What would a trip to South Korea be without a tour of the infamous Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)? Oh, the barbed wire! Oh, the soldiers! Oh, the security! Oh, the bleakness! If not for South Korean soldiers swinging on children’s swings, the day would have been oh, so serious!
The border between South and North Korea is one of the most militarized frontiers in the world, even though it is named “demilitarized.” Running roughly along the famous 38th Parallel, the DMZ is still loaded with land mines…2 million were installed, and only half that number have been removed. Largely due to the land mines, North Koreans today who defect usually try to get to South Korea via their northern border, through China. Interestingly, it was South Korea who built much of the wire fencing due to aggression from the North. Each side is heavily guarded to thwart any attacks.
We actually thought our tour of the DMZ would be to the strip of land often seen, with soldiers from both sides facing each other, and barracks where conferences are held. But that is called the Joint Security Area, and not included in most tours. In fact, we were told South Koreans are not allowed there, so we do wonder who runs those tours! We read an observation that it is so ironic that South Korea’s main tourist attraction is North Korea. Anyway, we got as close to the DMZ as is possible, and saw into North Korea (not surprisingly, their trees, rivers, and mountains looked just like South Korea!). We went to an observatory, saw the Freedom Bridge, and went into the Third Incursion Tunnel, found in 1978. In total, four tunnels were discovered between 1974 and 1990, with the North Koreans claiming they were for coal mining, but they had obviously been dug for military invasion.
In the first three photos, you can see some of the many miles of barbed wire we saw, but it is just a fraction of the entire 160-mile length of the border, which is all divided by single or double rows of sharp razor wire and barbed wire. In the third photo, taken from the highway, you can see one of the regular guard towers that appear every few hundred yards. Behind it is the Han River, which is only about 1/3 of a mile wide here, with North Korea on the opposite shore. The river is so shallow that some people tried to walk across to defect, but this whole area is dotted with land mines.
The fourth photo shows the Bridge of Freedom, used by soldiers returning from captivity in North Korea. The photo after that shows North Korea from the Dora Observatory, where free binoculars were available to focus in on buildings, etc. A man next to us pointed out a small guard shack with a North Korean soldier present, exclaiming that it had been a long time since soldiers had been seen in this part of the DMZ.
Following that are a few photos taken from the bus of the road into the restricted zone. You can see that the barricades make vehicles slow down and weave in and out so as to prevent a vehicle speeding straight and accelerating. Our passports were scrutinized before entering this area, which we were required to bring. Also, we were asked not to wear shorts or skimpy outfits, as in the past, North Koreans took photos of this common western dress and used it as propaganda, telling their people, “See? They don’t have enough money there to afford full, regular clothing, like you have.” Ditto for even waving to a North Korean soldier, as they would use that as propaganda: Look how much they like us! They want to live in North Korea!
After that are some of the many South Korean soldiers we encountered, followed by photos of the Third Tunnel. It takes 7 minutes to walk down, down, into the tunnel (and even longer to walk back up, with even the in-shape soldiers gasping for air). Hard hats had to be worn, and even though we were careful, as the ceiling got lower and lower, about 5 feet high, we hit our heads on the ceiling about two dozen times! And just in case, there were gas mask instructions posted on the wall, because who knows what can happen from the other side?
And, always wanting to end on a cheery note, or at least a fun note: the last two photos were taken outside the very-serious incursion tunnel. Meant for posing and photo-taking, they are so silly that they take your mind off politics and all things that threaten good people everywhere. So….smile!