“War does not determine who is right — only who is left.”
I’ve never been a fan of War Tourism. I don’t handle conflict zones very well and tend to get easily overwhelmed by stories of pain and separation. Quite naturally, the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), in South Korea, was never high on my traveller radar and that’s why we haven’t visited it in the course of our stay in Seoul. What changed? Our travels have often taken us to places where I couldn’t escape reality or the horrors of war. Those experiences haven’t been easy, but the learning from them has been profound. Additionally, the peace talks, over the last year, have been largely positive and I knew that sooner or later we would want to visit the DMZ. Basil’s colleague, D, (and his wife A) was visiting Seoul and we thought it was the perfect opportunity to make the trip.
The Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) was created after the signing of the Armistice Agreement, in 1953, during the Korean War. The DMZ is a weapon’s free zone — extending 2 Km on either side of a Military Demarcation Line — between North and South Korea. In addition, there’s a Civilian Control Line established by the south to restrict and monitor civilian movement in the area.
Please Note: Some sections may lie beyond the Civilian Control Line and tourists can only visit with recognised tour groups — after showing valid identification (passports for foreigners). Photography, including the use of certain lenses, may be restricted and it’s wise to follow the rules before/during your tour.
DMZ tours get sold out very fast and we were lucky to get 4 spots for a tour on a Saturday. We chose Hongik University Station for the 8 a.m. pickup. It was the second weekend of November and it had started snowing early in the morning. We’d never seen it snow in November before. I had just recovered from a very bad cold and wasn’t particularly looking forward to the tour or a packed bus. Basil coaxed me to tag along and rest whenever I could. Our tour guide informed us that some parts of the tour could be cancelled because of heavy snowfall.
The journey from Seoul to Imjingak took under an hour. Our guide gave us general pointers and disappeared from sight. D, who had visited the area twice before, doubled as our tour guide. It was freezing outside and the snow made it slippery in spots.
Railroad Discontinuation Point
A restored vintage train, built in 1930, stood motionless on the tracks. A plastered sign read: the train wants to run. It was symbolic of the hope of the people and their belief that peace would eventually triumph.
Imjingak Park was tucked under a thick blanket of snow and it was hard to identify the monuments hidden in plain sight. The US Forces’ War Memorial Monument lies just beyond this park (flags in the background) and we missed it. This monument was built in memory of the American soldiers who fought during the Korean War in 1950.
An Oasis of Natural Beauty
The sun was in hiding and the skies were grey, perhaps even a little foreboding. Snow had covered everything in sight and had softened the sombre environment.
Built in 1972, Imjingak is around 7 Km from the Military Demarkation Line and is one of the many symbols of hope. Imjingak Resort has a convenience store, restrooms, a couple of eating options, and an observatory along with a sky lounge on the topmost floor.
The View from the Sky Lounge & Observatory
I didn’t know what to look for when we reached the third floor of Imjingak Resort. It’s possible that I wasn’t thinking straight and was low on energy. The cold wind didn’t help either. All I could see (or probably wanted to see) was a panoramic view of the cascading mountains and endless sky. Occasionally, migratory birds would fly above us and add to the excited tourist banter. The snow had frozen the landscape and had done a fantastic job of hiding dividing lines. For a moment, I could have even forgotten that we were looking at a civilian restricted area and the north was just beyond those mountains.
View of Peace Bell
Freedom Bridge, Mangbaedan Altar, & Monument of Homesick Song
The Freedom Bridge (grey bridge over Imjin River) was built in the 50s to exchange 12,733 POWs after the Korean War. Mangbaedan Altar (left bottom corner) is a ceremonial alter built for those who were separated from their families in the north. During Chuseok and Lunar New Year many perform ceremonial rites at this altar — looking in the direction of their hometowns in the north. The Monument for Homesick Song lies next to the ceremonial altar.
The barbed mesh was covered with numerous colourful ribbons with heartfelt messages. I couldn’t read any, but language isn’t necessary to understand the emotion behind those ribbons.
Steam Locomotive at Jungdan Station
The battle-scarred steam engine was probably the most sombre looking exhibit in the park. It is also a symbol of the Korean War and separation between the South and the North. This engine was a part of a train that was used to transport military supplies during the Korean War. The train was blown up by the allied forces when it was under threat of being used by the other side.
