Oh man. Get ready for a long post chock-full of history, details, and photos.
I first studied about the Korean War in high school (special shout out to Wichita HS East, Class of OH NINE, and specifically to GH’s IB HL Euro class). Our history teacher, “GH” as we called him, told us vivid stories of his world travels, and I remember how eerily he spoke of the Korean DMZ. I wrote in my notes to add this location to my Bucket List, knowing that GH’s advice was valuable. Michael and I poured over the notes as we studied important dates and locations for our IB history exam – Panmunjom, 1953, Incheon Landing, Kim Jong Il, etc. We took the exam, passed with high scores, and moved on with our lives.
We had no idea that 7 years later we would be moving to Korea. Funny how life works out.
We departed Osan at 0730 and drove about 2 hours until we reached our first stop of our tour group – Imjingak Resort Park. For anyone interested in visiting I want to point out that only real way to see the DMZ/JSA is through a tour group; you cannot do this on your own. Anyways, this little park area contained an observation deck and many monuments dedicated to not only the Korean War, but to the Korean families who have been separated by this division. It was yet another reminder of the heartache that’s been caused.
I didn’t get many pictures here because Michael and I found our favorite Korean-style-Dip-N-Dots ice cream that we decided to indulge in. At 0930. Yum.
Included in our tour was a stop at the DMZ Tunnel #3. This is one of 4 tunnels carved out by North Koreans – #3 is also known as “the tunnel of aggression.” It was discovered in 1978 as the North Koreans had designed it as a planned attack on Seoul. This, understandably, pissed off South Korea/the UN as this type of aggression doesn’t really comply with the Armistice Agreement.
We were not allowed to bring our cameras, phones, or anything. Wearing hard hats, we hiked down the 20 story trail to walk through the mile long tunnel. It was damp, cold (lovely break from the humidity), and cramped. The tunnel was just slightly an inch taller than me, so I didn’t need to bend over to walk through it unlike most people. Being short has it’s perks 😉
The hike back up was miserable. The awkward slope mixed with my slight claustrophobic suffocation from being underground wasn’t ideal.
From the tunnel we transitioned to the Dora Observation Point. Here is where we had a good look at North Korea’s Propaganda Village.
Although it’s technically named “The Peace Village,” the rest of the world knows it as the Propaganda Village. It is meant to show case to the South how well off the North is – although speculation shows that there’s nobody living in this village at all. The buildings are empty. The loudspeakers from the North are pointed to the South, sending messages of hatred and vitriol about Westernization. I peaked through the binoculars provided, and it indeed was a spooky sight. There were no cars running. No one in the streets. No furniture in the buildings. Literally a no man’s land. Fun fact – the North Korean flag that’s flown over the village weighs 600 pounds. Because a bigger flag is more intimidating, right?
I was genuinely surprised with the pretty views.
After a quick lunch, we drove to the Dorasan Train Station. Although still used by some to travel South, it contains hope for a reunification with the North, connecting trains to Pyongyang and completing the complete route for the Trans-Siberian Train Route (from Portugal to South Korea). This was another sobering stop, filled with art dedicated to peace and hope for reunification. We checked out the empty platform meant to head North, signs pointing to Pyongyang, tracks that may never be used.
Last but not least, and my most anticipated part of the DMZ Tour, was the experience through the JSA (Joint Security Area). This is the only part of the DMZ where North and South Korean soldiers stand face-to-face, and it lies within the village of Panmunjom. It’s primary purpose is for Korean diplomatic engagements – as well as a tourist attraction.
Guys, security is tight. Although we came from the Osan Tour Group, proof of military IDs/passports were still required. We attended a quick briefing prior to entering the area, and had to sign waivers understanding that in part, “The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.” Insert shocked emoji face here.
We weren’t allowed to take any photos of the DMZ at all, and if caught they would watch us delete our photos. We were only allowed to take photos in the joint conference room and a specific view on the MDL (Military Demarcation Line).
We were allowed 6-9 minutes in the conference room and told not to stand too close to the ROK soldiers. I stood on the North Korean side (so technically, I WAS in North Korea…) for most of that time against my anxiety’s wishes. And probably my dad’s wishes – let’s be honest.
These South Korean soldiers in the JSA – don’t mess with them. They’re masters in Tae Kwon Do, meeting the minimal required height of 5’10”, and are the most disciplined dudes I’ve ever seen. This guy didn’t move in the slightest – he stayed posed and ready the entire time.
These last photos I have in this post stuck with me the most. Here, standing on the South Korean side, we are looking straight into North Korea. It’s literally 36 feet in front of us. We are watching them. They are watching us. It’s been like this for 60ish years.
Do you see the little man in the door frame in that last photo? That’s a North Korean soldier.
It was such an unreal experience, a further insight on just how different our lives are from this isolated country. We see in the news that they’re testing missiles and declaring war, and after decades of this nonsense it’s almost laughable to take their threats seriously anymore. But this conflict, hostility, hatred, and tension – it’s real. It exists. You stand out there looking at your enemy and he’s looking right back at you. These people are bred and conditioned to hate us. I’ve never stood somewhere knowing that the people in front of me want my entire country dead and wiped off the map.
Thoughts of GH’s history class seeped back into my mind. Facts that I memorized purely for taking an exam came to life. Information I never thought I would use again was experienced today. Guys – this is why history is important. Though it’s in the past, it helps you appreciate what has happened and how it effects the world we live in. This is why the study of conflict and cultures of war fascinate me so much – because it matters and is always happening. This experience gave me a visceral appreciation of liberty and freedom that my country provides, and a wretched reminder of what’s happening in North Korea. It’s easy to read lightly about from your comfortable home in the United States, but it’s life changing to see it with your own eyes.
Kisses & Kimchi,