DMZ Tour Notes

Annie and I went on a DMZ tour this past Saturday, June 11, which was hosted (and likely subsidized) by the Yeoksam Global Village Center, which I am quite familiar with because I attend Korean class there twice a week. And likely because of this familiarity, the center staff asked me to do a short writeup and share my thoughts.

I originally intended to write a paragraph or two, but got carried away and wrote a bit more than they probably expected. Since I spent some time on it, I thought I’d post it here as well.

When I was in school, history was just a list of facts and dates, and I have always hated memorization. It was years later that I found the “story” in “history,” and as sites like Wikipedia have grown, I have found myself spending hours at a time re-discovering history.

Since my first visit to Korea in 2006, I have read a lot about Korea’s history, both ancient and modern, and in particular, I have been struck by the division of Korea since 1948. It was a division created not by ordinary people with differing ideologies, but instead by two world superpowers fighting a proxy war, a bit like Germany, which was divided at about the same time. However, Korea, unlike Germany, had done nothing to deserve this tragic fate, which, just two short years later, turned brothers into enemies.

Despite my interest in this historical event, in my three trips to Korea and a whole year living in Seoul, I had never once visited the DMZ. So when the Yeoksam Global Village Center announced the DMZ tour on June 11, it sounded like a great opportunity, and I signed up immediately.

The tour left from COEX and followed the Han river northward. Along the way to our first destination, our guide pointed out that the DMZ is actually actually quite narrow in certain places due to the geography. In particular, where the Han and Imjin rivers meet, we could see from the bus across the river into North Korea. He also pointed out the many fences, guard posts, and even river blockades to prevent infiltration by North Korean soldiers.

The tour officially began with the Unification Park at Imjingak. There, we visited Freedom Bridge and  each of us wrote a wish on a ribbon and tied it to the fence there. There was also an amusement park called Peace Land, complete with… a Viking pirate ship ride. Somehow, Vikings don’t jibe with my idea of peace.

The other destinations were closer to the border, inside the military-controlled area. At the checkpoint, our bus was boarded by a military officer, who checked our IDs, then allowed us to proceed. The bus weaved through a number of barriers as we crossed the bridge into the DMZ.

North Korea has blasted numerous tunnels through the dense granite under the DMZ, capable of delivering thousands of soldiers per hour into South Korea. Of these, four have been discovered, but it is suspected that in total, there may be 20 or more. On this tour, we got to explore part of the third tunnel, discovered in 1978. Hard hats are required, as the tunnel is quite small.

From our third destination, the observatory at Dorasan, you can see Panmunjeom, the giant flag poles, and a little bit of North Korea. Since the actual border (the Military Demarcation Line, or MDL) is not marked in most places, our guide pointed out a simple way to estimate its location: on the North side, the hills have been stripped bare of trees, as they still use wood for fuel. The South Korean side was once similarly bare, but has since been replanted.

The last stop on our tour was Dorasan Station, the final stop on the South Korean side of the Gyeongui line. Someday, we will be able to take a train to Pyongyang and beyond, to the rest of mainland Asia, and even Europe.

I sincerely wish for peaceful unification, and I believe it can be achieved within the next two decades. The cost of unification, while great, could never exceed the cost of remaining divided and at war. And I believe that when it happens, the world will come together to help the new union succeed.

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A release valve for my mind.

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