South Korea, 2017 Unification prayer flags at the DMZ

Nowhere is the tension between North and South Korea more palpable than in the no-man’s-land known as the Korean Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. As a divided nation, only 2.5 miles separate the North from the South in what is the most heavily armed border on earth. The 150-mile zone has served as a buffer since the 1953 cease-fire agreement between the United Nations and North Korea that put the Korean War on hold.

Only 27 miles from Seoul, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), is one of the last relics of the Cold War. As the most heavily armed border in the world, it’s often said that the Korean Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, is the most dangerous place on Earth. This distinction is probably technically true - the mountains and hillsides on both sides of the 4km strip of land separating the two Koreas bristles with troops, guard posts, tanks, missile, bunkers, gun emplacements and land mines. A one-hole golf course at a military base in Panmunjeom, the truce village, warns not to retrieve balls from a fairway lined by land mines. Yet the DMZ is perhaps the supreme irony in a land of ironies. As you gaze out upon the DMZ your attention is drawn not only to the rare opportunity to peek into mysterious North Korea, the North Korean soldiers perched on the watchtower nearby, but also, you’re captivated by the supreme tranquility - the quiet, the lush green hillsides, the rare birds swooping into untouched marshlands. Here, at the most militarized border on the planet.

Flag towers at DMZ - North Korea on the left, South Korea on the right

The DMZ can only be visited as part of an organized, guided tour, during which you get the chance to see the Joint Security Area (JSA), also known as Panmunjom, where the North and South met for peace talks during the war. Here you can see both North Korean and South Korean soldiers each guarding their respective sides of the DMZ. Sadly, Secretary Tillerson chose the exact day and time we were scheduled to be at the JSA for his photo opp which precluded our visiting the JSA. With a few last minute emails, we were able to switch to a tour that included everything BUT the JSA.

Blue dotted lines are the DMZ, red dotted line is the demarcation between the 2 countries; #1 is site of the 3rd infiltration tunnel; arrow is where we were standing to take the picture; #2 is Mt. Dora observatory

Our itinerary:

  1. Imjingak Park - walk to the Freedom Bridge where 13,000 POWs crossed on their path to freedom in South Korea.
  2. hike down the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel (see below for more info)
  3. DMZ Exhibition Hall which shows the Korean War, old weapons, and a brief film about Korea's history.
  4. Mt Dora to see North Korea from the Observatory. There are many telescopes to look at North Korea’s propaganda village and the sound of music played over loud speakers is eerily present.
  5. Dorasan Station, the last station that once connected North and South Korea.

Our first indication that this would not be an ordinary tour was when we were required to send a color photo copy of our passport ASAP. What followed brought home that 'we wouldn't be in Kansas anymore':

  • When you arrive at Conference room, do not touch any equipment such as microphones or flags belonging to the communist side.
  • Do not speak with, make any gesture toward or in any way, approach or respond to personnel from the other side.
  • Sometimes military or other official considerations prevent entry into the joint security area.
  • No shorts - for the skirt / dresses they need to cover knee.
  • No sandals, flip-flop or slippers. Shoe must cover whole feet.
  • No t-shirts; must be collared shirts
  • Shaggy or unkempt hair is not allowed either.
  • The cameras with over 90mm zooming lens are not allowed.
  • Children under 11 years are not allowed.
  • You must carry your passport on the tour day.

Dressed appropriately, our bus filled with tourists from around the world, we drove toward the DMZ. A few miles out, we stopped at a military check point where a uniformed soldier boarded the bus, went row by row checking passports against the list on his clipboard, scrutinizing each face. A bit more somber, we drove the last few miles to the Freedom Bridge. There was a powerful feeling of sadness, of loss, as we walked by thousands of brightly colored unification prayer messages tied to the barb wire.

Back on the bus we stopped at a second military check point and once again were asked to present our passport to the soldier. As we drove to the Exhibition Hall and the entrance to the infiltration tunnel, our guide casually pointed out the red signs on both sides of the road - land mines.

We would like to say thank you with all our heart and welcome you to Gangwon DMZ Museum. With every Korean's hope to keep the peace and security in both South and North Korea, Gangwon DMZ Museum was built inside the civilian passage restriction line...We have prepared exhibits and videos that reflect many things including: scenes before and after the Korean War in 1950; historical meaning of armistice line; pains of dispersion between families; continuing military conflicts; and ecosystem that is kept as itself for about 60 years as no one could reach it. We think it is important to preserve and hand down valuable materials that reflect Korea's decision and the egoism of strong nations...Gangwon DMZ Museum has a proposition about revival of cultural affinity between North and South, and the unification in the future. We will try hard to make the museum...a place...that hopes for the peace and security of the nation.

The DMZ Museum was established in memory of a painful past - displays of weapons, memoirs, keepsakes from the war dead, foreign war correspondents' writings and photos... Watching a video of the fighting in the last section of the museum left no doubt about the brutality of the conflict which has not ended. Somberly we walked outside and entered the infiltration tunnel. The incomplete tunnel was discovered in October 1978 following the detection of an underground explosion in June 1978, apparently caused by the tunnellers who had progressed 1,427 feet under the south side of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). It took four months to locate the tunnel precisely and dig an intercept tunnel. The incomplete tunnel is 1.0 mile long, 6 ft 5 in maximum high and 6 ft 11 in wide. It runs through bedrock at a depth of about 240 ft below ground. It was designed for a surprise attack on Seoul from North Korea, and could 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. Initially, North Korea denied building the tunnel. North Korea then declared it part of a coal mine, the tunnel having been blackened by construction explosions.

Although four tunnels have been found and more are believed to be hidden along the border, only the third infiltration tunnel is open to tourists, though still well guarded. Leaving all our bags and cameras in lockers (photos are forbidden within the tunnel) and wearing mandatory hard hats, we entered walking down a long steep incline, an 11% grade. At regular intervals there are cases attached to the wall containing a handful of oxygen masks. While sections are 6 feet high, most of the tunnel is much lower causing all but the shortest to hunch over. The South Koreans have blocked the Military Demarcation Line in the tunnel with three concrete barricades. It is a long walk to the third barricade, 240 feet underground. And the walk out up the unrelenting 11% grade seems even longer as you try to ignore what could occur if the leader in the north decided to do the unthinkable.

Created By
Jane Zinner
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Photos by Tim Cuneo

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