Tuesday 31 January 2023
Today we are going on a trip to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ); a 4 km wide buffer zone, 2 km either either side of the border between South and North Korea. It’s an early start, we have to be at City Hall by 7 am. We’ve already timed the walk to the meeting point – it takes 7 minutes. The old man wants to leave at 6.30 am. That’s 23 minutes contingency. I’m not sure what he thinks can go wrong in 7 minutes? Maybe all 4 of the hotel lifts are out of order? Or the pedestrian crossing gets stuck on red forever? Outside it’s minus five degrees. There appears to be no contingency for arriving 23 minutes early and catching hypothermia while we wait for the bus!
Thankfully, the bus is punctual and we set off with our very informative guide who tells us lots about the area we are visiting, which is the the most fortified border in the world, and the history of the conflict.
We reach Imjingak Pavilion around 8 am. Here we must leave our bus and continue on a government shuttle bus, allocated upon arrival. These run at intervals throughout the day, starting at 9.20 am. There are already several tour buses in the car park, but our guide leaps into action, sprints to the tour desk and scores us a 9.20 slot.
We have a short tour guided tour followed by some free time to obtain breakfast in one of the snack bars. Imjingak Pavilion is kind of weird mix between a motorway service station, a third rate theme park and a government propaganda tool. Inside is a row of cafes, while outside are a range of, for want of a better word, attractions.
A bell made “with hopes of peace for humankind and national reunification”.
A train bombed during the Korean War, sitting on the remains of a railway which used to go north.
Built in 1953, the bridge was used by over 12,000 South Koreans returning home from the North during an exchange of POWs. No mention is made of any North Koreans heading in the opposite direction . In fact, over 70,000 North Koreans were returned during the swap, but via a different bridge; dubbed The Bridge of no Return because each prisoner was given the choice to remain in the south over returning to their families in the north.
Built as a place where refugees from North Korea can be as close to their homeland as possible when they miss their families.
Imjingak Peace Gondola
A cable car ride across the river across an area too dangerous to cross as the Americans dropped two million land mines across the DMZ.
A mini fairground in a car park for no discernible reason.
Statue of Peace
A statue symbolising the abduction and rape of Korean women during the Japanese occupation. Nothing to do with the border, but when you’ve got a captive audience for your propaganda…
From here, we drive to Third Infiltration Tunnel, a tunnel allegedly dug under the DMZ by the North Koreans, who planned to continue digging for a further 51 kilometres to launch a surprise attack on Seoul from below.
First we must watch a short propaganda video at the DMZ Theatre. The video provides a South Korean perspective on the Korean War, how the DMZ came about, and today’s current situation. It also gives some background to the infiltration tunnels that North Korea dug.
The Third Infiltration Tunnel
The tunnel was discovered in 1978. The South Koreans then built a tunnel to reach the tunnel in order to make the secret tunnel accessible to tourists.
Before entering, you must deposit all your belongings including phones/cameras in a locker and don a hard hat.
The main tunnel, which is 73 metres underground, is reached by a steep access tunnel. I fall behind with an American woman who after walking around 400 metres down the access tunnel promptly has an asthma/panin attack and announces she left her inhaler in her bag.
So I stay with her and we resurface without reaching the actual tunnel. Instead, one of the guards takes a photo of me with hard hat posing with some fake soldiers and I buy some fridge magnets in the gift shop.
Above ground are more photo ops, which we rush round to reach the bus before the predetermined rendezvous time.
Our next stop is Dora Observatory. Sitting at the top of Dorasan, the Observatory provides an excellent point to look across the border. We take a lift to the third floor, where there is an observation platform lined with binoculars.
There are fewer binoculars than people and our time here is quite short, so I only get a brief turn on the binoculars before we have to depart.
We are told what to look for across the border, but weather conditions aren’t ideal. We can see the North Korean flag flying – at 160 metre high, the 5th largest flagpole in the world. It is situated in the village of Kijong-dong; known as Peace Village to the North Koreans or Propaganda Village in the south, who claim it to be a sham.
There’s also the abandoned Gaseong Industrial Complex, built for South Korean companies to take advantage of cheap labour, paying the 40,000 North Koreans who worked there $75 a month until relations deteriorated and the complex shut.
Pass by the Unification Village
Our final stop is described as a Pass by the Unification Village, which pretty much sums it up. We have 15 minutes at the small shop, just enough time to purchase a post card.
Then we are returned to the parking lot to join our original bus for our return to Seoul. The tour took 6 hours and cost W80,000. I’m not usually a fan of organised tours as I like to do things at my own pace. But there is currently no alternative if you want to visit the DMZ. The pace is frenetic, with only a short time in each place and most of that is spent listening to propaganda. Listening to propaganda gives me a headache, as I make mental notes of all the things I want to Google when I get home. However, on the whole, I enjoyed my day. It was a unique experience with plenty of cheesy photo ops. What’s not to love?
DMZ toilet report; randomly FIFA themed.
Lunch in Namdaemun Market
Once we are dropped off, we go in search of dinner, using the scientifically proved method of choosing somewhere that looks pretty busy.
We randomly pick one of the many cafes lining the streets in Namdaemun Market. I order kimchi fried rice – price W8000. The old man’s sausage stew is W20,000. We wonder briefly about the price difference and decide that meat must be expensive in South Korea. The real answer becomes clear when the food arrives.
My dish is the perfect amount for one person, while the old man has enough food to feed the 5000.
After lunch, we retire to our hotel with some beers. It’s been a long day and tomorrow will be even longer as we head, via a rather circuitous route, for home.