A trip to The DMZ and North Korea

So this weekend Amelia and I decided that it would be worthwhile taking a trip to see the DMZ (De-Militarised Zone) and North Korea. The DMZ and North Korea is a common topic of conversation in these parts for obvious reasons. Anyway, because of this (and other reasons) we felt it would only be logical for us to take a trip and to see what all the ‘fuss’ is really about. In all fairness we had planned to visit the DMZ long before arriving in Korea, but the location of our new home impacted upon our desire to visit sooner rather than later.

We booked our tour with a company departing from the Lotte Hotel in downtown Seoul at 8:30am Saturday morning. We have come to realise that Seoul although hugely overcrowded with people is not actually that big in geographical size. London in terms of area is 10 times the size, but Seoul has almost 3 times the population. Seoul has a population density of 17,296 per km2, London – a meagre 4,758 per km2. To think you thought London was busy…

Machine gun watch towers lined the motorway

Anyway my point on commenting on the size of Seoul is that despite its 22million inhabitants, it only takes half an hour to drive out of the city boundaries (traffic dependant). Within half an hour of departure we had passed through huge anti tank walls that stood on the city boundaries and were driving along a motorway surrounded by electrified barbed wire and manned machine gun posts/watch towers every 3-400 metres. We could actually see into North Korea which was on the opposite side of the river. It was quite surreal. I would like to add that all we could really see was mountains and a few token white buildings which wasn’t exactly spectacular. It was still the focus of our attention though! The Civilian Control Area is located just under one hour from Seoul (40km). We arrived here in good time. From this point on, what we were allowed to photograph was heavily restricted. We had our passports checked at the heavily fortified checkpoint by ROK (Republic of Korea -South) soldiers who boarded the bus and inspected us individually. We were allowed to pass after a 10 minute or so inspection and delay.

A deserted station...

Our first port of call was Dorasan Station. This train station was built during the South Korean governments ‘sunshine policy’ of the early 2000’s in an effort to improve North-South relations. It is hoped that eventually the station will connect the South Korean railway system to North Korea, and further afield – Russia, China and Europe. Presently South Korea has to import everything by air and sea, with the former being expensive and the latter being hugely time consuming. If the railroad was to be re-opened, the benefits to the South Korean economy could potentially be huge. Especially considering Korea produces relatively little and has scarce natural resources. Anyway, this train station appeared to be pretty much brand new, and totally unused. It was deserted except for us tourists snapping a few photos. The station presently is of symbolic importance and serves little or no function. It is just one element of the infrastructure that the South Korean government has implemented as a response to potential regime change/collapse in the North. All we did here was check out a few plaques, get our passports stamped (as we would have done had we actually been heading to Pyongyang) and off we went. We now have stamps in our passports for North Korea and Pyongyang. We thought that was pretty cool.

Our next stop was the Dora Observatory. From here you could observe the DMZ, the two propaganda villages, opposing flagpoles and one of North Koreas ‘major’ cities, Kaesong. Unfortunately the weather was hazy so we were unable to observe Kaesong except for a few white buildings on the horizon. It was a very strange feeling looking into the most isolated country in the world, and to think that just a few kilometres away there are an unkown number of impoverished people starving to death. Quite shocking really when you think about it.

Anyway, this is where we made the first of our ‘two errors’ of judgement during the trip. There was a yellow line clearly marked that we were not allowed to photograph past, and this was about 10 metres behind the actual barrier that we were looking over. As a result it was nigh on impossible to take a good photo of our view from this observatory.

No photos past the yellow line!

We were warned not to take photos so much as 1cm over the yellow line otherwise our cameras would be seized and we would not get them back. There were at least 5 armed military policeman stood around the perimeter of the line to enforce the rule. The deck wasn’t even big, no more than 20 metres wide. However, Amelia and I possessing the wonderfully gifted, creative and intuitive minds that we do conjured up an idea. We figured that as we could not walk past the line, we would try and beat the system anyway. We (I) really wanted a cool photo of North Korea and the general view. We decided that I would stand on the line, and that Amelia would sit on my shoulders so that we would have an elevated position and therefore be able to take a good, interesting photo but without breaking any of the rules! So up she went on my shoulders. The plan was working well for a good 5 seconds or so as she turned the camera on and tried to focus the camera in the direction of our Northern neighbours. However our initial pleasure and satisfaction at the thought of us defeating the system was swiftly interrupted. An ROK Military Policeman came dashing towards us in a raised panicked voice “NO! You cannot take photos like that!” I dropped Amelia from my shoulders as fast as you can say ‘Down’.I was very apologetic and concerned that my trusted beloved camera would be confiscated by the Korean Army. Fortunately for me, it wasn’t. In fact nothing else was said at all regarding the incident. I was a very relieved man. We were allowed to continue looking around as we were before! Happy days.

