Our South Korea specialist Annie writes about her first impressions of the Demilitarized Zone, known as the DMZ, which buffers the border between South and North Korea.
'I don’t know what I expected from a trip to the most heavily militarized border in the world, but I know I didn’t expect to find it as fascinating and moving as I did - so much so that it turned out to be the highlight of my trip to South Korea.
The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a 4km wide strip of land that runs across the Korean Peninsula to act as a buffer between North and South Korea. The vicious looking barbed-wire-clad border serves as a sign of the tension between the two regions, and contributes to the chilling atmosphere of the place.
The highlight of my visit to the DMZ was undoubtedly the view from the Dora Observatory, where you can look out onto the empty space that marks the edge of North Korea. Staring into the binoculars, there isn’t too much to see except an abandoned village, reminding me what a secret nation it is, and how rare it is to get a glimpse of what it's really like to live there. Loud speakers in the village play messgaes of propaganda, which only heightens the already eerie ambience.
Multiple tunnels have been discovered running from the North into the South, thought to be built to launch an unsuspecting attack on the South. One is open to visitors. When I travel, I like to embrace all experiences, but I'm not good with small spaces, so I knew that going down the tunnel would prove to be a personal challenge. To get down, you can either walk down a steep ramped tunnel, or take an open train.
I had a ticket to take the train. For the sake of my claustrophobic readers, I'm quite glad that I did, because you'll learn from my misguided assumption that the train would be less claustrophobic than the tunnel! However you tget down there, everyone must wear hard hats, as a fair amount of crouching is involved - something I didn’t realise would start at the top! The train tunnel is low and narrow, and the air cold and musky, so it wasn’t a pleasant experience, but it made me think about the people who would have spent so much time digging out the tunnels in the first place.
Once at the bottom you can do a loop and explore the tunnels; once again this is a small enclosed space. I opted to head back up pretty quickly using the walking tunnel. I was glad to find that it was much wider and airier than the train, and I would advise that this is by far the best option if you don’t like small spaces. Even though I found the tunnels challenging to enter, I would highly recommend you give it a try.
Visiting the rest of South Korea I felt very safe and it was easy to forget about the tensions between the north and south; a visit to the DMZ was a poignant reminder that tensions are ever-present.
If you’d like to find out more about visiting South Korea, have a look at our recommended South Korea holidays, or give Annie a call.