The DMZ: Up Close and Personal with North Korea

Going to the DMZ has been at the top of my list since I arrived in South Korea and when I finally made it there, I was not disappointed. The DMZ or demilitarized zone is located at the 38th parallel, spanning 250 kilometers in length and 4 kilometers in width. The public was previously restricted from visiting the DMZ for forty years, but you can now visit in group tours. 

"DMZ" sign within demilitarized zone
The DMZ sign within the demilitarized zone. 

Our first stop on the tour was Imjingak Park, separated from the DMZ by the Imjingang River. The park has multiple memorials dedicated to those who gave their lives fighting and to the families who became separated during the Korean War. You can also view the remains of the railway bridge that once connected the two countries, which is now riddled with bullet holes from the war. Parallel to this is The Bridge of Freedom, which is where 13,000 POWs were exchanged after the armistice was signed in 1953. Another interesting aspect of this bridge is that it connects the park’s Imjingang Station to Dorasan Station, which is located across the river in the DMZ. Although Dorasan Station is closed as of now, it has a platform to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. I found this interesting because it shows how South Korea is preparing and working towards the reunification of the two countries. 

The railway bridge that once connected north and south korea, as well as the Bridge of Freedom
Here you can see the two bridges side by side!

After visiting the park, we had our passports checked and headed to the Dora Observatory in the DMZ. Here, we were able to look across the wide span of the DMZ and into North Korea. The view was not what I expected as the landscape was lush with trees and wildlife. On the southern side of the 38th parallel, I could see the Unification Village and South Korean flag. Further, in the distance, I saw the North Korean flag waving high in front of Gijeong-dong, which is commonly referred to as a “Propaganda village” by those outside North Korea, especially in Western media. Next to this village I could see the remnants of Gaesung industrial complex. This factory once housed workers from both countries and served as an inter-Korean liaison office, but it was demolished by Kim Jong-un’s sister after it was discovered South Koreans were sending counterpropaganda to North Korea. 

Here is the view from the Dora Observatory! (Mountains and lush greenery)
Here is the view from the Dora Observatory!
Remnants of Gaesung
In the middle of this picture you can see the remnants of Gaesung!
Here you can see the North Korean flag in front of their propaganda village!

The next stop on our tour was the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel which is one of the four discovered tunnels that North Korea dug in an attempt to sneak into South Korea after the armistice was signed. These tunnels were discovered after one of them collapsed and a North Korean worker escaped to South Korea. This worker informed South Korean officials about the four tunnels and their approximate locations. North Korea insisted that these tunnels were for coal mining and even painted the tunnel walls black. However, the granite behind the black paint and dynamite holes prove otherwise. The tunnel itself is a mile long and I was able to see remnants of the black paint while walking through. While at the 3rdInfiltration Tunnel I also learned that it is believed that there are 10-15 more tunnels still to be discovered. 

Map of North Korean "Infiltration Tunnels"
Here is a map of the tunnel as I was not allowed to take pictures inside. 

Our last stop on the tour was the Unification Village at the edge of the DMZ. This village is quite small and is composed mainly of soybean and rice fields. Since the DMZ is controlled by the United Nations, the people who live in this village do not have to pay any taxes to the South Korean government and receive free healthcare and education. Additionally, there are many rules surrounding when/how they can move out of the Unification Village which I found very interesting. For example, most of the people must wait until they are 40 years old to move or women can marry men outside of the village and then leave. 

The South Korean flag in the Unification Village!
The South Korean flag in the Unification Village!

The only part of the DMZ that I was unable to see is the JSA, or Joint Security Area because it has been closed indefinitely since 2019 due to the African Swine Flu. The JSA is where meetings between the two countries take place such as the inter-Korean summit in 2018. You can see the conference room where these meetings take place which is divided by the Military Demarcation Line. In addition, you can see both North and South Korean soldiers on guard across from each other within the JSA’s boundaries. Overall, visiting the DMZ was by far my favorite thing that I have done while studying abroad in Seoul and I would highly recommend touring the DMZ to anyone visiting South Korea. 

Ryan Burton is a student at the University of Kentucky. She is an ISA Featured Blogger and is studying abroad with ISA in Seoul, South Korea.

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