Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), The Eeriest Place on Earth


North Korea
North Korea, Pyongyang, that’s it?!

When you check out google map, just north of Seoul, South Korea, lays a big chunk of nothingness: North Korea.

What happened? What made it this way? One side has soared to getting international recognition in about every aspect while the other one has chosen to cut itself from the rest of the world and is in perpetual state of war with everybody. We hardly hear about North Korea apart from defection stories, dictatorship, and nuclear bomb development.

Absolutely intrigued, I made a point to visit the DMZ when I went to South Korea in 2008. It is about an hour away from Seoul.

It was the eeriest place I have ever been anywhere on earth.

Korean Demilitarized Zone is 250km long, separating North and South Korea, and 4km wide – the buffer zone. There’s no human being sets foot in this area, so much that the isolated area has become a nature reserve for many endangered species! Well, that’s the positive side for you.

It is ironic then that with a name containing the word demilitarized, Korean DMZ is surrounded by the most heavily militarized border in the world. Quoted from Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick: “An enormous share of the country’s wealth was squandered on the military. North Korea’s defense budget eats up 25 percent of its gross national product – as opposed to an average of less than 5 percent for industrialized countries. Although there had been no fighting in Korea since 1953, the country kept one million men under arms, giving this tiny country, no bigger than Pennsylvania, the fourth-largest military in the world.”

It also has one of the longest obligatory army service for its citizens, that is 10 years long! Singapore has 2 years obligatory army service and it already seems to cause enough problems. South Korea also has obligatory army service, trained by the Americans (!), but it doesn’t seem too harsh or strict hearing from my South Korean friends. Some could even dodge it.

The eerie atmosphere started on the road on the way to the border. Our guide told us how the billboard-like objects all along the road above our heads were full of dynamites. That way had North Korea decided to attack, they could be slowed down by 3 minutes for each explosive milestone, about 30 minutes in total. Every minute is crucial in war time, the cheery tour guide assured us.

A small part of a river that separates the two countries is blocked by electric fences, as there are many North Koreans try to swim over to the South.

DMZ with barbed wire
Sign says “Do not come close or take pictures” (oops, I guess I was too far to read that!)

Our first stop was the Freedom Bridge, where the South Korean POW’s crossed over after being released from North Korea at the conclusion of the Korean War. The middle of the bridge facing North Korea has now been sealed and the fence is covered with unification messages.

It was quite sad to see all these unification wishes. Imagine lost family and relatives on the other side that you can’t see or even send messages to. North Korean citizens are not allowed to leave the country unless they’re some high end officials or business men. Even so it is highly restricted and monitored. Likewise, people of South Korea are in high danger when entering the territory of North Korea, because they may never be able to return!

There are even abduction cases of South Korean and Japanese citizens by North Korea. One of the cases I read from a manga: Megumi: Documentary Manga on Abductions by North Korea – a true account of a Japanese school girl who one day got abducted by North Korean people, of which the truth only came out some 20 years later. Megumi has not yet come home. (link to my book review for more details)

Wishes and messages at Freedom Bridge

Wishes and messages at Freedom Bridge

more messages at Freedom Bridge

more messages at Freedom Bridge

messages everywhere at Freedom Bridge

messages everywhere at Freedom Bridge

Next stop was Dora observation deck. From the platform we could see a glimpse of North Korea buildings and villages in the horizon – puppet villages that are supposed to show the great North Korean life, and the gigantic flag that marks their pride. The flag weighs almost 300 kilos and is 30 meters long. Both the flag and pole are the largest in the world.

She told us the story about how the North and South were in competition for a while about who had the bigger flag. Both sides kept making their flag bigger and higher, until at one point South decided to give up (probably realized what a silly game it had been pulled into doing).

“They would rather have a bigger flag and starve,” said our tour guide, looking amused.

At the time I knew that North Korea was among the poorest countries in the world. But I didn’t know to what extend, until I read the non-fiction book by Barbara Demick: Nothing to Envy, which is an excellent book on the insights into North Korea. I’d highly recommend it. It shows view point of six North Korean defectors that managed to leave the country.

In the book there was a point when one of the defectors – a female doctor – managed to run to the border of China, and sadly came to a realization that the dogs in China eat better than the humans in her home country – the one she has been blindly loyal to all this time.

Not happy with only land invasion, North Korea dug tunnels too. The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, that is open to public, was found in 1978, and would have been the most threatening tunnel if the North had used it to invade Seoul that is only 44 km away. The North denied the tunnel’s intended use for military invasion. They painted the walls black to disguise it as coal mining tunnel when they were about to get caught red-handed. (yeah, really!)

We had a chance to go inside the tunnel. Pretty long way to go down and up. No photography though. There’s photo restriction at a lot of the areas that we visited.

DMZ: Photo Line
You can take pictures as long as you are behind the Photo Line! (People at the back were looking through the telescopes to see the edge of North Korea)

Efforts have been made for reunification of the two countries, but the relationship stays fragile. The Unification Bridge has a famous episode that again was told to us by our chatty tour guide:

The founder of the giant Hyundai Company was born in North Korea. Looking for a better life, he left North for South in his teens, with a stolen cow from his parents. As we know, he became one of the most successful people in Korea. He went back with 1001 cows, 1 cow to return back and 1000 cows as the interest.

He has built factory near the border to help North Korean people and put efforts to mend the strained relationship between the two countries.

Hearing the stories, it is hard not to romanticize the whole affair— the separation, the fights, the sufferings, the grudges, the hope to be reunited. All what makes a good tale.

The new generation however, seems to pay little attention to the piece of history that fascinates people all around the world. “There’s nothing there,” a 30 year-old Korean friend said when I suggested my intention to visit DMZ. She genuinely didn’t understand why I wanted to go to “the border”.

I wouldn’t judge. I myself have probably been more interested in other country’s history and culture than one of my own. It’s easier to see things as they are when you’re not tangled in the mess.

DMZ: looking over to North Korea

Looking over to North Korea