The demilitarized zone

I did a day-tour today to the DMZ, which is the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea. The DMZ is 250 km wide and 4km deep. Before the Korean War, the border was on the 38th north parallel. At the end of the war, there was a scramble to gain territory, which replaced the straight border with a wavy one, depending on who gained what territory.

The tour started at Imjingak. This is a symbolic spot, which South Koreans visit to remember the Korean War and its consequences: the loss of lives and the separation of families, partly because of a redrawing of the border. Some families never saw their relatives again.

Despite the war ending in 1953, North Korea have tried several times to tunnel their way into South Korea. The tunnels were secretly constructed. The South Koreans believed these were attempts to invade them again. We visited the “third tunnel”. A North Korean defector told the South Korean military about it in 1974 and it was finally discovered in 1978 when a pipe exploded. The tunnel is 1.6 km long, 73m below the surface, and 2m wide and tall (although I’m less than 2m tall and was crouching sometimes!). The North Koreans left traces of coal to make it look like an abandoned mine (there’s no coal in the area!).

We were able to go in the tunnel (for about 300m) on the South Korean side but weren’t allowed to take photos. The guide said the tunnel is big enough for 30,000 armed North Koreans to pass through within an hour.

Our final stop was the Dora observatory. This was a building, with many telescopes, which allowed visitors to look into North Korea! The telescopes are powerful enough to see a small town with the occasional person moving around.

I found the whole tour somewhat surreal. This place of occasional military tension had been turned into a tourist hotspot. The South Koreans had monetised the DMZ! You could buy North Korean money and other souvenirs. It reminded me of the Wagah border between Pakistan and India. That border, once a place of tension, now attracts thousands of tourists every day to view the border ceremony. The DMZ hasn’t reached that scale yet but may do unless Korea is reunited!

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