big tourist hub for the DMZ area. This area lies just outside the DMZ checkpoints so you can enter it freely without being subjected to id inspections by military personnel. It is quite the odd and interesting place. There are multiple monuments dedicated to showcase the tragedy and horror of war. This includes a sculpture made from stones collected from battlefields all over the world, as well as a locomotive destroyed in the Korean war.
The key attraction is probably the Freedom Bridge, which was used to exchange prisoners of war between the two Koreans. There are ribbons tied to the fence and this place serves as a place of rememberance for families that were separated by the war. There is also a nearby altar used by them to perform ancestral rites. Heavy stuff.
However, not all is grim here as the area was built with the hope of unification in mind. I certainly got the impression that unification is seen by many not as a faint hope, but an inevitable (if distant) outcome. Hence, you also get some quite positive and hopeful vibes from this place, while at other times you are almost given the impression that war could break out again at any moment. That certainly makes for a pretty weird and unique vibe, which I felt throughout my entire DMZ trip.
So yeah, if you turn around from this somber reminder of the horror of war, you’re suddenly within spitting distance of a small amusement park and a Popeye’s. Huh. I also got a first impression of the interesting commercialization of this area with some cute children’s camo outfits. More on that in a later post as well.
To be continued soon in part two.