In this blog piece I’m going to talk about my trip to the Korean Demilitarized Zone and how I was able to see North Korean soldiers, peer out at their fake cardboard cities, and even step foot into North Korea itself (only like 5 feet).
In today’s world, it’d be pretty hard to find anybody who doesn’t know about the tension in Korea or someone who hasn’t heard of the enormous difference in living standards and societal development between the two nations. Who hasn’t heard of the fake cardboard cities and zealot-like, starving citizens of North Korea blocked from the outside world through radio blockers?
And when thinking of South Korea, who doesn’t think of the technological prowess boasted through companies like Samsung or the large pop culture that has spread throughout the world?
I’ll be the first to admit that I knew almost nothing about N. Korea beyond the propaganda spun by global news networks and the relative information gained through political seminars. That ignorance is exactly why I was so excited to visit the DMZ and get some insight into the Korean Peninsula’s political reality and see one of the most militarized pieces of territory in the entire world.
Before I go into detail, I’m sure you’re wondering one thing, “Jonny, how the hell did you go to the DMZ?”
Did I swim up the river between the two countries? Oh lord no, though a drunk American kid did try that a week before I went. Did I sneak in from China? No.
It is actually quite simple; the DMZ has become a relatively large tourist spot for South Korea AND North Korea. There are various tours that you can book in order to get up to the DMZ and shown around the area. Usually, you can find two types of tours. One tour will take you to the DMZ/JSA areas plus Camp Bonifas, the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, an Observatory lookout, and Dorasan Station. The other tour will do about half of the DMZ areas while focusing more on the infiltration tunnels and surrounding areas.
I highly recommend booking the tour through the Korridoor Tourism company that leads tours out of Camp Kim in Seoul. You can find their website about the tour here. Korridoor aims to be your “door to Korea”…get it…Korridoor…
Anyways, the all-inclusive tour costs around $USD 80 for civilians and $USD 30 for military personnel. Trust me, it is worth every penny.
The bus you will spend the day on leaves from Camp Kim’s USO office, which you can reach by taking the subway to Samgakji Station and leaving through Exit #10. Once you’re up top on the streets, walk straight down the road for a while and you will come upon the USO office on your left by Camp Kim’s Gate #17. If you need help, Korridor has a great map online that shows how to get to the office via bus, taxi, subway, and walking….all in cute little drawings!
As the tour begins in the heart of Seoul, at Camp Kim, it takes about an hour or so by bus to get to Camp Bonifas and the beginning of the DMZ. During this time our tour guide, this cute young Korean lady, told us all the history of the Korean peninsula and the current situation between North and South Korea. Basically, she talked to us as if we knew absolutely nothing about the conflict, which for me was cool because she said everything from a Korean perspective.
Let me tell you, it was surreal.
She would tell us how, “In North Korea, it is very hard for people, so about 1,000 people per year come to South Korea. It is very dangerous, so many go to China first then fly to South Korea. If they pass background check, the Korean government gives them funds to settle down and become part of South Korea.” Hearing her say this, really makes you realize how tense and heartbreaking the Korean peninsula’s situation is. I mean, S. Korea helps N. Korean relocate if they can find a way to ESCAPE the north.
Later, she continued by saying, “the other day I see North Korean on TV and they tell how life really is in North Korea.” My god, so a country that is still technically at war time readiness with its neighbor has constant tv updates from refugees out of the North. She really wanted to stress to us how much the South Korean populous does not dislike North Korean citizens. While we were in Seoul the Asian International Games were happening and North Korean athletes actually participated. Our guide said the South Koreans cheered them on because, “even though they are from the North, we South Koreans still care for the North Korean people.” While this is just her perspective, there are a lot of corporate and grass roots initiatives that support her claim. Remember, many people still have families stuck up in the North.
This constant discussion by our tour guide really helped frame the environment of our trip as we arrived into Camp Bonifas, the S. Korean encampment of the DMZ. While here we were NOT ALLOWED to take photos of anything except the JSA building and had to sign waivers detailing how the JSA was not liable in case of our death due to enemy actions. Also, we were told how we CANNOT fraternize verbally or non verbally with Korean troops. As such, we were led around by two US soldiers who were part of the United Nations Coalition troops who continue to guard the border.
