October 24, 2017
It is our third full day in South Korea. During our first day, we had a grand time immersing in South Korea’s history at the Gyeongbokgung Palace. We also got to experience nature at Sokcho even though it was a short visit. For our third day, we plan to visit one of the most relevant pieces of South Korea’s contemporary history – the demilitarized zone, or simply DMZ.
South Korea and North Korea have involved in a long war of attrition that began in 1950s. It initially involved heavy artillery before it transformed into a Cold War. The North and its current leader, Kim Jong Un is especially hell bent in provoking its southern neighbor and the rest of the world. In its quest of global domination, North Korea has been spreading havoc in the peninsula, testing its missiles and its nuclear weaponry on the sea between South Korea and Japan. As a matter of fact, there was a missile warning during our stay in South Korea. Thankfully, nothing untoward happened.
But enough of Kim Jong Un and North Korea, much has already been said about the Hermit Kingdom. It doesn’t mean however that we cannot take a peek into the Korean peninsula’s modern history. What better way to experience it than taking a tour at the infamous demilitarized zone which is located at the border of the two warring countries. However, gaining access to the area is a challenge because of several security protocols. The best (and so far the only way) to do so is to arrange it with travel agencies or online tour service providers such as Klook or KKDay.
South Korea travel tip # 6: We booked our DMZ tour through KKDay. However, it wasn’t without any challenge. We originally planned to do the DMZ and Joint Security Area (JSA) Panmunjom tours but no tours were available during our stay. In the end, we were only able to book the DMZ tour. If possible, book your reservation the earliest you can.
Our call time for the DMZ tour, as expected, is early – we are to be picked up at Seoul Station by 8 AM. Once we were picked up, we proceeded northwards to DMZ. The landscape transformed from Seoul’s towering cityscape to the more downtrodden path of the countryside. The countryside is very similar with that of the Philippines, with vast farmlands stretching before us.
During our trip going to DMZ, we were oriented by our local guide. She gave us a background and brief history of DMZ. She told us what to expect for the day. She is loquacious and was able to talk about a plethora of subjects which included Korean Hallyu stars Song Joong-Ki and Song Hye Kyo who were about to get married a few days later.
In a jiffy, we were nearly at our destination. Before proceeding to the DMZ area, we first stopped by at a bus stop so that we can relieve ourselves. It is also the last stop before the DMZ area. Situated in the area are the vestiges of the war – a damaged bridge and a bullet riddled train which was once transported goods and people between the two nations. The bridge, referred to as Freedom Bridge, is still linked to the North and was once used as entry points for prisoners of wars who are being freed. However, access is prohibited.
After our brief stop, we then proceeded to the real McCoy. Before we were allowed to enter the highly guarded area, our bus has to stop at the heavily barricaded checkpoint. A Korean soldier entered our bus and individually matched us with our Passports. The soldiers perhaps confirmed our number with the permit issued. When everything has been validated, we were given the green signal to finally proceed to the demilitarized zone. Naturally, we were all in a heightened phase because nobody knows what untoward incidents might transpire while we are touring there.
South Korea travel tip # 7: When part of any travel tour to the DMZ or Joint Security Area, always bring your passports. To be more precise, whenever touring a foreign country, always bring your passport.
From the inspection point, we proceeded to the DMZ Museum/Gallery, the main attraction of the DMZ area. The gallery showcases different images and vestiges from the war. On the wall are pictures of events that has transpired since the war broke out. The museum also offers a 10-minute short documentary on the history of the Korean War, the demilitarized zone and of the area that we have visited that morning.
After watching the short documentary, we proceeded to the incursion tunnel. It is the third tunnel discovered by the South Korean authorities. Allegedly, these tunnels were burrowed by the North Koreans in the hopes of penetrating deeper into Seoul. The tunnel was then turned into a tourist destination and the military dug an 800-meter tunnel so that visitors can take a peek into the said structure. My friend and I decided to take a peek. Everyone who wants to venture inside are required to wear helmets because the tunnel is quite low.
On our way down to the tunnel, a throng of visitors have already formed a long queue at the tunnel. Caveat, the tunnel is not for the claustrophobic because the space is very compressed. With the influx of visitors, the limited area could feel even more compressed and hotter. At the end of the viewing tunnel is a small window glass where one can view the handiworks of the North Koreans. Was it worth it going down the tunnel? To be honest, not really. Was it interesting? Except for the short exercise, there was nothing much to see actually.
From the museum, our group proceeded to Dora Observatory. At the observatory, we were able to take a peek of North Korea. Coin-operated binoculars are available at the observatory and can be used to take a glimpse of a North Korea and its propaganda village. According to our guide, this village is a sheep in a wolf’s skin because it was constructed just for show and does not really reflect the poverty that has gripped the North.
For those who are looking for keepsakes, there is a gift and souvenir shop located in the area where one can purchase locally produced products and handcrafts. One of the products that has caught our attention is the ginseng wine which was exported from North Korea. T-shirts, mugs, caps, key chains and a myriad of other merchandises are being sold there as well.
Our next destination is Dorasan Station, a railway station situated on the Gyeongui Line of the Korean Rail. The Gyeongui Line used to connect the two Koreas and Dorasan station is the last station before the Gyeongui line continues as the P’yŏngbu Line of the North Korea side. Although the station is still in use for transporting tourists to the demilitarized zone area, it remains mostly unutilized, an epic monument of the two country’s failure to reach concession.
Dorasan station looks like any of the modern train stations – very clean and clinical. Stamped tickets are freely given to visitors. For a minimal price, one can also enter to check the railway. US President George W. Bush once famously visited the station. Dorasan station is the allegory of what the entire world wants for the two nations – connectivity beyond borders. It is great to note that both nations are taking baby steps to finally ending the tumult that has been in play for years.
After our short stop and exploration of the Dorasan Station, we returned to Seoul for the last stop of our DMZ organized tour – the Korea Ginseng Museum.
That’s it for now. Do watch out for the continuation of our South Korea adventure!