Next stop was the ‘third tunnel’. I cannot be bothered to explain this so here is a summary, courtesy of the ever reliable Wikipedia “Only 44 km (27 miles) from Seoul, the tunnel was discovered in October 1978 based on information provided by a defector. It is 1.7 km (1.1 miles) long, 2 m (6.6 ft) high and 2 m (6.6 ft) wide. It runs through bedrock at a depth of about 73 m (240 ft) below ground. It is apparently designed for a surprise attack on Seoul from North Korea, and can easily accommodate 30,000 men per hour along with light weaponry. Upon discovery of the third tunnel, the United Nations Command accused North Korea of threatening the 1953 armistice agreement signed at the end of the Korean War. Its description as a “tunnel of aggression” was given by the South, who considered it an act of aggression on the part of the North.

A total of four tunnels have been discovered so far, but there are believed to be up to ten more. South Korean and U.S. soldiers regularly drill in the Korean Demilitarized Zone in hopes of finding more.”

Basically it is a key element to the DMZ’s history. To be honest though, the tunnel was small (I hit my head on the uneven ceiling countless times – thank goodness for the helmet!) and my back was aching a lot from bending down the whole walk through it. There is no way that tunnel is 2 metres high. It was definately designed for North Korean soldiers.  It wasn’t anything spectacular, it was just like travelling down a mine at the Black Country museum which I once did in school. It did make me pretty grateful for not being one of those Chilean Miners, they must have had a pretty horrific 69 days. 30 minutes and I’d had enough!

Note – I am aware as to how much of an understatement I have just made…

We got out, snapped a few photos by the barbed wire fences with landmine warnings on, and headed to lunch. We headed for a Korean Restaurant not far from the DMZ. Bulgogi was for lunch, this is a ‘famous’ Korean dish, and it’s definately one of the better tasting Korean meals. It is beef based with vegetables and not particularly hot or spicey, so I was very happy with this!

After lunch, we travelled towards the Re-unification park. This was quite something. There was a huge park with hundreds if not thousands of Korean families all playing sports, flying kites and generally relaxing and enjoying themselves. It was a very pleasant place, if a little busy.

The park was built to console those from both sides who remain unable to return to their hometowns, friends and families because of the division of Korea. The ‘Bridge of Freedom’ also lies here amongst numerous Korean War statues and monuments. The Bridge of Freedom is iconic in Korea. It is a former railroad bridge which was used by repatriated POWs/soldiers returning from the north. Although it does not sound particularly interesting, it is of great symbolic and commemorative importance to the Korean Peninsula and its people. The parks perimeter incorporated the DMZ fence also. I really felt quite moved at this point. We have all seen the images in the media,  for example – post 9/11 of New York (and many other disaster areas) covered with images of loved ones missing etc…  The DMZ fence was lined with ribbons of hope. Ribbons dedicated to missing loved ones by those families still separated by the war and division of the peninsula, there were ribbons dedicated to the hope that one day Korea will be peacefully re-united as one nation, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly to some, ribbons dedicated to the plight of their ‘brothers and sisters’  – The North Korean people, who have suffered from decades of famine and oppression.  This was the point where I finally realised that there was a lot more to the DMZ than just military personnel and heavy weaponry. This is where I began to appreciate the impact the border has had upon millions of Korean’s both North and South of the border. The War destroyed the country. We think London suffered during the blitz, and it did but the extent to which London suffered during WWII pales into insignifacance compared to what happened in Korea from 1950-1953.

Some of the ribbons for lost loved ones, a peaceful re-union, and the North Korean people...

