By John Stringer
This trip we had two opportunities to visit North Korea, once over the border, and once through one of the tunnels (now closed, obviously) dug by NK to invade South Korea. It’s important to understand that North & South Korea are buffered by a DMZ – De-Militarised Zone. It’s a narrow strip of no mans land full of mines and fences. There was no peace treaty signed by the two Koreas so technically they are still ‘at war.’ The North vs South fences do not abutt eachother, there’s a wide fenced off neutral zone inbetween. This helps relieve tensions and fatal incidents (more of which later). This area converges together at the famous Joint Security (JSA) Demilitarised Zone which I’ll post on tomorrow.
It is vital to bring a passport or you cannot visit. It’s an early start for us, and at the Incheon subway station en route to Seoul where we’ll catch a bus, it transpires more than one of our party has forgotten to bring theirs. So Male50Something is dispatched at a trot back to the hotel to open various rooms, and safes, and recover missing passports.
Walking through the bus at Seoul, the passports are assiduously checked by serious-minded soldiers. They pause and check your photo against your mug, peering into your face for inherent terrorism. I pull my best ambivalent pacifist look. Anyone without a passport is taken from the bus. Serious stuff.
The first view of North Korea is across the Han River where it runs into the Yellow Sea. The shoreline is heavily fenced with watchtowers at regular intervals, which makes you feel you are inside a camp. It runs for miles and miles closing off this watery weak spot along the border. You can see this barrier in the left hand corner of this photo returning from the DMZ, which is an exhausting place, zonking out two of our party.
The first bus stop is Imjingak Tourist Park, at Paju, Gyeonggi-do, which bares several scars from the Korean War. It’s the closest borderland to the DMZ and is the hub from which you get to grips with North Korea at the Dora Observatory, Dora Station and the 3rdTunnel.
This is Imjingak
Imjingak Park was built so that refugees from North Korea could face the home of their ancestors and pay homage. There’s a viewing platform offering a glimpse of North Korea and it’s also home to the Freedom Bridge, built in 1953 to bring 12,773 prisoners across. You can also see the bullet-ridden train that once ran the railway between North and South Korea. There’s a huge Tibetan-like Freedom Bell. The S.Koreans are deeply committed to peace and unification and have thoughtful memorials and displays like this “Peace Wall” throughout the Imjingak leisure park.
This interesting artwork is made of rocks collected from different battlefields in 64 nations. It’s a memorial to the futility of war. That’s actually North Korea DMZ behind the wall memorial.
From Imjingak we take the bus to the Dora Observatory and military base. This features a wide walled balcony from which we can observe North Korea across the DMZ. There is a yellow line, across which you cannot take photos (so you cannot shoot North Korea, and we are advised to strictly follow this protocol). Looking out through the observation binoculars I can see a North Korean man working some rice fields. It is very quiet, no vehicles moving people or activity. We are told many of the buildings are actually fake (iemovie props). They can tell this, as the windows do not match the supposed floor laterals.
But perhaps the highlight at Dora is one of the many North Korea tunnels discovered at this location. No photos are allowed. Before you go in, there is a small museum and we are briefed on how the tunnels were discovered, and why they were made. There are several interesting artifacts. The wall plaque below shows the discovery. They are so deep, almost 80m they are very difficult to locate. Soldiers go in and listen, just like WWI.
We don hard hats and are taken in to Tunnel 3. It is 400m long and 76m deep, one of 4 found so far, dug by the North Koreans to attack Seoul from their side
(see map at top). It’s fascinating and eerie. It slopes down and is a long walk. Quite hard for tall people, as it is Korean size and at 5 ft10” I have to stoop the whole way while walking which is hard work. Try 400m at a crouch. You totally need the hard had, as the sound of dozens intermittently bashing against the exposed irregular rock ceiling echoes down the narrow corridor cut through solid rock.
It’s quite claustrophobic, so don’t go in if you are in any way anxious. The walls and ceiling are a rusty coloured rock. At the very end, we can see drilled holes where explosives were laid by the North Koreans, but most of the tunnel was hand cut. The termination is now a series of concrete chambers. These sit three deep as bulwarks and one is filled with water. Our end has an open window in the casement so you can see in for security purposes.
It is a very interesting experience, and technically, we cross over in to North Korea through this violating tunnel, now sealed with concrete bunker rooms. Maps show us the several tunnels attempted by the North (like Hamas into Palestine) through which North Korea intended to amass thousands of troops for a surprise invasion to take Seoul.
So this is quite serious stuff. The South Koreans are consequently very vigilant and continually listening and probing for tunnels.
Next time: The famous Joint Security (JSA) Demilitarised Zone. A really scary place.
Tags: John Stringer