In part one, I talked about Imjingak. After that, it was time to enter the DMZ area, which means you have to enter through a checkpoint. A soldier entered the bus and briefly scanned each person’s id. Again, we had to submit our passport number to the tour organizers before, but the soldiers only looked at them for a second, so it didn’t seem that they actually tried to identify the passengers. I guess they just need to make sure that everybody has an id and that there aren’t more people in the bus than were signed up.
The Third Infiltration Tunnel:
There are four known tunnels dug by North Korea under the border. The third one was discovered in 1978, only roughly 50 kilometers away from Seoul. It is suspected that there are many other tunnels that have never been detected. According to the information displayed there, 30000 soldiers could traverse the tunnel per hour. There is a small museum nearby that informs you about the history of the tunnels and the DMZ in general. It is quite a violent and turbulent history, including acts such as the Axe Murder Incident. Our tour group was also shown a brief video on the tunnel. It quickly became clear that South Korea unsurprisingly viewed (and continues to view) these tunnels as acts of aggression and as part of plans to attack Seoul. The video showcased some animations of Seoul being attacked from these tunnels. Hence, the mood was notably more hostile and darker than the previous talk of imminent unification. North Korea initially denied any knowledge and later claimed that this tunnel was used as a coal mine, which is wildly implausible given its location and the geological makeup of the rock it was carved into.
You are forbidden from taking photographs in the tunnel itself. It’s about what you would expect – a small tunnel that was just hastily carved into the rock without much comfort. Of course the tunnel was closed up before crossing into North Korean territory, so you have to turn around and walk back after a while. It is not much to see on its own, but the historical significance makes it interesting. Be warned though: The tunnel builders did not accomodate the needs of (tall) Westerners. The tunnel is quite short, so hold on to your helmets and pay attention. I hit my head a few dozen times, but oh well. The entry into the tunnel is also quite steep, so you might be a bit winded and have a few aches after you come back.
There’s also a gift shop for all your DMZ memorabilia needs, which stands in stark contrast to the gloomy mood of the place in general.
This observatory stands atop of a mountain and gives you a great view into the DMZ. As this is the area closest to the North, you can actually see some North Korean towns as well. On a clear day, you are able to see the fifth biggest North Korean city Kaesong. Furthermore, there are two towns within the DMZ that you can also observe from here. On the North Korean side, there’s the Peace or Propaganda village (you can probably guess which side prefers which term), and on the South Korean side there’s Daeseong-do.
There is also an amusing dick-measuring contest going on between the two Koreas that you can observe from here: South Korea built a flagpole of giant proportions in the 1980s, coming in at a height of 98.4 meters and with a flag weighing 130(!) kilograms. Of course, North Korea could not let them get away with that and built an even more ridiculously-proportioned flagpole about a kilometer away with a height of 160 meters (making it the world’s fourth tallest flagpole) and a 270kg(!!!) North Korean flag.
Dorasan is a South Korean railway station on a railway line that once connected the two Koreas. It was rebuilt and for about a year (Dec. 2007-2008) was actually used to connect the two South and the North, if only in a very limited manner. Trains traveled to and from Kaesong Industrial Region to deliver materials and pick up goods that were produced in collaboration between the two Koreas. However, the train line was shut down by North Korea in 2008, and the Industrial Region is also currently not in operation.
In theory, this station would be used to connect an unified Korea. As of right now, the station is mostly deserted and just connects to Seoul for tourists wanting to visit the DMZ. You still have signs that show that you can depart to Pyongyang from here, and apparently you can even buy (mock) tickets even though the trains don’t run. Quite a bizarre sight.
Theoretically, this station could be connected to the Trans Eurasian Railway Network after a unification, which would allow you to travel from Dorasan all the way to Europe. However, that certainly seems like only a very faint possibility at this time.
I guess there are two ways to take this: Either you see it as a chance – once North Korea were to open up, the station would be able to quickly connect it to the rest of the world! In that way, Dorasan station can be seen as a sign of hope for unification. Contrarily, it can also be seen as yet another reminder of the lack of progress. Previous advances have been reverted and the shiny new station sits in the middle of nowhere, barely used at all, as a dead end. This article puts it much more eloquently than I ever could, so I’ll just quote it (the whole thing is worth reading):
The station perfectly illustrates the divide between the north and south. The $40 million price tag was a gamble for an olive branch of sorts, but the station is a bit more than that. It is an invitation to a world community that will surely spell the end of North Korea’s repressive regime.
So for now, the invitation is open, and the trains don’t run.
But the station and surrounding buildings are maintained and sit idly, waiting for that day to come.
I also need to talk about merchandise once more, because the shop at this station really takes the cake. In need of some DMZ chocolate? Or DMZ shot glasses? Well, it’s your lucky day!
This is definitely a really interesting place that – as the DMZ on the whole – perfectly summarizes the many contradictions and different themes in the relationship between the two Koreas.
To conclude the trip, our group also visited the Cherwon area. More on that in part three.