Gilman Blog #9 | I Saw North Korea

 

Wow. Where do I even begin?

“Hey Rachel! What did you do today?”
“I went to the DMZ and saw North Korea!”

Since there were places that I was unable to document and take photos during my tour today, I am currently writing this literally hours after the tour so that I have a record of this day. I hope this blog post will be insightful for those who are unable to visit there.

Before getting into the logistics of things, I want to clarify what the DMZ is for readers who are unfamiliar with Korean geography and history. The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is the area that extends 2 km from the North-South Korean border on both sides. The DMZ is a civilian-restricted area, so anyone who visit must be part of a tour group. Overall, while the DMZ is heavily secured, the level of tension and security is nowhere close to the JSA/Panmunjom (which I will talk about further down). In order to enter the DMZ, our tour bus had to cross the Unification Bridge, where barricades are strategically placed in various lanes to (what I’m assuming) slow down vehicles intentionally.

One of the two ways to get to the tunnel is by this train (which is not in operation currently)

Our first stop was the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel and the DMZ Museum. My first impression of the museum was how tourist-y and commercialized it was. Gift shops. Photo zones. It’s like I’m buying souvenirs at Namsan Tower and not the DMZ. Before heading into the tunnel, our tour group watched a short 7-minute video on the DMZ.

While it’s a general consensus that North Korea is “bad and evil,” I was surprised at the language used in the video at the museum. “They did this to us, they did that…” It took on a more propaganda-like tone instead of a more neutral and academic tone that I expect from a museum. Here are some more memorable lines from the narrator of the video:

“[cue happy music] The DMZ is a paradise for wildlife! [shows montage of flowers blooming and goats eating]”
And the final line of the video: “Until the Korea reunifies, the DMZ will live on FOREVER!”

The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel was the 3rd tunnel that the South Korean military discovered underground. This tunnel was dug by North Korea with the intention to possibly infiltrate South Korea and control Seoul. After its discovery, South Korea sealed the tunnel from the North by putting in 3 evenly spaced concrete walls in the tunnel. Between these walls are landmines (which are abundant in the DMZ). Visitors are able to go inside the tunnel (even I had to bend my head down to fit) via a ramp built by the city of Paju and walk all the way to the 1st concrete wall. Along the way, you can see holes in the tunnel walls that were originally made for dynamite.

We ate our lunch on the 2nd floor of the Gyeongui Highway Transit Building. It was so strange seeing such a large building with an eerily empty feel to it.

After lunch, we visited Dorasan Station, the last train station in South Korea before entering North Korea. Dorasan Station is technically not an operating train station although it serves one daily train from Seoul for tourists. The building represents the hope for reunification; right outside of the station, there is an enormous donor wall of those who contributed to the construction of the building (some who still have family in the North). Once the Gyeongui Line Railway Connection is in operation, people can travel from South Korea all the way to western Europe via trains. (It’ll take 3 weeks though.)

Visitors can pay 1,000won (less than $1 USD) to gain access to the Dorasan Station platform.

The atmosphere of Dorasan is very hopeful in terms of reunification of Korea.

 

 

You would eventually reach North Korea if you kept going. (Fun fact: There is actually one single ROK soldier that is positioned at the northern end of the Dorasan platform- so basically the right side of this photo)

Dorasan Station is the only place in South Korea where you see Pyeongyang bound signs. These signs are intentionally placed in hopes that South Koreans can one day travel to Pyeongyang.

The observatory is actually located next to a large auditorium-like building for ROK soldiers serving their mandatory conscription. During the 30 minutes that my group was there, I must have seen hundreds of soldiers entering and leaving the building. (It’s still very strange for me to see people my age to serve in the military- maybe it’s because I still see myself as a kid?)

Taken at the Dora Observatory, the buildings in the background of this photo are located in North Korea.

While this area was closed off, this large space is a representation of the security/customs area if the station was in operation. (There’s even a mock sign for things not to bring.)

 

At the observatory, you can hear propaganda and music being blasted from the South Korean side of the border. If you pay 500 won, you could use the binoculars and even try to see into North Korea and try to find North Koreans going about their lives.

As part of my tour, I decided to visit the Joint Security Area (JSA) that is operated by the United Nations Command (UNC). This would give me the opportunity to get as close to the North-South Korean border as possible as a civilian. If you read the news recently, you will know that this is where the North Korean soldier defected to South Korea in mid-November. The JSA is the most difficult way for North Koreans to defect considering that it is highly secured and monitored.

While inside JSA, we were escorted by 2 US soldiers (PFC McDonald and PFC Carroll) serving as part of the UNC. First, we had to sit through a briefing at the JSA Visitors Center (alongside another tour group). The briefing was super quick but very information heavy on the history of the JSA area, including information on Axe Murder Incident and the North Korean Propaganda Village.