The division of Korea is a subject of great hurt, shame and anger to the Korean people. They are truly embarressed at being the only divided country left in the world. Upon arrival in the country I expected to encounter a fierce hatred of all things North Korean. The reality is quite to the contrary. South Korea longs to be one united nation with the North. I have found South Koreans to be united in their hatred of Communism, Kim Jong Il and the North Korean regime. Asides from this though, they consider North Korean people to be the same as South Korean. They talk about Korea as one, not as a North or South. For example, last week I asked some of my students what the tallest mountain in South Korea was. I knew the answer was ‘Hallasan’ on Jeju Island. This was not my students response. They told me it was Mount Baek-Du. I had never heard of this mountain. It turns out it is the tallest mountain in North Korea and the Korean Peninsula. It is also very sacred to all Korean people. My students genuinely looked sad as they told me about Baek-Du and how they were not allowed to visit it. I was very surprised by this, these boys were only 14 years old and yet they were upset at not being able to visit a mountain South Koreans have been unable to visit for over 60 years. North and South share the same culture and language. Unfortunately for the ordinary civilians – the ‘politicians’ do not share the same ideology. The South Korean people consider North Koreans to be their ‘brothers and sisters’. They are disturbed by the plight of the Northern people, they long for them to be free, for them to be nourished and for them to enjoy the same quality of life as they do. I should probably add that they are understandably very cautious as to how feasible re-unification would be from an economic perspective, as the South Korean economy is estimated to be 34 times larger than that of the North.

It will be very interesting to see what happens when the DMZ is finally opened and Korea has the opportunity to be united once more. I do however hope this does not happen during my stay here. It would be unprecedented and a potentially very dangerous and unstable time.

Anyway, enough of the serious chat for now. Apologies for the mini history lesson and political essay. Back to the matter of our day trip…

Ensuring we didn't photograph anything we shouldn't...

After leaving the Re-Unification Park our next stop was ‘Camp Bonifas’ and the UN controlled ‘Joint Security Area’ (JSA) located at Panmunjon. We arrived at Camp Bonifas to have our passports inspected once again by the US Army Military Police. They were to act as our guides, chauffeurs and security in case anything did happen. We were transferred from our tour bus to a UN controlled bus, with full military escort and 3 soldiers on board. One of the soldiers gave us a briefing on procedure whilst in the JSA area. Here is a few quotes from the ‘briefing’

‘You are not at any time to point or make any suggestions with your hands, doing so will put the lives of you and others at risk’

‘Photographs are strictly prohibited unless we say otherwise. Failure to comply will result in the immediate seizure of your camera and cancellation of this tour and possible future tours’

‘You are to empty your pockets and belongings now before entering the JSA and ensure that the only item in your possession is a camera. Your camera must stay in your hands at all times. DO NOT put it in your pocket. DO NOT take your case with you.Placing your hands in your pockets may arouse suspicion and place yourself and those around you in danger’

‘The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea military personnel will be monitoring and photographing you. Ensure you are dressed smartly and presentable, if you are not then you will not be allowed to enter the JSA’. (North Korea has previously photographed tourists who appear undesirable and used these images for Propaganda purposes to it’s people)

‘Failure to adhere to any of the rules and procedures may result in enemy fire and place the lives of yourself, those around you, and United Nations Command personnel at risk’

‘In 2008 a South Korean tourist was shot dead by enemy fire at another DMZ location’

So yeah, it was pretty serious stuff.

Us and our military escorts/tour guides

So off we went into one of the most hostile and volatile places on the planet. I think I speak for everyone on the bus when I say that we were experiencing a combination of feelings at this point – Excited, and curious tinged with an element of nervousness. We had to sign a UN Disclaimer form in case anything were to go wrong. One of the lines read ‘The visit to 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’. Nice. Luckily for us this didn’t happen.

We arrived to ‘Freedom House’ after a short bus journey. We were whisked off the bus and into the building where we were to form two orderly lines and were reminded of the procedures and rules once more. We climbed up a flight of stairs to the main facade, and there we were – staring at a North Korean soldier, with North Korea being no more than 25 metres or so away.

Hello North Korea

I struggled to contain my excitement/amazement to be standing in such a location. ‘Wow look at that Amelia, look how close he is!‘ And I pointed. Within seconds of entering the view of North Korea I had accidentally managed to point, I didn’t even do it deliberately – it was kind of a natural reaction. I could not believe my stupidity. Fortunately I corrected this at once and I made a conscious effort to ensure that I did not repeat this.

The whole area was eerily quiet, you could have heard a pin drop except for our foot steps and Amelia and I’s conversation. I was excitedly talking to Amelia, everyone else seemed to be quiet. My attitude being that we hadn’t been told to walk in silence so I thought I’d try and fill the silence with my lovely Leicester tones… It is well known that I do not like silence and quiet in any setting, and this was no different. You will be pleased to hear I did recognise the need to constrain myself from shouting out across to the North Korean soldier and introducing myself ‘Hi mate, I’m Plummer. I’m from England. Do you know Leicester City Football Club? Have you heard of Gary Lineker?’ Although I think it would have made for quite a funny story, it didn’t feel like the appropriate time.

