The first of August started early, but luckily not as early as the temple stay. Some had bought instant noodles breakfast yesterday as breakfast, while some others waited for the Paris Baguette shop to open around seven zero zero hour.
This all was for a visit to the best guarded nature reserve of the world: The demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.
The DMZ is 241km long and 4 kilometers wide. Can you imagine? It was formed after the Korean War, which was started in 1950 by North Korea and after huge losses at both sides it was decided to cease fire in 1953. Both sides pulled back 2km from the last line of military contact to ensure peace. This 4km wide border hasn’t changed since then. Since the 1970’s four tunnels have been discovered by South Korea. These tunnels would allow North Korea to easily transfer troops to South Korea. After discovery, South Korea closed the tunnel around the center and made the South side a touristic attraction.
While driving to the first visiting spot, we drove along the smallest part of the border. Separated by a river, it was just 400m to north Korea. In the dry season one could simply walk to the other side, if it weren’t for the fact you would get shot.
We had a small stop just before the border to go to the toilet or get a coffee. Then the bus took us to the civilian control line, where a military person checked our passports. This civilian control line (ccl) , consisting of large fences and military stations to prevent tourists from coming near to the dmz. Inside the ccl is a small village, called unification village. Most people live here to cultivate the rice fields in the ccl and dmz. The ccl is 5 to 20 kilometers wide starting at the southern border of the dmz. In the dmz is a village as well, called freedom village (which is tax free).
In the next spot we visited we had an overview of the dmz accompanied with loud western propaganda. At the other side of the military demarcation line (mdl, the real borderline) we had a view on “propaganda village” in North Korea. We also saw the South Korean factory that was built in the North in 2004 together with its own power line from the South. Because of low taxes and cheap North Korean workers, this factory could produce cheap products. In 2016 it was closed because of the increasing conflicts and provocations.
A few kilometers further we went down into the third infiltration tunnel that South Korea discovered, and visited the museum next to it. The museum explained in a very clear way that all trouble was caused by North Korea and a film told us how North Korea had planned to invade Seoul.
Then the Dorasan train station was visited, this station was built in 2000 as part of the ‘sunshine politics’ in an attempt to build a railroad via North Korea and China to Europe. The station was built really large to be able to handle all traffic after a possible reunification, but unfortunately the railroad was closed a few years later and now only tourists visit it.
After a quite good Korean lunch, we went to camp Bonifas at the southern border of the DMZ. After a thorough passport check and having seen a movie about what they’re doing, a bus took us through the southern DMZ to the Joint Security Area (JSA).
The DMZ looked like a forest with a few rice fields in between. Minefield markers are everywhere. The distance between the northern and southern farm fields is just a few hundreds meters, but the farmers are not allowed to communicate.
In the JSA, a soldier in obligatory military service guided us. We had to be quiet, calm and especially not be provocative to the North Koreans on the other side. Then neatly ordered in lines of two, we could enter the blue houses on the border, which are used for possible negotiations between the countries. In these houses we stood officially in North Korea for a very short time. After a quick visit to the gift shop, we went back to the hostel.
Today’s dinner was arranged by the organizing committee, and we all went to a Korean barbecue restaurant which was recommended by the hostel. Although they ran out of meat, and we were sitting in the smoke of our own barbecues it tasted very good.
In the evening most of us decided to keep it calm and cheap by buying some beers and soju in the supermarket and watch a movie in the hostel. All together it was a day we can all remember.
– Jeroen van Oorschot