Underground Bunker Pavilion (BEAT 131)
We didn’t visit the underground military basement bunker (BEAT 131). Although, it might be interesting to view real time videos of the DMZ and experience life in a bunker.
Bell of Peace
The Bell of Peace is a symbol of hope that peace would return to the peninsula when reunification was achieved.
There are many other interesting exhibits, parks, and monuments around the area. However, we had run out of time and had to head back to the bus for the next section of the tour.
Our guide informed us that we wouldn’t be able to visit Dorasan Observatory because of heavy snowfall. However, we could still visit Dorasan Station and the Third Tunnel. An officer cross-checked our passports with the names on the list of tourists on the tour — before we entered Dorasan.
Scenes Around Dorasan Station
Dorasan Station seemed to be cast under a sleeping spell and resembled a scene from the pages of Sleeping Beauty. I’ve never seen a more deserted railway station (anywhere in the world) and the tracks were frozen in time. It would take many peace talks to thaw those sleeping tracks and bring this station to life.
Inside Dorasan Station
Dorasan Station is part of an ambitious project that aims to connect the south to the north and link it to the dream: Trans Eurasian Railway Project. Located on the northernmost point of Gyeonggi Province, this station was opened to tourists and visitors in 2002.
The waiting area inside the station was empty and tourists were the only people inside. A photo gallery displayed pictures of the meeting between the leaders of the south and the north. There are restrooms, a souvenir shop, and few refreshment options.
D was excited to finally enter the Third Infiltration Tunnel. It was his third visit to the DMZ and he hoped to get lucky this time. On the other hand, I wasn’t looking forward to facing my fear of closed and narrow spaces. I was rooting for snowfall to intensify and cancel this part of the tour. The universe conspired with D and it was time to put on a helmet and rise above self-doubt.
The Third Tunnel was probably dug up by the north with the intention of spying or aiding an invasion attempt in the south. It was discovered, in 1978, by a defector from the north. The cavity of the tunnel is about 1,635 m in length and 2 m wide. Our guide repeatedly reminded tourists with severe health conditions (including claustrophobia) to stay behind at the waiting area.
Lockers are provided to keep your bags and belongings before entering the tunnel. Photography isn’t permitted inside the tunnel and it’s best to leave your cameras in the locker. Sadly, even water isn’t allowed, so get a few sips before you enter.
Basil convinced me to give it a try. The approach to the tunnel cuts diagonally into the earth and descends to a depth of 358 m below surface level. This part isn’t so bad while descending. The challenge begins once you reach the infiltration tunnel. It’s a narrow pathway with water dripping from the low ceiling and two-way traffic. It’s best to focus on your breathing and avoid thinking negative thoughts — if you want to avoid a panic attack. D cracked jokes of being trapped underneath and we laughed; to ease the discomfort of walking with a bent neck. I did very well inside the tunnel, but struggled while going up. We took a couple of rest breaks and I was happy to tick this off my list!
I bought a book on the DMZ from the souvenir shop at the entrance. The guide spotted us and whisked us to the AV room. A documentary on the Korean War was being played in a packed room. We peaked from the back. Our guide ensured we clicked pictures with the peace monuments outside.
Back in Seoul
We were the only ones to opt for lunch with the tour. Our guide took us to Myeongdong for lunch. From there, we walked towards Cheonggyecheon Stream. The trees were still yellow and we spotted birds enjoy the cool water. Christmas Markets were springing up and the concert venue was packed with people. We took a subway from Gwanghwamun Station to Dongdaemun History and Culture Park Station.
The View from Naksan and DDP’s LED Roses
It was too early for the roses to light up and we walked towards Naksan (one of the guardian mountains) instead. From the top, Seoul was alive with a million lights. We passed the old wall and had a hot cuppa coffee at Ihwa Mural Village.
“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
It was late evening when we finally entered the LED Rose Garden of Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP). The grass had lost it’s colour to winter and was covered with the last flakes of the morning snow. It was a fitting end to the sights we saw through the day. We can only hope for peace to prevail and probably the universe will conspire to make it real someday.