The Other Korea: North Korea from the DMZ

By Brian Yaeck

When most people decide to do some sightseeing in Korea, it mostly involves something culturally interesting or fun, like a visit to temple or a hike in the mountains, or visit some places in Seoul.

But, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Korea does not neatly fall into one of those categories.
That place is of course the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the heavily fortified border that separates North and South Korea.

The DMZ ranks up there in the world of dark tourism, along side Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Chernobyl, and the Toul Sleng Genocide Musuem, as famous places to visit that aren’t necessarily fun and relaxing, but seem worth investigating to learn about some of the more upsetting aspects of the 20th century.
It is also the only affordable option to get up close to the strange and intriguing world of North Korea.
The only way to enter the DMZ for an up-close tour is through an organized tour company. Though, you can easily get close to North Korea, this is the best way to actually experience it. I did a tour through the USO, which many say is the most affordable and best tour to take.

The tour begins with a cruel early rising, as everyone must get to the meeting point in Seoul by 7:00am, no later. The bus then leaves at 7:30am and heads to the Joint Security Area near the village of Panmunjom, the only place inside the DMZ where tourists can visit.

This is where the United Nations has buildings where the armistice was signed and is the location where talks between the two sides still occur from time to time.

The journey to Panmunjom is surprisingly short, and is kind of shocking to realize just how close the border is to Seoul and how easily the city could be damaged by North Korean artillery should the remote chance of some future conflict occur.

Panmunjom is a mere 55 km away from Seoul and takes less than 2 hours to get there. The landscape changes quickly along the highway from the high-rise landscape of Seoul to the barbed wire fences and military patrol watch towers along the rivers that keep a look out for North Korean spies.

Eventually you start to see patrols of South Korean soldiers and come across the occasional check-point. The journey just to Panmunjom really reinforces the reality that this is one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world with millions of solders deployed on each side.

On the plus side, the lack of human settlements on either side of the DMZ has made it one of the most ecologically diverse places in the world along with Chernobyl. It seems where we aren’t, nature does just fine.
After passing through the checkpoints the tour bus arrived at the JSA, a United Nations base that is located within the DMZ and extends all the way to the demarcation border line between the two countries. After a debriefing on the DMZ and the dos and don’ts on what’s acceptable, the tour group is taken to a set of buildings right on the demarcation border line between the two countries where half of each building sits on the north and the south side of the border.

This is where you get a chance to say you’ve been to North Korea as you can walk into the building and be on the North Korean side of the negotiating table. 
 
 Visiting the buildings were pretty intense, as there were North and South soldiers staring each other down, standing just meters away from the border.

The South Korean soldiers looked kind of cool though, as they select the tallest troops to intimidate the North Korean soldiers, wear sunglasses, and stand constantly in a ready taekwondo stance.

The day I went was apparently a lucky day, as the North Korean soldiers were just outside the building, mere footsteps away. They apparently are a little shy of the tourists groups and aren’t always available for taking snapshots.
When we did take pictures of the North Koreans we were told to not provoke them by pointing at them or posing with them in the background. That really makes them mad, so don’t do it, or you’ll get punched! Seriously, I heard someone got punched.

After this the tour bus takes the group to a few other interesting places near the JSA. A bridge where soldiers were exchanged at the end of the war, which had a nice view of a nearby North Korean village that played communist propaganda 24 hours a day.

After that, it was time to head to an observatory to get a scenic view of the North Korean side of the border. It was fairly interesting to see what it looks like on the other side. The mountains are often hollowed out on the inside and contain military bases. �?Team America: World Police’ was not lying after all!

Finally, the last stop the tour group takes is a trip to one of the invasion tunnels North Korea tried to secretly build in order to sneak troops behind South Korean lines should a war occur.

The tunnels are deep underground and actually are quite chilly as a result. It was interesting to see one of North Korea’s bizarre plans as well as hear some of the interesting lies they told the South after they found it. They said they were actually digging for a coal mine and even painted the tunnel walls black to prove it.

Overall, the trip was definitely worthwhile to get a sense of the division that exists in Korea. It was also good to understand ‘the pain and sorrow’ the Korean people feel as a divided nation.

Since regardless of ideology, the Koreans are all one people, and it’s quite a depressing situation that Korea got itself into in the 20th century. After a humiliating and repressive occupation by Japan they gained freedom only to be divided by the random consequences of geopolitical victories and standoffs and then suffer through a terribly brutal war that ended in a stalemate.

Taking a tour through the War Memorial Museum in Seoul before or after the trip will only help to add further context and detail to a DMZ tour experience as well.

The trip is also interesting since it gives you the only easy opportunity to see North Korea in a cheap and convenient way. Since a trip to North Korea is ridiculously expensive and the other shorter tours have been put on hold indefinitely, a DMZ tour is the most realistic option of seeing this communist country stuck in an Orwellian totalitarian state.

North Korea is as strange as a late era David Lynch film, so although there may be many fine books about the place, this is your one chance to get up close and personal to this bizarre place that seems interesting to read about but never ever live there.

I can only hope that reunification happens soon and that a DMZ tour in the future might be more similar to that of the Berlin Wall presently, to bring a people together and stop the insanity that passes for governance in the northern half. Until then, there are plenty of chances to take it all in. DMZ

Want to see it for yourself? Check out these links to learn about tours and details of the experience.
Tours
The USO DMZ Tour
A tour that is said to offer the most comprehensive tour of the DMZ at the most reasonable price. Visit their website here: http://affiliates.uso.org/Korea/default.cfm?contentid=347

Further Reading
Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty
By Bradley Martin

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: 10 Years in the North Korean Gulag
By Kang Chol-Hwan

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea
By Guy Delisle