I’d read about visiting the DMZ a number of times before I arrived in Seoul. DMZ stands for the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, which is anything but demilitarized. It’s a wide strip of no-man’s-land that embodies the tension between these two countries, still officially in a state of war. Outside of that strip, the movement of civilians is also to some extent limited.
It’s become a standard tourist destination for Westerners, though, especially Americans. Some of the sights are off-limits to individual tourists, so the usual thing is to take a bus tour, which a number of organizations offer. In 2014, Korail (Korean Railway) began offering a train version of the same thing. It uses the old rail line that used to link up to the Trans-Siberian Railway before the division of Korea.
These tours are rigorously controlled. A standard itinerary is pretty much required that includes several propaganda stops: the Nuri Peace Park; the Dorasan train station, from which visitors can see the barbed wire of the DMZ; and several observation points overlooking the DMZ. They visit one of the famous tunnels presumably built by the North Koreans to infiltrate South Korea. The highlight is visiting Panmunjom, where a building bridges the border. There, the two sides signed the armistice in 1953 that created the DMZ. Both North Korean and South Korean soldiers stand guard.
When I talked to my blogger friend, Nancie, from Budget Travelers Sandbox, about taking the tour together, we decided to take the train tour, since we liked the idea of traveling by train better than bus. However, on the day we could both go, the train was booked up.
On the Train
It turned out that Korail also opened up another new DMZ route in 2014. It goes to a spot on the DMZ that’s further northeast, so we signed up for that one. Paying 25,000 won (about €25) round-trip, we boarded a prettily-painted small train: only three cars, done up with flowers and cartoon figures holding hands. The theme is peace between the North and South, a constant reminder of how far the two sides are from actual peace.
The trip up took more than two hours, since we were visiting Baengmagoji, further away from Seoul than the standard tour goes. Attendants kept the passengers entertained by pointing out things along the way and taking pictures of us to project on screens in each car. A bar served drinks and snacks and handed out free DMZ postcards. Although the voice over the loudspeakers spoke only Korean, the general air of laughter and light-heartedness that greeted many of the announcements seemed a bit out of place, given the serious nature of the DMZ and its history.
It was unfortunate that all the narration—instructions, history lessons, or whatever was going on—was exclusively in Korean. I guess this new route hasn’t been discovered yet by Westerners, so, unlike the standard DMZ tours, nothing is translated.
But no matter! We enjoyed looking at the scenery pass by and, as we approached the border, we could pick out signs of South Korea’s military presence in bunkers and military vehicles.
On arrival, we paid an additional 18,000 won (€18) to take a bus tour, since the last train station, Baengmagoji , which seems to mean “An Iron Horse Wants to Run”, isn’t right at the DMZ.
On all stages of the bus tour, we were accompanied by both a tour guide who kept up a constant patter, and an armed soldier, who said nothing but went everywhere with us, keeping an eye on us. At each stop, the tour guide would say something about the soldier (to thank him, I think), the tourists would applaud, the soldier would bow to us and then leave. Immediately another soldier would board the bus and accompany us to the next stop.
The first stop was lunch: good Korean barbeque, served buffet style, and consumed extremely quickly. This is not the time for conversation or the bus driver will be honking for you to get moving!
The Labor Party Building
This empty shell of a building used to be the headquarters of the North Korean Labor Party. According to the one explanatory sign in English, it was also a place of imprisonment, torture and executions by the North Koreans before it ended up on the South Korean side of the truce line. The back of the building is pockmarked with bullet holes. The tour guide kept up a constant commentary both on the bus and leading the group around the building, all in Korean, so we wandered off as much as we dared to at least get some good pictures.
Just down the road was a military roadblock. This was not the DMZ line, but rather seemed to be placed there so that the South Korean army could keep tabs on anyone nearing the border. We snapped a few pictures, and then noticed a soldier heading at a quick pace toward us. Pretending we hadn’t seen him heading our way, we walked away toward our bus. Eventually catching up with us, he shook his finger at us.
We looked puzzled, even though we were pretty sure he was angry that we’d taken photos.
Again, “No potos!” This time he mimed taking a picture.
“Oh,” I nodded. “Okay, no photos.” We smiled politely, thanked him, and walked away again. It didn’t occur to him, I guess, that we’d already taken them, or to order us to erase them.
Our next stop was the Kamkang (Diamond) Electrical Railway Bridge, according to the one English-language sign. This line used to extend into North Korea, and, in the 1920’s and 1930’s, transported passengers to Kamkang Mountain, a popular spot during the Japanese Occupation. It also transported mined iron sulfide to Japan, and the North Korean military used it during the Korean War.
