I took a trip to the world’s most heavily fotified border on the DMZ Spy Tour!
The Korean Demilitarized Zone- the DMZ– is one of the most tense, volatile and heavily armed borders in the world. Since 1953 this buffer zone has separated North Korea from South Korea, and while the small 4km wide and 250km long strip of land has been demilitarized, either side of the dividing line both countries have armed their forces to the teeth, ready to launch into action at the slightest provocation. It’s a border which can’t be freely crossed, but one which I have now stood on either side of.
During my tour of North Korea, I was taken to the DMZ- more on that HERE– I looked out over South Korea and knew that I had to stand on the other side too. I couldn’t cross the border of course, that would spark an international incident and probably get me and many others killed in the process- not really worth the trouble for a cool selfie- so several weeks later I flew into Seoul and met up with DMZ Spy Tours, a local Korean company who offer a more unusual tour of the southern side of the DMZ.
The DMZ Spy Tour
I met up with Bong Joo from DMZ Spy Tours- BJ for short- a retired South Korean military police officer turned tour guide. BJ knew everything and more about the DMZ, having spent 30 years in the military, much of that in and around the DMZ.
We set out from Seoul in the cold of a November morning. BJ explained that the DMZ is only an hour outside of the city. “Seoul lives under the threat of North Korea”, he said, and in 1950 at the start of the Korean War the North took the city within 3 days of launching their initial invasion of the South. Soon they had control of 90 percent of the country, with the surviving forces holding out on the coast in the Busan perimeter until an American led United Nations invasion force landed at Incheon, now the site of the country’s largest International Airport, and retook Seoul again. That was far from the end of things though. The UN forces pushed the North Koreans all the way back to the Chinese border before Mao’s Chinese Army got involved, and pushed the UN back again. Eventually things simply ended in a bloody stalemate in 1953 where things had kicked off on the 38th Parallel, the original dividing line between North and South which was established after World War II to separate Soviet and US spheres of influence on the Korean Peninsular. The DMZ was established to separate the two opposing armed forces, and ever since this is the line that has divided the two Koreas.
As we drove north along the coast, the military presence slowly increased. The shoreline was barricaded for miles with barbed wire, observation posts and defensive positions. BJ, a source of intense knowledge about the history of his country told me that this area was heavily fortified to repel North Korean infiltrators who may attempt to sneak into the South. He pointed out a land mass ahead. “That’s North Korea”. We were barely 50 km out of Seoul, and here the dividing line heads along the isthmus of the Han River. The military here are on constant alert for North Korean units attempting to cause trouble.
The Blue House Raid
BJ began to explain about one of the more infamous North Korean infiltration attempts. A ballsy attempt by commandos in 1968 to assasinate the President of South Korea in his presidential home, The Blue House Raid. 31 specially trained commandos infiltrated through the DMZ at night before crossing the Imjin River. They marched towards Seoul, and after changing into South Korean army uniforms made it to within a mile of the Blue House, simply walking past police and military units along the way. Close to their target, they were questioned at a checkpoint where a South Korean policeman recognised their northern accents. A firefight ensued and before long the raiders were forced to disperse. Only one commando escaped back to North Korea, one more was captured and the other 29 were hunted down and killed. The Blue House Raid failed but the brash attempt shook South Korea to the core.
Imjingak Peace Park
Regaled by stories of infiltration and North Korean spys, before long we arrived at Imjingak Peace Park, which lies 5km from the DMZ and overlooks the North across the Imjin River. The Peace Park was estalished as a place for Koreans to show their respect for family and friends that remain separated because of the war. It’s a place that shows the division of Korea and at the same time shows the longing for reunification.
I asked BJ if he thought reunification was possible. In the North, my guides had always expressed their sincere view that reunification would happen within their lifetime. BJ wasn’t quite so sure, the differences between North and South are now huge. I had seen this myself. The North is poor, and it’s suppressed. The people of Pyongyang are visibly shorter and thinner than the Koreans I’d seen in Seoul and the political gulf is vast. BJ was optimistic in the long term though, “We are all one people. Korea has only been divided for 70 years, before that we had a longer history. One day reunification will have to happen”. He was sure that there was only so much the North Korean people could take, “Eventually there must be a revolution. They will want money, food and freedom. They already know about these things. It’s just a matter of time”.
For the time being though, those in the South separated long ago from their loved ones in the North would have to console themselves with visiting the Peace Park. It’s a place where anyone can come freely, to learn about the DMZ, the division of Korea and to pay their respects at the many memorials dotted around the park.
Bizarrely, but in a way fitting for South Korea’s capitalist mentality, the Peace Park is also part amusement park and tourist trap. There’s even a Popeye’s Fried Chicken outlet. Nothing says reunification like a bucket of chicken.
The Bridge of Freedom
As well as Fried Chicken and war memorials, the Peace Park is also home to the Bridge of Freedom. This was the point where thousands of Prisoners of War were returned home, to freedom, at the end of the war. It’s a hugely symbolic place, adorned with South Korean flags and messages of hope for reunification.
The wooden structure connected onto the larger railroad bridge which crossed the river and went onto the DMZ and then into the North.