If you didn’t know, South Korean men are obligated to serve in the military for a portion of time and any Korean soldiers placed at the DMZ must serve for 21 moths; UNC troops are only stationed there for 1 year. This seemed like a pretty dreadful location to be stationed, so I asked the US soldiers how they are placed here. Well….
“As troops, we have clean civilian records and higher aptitudes than most soldiers and this is why we are the most horribly deployed troops in the entire US military. We are face to face with our enemy every single day.” Their motto is, “in front of them all.” While some may be surprised by the enemy comment, be aware that there have been attacks by North Korean troops every ten years or so since the 60s. Almost every time a UNC soldier, Korean or coalition, is killed. Bet you didn’t know how hostile the DMZ was, huh?
After we sign our waivers and are briefed on the rules of our trip, we head out via bus, up to the peace building and the checkpoints controlled by the UNC. As we go through, we learn that there is a 3 layer defense system up to the DMZ with anti tank walls, millions of land mines, electrified fences, clay mores, and 24/7 patrols. This is literally a war zone.
We end up at conference row, the location of all meetings between South and North Korea. We have to go everywhere via single file and are told about each individual building. One of which is unofficially coined, “the monkey house,” because during North Korean visits, soldiers gather in the building and make violent gestures to the UNC troops like throat cutting, spitting, etc.
Next to that building was the main conference room where negotiations are held. It was here that we actually got to step a few feet into North Korea. It was intense.
Next, we went to Checkpoint #3, which is surrounded on 3 sides by Communist Korea and North Korean surveillance. It can see far into North Korea and the fake city of Geogongdong. You can also see jamming towers in the distance that block radio signals from the outside world. Interestingly enough, all the Korean outposts are pointed in towards North Korea. We are told this is so they can keep their people in; they aren’t so much worried about a South Korean invasion.
After we leave Checkpoint #3, we arrived at the Bridge of No Return. This is the bridge where people prisoners and people alike could travel across the bridge to either country after the armistice but never return. It is also the site of the 1986 Massacre where UNC soldiers were ambushed by North Korean troops while trying to cut down a tree for better visibility. Two US soldiers were killed and the peninsula was put on full military readiness. The US mobilized an entire naval fleet and prepared for full war. Kim-Jong Il promptly offered an apology letter. Today, there now rests a memorial for those troops who were attacked and lost.
This was the last stop in the DMZ, next we were to drive to an observatory and one of the infiltration tunnels. But first we drove by the town of Tesongdong, or “Freedom Village.” We aren’t allowed to see the actual village but it is a city protected by UNC troops and not really a part of South or North Korea. However, the South recognizes them, doesn’t tax them, and offers massive tax free farmland. Oh and none of the males in the village are required to fulfill military service, though every single male since the villages formation in the 50s has served. That is incredible.
Furthermore, since the area uses virtually no pesticides, all the harvests are completely organic and due to being able to collect 100% of the profits the average income of a household is US$ 82,000 – 100,000. Though there is a catch, household owners must be in the village 240 days of the year.
Nearby lies the Korean Village of Geogongdong or “Propaganda Village.” Its called this because it used to play constant propaganda elevating North Korea 24/7. For miles around, anyone could hear how great North Korea is and how any South Korean deserters will be welcomed to the glorious metropolis of Geogondong and pardoned by the glorious leader . Well, that’s a lie.
After some surveillance and research, UNC troops learned that the buildings were almost all fake. Doors and windows are painted on and you can never see more than a handful of people in the city: the caretakers. In the center of the building lies one of the largest flag poles in the world and one of the largest flags in the world, as well. This was in response to the flag erected in Tesongdong Village. North Korea’s just had to be bigger.
Geogongdong demonstrates how creative North Korea can get and I saw that first hand when I visited the infiltration tunnel!
