Hanging over the hustle and bustle of Seoul is the nearby border with North Korea. It can be hard to believe that a brutal dictatorship exists so close to a vibrant modern state. We couldn't come all the way to South Korea without a trip to the DMZ, or Demilitarized Zone that separates North from South.
As we got closer to the border fences, pillboxes and watch towers begin to appear. This bridge is one of the only links between the two states, a recently built railway that was hoped to bring the sundered halves closer together.
The first real stop on the tour was at a museum that looked at the history of the Korean war, and the cross border tensions since then. It didn't have the more recent spats listed, but it gave a good overview of things. There was also a video presentation that stressed the nature reserve aspect of the DMZ over the soldiers, pillboxes and landmines aspect. It was fine, but it did seem a bit Pollyanna considering the history and the tensions.
After the museum we got to visit Infiltration Tunnel #3. This is the third of four tunnels that have been found piercing the border. The North Koreans claim it is a coal mine, and planted coal dust to back up their claim. However, the way the tunnel is fashioned and the way it slopes (up towards South Korea) show the lie. It was built for use in a surprise attack. It is estimated that there are many more tunnels that have not been found. Sadly for me, photography was not permitted within the tunnel. In this way, the tour was very highly regulated. Passports were required, and photography was strictly limited. If you were seen taking photographs in a forbidden area, guards would accost you and make you delete the file.
Then it was time to journey to an overlook where we could peer into North Korea itself. We were there on a very clear day, and got excellent views of the hills surrounding a North Korean city whose name escapes me. We also got to view what were once the tallest and second tallest flag poles in the world. Each side kept building their flagpole taller, until South Korea stopped bothering. Here again, photography was only allowed to a certain point. From the edge you could see South Korean military fortifications, and they wanted to ensure no agents could photograph the troop dispositions.
Our last stop was Dorason station. It is a brand new train station that has never been used. It was built to service the same train line the bridge was built for, but relations between North and South soured, and regular service never began. It was eery walking around a shiny but empty train station.
While we did not get to see the Joint Security Area and the actual border line on this tour, we did get an excellent glimpse of the fractured recent history of the Korean peninsula. It was a fascinating day, and a sobering one as well. A true peace treaty was never signed, and as we have seen in the news there are still flashes and flare ups. While we may hope a resurgent Korean War will never happen, our trip to the DMZ reminded us that it is certainly possible.