On the Edge of North Korea

I never thought I would be able to say I stood 170 meters away from North Korea in an underground infiltration tunnel. But, that’s exactly what I did this weekend.

On Saturday, I went on a free tour to the DMZ organized by IFEZ (Incheon Free Economic Zone), which often offers free events, trips and tours for staff members working at the GCF. You can only visit the DMZ on an organized tour, so when I saw this opportunity, I jumped at it.

With a departure time of 8am, it was an early morning. It’s always a struggle to get up early on a Saturday, but with Typhoon Kong-rey bearing down on South Korea, bringing with it relentless rain,  I questioned if it was worth going. However, free things motivate me, so I put on my rain jacket and made my way to the office, where I met up with many of my co-workers before boarding the tour bus.

The DMZ is only an hour and a half drive north of Songdo, which, in many ways, is crazy to think about. I live such a normal life in South Korea with so many modern luxuries, yet just north of me lies the most oppressive regime in the world. However, the drive was beautiful, passing through the South Korean countryside and endless rice fields. Our tour guide, Grace, narrated along the way, telling us stories about one of her best friends who defected from North Korea and pointed out sights along the way.

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Scenic drive through the country side near North Korea, featuring lots of barbed wire

Around 9:30am we made it to our first stop, Imjingak, which includes a park, several monuments, an observation deck and tours of Freedom Bridge and bunkers used by American soldiers during the Korean War. Because we only had about 30 minutes here, we weren’t able to go on any of the tours offered, but we did walk around the park, taking in several of the monuments.

After spending some time at Imjingak, we boarded the bus and headed to our next destination, the Third Infiltration Tunnel. To get there, we had to enter the Civilian Control Zone (CCZ), which extends an additional 8 km past the DMZ. The South Korean military restricts access to the CCZ and in order to enter, you have to show your passport or Alien Registration Card. When we reached the checkpoint, a military guard boarded our bus and checked all our passports and ARCs very carefully. At this point, it was made very clear that absolutely no photos were allowed, and if you did try to take one, the guard would delete every photo in your phone. Needless to say, I didn’t risk it.

Once we got clearance to enter the CCZ, we made our way to the Third Infiltration Tunnel. When we arrived, we were told that we would have to lock all our belongings up in a locker before being allowed in the tunnel. This meant no purse, no phone, nothing –  for security reasons, of course. So we locked our stuff up, put on some super cute yellow hard hats and made our way 240 feet underground to the tunnel.

The Third Infiltration Tunnel is one of four tunnels found (so far) that the North Koreans built in the 1970s in order to bypass the DMZ and attack South Korea. The Third Infiltration Tunnel is considered the most threatening because it’s just 32 miles from Seoul and it’s estimated 30,000 soldiers could pass through the tunnel every hour. This was, by far, my favorite part of the tour as we made our way through the tunnel into the DMZ, crouching to avoid hitting our heads on the low ceiling. After 265 meters, we hit a wall and couldn’t go any farther. This wall is one of three, set up to make sure no one, even accidentally, reaches the Military Demarcation Line. If you continued in this tunnel just 170 more meters, you would be in North Korea (and probably dead).

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I couldn’t take any photos of the infiltration tunnel, but this map was at one of the museums we went to, so you can get an idea of the layout of the tunnel.

After making our way out of the tunnel, we headed across the street to a small museum where we watched a really bizarre video about the DMZ full of South Korean propaganda about how the DMZ is a peaceful place where humans and nature live in harmony (LOL). We then boarded the bus once again and headed to Dora Observatory, which sits right on the edge of the DMZ on the top of a hill. Fortunately, right before we arrived, the rain stopped and the weather cleared up significantly, giving us a clear view of North Korea.

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Being a tourist outside the DMZ museum

From the observation deck, you can clearly see Kijong-dong, the North Korean village on the other side of the DMZ. There’s many buildings painted a bright sky blue, beautiful countryside, looming mountains (with no trees because they have all been cut down for fuel) a massive North Korean flag and, of course, statues of North Korean leaders. However, no one actually lives here – this is a propaganda village, designed to make it look like North Korea is a thriving, happy successful country.

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North Korea

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Me with North Korea

Our last stop on the trip was Dorasan Station, the northernmost stop on South Korea’s Gyeongui line, which crosses the MDL, connecting North and South Korea. For several years, freight trains ran between the two countries, carrying supplies to South Korean factories in North Korea. However, in 2008, after a South Korean was killed on a tour in North Korea for walking around her hotel, all trains stopped. Today, you can take a tourist train from Seoul to Dorasan and the station has been turned into a museum with many photos from the Inter-Korean summit this past April as well as a portion of the Berlin Wall that Germany donated to remind us all that unification is possible.

While my trip to the DMZ was great, in many ways it was bizarre and eerie. It’s a weird feeling standing on the edge of the world’s most oppressive regime, seeing the shell of a village and knowing the atrocities that are occurring just across the most aggressive border on Earth. You get a heavy feeling knowing that every move you make is carefully watched and seeing barbed wire and armed military soldiers everywhere you look is a bit unsettling. At the same time you feel overwhelmed and annoyed by the number of tourists and souvenir shops, yet simultaneously safer. Despite the weird mix of feelings, however, it’s impossible to ignore the hopefulness of Koreans that one day, unification will happen and North and South Korea will become one once again.

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