Asia Bucket List Korea

Between the Lines: A Visit to the North & South Korean Border

 

The Demilitarized Zone

The Demilitarized Zone

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 hosted one of his shows.

korean border

The Joint Security Area. That big building in the back belongs to North Korea.

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!

DMZ

We are in North Korea. Posing with a South Korean soldier.

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…

The JSA Visitors Centre. Where we were given a short presentation about the history of the North & South and what happened during and after the Korean War.

The JSA Visitors Centre. Where we were given a short presentation about the history of the North & South and what happened during and after the Korean War. There is also a museum on the second floor.

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.

An American soldier looking out into the Northern horizon.

An American soldier looking out into the Northern horizon.

At the lookout point of North Korea.

At the lookout point of North Korea.

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 Korean 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!

 

Korean Border

That tall structure in the horizon is a flag pole built by the North Koreans. They saw South Korea built one so they decided to build a much taller one. Its one of the tallest in the world.

 

[ Photos taken by me and the Toronto Seoulcialite ]

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28 Comments

  • Reply
    Marjie Alda
    February 9, 2017 at 3:04 pm

    Hi Samantha,

    Your blog about DMZ doubles up my excitement in visiting Seoul next month! 🙂 I’ve been reading reviews about visiting DMZ as a MUST. And reading through your experienced, it unravels a whole lot of emotions that perhaps I could only understand when I experienced it myself too. Can’t wait!

    Thank you for mentioning the travel tour agency too, I might look that up. Hope to read more of your noteworthy posts! 🙂

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      February 10, 2017 at 10:40 am

      Thanks so much for stopping by. I’m happy you were able to get some useful information from my post. I hope you enjoy your experience!

  • Reply
    Khansa
    January 31, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    How hard it is to go to North Korea if you are an expat in South Korea? Do you need a visa? I wonder though will they ever become more lenient than they are now!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      February 1, 2017 at 1:17 am

      We went with a tour group so we were only confined to certain areas. We didn’t go INTO the country…just on the border. I needed a passport but that’s about it. If you want to go to North Korea from South Korea, you must travel to China first. I read about it on another girl’s blog..she went!

  • Reply
    livein10countries.com - Danielle
    July 3, 2016 at 2:48 am

    Wow, I appreciate your bravery in making this trip and am so curious to find out more about North Korea. Will you be able to go back one day?

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      July 4, 2016 at 1:27 am

      Yes it’s a very interesting country, indeed! I don’t know if I’ll have time to make it back there. The cost of the trip was about $100 USD…. and I think the one time experience is enough for me.

  • Reply
    Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie
    June 21, 2016 at 2:02 am

    What an educational experience! Visiting places like the DMZ bring history and current events into sharp focus. It’s so much more impactful than reading about it in a classroom.

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      June 21, 2016 at 4:23 am

      You’re so right. Experiencing the history (if you are able to) can make for sure a more enriching learning experience than just reading about it in the classroom. I highly recommend EVERYONE to visit the DMZ if and when they come to Korea.

  • Reply
    TravelGretl
    June 20, 2016 at 8:01 pm

    You wrote that very well! I’m really there with you 🙂 Love it!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      June 20, 2016 at 11:52 pm

      Thank you, TravelGretl! Means a lot to hear that 🙂

  • Reply
    Rachel
    June 20, 2016 at 4:42 pm

    I managed to do this tour when I loved in Seoul and still find it crazy that you can step into North Korea. The whole situation feels very surreal.

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      June 20, 2016 at 11:52 pm

      I know!! It’s crazy and surreal, and cool, and just…. a whole bunch of feelings! Did you do the 3rd tunnel? I should preface that part of my post to mention that people who are claustrophobic and with bad knees/back should NOT do it.

  • Reply
    Kerri
    June 20, 2016 at 4:06 am

    Very interesting. I find global war history very interesting and have spent quite a bit of time in Europe trying to understand more, but know little about the Asian wars other than Vietnam. Very interesting to read about the whole DMZ and think your experience would have been amazing.

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      June 20, 2016 at 11:51 pm

      I’ve always been fascinated with History too. I would love to learn more about European history, especially the Holocaust era. I will continue to learn about Asian history as I travel around here 🙂

  • Reply
    The Great Wide Somewhere
    June 19, 2016 at 6:35 pm

    WOW very interesting information and what a unique opportunity! I think I would have been pretty scared given North Korea’s reputation for arresting people at the drop of a hat, but I guess if you were with a group you would have felt more secure. It is scary to get so close to such an intriguing and mysterious country though, so I know I probably would have done it. Just a little eerie to think about what is going on on the other side…

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      June 20, 2016 at 11:49 pm

      I know what you mean. They are quite mysterious… and who knows what they could do. But we remained on the South Korean side (except for when we were in the JSA building)… and I think the arrests only happen if you are within the country, and try to steal propaganda or what not (like that unfortunate American man….)

      I’m sure there are more stories of people being arrested. I should research.

  • Reply
    Carly Moore (@girloutofbounds)
    June 19, 2016 at 6:33 pm

    Wow. Just wow. I never really thought about the border between the two countries, but I think I’d like to experience it for myself.

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      June 20, 2016 at 11:48 pm

      You should! But hopefully one day, there won’t be a line anymore and the two Koreas are at peace, finally.

  • Reply
    Brianna
    June 19, 2016 at 3:16 pm

    Wow! I can’t believe you were allowed to take photos with the North Korean soldier! I thought they were super strict about that??

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      June 20, 2016 at 11:48 pm

      Actually it was a South Korean soldier. He looks intense I know… but when you’re in a potentially dangerous spot, you always have to keep your guard up. They warned us not to get too close, so we kept our distance. I felt a little odd smiling…. we took a serious one too but didn’t turn out as nice.

  • Reply
    Karla Strand
    June 19, 2016 at 12:38 pm

    Really interesting post! Pinned; thanks for sharing your experiences in Korea!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      June 20, 2016 at 11:46 pm

      Aw thank you for your support, Karla! Love your blog, too!

  • Reply
    Rea
    June 19, 2016 at 10:05 am

    What a remarkable and emotional experience! Thanks for sharing this educational article, I would actually love to visit this place and experience it myself after reading about it.

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      June 20, 2016 at 11:46 pm

      I do hope you get to experience someday!

  • Reply
    Lynda Patrick
    June 15, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    Absolutely emotionally heartwarming! Thank you Samantha for this beautiful and educational piece !

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      June 16, 2016 at 12:07 pm

      Thank you, Lynda! I’m glad you liked this post.

  • Reply
    Shenean
    June 15, 2016 at 12:10 pm

    Samantha your story took me right back there. I too felt an overwhelming sense of sympathy all Koreans standing at that exact spot. Thank you for transporting me back in time.
    Shenean xoxo

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      June 16, 2016 at 12:08 pm

      I’m glad I was able to relive some memories for you, Shenean. It’s quite a fascinating place with so much history. Thank you for supporting my blog xo

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