Festivals and jungle parties. Ancient ruins and sacred temples. Big waves and towering mountains. The Great Wall and the Great Barrier Reef.
Travel offers the intrepid countless opportunities to learn, explore, have fun and meet others along the way. It’s not often equated with live-fire zones that bring back memories of a time when the threat of thermonuclear war was very real and always lingering just beneath the surface of the world’s collective consciousness.
Yet that is exactly what one finds at the 38th parallel (better known as the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ) across the Korean Peninsula. Long one of the most intense fronts in the ideological battle between the forces of communism and democratic free-market capitalism that divided much of the world in the latter half of the 20th century, the DMZ remains as the last standing vestige to that dark time in our recent past – and remains as deadly serious as ever.
Today, visitors to South Korea (or “Nice Korea,” if you’ve recently been perusing the newspapers down in Melbourne, Australia) are afforded the unique opportunity to visit the truce village of Panmunjom inside the DMZ, as well as other Korean War-related points of interest along the southern edge of the demarcation line. Half and full-day tours provided by numerous companies throughout the South Korean capital of Seoul take travelers on a surreal ride, steeped in history, tragedy, bizarre tales and – oddly enough – featuring an amusement park.
My full-day tour began at the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, so named because it was the third of four tunnels leading from North to South that have been unearthed thus far (with rumours placing the total number of tunnels as high as 17). Discovered in 1978 after a tip from a North Korean defector, the tunnel is believed to have been built for the purpose of invading Seoul because of its close proximity to the city. Monorails take visitors down a steep shaft, where they can get off and take a short (if somewhat hunched over) walk. Interestingly, the walls of the tunnel are painted black – which our tour guide comically noted was done in hasty fashion during retreat by Northern forces so they could insist that the tunnel was used merely for coal mining purposes. One can only assume that this explanation was given with an absolutely straight face.
Our next stop was at Dorasan, the train station to nowhere. Shiny and new, Dorasan lies in wait for the day of reunification, when it will serve as the first major connection between the railway lines of the DPRK and ROK. On that day, one will ostensibly be able to ride the rails from the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula all the way to Europe.
After a brief stop at an observatory near Paju to peer out through high-powered binoculars into North Korea (not so good on hazy/smoggy days, but great on clear days when you can see the North Korean city of Kaesong) and lunch, we made it to Imjingak park. Located on the banks of the Imjin River in Paju, Imjingak can leave visitors with a strange feeling – on one hand, the statues, monuments, observatories and Bridge of Freedom hold with the rather solemn nature of the journey and dutifully remind visitors of the tragedies of the past and continuing conflict; on the other, a small amusement park seems painfully out of place here, almost detracting from the seriousness of the matter.
Finally, we made it to the truce village of Panmunjom. After watching a brief UN video warning us of the very serious nature of the place we were about to enter, we were ushered by bus toward the iconic blue buildings resting on top of the Military Demarcation Line. We were allowed a brief foray into one of the buildings, technically stepping into North Korean territory when stepping over into the north side of the building. Big, strong, square-jawed guards posted at the door to the Northern side served as a reminder that this place is very much smack dab in the middle of a live-conflict zone; soldiers posturing across from each other on opposite sides of the MDL added another layer of tension that was palpable.
The DMZ isn’t your typical tourist haunt. The tragedy that has befallen Korea over the past half-century, pitting brother against brother and family against family is both bewildering and heartbreaking. Nevertheless, no trip to Korea would be complete and no understanding of modern day Korea can be fully reached without a trip. Check on-line for tours and prices, and remember your passport and to dress respectfully.