Today, it’s a bridge over a river that simply ends on the other side of the river. The railroad ties have been covered with wood boards to allow current-day visitors to walk across, though a few of the boards seemed about to give way.
Again the subject of taking photos came up. The Korean tourists (i.e. everyone but us) were taking pictures, so it seemed to be all right here. However, apparently it was only acceptable in one direction, where there was a bend in the river and the banks were seemingly untouched and green: the view visible in the above photo.
In the other direction, a bridge we had just crossed with the bus spanned the river, while a smaller stone bridge, partially ruined, paralleled it. Beyond that was a big white building that looked like it was probably a barracks for soldiers. We were not allowed to photograph in that direction at all, but we already had done so by the time our soldier/guard told us to stop. This soldier also neglected to make us delete the photos.
Observation Post of the Baekgol Army Division
Next we drove up a very steep road to a military watchtower. Here we could take pictures of ourselves in front of the watchtower, but not any of the views from it. Again our accompanying soldier did his best to enforce the rule.
Inside the watchtower, soldiers closed all the curtains on the big windows and we settled into chairs for a movie. Entirely in Korean, it seemed to be a general history of the Korean War and the DMZ since then, all accompanied by heroic music and shots of soldiers shooting guns, driving tanks, and generally looking competent and brave. I wasn’t sure, but I think at least part of it was meant to be a recruitment film for young men to join the army. I think they are all required to do national service in the military, but presumably some number of enlistees are necessary for continuity as well.
Once the film was over, the curtains were opened, and we could see the view. On two distant hills perched what looked like military compounds. Far below wound a valley with a small river. On the near side of the river was an embankment and wall, with watchtowers dotted along it, and a wide dirt area along the river, presumably to allow a clear view for the soldiers in those watchtowers. No pictures out the windows were allowed.
A soldier went through a long spiel using a model laid out in front of the windows. He seemed to be showing that there are three lines of defense in that part of the DMZ: the embankments and watchtowers below, the string of compounds on the mountains opposite, and another line behind the mountains. That meant that the only bits of North Korea we could see were very far away, in the rolling hills beyond.
All of this increased the sense of tension, at least for the two of us Westerners. For all of the commentary the South Koreans spout about wanting a peaceful end to the division of Korea and the tensions between the North and the South, the extremely deep-rooted distrust is loud and clear. Our feelings of discomfort, and even fear, came from the South Korean soldiers, with their guns and their banning of photographs. What are they so afraid of? Will a photo from the watchtower or one of that road block give away some sort of information to North Korea that they could use for an aggressive action? I doubt it.
Cheorwon Crane Park
It hadn’t occurred to us that the tour would be about anything but military politics. But the next stop brought us to Cheorwon Crane Park. Since the DMZ is a completely human-free zone, it’s become a defacto nature reserve, left unmanaged. Cheorwon Crane Park is meant to be a museum of the natural world of the DMZ, but is filled with lots of taxidermy: mammals and birds that are presumably natives of the DMZ, though I assume they were captured and killed somewhere on the South Korean side of the line.
This just gave me the creeps—all those carefully posed dead animals, especially after the whole Cecil the Lion scandal—so I left quickly to take pictures outside while no one was paying attention to me.
Baengma Battlefield Monument
The last stop was a tall monument, visible from a distance. An elegant sloping path cuts straight through a neatly-planted grove of white birches. Halfway up was a gallery listing many names and highlighting some of them with photographs. The displays were entirely in Korean, so at the time, we had no idea who was being memorialized. I learned after the trip that a major battle took place here in 1952 during the Korean War and thousands lost their lives. This monument honors them.
The high stone monument is in two parts, like shards that have broken apart. It seemed an apt representation of North and South Korea: so close, yet not united. Walking closer, I realized that, while the stone of the monument was smooth, the two flat faces, up high, facing each other, hold artwork. They seemed to be bas-relief carvings of horses, only really visible to each other.
Despite the almost complete lack of English information, we were glad we took the trip, if only to sense the tension involved, not from North Korea, which we had no contact with, but from the rather touchy South Korean army.
The irony of talk of peace (the lunch was in a “Peace Center” and the train track is ostensibly intended to continue across the border some day) is how incredibly militarized the demilitarized zone is. Our distance from any element of the North Korean army just accentuated the paranoia of the South Korean Army. A case of doublespeak?
If you decide to visit the DMZ, the original tour, to Dorasan, would probably be easier and shorter, and would be available in English. However, you could see this newer one as more “authentic,” since it’s the one Koreans take. I also suspect that they’ll work out the kinks in the program and eventually add either separate English-language tours or add tour guides who speak English. It’s worth checking on the Korail website beforehand.