Over the last 50 years, South Korea has found various invasion routes planned by North Korea. Infiltration tunnels dug deep beneath the earth across the demilitarized zone and border between the two countries. The third one that was found has been turned into a tourism site where you can go deep into the tunnel from where South Korean forces intercepted the dig site. The tunnel itself is 1 mile long, 6 feet wide and 6 feet tall. At a depth of 240 feet beneath the surface, this tunnel, known as “The Third Tunnel of Aggression,” is only 27 miles away from Seoul.
Originally, the North Koreans denied making the tunnel, but eventually claimed it was a “coal mine.” The tunnel builders quickly painted black across all the walls while they retreated out of the tunnel, in order to make it look more legitimate. It is an incredibly cramped experience. As you walk further and further into the tunnels there will be a point where you are completely hunched over. However, every now and then you can see yellow paints and blast holes in the sides. This is where dynamite was placed in order to create the tunnel. I don’t know how the builders had the courage to do this…well, they may have been forced. Either way, it wasn’t until after I was walking out that I realized there was a tram that goes in and out of the main tunnel area. Naturally.
Today, there are still thought to be over 20 tunnels that have yet to be discovered. S. Korean and US soldiers still comb the border drilling into the earth to find more.
Gaseong Industrial Complex & Dorasan Station:
Now that we visited the infiltration tunnel, it was time for us to put the DMZ behind us. We said goodbye to our military guides and headed to the Goseong Industrial Complex checkpoint. At the beginning of the day, we had to pass through Unification bridge, which was built by the Hyundai Corporation. It turns out, the founder of Hyundai was North Korean but could not return home after the war. He, like many others, had family and history in the north and as such, has worked to repair relations. One such endeavor is the Goseong Industrial Complex in Goseong, North Korea.
Goseong is a major city in North Korea, 27 km from the JSA DMZ area. South Korean companies like Samsung, LG, and Hyundai have built up a presence there with over 700 S. Korean employees who have special permission to enter North Korea. The complex started in 2004 and shut down a few years ago due to tensions but reopened in September 2013. People from the north make up most of the labor and are paid $70 monthly or with food. While this may seem incredibly small in relation to the average South Korean, $70 is very good for a North Korean citizen.
One interesting thing is that the southern snack, Choco Pie, is very popular but almost 10 times more expensive in the north. Since some companies give choco pies to their workers for free, many choose to sell it on the black market to make good money. This love for Choco Pies is so intense that there was even a story of how South Korean citizens sent 10,000 Choco Pies across the border via balloon! Find the story here!
The actual checkpoint for this area lies adjacent to the Dorasan train station. Originally meant to unite a Trans continental Eurasian railway through North Korea and South Korea, the train station now barren. Outside of the train station you can see a large plaque with the names of hundred of people who donated money to create the station. It was to be a sign of future peace in the Korean Peninsula. Their ambitions were so large, they even built a customs area into the station to prepare for internationals. Unfortunately, various incidents and tourist deaths in North Korea led to the station being shut down and North Korea refusing to allow transportation in. Today, the employees in the Industrial Complex must stop at a checkpoint depot, store all their personal effects in lockers and take a bus into the north.
It was heartbreaking to see the various train cars, painted to portray Korean friendship, rusting on the tracks outside. Even the original tracks signed by President George W. Bush and the South Korean President were enshrined outside to commemorate the station’s efforts. Alas, it was doomed to failure. It is a very solemn scene.
Overall, it was a long day. It is overwhelming and shocking to see how militarized the border is. It is heartbreaking to realize how families are separated in ways we cannot even imagine. Yet, it is inspiring to learn of endeavors like the Gaseong Industrial Complex and the Choco Pie balloon drops. I encourage EVERYBODY to go on the DMZ tours. They are worth every penny and as an American I think it is my responsibility to visit the places in the world that we have affected through our wars and relationships. We continue to support South Korea in defending the border and to see what our troops and all the troops go through at the DMZ is truly humbling. OH, you can also buy North Korean chocolates, wine, beer, and whiskey on this trip. Its pretty nifty.
So, what are your thoughts? Does this sound like a tour you’d want to visit? Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments below!