I went to the DMZ last year with a tour group and it was pretty amazing. If you don’t know what the DMZ is, allow me to explain: DMZ stands for the “Demilitarized Zone.” This is the literal, heavily-guarded line between North and South Korea. And I saw it.
The weekend trip was awesome and overall, totally surreal.
We first went to an area along the border that had previously been closed to the public until 2006, called Dutayeon (두타연) Falls. If you plan to go, you have to actually apply with a tourism office no less than 3 days in advance. They’re that serious about patrolling there.
They’ve cleared the area (mostly) and have made some walking paths through a beautiful section in this range of mountains. To keep track of visitors, though, they make everyone wear a GPS tracker around their neck. North Korea is so nearby that they want to keep close tabs on everyone. Crazy, isn’t it!? So, I wore a GPS tracker.
Also, there are still live land mines throughout the area. They’ve cleared most of them, but there is barbed wire along all the paths with little warning signs that simply say “Mine.” You DON’T wander from the path unless you have a death wish. Seriously. There are mines out there! It was crazy to fathom.
At one point, I got pretty pissed because this older guy totally ignored the “Mine” sign and just made his own little path down a steep hill. Now, it’s not likely that there were mines in there, especially being that close to the actual path… But seriously. Buddy. DON’T ENDANGER EVERYONE AROUND YOU BECAUSE YOU’RE IMPATIENT. Good gods. We could have all died.
Next, we went to a war memorial and saw an area the UN army troops called “The Punch Bowl,” not surprisingly because of its bowl-like shape as the mountains make a giant valley. This valley was where a particularly bloody battle took place, too. They had a small museum where pretty much everything was in Korean, so we didn’t stay long. But inside the museum, they had collected helmets from fallen soldiers and hung them from the ceiling. The floor was glass and beneath the glass, they had other shrapnel and empty bullet rounds. It was really moving.
I didn’t know much about the Korean war before I got here; it was horrible and it’s so sad how things happened and the results we live with now, the two countries torn apart and families separated. Being in that small museum was a bit emotional for me. If you don’t know much about the Korean War, look it up. It’s heartbreaking.
We moved from the museum to the top of a mountain at the edge of “The Punch Bowl” that houses an observatory and army barracks. The area has been used as a lookout post and a training location for the South Korean army since the war. It’s also been the site of a swimming pool and hosted one year of the nation’s annual “Miss Korea” beauty contests. All of this was put on display for the North side to see. It’s like, “Come see what we have. Don’t you wish you had it, too? Our beautiful, scantily clad women and our blue, inviting swimming pools?” Um, yeah. Very interesting piece of information, that was…
But anyway… We walked into the observatory and were surrounded by 180 degrees of glass windows. When you look out the windows, you’re looking at North Korea. Just staring at it. It was the most incredible, unreal feeling. It’s in the mountains and very high up, so you can actually see the “line” that was constructed to separate the two countries. There’s a brown divider (I presume is actually a fence) that separates the North from the South. They gave us some information about what we could see at different locations from the windows, including a lookout post on the North Korean side.
They also had some kind of crazy-strong camera set up and pointed out the laundry facility and lookout station of the North Korean camp and told us, “If you watch carefully, you’ll actually see soldiers moving around.” And you know what? WE DID. We actually saw North Korean soldiers going about their business from just over a mile or two away on camera. IT WAS INSANE. Just so hard to comprehend, in some ways.
Our last stop on the DMZ tour was “the fourth tunnel,” an actual tunnel dug by the North Koreans (presumably during the war) to invade South Korea, which they never used. The tunnel was only discovered in 1990! It was made through a mountainside (yes, A MOUNTAINSIDE) and then underground. The North Koreans literally used dynamite to blow out sections of the mountain to make this tunnel. The South Koreans used a giant drill to reach it, making a large tunnel for people to actually walk through.
The South Korean tunnel intercepts the North Korean tunnel, which is so short and narrow, you’d have to hunch over to actually move through it. We were able to ride a little single-seat train-like thing up into the tunnel and stopped where the North Korean line starts. I was just meters from North Korea underground! We weren’t supposed to take photos, but I got a couple walking down the big South Korean tunnel to the smaller North Korean tunnel and of my friend and I on the train. It was dark in the North Korean tunnel, so the pictures didn’t turn out great, but they serve as proof that I was there! Again, it was totally surreal to have this whole experience.
I was just hundreds of meters away from one of the most elusive, heavily-protected areas in the world last weekend. It was absolutely mind-boggling. I would totally go again, just to gape at it. It blows my mind, how secretive North Korea is. It was heartbreaking to me to look out at that expanse and know that there were people there who were in complete agony, perhaps many of them having no idea how true that is. I thought about the families that have been broken since the time of the war – the families that were split into two. Ironically, the two sides had several hours-long reunions over that weekend that were televised. It was precious to see some families reunited.
On Sunday, we returned to Seoraksan National Park, which I visited in early May 2015 with Enjoy Korea and went ziplining. It was raining on the May trip, so I was stoked to get another opportunity to go back with better weather. I was not disappointed. It was incredibly beautiful.
If you ever get the chance to go, GO. You won’t regret it.
Krissi Driver is an average American girl living and teaching in Daegu, South Korea. She’s a passionate writer, part-time runner, and professional shopper. She hopes to keep taking big leaps in life and wants to spend the rest of her career living, learning, and working internationally. She blogs about millennial life, relationships, her teaching and traveling adventures, and other random topics at A Little Bit Brave.