First off, what is the Korean DMZ? The DMZ stands for "Demilitarized Zone" and serves as the dividing line between North and South Korea following the Korean War. One of the most interesting tidbits about the DMZ is that it is known to be the most heavily armed border in the entire world! Since this boundary has been in place for over 60 years, it attracts thousands of eager tourists hoping to get a rare glimpse into North Korea. I recently got a chance to visit the DMZ. As a part of my tour, I was able to visit the Freedom Bell and Freedom Bridge at Imjingak Park, journey down Tunnel of Aggression #3, which is one of many tunnels that the North Koreans built to infiltrate the South, and visit Dorasan Station. Lastly, I was able to take a look into North Korea with binoculars at the DMZ border. Unfortunately, no cameras were allowed past a certain checkpoint due to Korean military soldiers keeping guard; however, it was an incredible experience nonetheless. Here is a quick recap of my visit to the DMZ.
Taking the Tour of the DMZThe first stop on our tour was to a place called Imjingak Park. Imjingak Park was originally built for Koreans who were unable to return to their hometowns after the country was split into North and South Korea. It is home to the Freedom Bell, Freedom Bridge, as well as several memorials, statues, and displays that are dedicated to the Korean War. For instance, the picture on the left is a display of some of the weapons that were actually used during the Korean War. In addition, the tour also let us take pictures of the Freedom Bell, which is supposed to represent the (hopeful) reunification of the two Koreas. Afterwards, we had a chance to stop by Freedom Bridge, which was once used to send back repatriated soliders/POWs after the conclusion of the war.
When South Korea accused the North of creating these tunnels, the North denied the existence of infiltration tunnels. Instead, they claimed these tunnels were used for "coal mining" purposes. Our tour guide explained to us that North Korean workers actually took the time to paint and mask the walls with black coal to make it look like it was a coal mine. Due to the sheer amount of work and labor that was needed, the Tunnels of Aggression were actually a pretty impressive feat by the North Koreans. In the 1970's, North Korea did not have access to modern day machinery to help create these massive tunnels. For the most part, they relied on dynamite and manual labor to remove rocks underground and bring them back up to the surface, which is shown in the picture above.
As for our next stop, the tour took us to Dorasan Station. Dorasan Station is a railroad station that connects Pyongyang and Seoul. It was originally intended to serve as a connecting station to transport goods and potential workers/civilians. However, due to rising tension between the two Koreas in 2008, the station continues to remain closed. Currently, the station serves mostly as a tourist destination and a symbol of the hopeful reunification of the two countries.
Heartache at the DMZFor our last stop, we had an opportunity to take a look into North Korea with binoculars via a looking post at the DMZ. Since this area was heavily guarded by Korean ROK soldiers, the use of cameras and video equipment was strictly prohibited. After taking a look into North Korea and Kaesong Industrial Complex (a North-South joint venture factory), I can honestly say that life is completely different between these two countries. It certainly is crazy to think how far apart these countries have grown since their initial split over 60 years ago, which is evident in their surroundings and daily life. South Korea has recently emerged as an economic powerhouse and is on the forefront of the electronics and advanced technology industries. So, you can certainly imagine how surprised I was looking into barren land with people still using animals to carry materials, then to turn around and look at Seoul right behind me and see high towering sky scrapers and a neon lit wonderland. It is absolutely mind blowing to think that they are the same exact people with the same culture, language, food, and history, yet they are so different. Truly heartbreaking.
As I was getting ready to leave the DMZ, I decided to buy a bottle of water for the bus ride back into the center of Seoul. As I went inside one of the rest areas, I noticed a picture on display (shown above) that quickly grabbed my attention and did not let go. The more I looked at this picture, the more I began to fill with overwhelming sadness. This was no ordinary picture. To me, this picture perfectly represented the pain and suffering the Korean people have endured during these past 60+ years. The expression on this man's face was so vivid and lifelike that I could almost feel the torture in his heart. After the war, thousands of Korean people were separated from their hometowns, some of whom do not even know if their families or friends even survived. This truly shows the downside and horrors of war and the sadness it can bring onto others. Hopefully, the two Koreas will one day reunite and become ONE proud Korea as it once was for hundreds of years.