On our day out to the Korean DMZ we made the biggest mistake of our trip. Worse than missing out on playing dress up at the Gangnam Tourist Information Centre. Worse than eating whatever it was that made me sick enough to pass out on a Chinese night train. Worse than losing six days of our Russian Visa. Worse than accidentally ordering duck foetus in Vietnam. Worse than cycling 20 kilometres into the Cambodian jungle in the dark, with no water, and finding the only river was too salty to drink.
Maybe not that last one.
The Korean DMZ is a two mile wide buffer between the two Koreas. A heavily mined strip of land 35 miles north of Seoul, in reality the demilitarised zone is one of the most heavily militarised places in the world. The perfect spot for a day trip then.
We were a bit nervous arriving for our DMZ tour. We’d had emails from the tour company. There were rules. Lots and lots of rules. You must bring your passport. You must not drink alcohol. No children under 10. You may not take photos unless told otherwise. You get the idea: this is not your average day tour. The main fearmongerer for us was the dress code. It was long, and made very little sense.
What-in-the-heck are low quarters? Are hiking shoes athletic clothing? What about a merino top that’s kind of tight, and (god forbid) kind of stretch material. Are shoes with holes in allowed? These were genuine concerns.
I think there are two reasons for the dress code. Firstly, the powers that be want to give an impression of wealth to the North Korean soldiers who will see tourists from across the border. Secondly, you don’t want to spark an incident. Military or otherwise provocative clothes are out.
With our very limited travelling wardrobe we were worried we’d be kicked off the tour for not meeting the dress code. Which would have been sad. Much googling ensued.
Eventually we found enough pictures of people on DMZ tours looking fairly scruffy to reassure us, but we were still nervous turning up bright and early at Camp Kim, the US base where the tour begins. I had loose cotton trousers on over leggings, and the potentially offending merino top covered up with a down jacket. Arthur had hiking trousers, a merino, a fleece and a down jacket. (Korea in December is cold.) We were both wearing holey trainers. We sidled in to have our passports checked, hoping they wouldn’t look at our feet. Somehow, though, we passed. We were on our way.
Specifically, we were on a coach heading out of shiny busy Seoul and North along the motorway, alongside the Han river. Barbed wire and watchtowers line the river bank, right up to the city. Beyond the barbed wire, on the other bank, sit skyscrapers. South Korean skyscrapers. The camo paint on the watchtowers seems a little out of place.
Almost none of these towers are manned. At this point the river is not the border, though further north it meets a body of water that is. The barbed wire is protection for Old Seoul (and the presidential palace) from water borne attack or infiltration. Presumably nobody’s bothered if the North makes a bid for Gangnam, which is on the other side of the cordon.
As we neared the DMZ itself things got stranger. The road emptied out, barbed wire proliferated. The only traffic was an occasional tractor — much of the land close to the border looks agricultural. A single guard in aviators looked out from a check point, he couldn’t have been more than 19. Glimpsed in the distance, men marched along an empty highway. The sense of having landed in a film set increased.
The Third Tunnel
The third tunnel was our first stop. Here the mood abruptly shifted from uneasy-war-zone-film-set to jolly-industrial-site-visit. The third tunnel, or Third Tunnel of Aggression, as it’s officially known in the South, is one of several dug under the DMZ from the North to the South. The direction of the tunnel’s excavation (i.e. North to South) was determined by the blast pattern of the explosives used.
The first of these tunnels was discovered in 1975, and the third (the one we visited) in 1978. The DPRK (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — that’s the North) claims that the tunnels are coal mines. The South, on large placards in the third tunnel, claims the tunnel walls are granite, and the North has just painted them black.
But back to the jolly mood.
Basically, this bit of the day feels like going to a fairly niche theme park.
The third tunnel is a popular site for tours. The car park is full of coaches, and there’s a gift shop. A big tacky gift shop. I want to say you enter through the gift shop, but sadly not. You enter past the gift shop. Close enough. Then you put your stuff in a locker, and go and get a hard hat. How could an activity which requires everyone to don a snazzy yellow hat not be jolly?
Sadly you’re going to have to imagine all of this, because photos of the third tunnel are not allowed.
The hatting area and the access tunnel have clearly been designed with theme park in mind. They’re sort of low-budget-non-slip-space-station themed.
There are two ways to access the third tunnel: walking down a sloping walkway, or on a train. A little train that goes underground, and looks a bit like Concorde meets shinkansen.
