The borderline of Korea is one of the best-guarded ones in the world. Between peace and freedom village, blue houses, soldiers, conflicts and secret tunnels lay a tourist attraction between North and South Korea.
Korea was over 35 years the colony of Japan before it got independent in 1945 after the Second World War. But only a few years later the Soviet Union and the United States divided the country into South (Republic of Korea) and North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) in 1948. Two years later North Korea attacked the Southern part during the Korean War (1950-1953) which recessed the separation. Afterwards, the countries worked for a peaceful reunification which did not occur until today.
JSA and DMZ
Since I was more than four months in South Korea, of course visiting the borderline of its only neighbour country was on my bucket list.
The DMZ is the Demilitarized zone, four kilometres long and de facto the borderline of North and South Korea. In 1953, both countries signed an armistice agreement which says that soldiers are not allowed to cross the line and do not attack each other.
“Don’t worry the man in the back is here to protect you!”
JSA is the abbreviation for Joint Security Area and is directly at the borderline. First of all, we got an introduction to the JSA and it’s mostly Don’ts from American soldiers, who are still based at the border from South Korea. Actually, before I went on the tour I already got a whole list of clothes which are not allowed to wear at JSA. Forbidden are shorts, ripped jeans, t-shirts, flip-flops or also sportswear. They really pay a lot of attention that North Korean soldiers don’t find a reason to feel provoked.
First, we crossed the freedom house in rows of two on the South side. Our tour guide led us to one of the blue houses. These are conference rooms who are used by the two Korean countries to negotiate with each other. In the middle of this room is a long table who markers the exactly borderline. The room has two entrances, one on the South Korean side, one on the North side. A Korean soldier guards the door to prohibit that North Koreans can enter the conference room. Tourists are allowed to go on the other side of the table. Yeah, I was at least for five minutes in North Korea. The American soldier who guided our tour told us that the people on his side of the table are still in South Korea – and save. But we others would not need to worry, the soldier on the door would protect us. To be honest, I wasn’t worried before he told me this. But this sentence really emphasized the seriousness of the situation. It feels kind of surreal. The poor Korean soldier next to the North Korean door was our favourite background motive for the next twenty tourist photos. But he looked really so cool with his sunglasses (all South Korean soldiers were sunglasses – and yes, even if the sun isn’t shining).
Souvenirs from North Korea
We were only allowed to take photos from the North Korean side with the Panmun-gak (the building of North Korea) but not from the Freedom house on the South Korean side. This is kind of ironical since I heard that you can also visit JSA in North Korea. There it’s only allowed to take photos from the South Korean side. Along the blue houses stand the soldiers from North and South. At which the North Koreans mostly hide in the building. But we were lucky and could see one North Korean in front of the other building. I used my zoom to take a look at some North Korean soldiers. It felt a bit crazy to stand there and observe them. But the American soldier assured us that they also observed us from the other side and made probably some photos from us. – Weird thought.
After the visit of the directly borderline, we went to a small museum and a souvenir shop. There you can buy souvenirs from North Korea. They sell different things, among other things also money and alcohol. I bought an old 100 KRW banknote with the face of Kim Il-sung on the top, the father of Kim Jong-un, the actual leader of North Korea. I heard that if you visit North Korea you never get the North Korean money but pay everything in US Dollar to your guide who pays for you in the local currency. So it is really interesting that you can buy North Korean money here in South Korea.
Panmunjeon and Bridge of No Return
Former Panmunjeon was a village in Korea. Today there is the inter-military complex of JSA. Almost 65 years ago North Korea, China, and the UNO signed the armistice agreement to end the Korean War in 1953. The building where the agreement was signed is still preserved and today stands in a province of North Korea. The borderline and JSA kept the name and is still called Panmunjeon. Close to Panmunjeon is also the Bridge of No Return which is a bridge between the two countries and has its name from the former Korean War. The bridge was used to exchange the prisoners and prohibit them to return ever in the other country.
Freedom vs. Peace
A few people still live close to the border. On the South Korean side is this the village Daeseong-dong, also called freedom village. There live mostly farmers who already lived there before the Korean War or are directly progenies of the former residents. The village also has its own school. The inhabitants profit by special benefits as the exempt from taxes. Soldiers guard them and they have a curfew which forbids to leave their houses after 11pm. On the other side in North Korea is the closest locality Kijŏng-dong, also called peace village. Our US-soldier and tour guide explained to us that they call it propaganda village because the houses would only be dummies and they do not believe that people would live there. North Korea claims that families live in the peace village and there would be also a health center, kindergarten, and schools.
In both villages are flagpoles. After South Korea built its flagpole, North Korea also built one. This flagpole was higher and until a few years the highest in the world.
German history meets Korea
Our group also visited the last train station Dorsan in South Korea right infront of the borderline. Theoretically, Dorasan connects South Korea with North, practically, there are no trains leaving the station from here. But a big sign in the entrance hall says “To Pyongjang” and we could buy train tickets for around 1 Dollar. We also could go to the tracks. Our tour guide told us that the station was built to connect both countries in case of a reunification and could immediately send trains to North Korea’s capital. From this station, we could also listen to some music from North Korea coming out of loudspeakers. That felt really weird.
The station of Dorsan also represents some history. There is a piece of the Berlin Wall. On both sides are boards. On the left side with the dates of the German reunification (41 years, 4 months and 11 days), on the right side an electronic one which counts even in seconds the division of Korea. Our guide told us that they would stop the counting immediately if Korea would become one country again. A small wagon shows old newspaper articles and photos of the reunification of Germany plus some relicts from the former DDR (German Democratic Republic, East Germany). The German reunification reminds the visitors of the train station that also the reunion of Korea seems possible.
Peace and Destroying (3rd tunnel)
Also part of the DMZ-Tour is the visit of the 3rd tunnel. This tunnel was built by North Korea together with three other tunnels which cross the DMZ. In the beginning, they denied that they built them but the walls proof that dynamite blows up the earth from North to South. The 3rd tunnel was discovered in 1978. South Korea believes that North Korea built these tunnels to send their men fast to South Korea in case of another war. It is evaluated that around 30,000 soldiers could walk within an hour from North Korea to Seoul to start an surprise attack. But the tunnel was never finalised. The UN charged North Korea for breaking the agreement between the two countries.
We got a yellow protective helmet for visiting. First, we needed to go downstairs. The tunnel is around 70 metres under the earth and at some points so small that even I needed to move in my head. Nowadays, the tunnels are blocked by cement blocks but visitors of the 3rd tunnel can walk forward until one of the blocks and look through a window until the next one. It was a weird feeling to walk in this narrowed tunnel system under the earth and so close to the border. South Korea believes that they are probably more than the four secret tunnels underground just they did not find them yet.