I had the pleasure of traveling to South Korea for spring break a few weeks ago and when my friend and I saw that our guesthouse offered a tour to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), we knew we had to make the trip. The DMZ, about 30 miles from Seoul, is a strip of land dividing North and South Korea and functions as a buffer between the warring nations. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect from our visit when we first set out – maybe simply to learn a few things about how the DMZ functions on a daily basis and just be able to say that I saw North Korea – but I was eager to see some of the long-lasting results of what I had only discussed in classes in some tangible form. Our tour included visits to Imjingak Park, Dorasan Station (which once provided travel between North and South Korea by railway), Dora Observatory, and the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel.
The place that struck me the most was the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel (sorry, photos were not allowed here!). Although I cannot say it was the most exciting tourist destination, it was very impactful. The tunnel is one of four known tunnels extending beneath the border between North and South Korea. Discovered in October 1978, the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel sits just a mere 27 miles from Seoul. Our visit to the tunnel began with a rather dramatized 10-minute film spewing facts about the tunnel, after which we were given the opportunity to walk through a portion of the actual tunnel. We were given hard hats and told to walk down a steep hill running 350m until we reached 73m below ground to an open stone tunnel, short in stature. My 5’3” was barely short enough to walk through the tunnel standing straight, and I often found myself hunching over to make sure my head was not hitting the ceiling. The tunnel was dark, damp, small, and frankly speaking, not too thrilling. You get to the end, which is blocked off by a wall with a small opening through which everyone was clamoring to get a peek. On the other side is a small room with another similar wall and opening. Walking back the way we came and 350m uphill, I found myself thinking “Is this it? I exhausted myself to see a small window and a wall?” But walking back up was also a time of reflection. I had belatedly learned that the walls actually mark the Military Demarcation Line, or the line that separates North Korea from South Korea, so I had really just walked up to the edge of North Korea. I found that fact both fascinating and alarming simply because I had not walked that far. In all of the time I have spent in South Korea, I have never once seriously considered a North Korean threat, but the reality showed the very real possibility of what could have happened had the tunnel not been discovered. As I walked back up, I recalled a rather chilling fact from the aforementioned video: there are believed to be up to dozens more tunnels like the four that have been discovered so far.
I do not mean to scare anyone who wants to visit South Korea, but for me, the visit to the DMZ served as a needed reminder that the war between the Koreas is far from over. It is easy to dismiss what is going on in the news because it seems somewhat removed from your daily life, but it is always good to be aware of the politics and history around you. While we did not have the time to visit the Joint Security Area on this trip, I look forward to such an opportunity in the future.