We walked into the conference room which acts as the meeting place for North and South Korean delegates to discuss any issues. In the middle was a meeting table. The military demarcation line crossed the middle of the table. There were several ‘special forces’ soldiers standing guard at each door and one at the table dressed in some very cool uniforms, aviator sunglasses and in a very interesting/peculiar Tae-Kwondo stance with their fists permanently clenched.

They have to stand like this, 24 hours a day - 365 days a year

Apparently this stance is a signal of strength from the South to the North. ‘Aviators’ are worn as all forms of communication between soldiers of both sides is strictly prohibited. These soldiers are all experts in Tae-Kwon Do and have to be of a certain rank of Black Belt to serve in such a position. They looked so cool, and you really would not want to argue with them. The meeting room was just a meeting room though to be honest, just a few tables and chairs. The location of it (being equally divided between North and South Korea) and the soldiers made it that bit more interesting. We were then told we were allowed to take photographs in the meeting room.

Still laughing after Amelia's little 'mishap'

Amelia and I wanted to have one of the both of us with the ROK soldier by the meeting table. We thought this would be pretty cool as one of us would technically be in South Korea, and the other North. We were specifically told about 30 seconds previously ‘Under no circumstances are you to touch the ROK guard, or any of the tables and chairs’. We are both on the same side of the soldier. Amelia doesn’t like this and decides she wants one of us to be either side of the soldier, so what does she do? Yes that’s right, she decides to squeeze in the tiny gap between the soldier and the meeting table and chairs, except she can’t fit so she brushes into the soldier and tries to move a chair. Instantly the soldier ‘karate’ chops her (Tae-Kwon Do equivalent) and pushes her away. The other people in the room gasped in horror at what had just happened, Amelia was just shocked and wondering what an earth she had done wrong and I burst out laughing and proceeded to heckle Amelia. Even our US Army tour guide was really struggling not to laugh, his lip was quivering like a schoolboy does when he knows he shouldn’t be laughing, but is unable to stop himself. It really was quite a comical moment. The ROK soldier had done this without even looking at her or flinching an eye-lid (Not that we would have known if he had – aviators) but you get the general idea. Amelia genuinely wondered what she’d done wrong. It turns out she wasn’t listening. Women?! You are in one of the most hostile places in the world, where there is a real (but relatively small admittedly otherwise tourists wouldn’t be allowed to visit) risk of getting shot, and still they don’t listen to what they are being told. What made me laugh even more was that this happened literally on the demarcation line. I wonder how many other people have managed to get man-handled by one of the special forces soldiers on the actual demarcation line of  North and South Korea. Not many is my guess. Amelia managed it though…!

North Korean soldier checking us out

So after this slight drama, we were allowed back outside to observe the North side of the JSA and snap some photos. We duly obliged with this. The whole area was very surreal. It felt like something from the Cold War and the 1960’s, yet here we were in 2010 standing at the heart of the only remaining relic from the Cold War and the battle between Capitalism and Communism.  It was a very strange feeling. After about 2 minutes we were told to stop taking photographs and re-board our bus.

The North Korean propaganda village and the worlds tallest flagpole

Our bus took us on a short tour of the JSA and we got to see the North Korean propaganda village. This was just ridiculous. South Korea built a flagpole 100 metres high, so the North decided to build the worlds tallest flagpole in retaliation at 160 metres. It’s like two children arguing – mine’s bigger than your’s. The South doesn’t seem much better on this front – we were told (totally straight faced) by our tour guide how much better South Korean rice tasted to North Korean rice. I always considered rice to be rice wherever you went, but apparently not in Korea.

Anyway, it was time to head back to Camp Bonifas and back onto our ‘civilian’ bus. Before leaving we visited the souvenir shop, I invested in a JSA t-shirt (thought it would be cool – 7 pounds – can’t complain!) and some UN and JSA badges and armbands to add to my US Marines Uniform. I almost have an authentic US Marines in Korea uniform now, I look the business in it! I am well aware it would be innappropriate to wear it in public in Korea, so I will save it for fancy dress when I get home. I’m looking forward to the next fancy dress night back in England already!

Time to go. Well done if you managed to read all of this!

Goodbye for now.




2 thoughts on “A trip to The DMZ and North Korea”

  1. I loved your bit on how much the separation saddens South Koreans, and the situation there. It’s so crazy to be personally connected to this situation that I’ve only ever read about in history books!


  2. Hi. I just read your blog regarding your visit to the DMZ. Thanks for sharing! Did they inspect your camera to see its zoom capabilities or whether it could record video before you were allowed to enter the DMZ?


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