Border Barriers at the DMZ

Korean DMZ
This symbolic statue at the DMZ depicts unsuccessful.

“Is there anything in particular you’d like to see during your visit here to Seoul,” asked Haeme, my friend and host.

I ignored the obvious – the Changdeokgung Palace, the National Museum, the many beautiful temples and Shrines, and gave my reply: “What I’d really like to visit is the DMZ.”

I had heard years ago that visiting the Demilitarized Zone, the 38th Parallel marking the divide between North and South Korea, was a day tour option for visitors to Seoul. The thought of seeing it for myself was intriguing. So this trip to Seoul to visit my old friend and her husband seemed like an opportune time to take in the DMZ.

Any illusion that I was doing something daring was quashed upon my arrival in Seoul. As I scanned the tourist brochure stand at a downtown hotel, I saw that four companies were offering this “adventure” as either a half or full-day trip. I soon found myself one of 20 others on a tour bus, bravely headed towards the 38th parallel.

In my cozy seat, I found my mind wandering to thoughts of the “M.A.S.H.,” the sometimes dramatic, often sad, but always funny U.S. television series that ran longer than the Korean War that was its setting. Embarrassingly, this old television show was my only source of information about the Korean War, which occurred from 1950-1953.

Hard Truths

My tour guide’s mention of the truce village of Panmunjom reminded me of the M.A.S.H. episode where Hawkeye, one of the main characters, gatecrashes the stalled peace talks. During a later viewing of a museum display within the DMZ, I was horrified to read that the negotiations represented in this single episode were repeated more than 700 times without any peace being achieved.

As we got closer to the DMZ, the road skirted the edge of the Han River. What could have been any waterway in rural Asia was distinguished by the barbwire-topped fencing and regular military guard stations that runs for miles between the road and the river’s edge.

Before entering the DMZ, we stopped first at the “Freedom Bridge,” a simple wooden structure no more than 15 feet (4.5 m) wide. It had been the access to freedom for thousands of North Koreans who poured over this tiny structure at the conclusion of the fighting. Visitors, huddled in their winter coats against the 14-degree Fahrenheit temperature (-10 Celsius), left the warmth of the bus long enough to retrace their steps and pose for pictures in front of the message covered gate at the north end.

These handwritten messages, scrawled on bed sheets and covering much of the gate, have been left by South Koreans for family and friends in the North. It is estimated that more than five million Korean families are dived by the DMZ.

With no method of communication available for South Koreans to get in touch with family in the North, this simple gate represents their only avenue to reach out to loved ones that they have not seen or heard from for more than 50 years. Since North Koreans are not free to venture toward the DMZ Bridge, these gestures of communication to loved ones were more symbolic than practical.

Train tracks, tears and tunnels

After changing buses, we passed a simple checkpoint where our passports were viewed. Then, without fuss or fanfare, we were taken into the DMZ. Here we viewed the newly constructed Woljung Station, the northern most train station in South Korea.

With confident optimism that the two Koreas will some day be one, they have built a railroad joining the two capital cities. Hopefully one day the trains will run all the way to the North rather than stopping at the border station of Wjorthang. With only three trains a day from Seoul, the South Korean soldiers on duty have little to do than pose good-naturedly for photos with visiting tourists.

Our first stop was a detailed history display of the Korean conflict, and then a museum with an elaborate three-screen display on the past, present and future of the DMZ.

This six-minute, multi-media presentation featured gut-wrenching scenes of the two family reunion events allowed by the North and South. With considerable bitterness in her voice, my guide told us that those chosen to participate in these events were from the wealthy, well-connected or academically elite. Her own family had applied and were anxiously waiting for the opportunity for her 88-year-old grandmother to meet with family members that she had not seen or heard from since she left North Korea 52 years earlier.

The images on the reunions showed such raw emotion that many visitors left wiping away tears.

After this stop, we headed underground to what is known as “The 3rd infiltration tunnel.”

Our guide told us, with some excitement, that this was one of four tunnels found in the 1970s, discovered after a North Korean engineer defected to the South and revealed the tunnel’s location. According to our guide, as many as 20 tunnels were constructed by the North through the DMZ as part of an invasion strategy.

This “third” tunnel, measuring about one mile (1.6 km) long, would apparently have accommodated up to 30,000 soldiers per hour to reach South Korea.

To access the tunnel we were taken 246 feet (75 meters) below ground by an open top train so we could walk 1,300 of the 1,900 feet (400 of the 600 meters) in the South’s side of the DMZ.

Not surprisingly, a dispute exists between the two sides over who built the tunnels, with each pointing an accusing finger at their neighbor. As we walked along, we couldn’t help but notice the “evidence” of the North’s construction of the tunnels – drill marks on the walls facing the South.

Our final stop on our bizarre DMZ tour was the Unification Observatory on Mount Odu. After coming so far and braving bitterly cold weather, it appeared that a view-obscuring snowstorm was going to rob us of a view of the actual North. We filled in our time at this stop by taking in the displays in the Unification Exhibition Hall, a collection of exhibits featuring North Korean produced electronic goods, clothing, food and school books. By western standards, the materials exhibited were simple, cheap looking and everything from the paper of the textbooks to the material of the mismatched business suit was of poor quality.

The snowstorm eventually eased enough to reveal the landscape across the estuary where the Han River in the South meets the Imjin River in the North. With disgust in her voice, our guide pointed out the “fake village filled with token residents” on the other side. It was constructed as a propaganda tool, she said, to impress those in the South who were looking across into North Korea.

As I peered over, I realized I was simultaneously hearing sounds of a loudspeaker message being broadcast in Korean from our side of the river. What was it? The broadcasts were aimed across the border at North Koreans. The messages told the few souls across the border who could hear it – yet who sadly would never be able to see it for themselves – all about the wonders of life in the South.

After fifty years of practice, both parts of this once-unified country have become experts in the propaganda war.

If You Go

Korean Tourism Office