After starting our time in South Korea in Busan in the south to hiking in Jeju and driving through South Korean countryside towns, we finally arrived in Seoul. As far as a capital city goes, Seoul has a lot of interesting sights to offer, neighborhoods to explore, as well as a plethora of street food and night market options to chow your way through. But by far the most intriguing experience is one that isn’t even in Seoul – it’s the chance to get up close and catch a glimpse of Naughty…oops, I mean North Korea. So, we decided that we were going to go where no tourist has gone before – at least without being on an organized tour group as you cannot venture into the demilitarized zone (aka the DMZ) on your own.
We hadn’t confirmed that last important catch until about 36 hours before we wanted to go but luckily, we were able to find some tours that had availability. If you are interested in visiting the DMZ, we would suggest not only looking to book your tour at a few days in advance but to also know what you want to see and do as there are a variety of different tours you can take. Some tours take you into the DMZ to a few of the surrounding sights – the Imjingak Park, Dora Observatory, the 3rd Tunnel of Aggression, and the Dorasan Station – while others take you to the actual building where South and North Korea meet for diplomatic events, and others do a mix of the things. While it would have been amazing/terrifying to be in the building within feet of the North Korea border, unfortunately our backpacker budget could not swing the over $200 price tag for the two of us so we went for just the surrounding sights that only set us back $95 for two of us. We booked our tour through Viator (https://www.viator.com/tours/Seoul/Half-Day-Korean-DMZ-Tour-from-Seoul/d973-30023P6), which even allowed us to contact the company and arrange for them to pick us up at a nearby hotel since our hostel was tucked inside of a night market.
It’s no doubt that in today’s world with constant media coverage and social media, we have all heard at least of North Korea and Kim Jong-un to some varying degree. Being from Hawaii, Marlie has lived with threats of North Korea preparing to bomb the small Pacific island chain for at least 10 years now and even though we know it’s mostly a bluff, it can still be a constant reminder of the threat that North Korea can cause. However, behind the crazy antics of Kim Jong-un, especially with his interactions with President Trump (#dotard – honestly, a very impressive use of an antiquated English word just saying), we didn’t really know anything about the Korean War and how the Korean Peninsula came to be two countries in the first place.
I am assuming most of you aren’t history buffs or want us to recount the detailed history of what happened to result in North and South Korea as we really couldn’t do that anyways but here are the highlights that were explained to us. After World War II, the Korean Peninsula was freed from Japanese colonial rule and split into two countries temporarily between Russia and the U.S. with the aim that the two would be later unified. At that time, the North went with communism and was prospering while the South was establishing democracy and was geared towards agriculture. However, North Korea, with backing from Russia, had already made plans to invade South Korea, which they put into action resulting in the Korean War. We had no idea though that when North Korea captured Seoul, that they kidnapped roughly 100,000 people, who were intellectuals, scholars, doctors, academics, etc., causing thousands of displaced families with lost loved ones never to be seen or heard from again. After years of fighting, an armistice was agreed upon, which created the 2.5 miles wide and 160 miles long DMZ and ceased fire. While the war has never fully been resolved, the two countries have maintained the fragile armistice, even though North Korea has tried to invade South Korea by building tunnels and have had a few skirmishes into the 2000s. Today, South Korea has discovered and blocked four tunnels but are not sure how many more there could be, which creates an everlasting edge of tension along the border even though North Korea has fallen into an extensive state of poverty and struggle.
Now with the history lesson over, let’s get to fun part of this post – the sights we saw during the tour! We started out at the Imjingak Park, where you see the Freedom Bridge that was used to exchange prisoners of war, the museum of displaced families, a real cargo train that has been completely shot up during the war, the Liberty Bell, as well as a few other monuments. Ironically, there is also a permanent carnival area with rides and food stands located within the park – seems like a very strange place to have a memorial to such a stain on Korean history mixed with the delight of a carnival but the locals didn’t seem to think anything of it.
The next stop was the Dora Observatory, which is a theater-like building that has free binoculars where you can look across into North Korea to see the village of Kijong-dong, the fake propaganda town, they built in the DMZ to entice South Koreans to defect north as well as the third largest city in the distance. With some expert guidance, you can even see the physical green gate that separates the borders as well as the two giant flag poles that fly both countries flags. While scanning the buildings and streets of North Korea, it was a bit of a surprise as oddly, they don’t look very different to those in the South. This is the North trying to show the world they’re doing great! We were also fortune enough to lock onto some actual everyday North Koreans doing their daily tasks. These people were probably military personnel, but it still was such a cool sight to see the legendary North Koreans as they are as elusive as the snow leopards!
Our third stop of the day was the 3rd Tunnel of Aggression, which is one of the tunnels that South Korea caught North Korea building in order to invade the south – even though North Korea tried to play it off as they were using it for coal mining even though there is no coal down there… AWKWARD. The tunnel itself isn’t claustrophobic but you’ll have to duck the whole way if you’re tall and the slope to get down to the tunnel is very steep and long so don’t workout before your tour as the way up will have you sweating buckets. It really was such an impressive but eerie feeling being down in the cool, dark tunnel knowing that 35,000 soldiers could pass through in an hour and invade the south. The military situation feels even more real as the video they show you before descending into the tunnel reminds you that there could be many more unknown tunnels just like this one waiting to be used or discovered. In addition, they don’t let you take any pictures or electronics into the tunnel either… Active military tourism is kind of freaky but completely exhilarating.
The last stop on our tour was the Dorasan Station, which is a railway station built with the hopes that once the two countries unify this station will allow for train travel through the north as well as through the rest of Asia. While the sentiment is ideal, the building is never used for trains and at this time is used entirely for tourism. You can buy a train ticket that gets you two commemorative stamps and allows you out on the platform, which has various optimistic signs and even a piece of the Berlin Wall. Hopefully one day South Koreans will be able to travel through the North to see their long-lost family members as well as feel connected once again to Asia, even though they agree that this is a long way off. Those who support reunification hope that maybe in 30 years or so the two countries could come together, which is a heck of a long time to wait! Also, speaking to our guide, it appears that it’s the younger generation who didn’t fight in the war that are the ones pushing for the reunification. They say the older generation needs to die off first. Charming.
The tour ended by dropping us off back in Seoul at City Hall, which just so happened to have thousands of protesters organized against the government as well as displaying anti-north sentiment. Apparently protesters take to the streets around City Hall every Saturday but it really gave the ending of the tour the feeling that this is still an ongoing, modern issue and not one that is remembered vaguely from the past.
To be honest, we hadn’t loved the main attractions of South Korea as we thought that many of them had been way over-hyped and were disappointing in person. However, we would 100% recommend doing a tour of the DMZ as it did a great job at weaving in the sad history of the peninsula with the hope of the future as well as giving us a better perspective on the feelings of this worldly issue from the people who deal with it personally every day. While the tour doesn’t give you a ton of time at each place, we still felt that we saw everything we had hoped to see and learned so much from our helpful guide, Sadie, that it was such a memorable day spent outside of Seoul and was truly worth it.