I want to ride the train!
But mere tourists are not allowed to ride the train. The train is for VIPs only. There was a big display board at the tunnel mouth showing medical emergencies being carried out of the tunnel on stretchers, and urging you not to attempt the tunnel if you have health problems. It seems the train is for VIPs even if you have a heart attack in the tunnel.
Once you get to the Aggression Tunnel itself it gets quite narrow. People are trying to move both ways, and there isn’t really room for that. The ceiling wasn’t too low, so I was able to keep my claustrophobic demons at bay. Just.
The walls are indeed black. I didn’t notice any blast patterns. The most interesting part for me was the very end, where the South Koreans have installed a thick concrete wall blocking the way to the North. You can go right up to this wall and peer through a little window, down the dark tunnel, to another thick concrete wall.
Sounds dull, but there was a real chilling frisson to it for me.
There I was, in an infiltration tunnel dug by North Korean soldiers, metres under the demilitarised zone, and metres from the actual border. Down there, just out of sight, in the darkness, was North Korea.
Luckily, another bus load of tourists in silly hats arrived as I contemplated this, and brought the theme park mood right back.
Next stop, lunch.
Kaesong Transit Station
Lunch is in the canteen of the transit station for South Korean workers who commute into North Korea.
Yep, that’s a thing.
A small number of South Koreans cross the border regularly to go to work at Kaesong Industrial Complex, where South Korean companies
exploit make use of cheap North Korean labour for manufacturing. The rationale is that this will enable companies in the South to compete with China, where wages are much lower. There are at most a few hundred workers from the South at Kaesong, and several thousand from the North.
I say are, actually, there were. Kaesong was closed down in February this year following the North’s rocket launch a week earlier. South Korea cited concern that the North’s revenue from Kaesong was going towards developing nuclear weapons. The day after the closure was announced all of the South Koreans left, and the water and power supplied from the South were switched off. No workers from South Korea have been there since.
But at the time of our visit (December 2015) it was still operational. Our guide, a young South Korean woman with an unusually exuberant manner and a natty white bomber jacket, informed us that the North Koreans who work at Kaesong are paid in US dollars and they have to spend them at 7/11. Her delivery dripped amused derision.
As far as I can determine, this is nonsense.
Firstly, the convenience store in Kaesong is a Family Mart.
Image from Wikipedia, author unknown.
Secondly, North Koreans weren’t allowed to shop in this Family Mart, only South Koreans.
Thirdly, though the North Koreans’ wages were paid in US dollars, they weren’t paid to the workers. The money went to the North Korean government, who then paid the workers a small fraction. Pay was about $160 dollars a month, about one fifth of the minimum wage in South Korea. But it seems 70% of this was kept by the government. So the North Korean workers each received about $50 a month. Incidentally, at least back in 2006 when this writer visited Kaesong, the South paid out the same for every worker, regardless of position, seniority, or productivity. They really mean this socialism stuff in the DPRK.
Exploitation? I don’t know. I suspect life for those working in Kaesong was better than average. But the South Korean companies involved are unlikely to have been philanthropically motivated. Cheap labour = low costs = profit.
The closest we got to seeing for ourselves was the transit centre. This is where South Korean workers stop to drop off their mobile phones, and other items they’re not allowed to bring into North Korea. There’s really not much to see here. Just some lockers really. The lunch was good though.
After lunch it was on to the ‘gawping at North Korea’ segment of the tour, the Dora observatory. To be honest, there wasn’t that much to see here either. You can pay to use binoculars to see not much closer up, but we picked the ones that were mysteriously free. Win.
No bogey men or comedy nuclear facilities in sight. Looking through the binoculars, the only things out of the ordinary were a conspicuous absence of people, and an unusual regularity to the buildings. Lots and lots of identical blocks side by side. We were supposed to be able to see a 200 metre high statue of Kim Il Sun (yes, 200 metres), but we couldn’t spot him through the haze.
One aspect of the DMZ that I hadn’t considered before is its value as a nature reserve. You can see the strip of trees above, that’s the DMZ. Deforestation in the North and construction in the South are threatening habitats, but thousands of species are found thriving in the DMZ. Unfortunately a wildfire broke out last year, and raged uncontrolled because nobody could go in there to fight it. The flames came right up to the observatory we visited, and melted and discoloured the information signs.
Dorasan Railway Station
After the observatory was the train station. Dorasan is the last stop in South Korea on the line North. No passenger trains run across the DMZ at present, but you can catch a train here from Seoul.