Now the rail line leads nowhere. It’s the end of the line, for now at least.
As we left the Peace Park, the loud sound of artillery fire roared from nearby. BJ was unfazed. “Just some drills!” I hoped it wasn’t the North Koreans aiming ordinance this way, but artillery drills this close to the border are a standard occurance. We drove closer towards the DMZ to see the point where the commandos of the Blue House Raid had crossed. At the Civilian Control Point which led into the DMZ itself- a small outpost surrounded by minefields and guarded by armed South Korean soldiers- BJ took our passports and went to speak with his contact, an army officer who would be guiding us in. Things weren’t looking good though. More artillery and gunfire was being loosed nearby as I waited in the car for BJ to return. He did so with an apologetic look on his face. This part of the DMZ was closed for us today, the Captain who would guide us through had an incident to deal with, and there were otherwise too many training exercises going on. On the world’s most volatile border, you can’t really be surprised.
‘The Freedom we have today is not free’
BJ drove us to a nearby battlefield instead. Gloster Hill, the scene of fierce and bloody fighting by the British Gloucestershire Regiment during the Korean War. They held the hill against Chinese and North Korean attacks during the Battle of the Imjin River, making a last stand to stop a breakthrough which would have retaken Seoul once again.
Below Hill 235 which the British held until they were over run and captured or killed is a memorial to the soldiers who fought here. We paid our respects to the fallen. ‘The Freedom we have today is not free’, BJ read from the monument, and for the first time, having visited North and South, did I really understand what that meant for the people of South Korea.
A Korean Duck BBQ
The memorial was next to a big military base, and the streets were crowded with tanks and armoured vehicles all taking part in exercises and drills along the DMZ. BJ took us to a nearby restaurant for lunch- a feast in the form of a Korean Duck BBQ- while things quietened down.
With the flames roaring, and the duck sizzling, we started on the masses of side dishes that never seemed to end. There was bean soup, Kimchi, Cucumber Kimchi, more Kimchi and Aubergine Kimchi.
Not to mention a mountain of duck meat to be barbecued.
BJ demonstrated the best method of eating the duck. Grabbing a piece of lettuce, smothering it in spicy bean sauce, piling on the duck and then garnishing it with the assortment of Kimchi sides. Then devour.
Fully satisfied, it was now time to venture underground, and to explore a North Korean infiltration tunnel.
The Third Infiltration Tunnel
Inside the DMZ, on the South Korean side of the demarcation line which splits the area in two, in 1978 an infiltration tunnel was discovered. This is the third of four known tunnels which have been constructed under the DMZ from the North to the South. It’s unknown how many more could exist, but it’s presumed that the tunnels were constructed in order to facilitate a potential attack on Seoul. So there could be many more. The third tunnel is large enough for thousands of troops to march through each hour. The North Koreans always denied its existence though. They even painted the walls black to try and fool everyone into believeing it was a simple coal mining tunnel. Oh North Korea.
The South Korean military blocked the tunnel off along the demarcation line, and now they even let tourists down, although photography was forbidden. A small train took us downwards into the tunnel, and from there we walked for 250 metres, until we reached the dead end. The other side was the North Korean side of the tunnel. Who knew what strange horrors lurked there. Presumably if they really wanted to they could simply blast through the concrete barriers and march all the way to Seoul…
Looking Out Over North Korea
The next stage of the DMZ Spy Tour was a stop at the Dora Observatory. This observation point overlooks the DMZ from a strategic height that allows you to see right into North Korea.
There’s even telescopes and binoculars to view the border through.
It was a grey day along the DMZ, but in the distance was the North. The flag was drooping on its pole, but this was the same flag I’d seen already from the other side. A few North Korean guard posts and observation points could be seen, and far away a few towns and villages.
The Last Train To Pyongyang
The last stop in the DMZ before the sunset, before we would be trapped in no man’s land between two warring sides, was the Dorasan Station. This was the railway line that once connected the North to the South, and in recent years it was rebuilt with the intent of one day reconnecting the two countries.
It’s a strange ghost station that only receives a few trains a day. This is where they terminate of course, but an ambitious sign in the departure hall advertises a train to Pyongyang. I was about 70 years too late for that train though…
Aside from the tourists the station was empty. Everything was ready though for the day that reunification is achieved.
I was given a rail ticket which gained me entrance to the platform itself, so through the ticket barriers I went, and down to the empty train tracks. The Unification Platform was a lonely place…
Optimistically though, the station styles itself as ‘Not the last station from the South, but the first station toward the North’. Dreams of reunification are well and truly alive at Dorasan.
Back To Seoul
With the sun about to set on the DMZ and the two Koreas it was time to head back to Seoul. The DMZ is a strange world. A tense place, but in many ways, a very touristy place too. It’s a sad but unique part of history, and if the enthusiasm shown for reunification bears any fruit, then one day the train might run all the way to Pyongyang again. That could be a long way in the future though.
DMZ Spy Tours provided me with a complimentary private day tour, however all opinions expressed are as always my own! You can find out more information at www.dmzspytour.com or by emailing Shrek (yes, that’s the manager’s nickname!) at [email protected]