The soldier scrutinised my passport and handed it back. He waved our bus through the checkpoint and we are now in the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), often touted as the world’s most dangerous border.
Visiting the DMZ had always been on my bucket list and the opportunity came when I was invited as a delegate in the Korea Foundation’s Asean Next Generation Leaders’ Visit Korea programme in South Korea.
Part of the week-long programme was a day trip to the DMZ, the 248km-long buffer zone that bisected the Korean peninsula.
The DMZ was created in 1953 when the United Nations Command, China and North Korea signed the Armistice Agreement to cease the three-year long hostilities of the Korean War.
The zone is 4km wide, with 2km on each side of the Military Demarcation Line separating North and South Korea. Our tour took us to a portion on the South side which can be visited by tourists.
The blue buildings commonly associated with the DMZ are actually the Joint Security Area (JSA) or Panmunjom. This is the part of the DMZ that’s used by the two Koreas for diplomatic engagements. US President Donald Trump was recently there with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
Unfortunately, the JSA was not part of our tour.
We travelled by bus to the DMZ from Seoul one Wednesday morning. After an hour’s ride, we arrived at Imjingak, a memorial park dedicated to the Korean War.
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The park featured exhibits and monuments that served as a reminder of not just the war, but the painful division of the Korean people and their longing for reunification. One of the things on display was a bullet-riddled locomotive.
The Freedom Bridge once used to repatriate prisoners of war and soldiers is at this park too but it is inaccessible to the public.
There was also an altar called Mangbaeddan at Imjingak. Displaced Koreans would perform rites at the altar for their ancestors and family in North Korea as a sign of respect during cultural events.
Our next stop was the northernmost railway station in South Korea, Dorasan. We were now in the DMZ proper after going through a security checkpoint.
Although the tracks of the Gyeongui Line are connected to North Korea, the station is largely symbolic as there are no trains in service to the North. From our tour guide’s explanation, however, South Koreans do not regard the station as the end of the rail line. Rather, it is the beginning of a grand rail network into North Korea and onwards to Asia and Europe, should reunification become a reality one day.
Proving that point, a signboard there reads, “Not the last station from the South, but the first station toward the North”.
Visitors could get DMZ souvenirs at a lone shop in the eerily empty station; there’s also a counter that sells novelty tickets to Pyongyang.
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As the bus took us further into the DMZ, the tranquil scenery of agricultural land slowly merges with barbed wire fences and signboards warning of minefields.
We arrived at the foot of Mount Dora shortly after and climbed all the way to the Dora Observatory at the top.
From the observatory, one could view North Korea through binoculars. Some of the notable landmarks that could be spotted included the Kaesong industrial complex, a 160m-tall North Korean flag, a huge Kim Il-sung statue and an uninhabited propaganda village.
We visited the Third Infiltration Tunnel. This tunnel was discovered in 1978 and was presumably dug by the North Koreans for the purpose of launching a surprise attack against the South.
I was quite surprised that the place was bustling with hundreds of tourists. It appeared that the South Koreans had successfully turned a tool of aggression into a tourist attraction.
As our tour guide puts it, “When Kim Il-sung found out we had turned his tunnel into a tourist spot, he was furious. Well, we feel the North should build more so we can attract more tourists.”
After going down a steep 358m-long passageway, I had to crouch down quite often while moving through the explorable (265m) part of the actual invasion tunnel. Fortunately, a hard hat was provided as I found myself constantly hitting my head against the low ceiling.
At the end of the tunnel were three barricades blocking the way into the North. This was the closest I got to North Korea, which was 170m away above ground.
Following the tunnel visit, we were brought to the Odusan Unification Observatory in Paju. The highlight of this stop was the opportunity to speak to a North Korean defector named Mrs Park (not her real name), who offered insights into her hard life in the North and eventual escape to the South.
The former architect had enough of the hardship after currency devaluation reduced the value of her savings to nearly nothing.
She bribed a border guard and entered China in 2011. From there, she made her way to Laos and then Thailand where she was detained and interrogated before taken to South Korea.
“I was 45 years old when I arrived in the South. That is my biggest regret. If I had realised things sooner, I would have left earlier,” she said.
Asked about her thoughts on reunification, Park gave a rather bleak response. “It is going to be difficult as long as the Kim regime is in power.
“Should Kim Jong-un give up his nuclear weapons, the people will start to demand democracy and open policies. This is a step the Kim regime will not take,” she said.
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The DMZ and JSA can be visited through tour agencies available in Seoul. I later discovered that visitors can actually go to the DMZ on their own via a special train that departs from Seoul every Wednesday to Sunday. However, the JSA is only open to visitors travelling with approved tour agencies.
Photography is highly restricted in the area and visitors must bring their passport when going into the DMZ.
The tour was truly an eye-opening experience. Here was an enduring legacy of the Cold War that was still in an atmosphere of frozen hostility. It is definitely worth a visit.
As part of the programme, the Asean delegates also visited Jeju Island to attend the 14th Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity.
Various topics covering peace and prosperity in Asia were discussed and I had the chance to sit in on a couple of sessions especially on denuclearisation, the progress towards peace in the Korean peninsula and the role of international media in all of these.
A particular comment that stood out came from Tsinghua University’s dean of the Institute of International Relations, Yan Xuetong, who said that South-East Asian countries seldom cared about nuclear issues in the region.
“The countries related to the North Korea nuclear weapon issue are the United States, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan. The other countries from my understanding have almost no substantial relations with this issue,” said Yan, adding that they had to rely on themselves to improve relationship among the Eastern Asian countries.
However, I believe we still have a role to play, no matter how minor, as world citizens. The least we can do is to have awareness of what is happening in our neighbouring countries as things may affect the entire region.
Recent developments point towards a thaw in inter-Korean relations and at this critical juncture, a permanent peace in the peninsula is a light at the end of a long tunnel.
As Korea Foundation executive vice-president Seong-in Kim said at our farewell lunch, the support of the international media in influencing public discourse leading towards peace is crucial.
Here’s hoping that the Koreans, separated for so long by the DMZ, can be reunited one day.Go South Interested in experiencing the DMZ from the North Korean side? Then we are afraid that is not possible at the moment. Ever since the Kim Jong-nam murder case in 2017, Malaysia has imposed a travel ban on Malaysians travelling to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Although Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad expressed interest in settling problems with North Korea recently, a check with the Foreign Ministry found that the travel ban still stands.
As for getting to South Korea, there are plenty of packages available from travel agents. Malaysia has a visa waiver agreement with the Republic of Korea, so Malaysians can stay without a visa for up to three months as long as the purpose of visit is tourism or temporary.
For more information, visit the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Malaysia website at http://overseas.mofa.go.kr/my-en/index.do.