June 6 marks a special holiday in Korea: Memorial Day. This day honours the Korean military who risked their lives during the Korean War. Because the holiday fell on a Monday this year, that meant we would have a long weekend! So I headed up to Seoul, where I was reunited with my pal The Toronto Seoulcialite for our rescheduled tour of the DMZ. It’s rather fitting that we visited the DMZ on a day that symbolizes why this landmark is even there in the first place.
What is the DMZ, you ask? The Demilitarized Zone is the area of land which serves as a “peace” zone between North and South Korea. I quote that word because technically, the two Koreas are still at war. But this area was established at the end of the Korean War, to keep distance between the North and South and to prohibit combat within the zone.
We had originally booked the tour, through a company called Dragon Hill Lodge, for February 2016 (during the Lunar New Year holiday). I’m not sure if you remember, but North Korea was planning on launching and testing satellites sometime in February. So due to safety concerns, the tour was cancelled. Instead of getting a refund, we decided to put a credit on our account and reschedule at a time that was convenient for us.
On the day of the tour, we were out the door by 7:45am to board the bus at the US Military Base. We were greeted by our very friendly Korean tour guide, who briefed us on the day’s events and history about the DMZ.
As we made our hour-long trek from Seoul, it hit me…
Oh my goodness, I am going to the world’s most heavily guarded borders.
I am going to a place where land mines are still active.
I am going to a place where thousands fought and died in a war that ultimately split a nation into two.
And as a result, families were torn apart (and are still torn apart to this day). People were left to live under the regime of Kim Il-Sung and his successors, while others were able to live democratically in the South.
Wow, wow, wow. Can I handle this?
But I knew everything would be okay. I knew that although their neighbours to the north realistically could strike at any moment, I felt safe. And I knew this would be such a memorable and educational experience.
When we arrived to our destination, two American soldiers joined us on the bus (we must stay on the bus at all times, unless directed otherwise). They would be our tour guides for the DMZ & JSA portions.
What’s the JSA, you ask? The Joint Security Area is a series of small buildings, where North and South Korea occasionally come together for meetings. You may recognize the interior from when Conan O’Brien did one of his shows.
One side of the building is Southern territory whereas the other side belongs to the North. When we walked in, we had to make our way to the back so that everyone could fit inside (the buildings are one-level and quite small). Then the American soldier said “All of those on this side”, motioning to the North, “ you are in North Korea!” TOSeoulcialite and I were one of those people on the North side!!! It was so crazy to think I had stepped into North Korea without even realizing!
After taking some photos with the guards (don’t get too close to them, as they are on active duty and, well, need to do their job), we headed back on the bus to visit some more landmarks within the DMZ.
Instead of telling you, why don’t I show you…
Below is the location of the Ax Murder Incident (left) – where North Koreans ambushed South Koreans with the axes they were using to cut down a tree that was blocking an important viewpoint. On the right is a photo of the Bridge of No Return.
There are certain times we are not allowed to take photos. One of those times was at the Third Tunnel of Aggression (or the Third Tunnel) – one of the four known tunnels under the North and South border. This tunnel was designed to launch a surprise attack on the South. The incomplete tunnel can now be accessed by tourists, by walking 300m down a long, cold pathway. Once you get to the bottom, you walk along the tunnel until you reach the DMZ line. Of course, the South is protected by barbed wire and three concrete blockades. There’s even a little window on the first blockade so you can peak through and see even further into the other side.
It was really cool to venture 240ft underground, and to get so close to North Korea, once again! Accessing the tunnel is quite strenuous – especially walking back UP the steep incline. There is an option to take a lift down to the bottom, but I wanted to get the real experience! Also, you MUST wear a hard hat because the tunnel is very low. All five foot eight of me had to hunch the whole time! My hard hat was knocked off as I thought I had enough space to stand and walk normally. Let’s say I got a really great leg workout from squatting and walking back up the pathway to the top!
To sum up, my trip to the DMZ was fascinating. I learned so much about North and South Korea. I got to see where history was made almost 60 years ago. Although I would never truly know what it was like. It was quite an emotional experience as I looked over the horizon into the North. As much as I was in awe of what I was seeing, I tried to think about that time period and what it must have been like to live during the Korean War. Some families were separated for many, many years – only to be reunited within the last year for one week. I also feel sad for the people of North Korea, who are under strict regulations and cannot leave the country as freely as South Koreans, or Canadians, or Americans, or other democratic countries in the world.
Our Korean tour guide said something at the end of our tour that really resonated with me. She said the North Koreans are like their brothers. And despite everything that has happened, South Koreans are still hopeful that one day, the two nations can be reunited once again.
Have you been to the DMZ before? How was your experience? Would you ever want to visit this heavily guarded border? Tell me in the comments section below! If you like this post, pin it on Pinterest!
[ Photos taken by me and the Toronto Seoulcialite ]