From the JSA Visitors Center, we had to switch to UNC buses to enter the more secured portion of JSA. We passed through multiple checkpoints and were not allowed to take photos or record during this portion of the drive. PFC McDonald led our tour group and managed to talk about the JSA the entire 10 minute bus ride to Freedom House (refer to map above). Here are little snippets of his stories:

Petty fights? South Korea was the first to build a flag tower on its side of the border. In response, North Korea built one that was ridiculously taller than South Korea’s tower. Since it was really windy today, the North Korean flag stood out and was really easy to spot.

Freedom Village
There are actually civilians who reside inside the DMZ permanently, although the total number of residents is in the 100s. Because these citizens live under heavy restrictions (curfews and checkpoints), they are exempt from many things (such as property taxes) and have special privileges (children can attend any Korean university).

The infamous JSA- taken from the steps of the Freedom House. In this photo, you can see the North Korean building (Panmungak) in the background. If you look close enough, you can even see the North Korean soldier standing guard outside.

In the photo above, you can see a horizontal concrete slab that is between the two blue buildings; this is the official demarcation line between the two Koreas.

 

PFC McDonald in the foreground

Inside the T-2 building of the JSA, this soldier stands at the dividing line of North and South Korea (though this building specifically is neutral ground). In theory, if a person stands on the left hand side of this soldier (so right side of photo), she would be *technically* standing on North Korean soil.

And from the above caption, you can infer that I stood on the north side of the soldier. So technically, I guess you can say that I visited North Korea today. (Fun fact: The ROK soldier is holding a taekwondo stance that is suppose to exude an intimidating image)

I wanted to document my trip and have one photo of me at the JSA, but I thought it would be inappropriate to smile at such a location- so I settled for a more neutral expression.

Overall, this trip was much less intimidating than I thought. Of course, it is a bit scary to be in the presence of the military, but I actually was more in awe that I was standing in such a politically tense location. (It also help ease nerves if you know international law 😀 )

Being able to visit multiple locations in the DMZ gave me so many emotions. The messages and images shown at Dorasan Station are filled with so much hope and optimism. Many people often forget that the division of the Korean peninsula is still pretty recent (1950s) and that many families are split apart.

Being at Dora Observatory and seeing a bunch of ROK soldiers taking a break after a meeting and seeing soldiers do their afternoon run gave me a glimpse into the daily lives of conscripted soldiers.

After the end of the JSA tour, I actually chatted a bit with PFC McDonald and Carroll along with another ROK soldier that’s part of the UNC. Although our lives are worlds apart, we were able to find common ground in talking about what we missed from home. (PFC McDonald is from Washington state and PFC Carroll is from Florida). I also managed to converse with our tour guide, Lina,  from Koridoor Tours. I always find it fascinating to listen and hear about other people’s lives- I really think that humanizing everyday people sometimes puts things in perspective.

And while the JSA and the political situation between the two Koreas is a whole different ball game, I’m grateful for the chance to see a place that is so monumental, emotional, and significant in Korean history.

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9 Comments

  1. April 6, 2018 / 8:46 pm

    Wow what a cool trip. I would love to see it myself one day. Must be a tense place depending on what is happening that week in the news.

  2. April 6, 2018 / 8:50 pm

    wow what an amazing experience. I cannot fathom the emotional journey you took. It seems crazy that two countries can be so close but also so far apart!

  3. Dogvills
    April 7, 2018 / 12:10 pm

    That must have been one unforgettable experience. I salute your bravery! As much as I would want to see the DMZ, I don’t think I am courageous enough. With all the things going on in the world, I would not want to be in a sensitive area like that. Thanks for sharing the photos though. I enjoyed viewing them.

  4. April 8, 2018 / 5:42 am

    Wow ! North Korea seems really interesting place to visit. I would really like to visit here once adding to my bucket list.

  5. April 8, 2018 / 9:50 am

    What an amazing and very educational trip. Glad you enjoyed it and experienced the tour.

  6. April 8, 2018 / 12:53 pm

    Oh goodness!North Korea definitely have a site to offer! DMZ looks so scary with the mention of the heavy security in the area but yes, I agree that it’s worthwhile. Inside DMZ is just majestic! From the underground tunnel to the Dorasan Station especially.

  7. April 8, 2018 / 6:53 pm

    WOW I’ve never heard of the DMZ before and didn’t realize there was actually a way to tour the area. The history behind the tunnel sounds interesting (although a little scary!). I wonder what the experience is like living in the area that is so heavily restricted everyday.

  8. April 8, 2018 / 9:04 pm

    I must say, you have one of a cool and amazing trip a traveler could ever imagine! But I guess the trip itself required a bit of a bravery, especially because it’s a military zone.

  9. April 9, 2018 / 1:38 am

    Wow that’s definitely an experience you had. Thank you for sharing with a glimpse of the DmZ and what you could of North Korea. It does feel eerie with how little bustle there is.

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