Korea used to be a unified nation. Then Japanese occupation, World War II, the Cold War and Communism, and of course- the Korean War happened.
The consequence of three years of war between North and South was a divided Korea.
Today there are stark differences between the South that lives in relative prosperity and the North, whose people continue to suffer from the oppressive dictatorship they live in.
There is nowhere this division is so obvious than at the demilitarized zone. The demilitarized zone represents a stretch of land between the North and South. It is 4km wide and stretches 250kms long and was designated as a buffer zone between the North and the South.
Despite its name, it is actually one of the most militarized areas in the world- with over 2 million troops from both North and South Korea being stationed on the border.
I’ve been debating North Korean motions since high school, so I’ve always had a keen interest in the ongoing tensions between the North and South.
Thus when I found out you can actually go visit the DMZ from Seoul I quickly booked a tour.
There are two types of tours to the DMZ. There are the normal DMZ tours that take you to just the zone itself including an observatory to see over in North Korea, the Third Tunnel that troops dug through, the train station and other various areas in the DMZ.
Then there is the better and more hardcore tour of the JSA or Joint Security Area that actually takes you right to the very border.
The process for visiting the JSA is strict- you need to provide your passport details at least 2 days in advance and you need to adhere to a dress code of long pants or skirts, no sandals and no t-shirts without a collar.
We thought the dress code was just for decencies sake- but apparently it is because if all of us tourists rock up to the JSA in thongs, shorts and t-shirts the North Korean will use us as propaganda to say that people from democratic countries can’t afford clothes!
You can do a combined tour of both the DMZ and JSA, but we were a bit strapped for cash and decided just to go with the JSA tour only.
Our JSA tour with DMZ Tours included a trip to the Odusan observatory, Imjingak Park and the Reunification Bridge, and of course- the Joint Security Area.
When we got on our tour bus we were very excited to realise that a North Korean defector was coming along with us so that we could ask her lots of questions about her life in North Korean and her journey to South Korea.
From talking to her we were able to realise the suffering that is occurring in North Korea- with people starving and having no access to medical care. Most people are unable to leave the areas they live in without permission and there is very little access to electricity.
She told us of the journey she took from North Korea, over the Chinese border to a camp in Thailand. We were amazed to realise that the South Korean government has an amazing program for North Korean defectors where they keep them in a relatively low security processing centre for 6 months.
3 months to do the necessary checks to ensure they are not a North Korean spy and another 3 months to educate them on things like modern technology to assist with their assimilation into South Korean society.
They are then provided with housing and a small monthly income from the South Korean government for the first 6 months in order to get on their feet. It’s an amazing system and something I wish Australia would adopt for its asylum seeker “problem”.
None of us could get over the courage it would have taken this woman to escape from North Korea – the punishment if discovered is prison or execution if the North Korean government realised she was aiming to go to South Korea.
It took 3 years for her to plan and she left with her daughter and sister and nephew. When I asked her if she left anyone behind she answered that yes she had left her husband who had no knowledge of her plan.
Some of the interesting things we learnt about North Korea from our questions were that most of North Koreans hate their government and the situation they are living in, but have no ability to oppose the government. Also all male North Koreans have compulsory 10 years military service so they won’t get married until around 30 years old! It’s insane!
Speaking to this amazing women was definitely the highlight of the trip!
At the Odusan observatory we were able to hear about the South Korean people and their hope for reunification. When you first enter the observatory there is a model of a KTX train with ‘Seoul-Pyongyang- Paris ’ on the side- representing the hope for a unified Korea.
We also learnt about the the Korean war and some interesting facts about the plans for reunification- including the reunification fund.
However the real reason for our trip to the observatory was to climb to the top and use binoculours to peer just over the river to North Korea. Here we could see rural North Koreans tending to the fields, riding a bike and walking around the countryside!
After the observatory we headed to Imjingak Park. Imjinkgak Park and the Reunification Bridge were built shortly after the Korean war as a place for North Korean refugees to go to pray for the family and friends that were now stranded on the other side of the border.
Thousands of ribbons represent the hopes and prayers of the South Korean people for reunification for the North Korean people. So they might finally be able to reunite with relatives that they don’t even know are still alive.
We even left our own message on the reunification bridge- having felt awed by the whole place.
When we talk about the Korean War and the division between North and South we often discuss it in a vacuum. We don’t understand the suffering of people that have been divided by a line that was simply drawn by forces during the Armistice.
After a quick lunch we headed to what was to be the biggest part of the tour- the Joint Security Area.
At Camp Bonifas, we were met by some sexy American guards that were our security escort through the Joint Security Area. I’m still not sure if they were actually sexy- or it was just because they were in uniform and wearing sunglasses….
After signing our lives away with a waiver acknowledging the risk of being in the Joint Security Area, we headed out on a different bus driven by a South Korean soldier.
Upon arrival we were sharply told to form two lines by the US guards and then escorted down to the UN conference room. Here is the only space in the Joint Security Area that is used both by North and South Korea. When the South Koreans are in there they shut the door and the North Koreans can’t access it.
Here we were able to do the rather touristy thing of stepping over the demarcation line into North Korean territory, and also posing with some South Korean guards. I don’t understand how they could stand in this pose without even moving!
It’s kind of surreal to be able to peer over that line and look at North Korean territory. We were able to see one lonely North Korean guard looking over at us. He seemed to be a little shy as he often ducked between the concrete post he was standing next to.
Is a trip to the DMZ/JSA extremely touristy? Yes (although it was slightly better when we went as all of South Korea has been so quiet because of MERS).
Is it worth doing? Absolutely- Just don’t make the mistake of booking a tour that doesn’t include the JSA!