During one fine dinner in Seoul, I asked David, a US-born South Korean, if he ever wanted to visit North Korea to see his father's family. He replied that he had never thought about it.
"Why not?" I wanted to know more.
"I can't. As a South Korean, you are not allowed to cross to the North," he said, adding that one would be viewed with suspicion by the governments of both nations. Even his father, who escaped from the North when he was young, never imagines returning there.
The closest he can get to his father's former homeland is the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which is only an hour's drive from Seoul.
Until the North's recent nuclear threat the DMZ has been a popular tourist destination among South Koreans and a recommended attraction by the Korea Tourism Organization. The DMZ is a 4km wide border area running from east to west for a distance of 248km.
"It is a heavily armed area with some parts open to the public. Picture taking is prohibited in certain areas," our tour guide Michelle told us on board a DMZ tour bus.
A soldier is always on guard at the Dorasan Observatory deck.
The tour bus is a practical way to visit the DMZ because it takes you to many stops which might be inconvenient if you went there by public transport.
The first stop was Imjingak Park where you can see the Peace Bell. According to our guide, thousands of South Koreans regularly show up on New Year's Eve just to hear the bell ring and feel like they are celebrating the New Year together with their families in the North. From this stop, you can also see the Freedom Bridge crossing the Imjin river flowing from the North to the South. This is the only bridge connecting the two countries which have been separated for half a century. You can walk half the length of the bridge to a point where a barbed wire fence is decorated with ribbons as symbols of reunification, peace and for those who lost their loved ones during the Korean War (1950-53).
From Imjingak, the bus took us to the DMZ. Along the way, you will see another road with a military checkpoint. Our guide said the road is only open to lorries transporting goods from a factory built in the North's border area by South Korean investors taking advantage of low labour costs in the North.
There is also a village in this buffer zone. Our guide said the government used to give people living here a tax exemption because they could not do any business in the area. After they started growing some of the best ginseng in the country the local farmers earned a lot of money, so the tax exemption was revoked, she said.
Then our bus made a stop at an entrance to the DMZ. We were told to have our passport ready for officers to check. One officer entered the bus to survey us. He looked at the name list that he was handed and did a head count. Then we proceeded on our tour.
"Since the DMZ is a restricted area visitors are not free to roam around by themselves. This indirectly benefits some wild animals which can be spotted here and there in the DMZ," our guide said.
The border fence.
Our next stop was the Third Tunnel of Aggression, which is open 9am-3pm every day except Mondays and holidays. The tunnel is one of the four believed to be dug by the North for surprise attacks on the South.
"When you go inside the tunnel, you will notice parts of the wall are black. Those spots were coated with coal because the North wanted us to believe that they dug the tunnel for coal," the guide said.
If you wonder how the tunnel was built without the South knowing it, you have to visit the nearby museum. It exhibits tools and demonstrates how soldiers planted dynamite to blast the tunnel. The tunnels located in four separate areas along the border were discovered between 1974 and 1990.
Only the Third Tunnel is open to the public. It is over 70 metres below ground and is about 1.6km long. Visitors are not allowed to take pictures inside the tunnel and have to put all their personal belongings and cameras in provided lockers before entering. Safety helmets must be worn because once you are inside the tunnel, which is only wide enough for two people to pass each other, you might bump your head against the ceiling, especially if you are tall.
If you are curious about what to see inside, let me tell you that you won't see anything much. Although it's an underground tunnel, surprisingly it is not hard to breath. You might also be amazed about how much effort went into digging this infiltration tunnel.
From the tunnel, our coach took us up to a hill to the famous Dorasan Observatory. You can look at North Korea from an observatory desk, but you are not allowed to take pictures of the border. If you want to see things closer and clearer, just insert a 500-won coin in a pair of binoculars and then you can enjoy the view of mountain ranges, roads, forests and birds.
Further down the hill, we went to Dorasan train station which has a large billboard that reads "Not the last station from the South, but the first station toward the North". This railway was built in the hope of linking the two countries and then running further to China and Europe. During my visit the route was closed, but the station was open for tourists to take pictures.
The last attraction is the famed Joint Security Area in Panmunjom where the negotiations that ended the Korean War took place and the spot where soldiers from both countries stand closest to each other to guard their territories.
Although conflicts between the two countries have increased recently, this has not stopped tourists' desire to go there. Even on Feb 12 when North Korea launched a nuclear test, I had to wait about 10 minutes for my turn to tour the tunnel while dozens of buses brought hundreds of people to the observatory area. Each year a million visitors go to the DMZ. Let's hope that the current tension will be resolved peacefully.
There are two types of tours to the border area; a visit to the DMZ and a tour of Panmunjom. You may also combine the two programmes in a oneday trip.
There is also a tour service at Inchoen Airport for transit passengers to enjoy a half-day DMZ tour. But those who want to visit Panmunjom need to make a booking three days in advance. Bring your passport with you when purchase a ticket and when make a visit.
Visit the Korea Tourism Organization’s website at visitkorea.or.kr.
About the author
- Writer: Karnjana Karnjanatawe