I’m not sure I’d bother though. The station is a bit of a curiosity, and home to a fairly eclectic art collection, including a chunk of the Berlin wall, and the ‘Piano of Unification’. There’s also a very large, very empty, ‘International Departures’ hall, complete with luggage scanning machines already in place. If passenger trains could run through North Korea then you could connect all the way to London from here. We got from Europe to within 100 miles of North Korea by rail. As it is, South Korea has no international rail departures.
I don’t know if building this ‘International’ station was a genuine expression of hope and commitment to reunification, or a PR exercise to portray the North as the problem (not that one is really needed). Or both.
Now, so far on our DMZ tour, we hadn’t actually entered the DMZ. We’d been under it in the third tunnel, and looked over it from the Dora observatory, but not been in.
Camp Bonifas: into the DMZ
To enter the DMZ you first stop at Camp Bonifas, a US army base just a few hundred metres inside South Korea. I’d never been to a US army base before, and now I was on my second one of the day. There were suddenly a lot of soldiers about. Some of them playing basketball. No kidding. At Camp Bonifas you attend a safety briefing, sign a waiver, and change bus and tour guide. From here on in your guide is a US soldier. Our Korean tour guide came along too to flirt with him though.
Our US soldier-guide’s delivery was a stark contrast to the energetic eye rolling and general tone of amused derision we’d become accustomed to. His monotone was so flat that it was hard to follow, the perfect army-bot. I suspect the US is so keen not to express an opinion that they school these guys to avoid quirks of delivery that might suggest one. It also meant that it was impossible to tell if he enjoyed his job or not.
You’ll know when you enter the DMZ. Everyone on the bus went very quiet. There was a lot more barbed wire. You drive between huge chunks of concrete poised ready to be dropped onto the road to block it. It’s a funny experience. There’s not a lot to see, but you know you’re between the lines of one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world. It makes you feel kind of tingly.
Inside the DMZ we visited another viewpoint into North Korea, where we could better see the two extremely tall flagpoles belonging to the only two villages in the DMZ. One in the North, one in the South.
The villagers of Daeseong-dong, 350 metres south of the border, are some of the highest earning farmers on the peninsular. They’re exempt from tax and military service, and consequently it’s quite a sought after address, despite the nightly curfew and constant threat of kidnap. Villagers must stay in their homes for 280 nights each year to count as residents, and only women are permitted to marry into the village, men are not.
In the 1980’s the South Korean government had a 100 metre high flagpole erected in Daeseong-dong. The North responded by building a 160 metre high flagpole in their DMZ village, less than a mile away. The 270 kg flag the North ‘flies’ is too heavy to flap, our South Korean guide informed us with glee. There was no wind that day, so I’m unable to confirm the flappiness level of the flag.
The settlement north of the border is called Peace Village in North Korea. It’s apparently home to families working on a collective farm.
The South Koreans call it Propaganda Village, claiming that on closer observation the buildings are empty facades and don’t have glass in the windows or any rooms inside, or even floors. The lights go on and off at set times, and the only people ever seen on the streets are those sweeping the pavements.
The Joint Security Area (JSA)
And then, the moment we’d all been waiting for. The Joint Security Area.
This is the place where you can walk into North Korea, and back out again.
The JSA is a small part of the DMZ, and generally it’s actually an extremely safe place, though incidents do occur now and then. In the 1980s a Soviet tourist defected across the border in the JSA, and soldiers from both sides were killed in the firefight that ensued.
It is though, the only place where troops from both sides stand face to face. Elsewhere, troops generally stay well back from the actual border.
Perhaps face to face is a bit of an overstatement. That strip of raised concrete you can see running between the two blue buildings is the border, or more properly, the MDL — Military Demarcation Line. So. Many. Acronyms. The soldiers from the North are apparently not allowed any closer than where the chap in green is stood, for fear they’ll defect. The ROK soldiers (that’s Republic Of Korea — the South) closest to the border stand partially protected by the buildings.
Entering this surreal scene happened rather suddenly. The bus dropped us off outside the South Korean building that faces off against the North (it’s bigger and shinier than the North’s concrete one). This building was intended as a space for families divided by the border to meet, but this never happened because the North wouldn’t let people cross the border (presumably for fear of defection). So instead it’s an empty space, except for an incongruous sofa next to a telephone in the entrance hall. Imagine a rather grand conference building, with chandeliers and modern wide marble staircases, but without any furnishings, or anything else that’s not attached to the building. As if it’s been sold and the new owners are yet to move in.
