“That’s amazing that you’re about to teach abroad in Korea,” said my friends and family as I was securing the final details before jetting off to this little peninsula in East Asia. “Sooo are you heading to North or South Korea?” Um, what? I thought. Isn’t that kinda obvious…? Welp, apparently not for everyone. For anyone who is heading over to the Republic of Korea (SOUTH Korea), take advantage of a history and cultural lesson on what divides these two countries.
As a waygook—foreigner—having lived abroad in South Korea for two years, I twice took the opportunity of visiting the Korean DMZ, the border that separates the two countries. It was on the top of my Korea bucket list and it is a MUST see for anyone traveling to Korea. While intimidating at first for those who aren’t waving “I love Kim Jong Un” flags, it’s an opportunity to get to know some significant history into why there are two completely separate countries which have many of the same ancestors.
So, being the notetaker I am, I jotted down a few key points I learned while visiting the Korean DMZ. Here are some of the top things that stood out while visiting the Korean DMZ.
What is the Korean DMZ?
The Korean DMZ is a 2.5-mile wide border that spans the 160-mile long peninsula between North and South Korea. Leading up to WWII, the Japanese controlled the Korean peninsula. Later, the area was predominantly communist with hopes of expanding throughout the entire area. However, that was a no-go for some southerners and the two sides fought in what is known as the Korean War from 1950-53. Post-war, 10 million people were displaced from their homes and the borders between the north and south were created and that is where you will find the DMZ. In the area, there are still almost 900,000 landmines remaining from the original million that were planted by North Koreans—so don’t think you can set out and explore this area on your own, cause you can’t.
Along the DMZ, there have been four underground tunnels discovered as a way to get North Korean troops to sneak on over to the south. The first of these tunnels were discovered in the mid-70s and spans a distance of about two miles in length. Three more tunnels were discovered up until 1990. It’s currently believed that there are dozens more although none have been found. In my tour, we were allowed to walk through the south side of the third tunnel to see what the north had failed to build. The further you got, the tighter the space became and we were not allowed to go onto the northern side. What I found interesting was that the tunnel walls were painted black. The North Koreans needed to cover the fact that they were up to no good and needed to pretend the tunnels were for “coal mining.”
In 2000, there was a ray of optimism for the south and north to have a railway line that could transport goods back and forth. That didn’t last too long. If you’ve ever been to a train station, you know it’s busy. Well, not the case for Dorasan Station just meters south of the DMZ. From 2007-2008 the station was open and would transport goods back and forth to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. However, in 2008 it was permanently closed due to a South Korean woman’s death by a North Korean soldier (as noted from my Korean tour guide) and hasn’t been open since. However, you can still experience the eerie station and the South Korean guards who are there for your selfie-taking needs. Apparently, a few tourists hop aboard the train today from Seoul, but there’s no way they can speed on over past the border. All we can do is hope that one day it will be useful between the two countries.
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Peace or Propaganda Village:
The south will call it Propaganda and the north will call it Peace. Regardless of what it’s called, it’s there. While visiting the Korean DMZ, we hopped on over to an observatory deck where we were not allowed to take photos. The South Korean military would actually confiscate and delete all of your photos if anyone attempted to sneak a pic. From the viewpoint we could peek into a little border village. I peered into my binoculars and saw someone riding a bike. For some reason, it stuck with me and for the first time it hit me that people actually live there. In my opinion, it’s a village set up by the north to make the area look normal, but looking out is still a mystery and who knows what’s really going on. The south thinks it’s fake and the north claims it’s real. And as a western non-Korean gal, I just am along for the ride to view what I see and make no claim as to what is factual or not.
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During part of the tour we watched an overly optimistic documentary about how the two countries can one day be united. Of course, as a non-Korean observer it was nice to see that there was some hope for the future. However, as an American who only lived in South Korea for a brief stint, I’ll never understand the complexities and tension of the relationships and how it could be a possibility to unite without a major conflict across the peninsula.
Visiting the Korean DMZ:
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From Seoul, it’s easy to sign up for a tour and head on over to the DMZ. Even if you are a free-spirited tour hating traveler, you’ll want a guide for this one. You learn from a local and can make pals along the way. Here are some of the top tours if you plan on visiting the Korean DMZ. You only need a day to tour the DMZ and it will be a unique experience that you can’t get anywhere else. Yes, people love to travel for the friends, food, drinks, museums, and beaches, but where else can you get up close and personal with the Korean border? Nowhere! When you finish up your tour, there are plenty of other fun things to do while in Seoul, but make sure to get cultured and learn about the controversy that still creates tension today.
Suggested next reading: 5 Incredible Places To Visit In South Korea Other Than Seoul