Our group waited for a moment, queued on the marble staircase, until the nod came to walk us single file out of the front door, onto the front terrace, facing North Korea.
After our few moments staring into the face of North Korean military might, our soldier ushered us into the blue building on the left. These buildings lie half in the South and half in the North. They’re used for talks, and for showing tourists a good time.
The mood was tense as we filed in. We didn’t know what to expect, or how to behave, and nobody wanted to take a wrong step. Imagine a cross between a rickety post war village hall and a business hotel meeting room, but half in North Korea, and you’ve got the scene. One ROK soldier straddled the border, another stood blocking the door to the rest of North Korea. Did he think one of us might try to make a break for it?
As our group filled the room, people began to walk into North Korea to make room. Then all hell broke loose.
You can take photos, said the US soldier.
Everyone did, at once. A scrabbly, awkward, don’t-want-to-touch-the shiny-UN-table-or-accidentally-shove-anyone queue formed for obligatory OMG I’M IN NORTH KOREA photos.
So, these ROK soldiers. They’re kind of tall. Average male height in South Korea is 5 ft 8 (in the North it’s 5 ft 6). I reckon this guy is close to 5 ft 10. And they look a bit like K-pop stars. I mean, if you’re into that look, they’re kind of hot. Our tour guide certainly thought so (the Korean girl — the US soldier didn’t express an opinion). She claimed that there is a looks and height based selection policy for service in the JSA, so the soldiers standing there are a propaganda tool as much as anything else (these weren’t quite the words she used). Nonsense? Who knows. On observation, she may have had a point.
Talking about the competitive flag pole building in the DMZ, and the fact that the North added a storey to the concrete building above to make it taller than the South’s facing building, our guide said it’s because [the North] are really childish. Aside from using a K-pop band as border guards, the South has since built an even taller building on their side of the border. I think both sides have a case to answer to here.
So the mood on our little trip into North Korea was kind of silly. Perhaps as a result of the tension at being there. Surreptitious grins were exchanged among our group. I felt a little uneasy at this point. I was struggling not to grin myself, it was so surreal. But here we were in a sort of war zone, just inside a country who’s citizens are trapped in miserable conditions, but able to safely walk away and back to our lives. I’d considered the ethics of visiting North Korea, but it hadn’t occurred to me that a DMZ tour might be morally questionable. I’ve talked about this more here. I don’t really think it’s wrong to visit the DMZ, but at this moment it didn’t feel quite right either.
The Bridge of No Return
Our final stop in the DMZ was the bridge of no return, which crosses the border. This is the point where prisoners from both sides were allowed to cross to the other country at the end of the Korean war, on the condition that they could never return. A sad and eerie place. I imagined the thousands of families permanently separated here, the thousands of lives left behind.
This is also the place where two US soldiers were hacked to death by soldiers of the North in 1978, for trying to cut down a tree on the South’s side of the bridge. Camp Bonifas is named after one of these soldiers (the higher ranked of the two).
We weren’t allowed out of the bus here. In fact, it didn’t even stop, just slowed.
On the way out of the DMZ we passed a telephone box by the side of the road, placed there for defectors to phone for a lift if they make it this far. Our guide couldn’t tell us if this ever happens.
And the biggest mistake of our trip? Worse than food poisoning, avian foeticide, and a missed fancy dress opportunity?
We didn’t buy a UN magnet from the Camp Bonifas gift shop. We could have owned a UN JSA fridge magnet. When will we ever have such an opportunity again? The gift shop also sells North Korean bank notes and wine. I have no idea how. They were very expensive.
We had left a cold, quiet, grey scene in the DMZ. Within minutes of re-entering the South we were back to gaudy, brightly lit restaurants, and towering glass clad apartment blocks.
As we drove back south the barbed wire festooned river bank was serene in the pink twilight. A fat orange sun hung low over the wide flat river, the dark hills on its far bank softened by the dusk.
Then the bright lights of Seoul surrounded us. After the day we’d had, this too felt surreal.
The feeling would continue. Next day, we boarded our ship to China.
We went with Koridoor tours, who are run by the USO. For more on why we chose this tour, how much it costs, how to book it, and alternative tours, have a look at this post.
For more on why we visited the DMZ rather than North Korea itself, click here.