I’m in Seoul with Cat for a little pre-Christmas break, and today we have had a look at one of the most militarised corners of the world: the DMZ – the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. It is 4 km wide, this buffer, 2 km in each country.

You cannot cross the border… except you can, sort of – inside a building at the JSA (Joint Security Area) at Panmunjeom truce village, where there are soldiers from both countries, and where you can technically step across the border.

(I know, lots of military abbreviations here. And there is more to come).

VISITING THE JSA – BUT NOT TODAY, SADLY

Visiting the JSA here in the south is quite the affair. Things are rigid; there are photo restrictions and a dress code: no casual clothing, i.e. no t-shirts, shorts, miniskirts, ripped jeans, work-out clothes, open sandals, etc. Basically, dress like you would for a job interview.

I had a look at the JSA from North Korea in 2015. That was a relatively relaxed affair (seriously!). No dress code or anything. And I have been curious to see how the two experiences will compare and contrast. But not today, unfortunately. The JSA has not yet opened after Covid. I will have to come back for that!

 

THE INTER-KOREAN SUMMIT – AND TIME

Things have happened since 2015, though. Beginning with time itself.

Pyongyang time was half an hour behind Seoul time.

In April 2018, the leaders of North and South Korea met at an Inter-Korean Summit. One of the propositions from the summit was to ‘unify the time zone between the two Koreas’. On 5 May 2018, North Korea turned its clocks to align with South Korea.

More earth-shattering though, was the Second Inter-Korean Summit one month later, where the two leaders held  hands and crossed the military demarcation line, and announced the Panmunjeom Declaration. Main points of the declaration:

  1. Comprehensive and innovative improvement of inter-Korean relationship and realisation of mutual prosperity
  2. Joint efforts to relax military tension and practically resolve risks of war
  3. Inducement of cooperation in establishing a permanent system of peace in the Korean peninsula

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chairman Kim Jong-un signing the Panmunjeom Declaration

All good ideas. But today, four and a half years later, the promises of peace and reunification hasn’t come to, well, anything. Other than the synchronisation of time. And there is only so much you can blame on Covid.

CRASH LANDING ON YOU

Still, Cat wanted to see the border area – and North Korea, even if at a greater distance. Because Crash Landing on You. We have been binging this Netflix series, you see. It is dramatic and funny, and the characters and their friendships are delightful. Most of all, though, it is a beautiful love story that will probably break your heart a little. Recommended, if that wasn’t clear. 😊

(Tiny spoiler alert): It is set in both North and South Korea, and begins with the heir to a business empire (think a Korean Fallon Carrington, but sweeter) being thrown about by a tornado while hang-gliding, accidentally ending up on the wrong side of the border, just here at the DMZ.

THE DMZ

So here we are. At the DMZ. All electric fences and thousands of landmines, soldiers, infiltration tunnels, and the possibility to have a look across the border, complete with telescopes so you can see North Koreans working in the fields or out on their bicycles. I must admit, I am a bit bothered by this zoo-like approach, so I focus on the two flags instead – and on the outline of Kaesong on the horizon, and reminisce about walking in those streets, about the people there and the stunning landscape.

Kaesong seen from the DMZ on a slightly hazy December day

THE 3RD INFILTRATION TUNNEL

The DMZ tour (no dress code for that, btw, that’s only for the JSA) includes a visit inside the Dora Observatory, where there is a theatre and those telescopes and several lookout points. It also includes the opportunity to enter infiltration tunnel no 3, secretly built by North Korea, and discovered by South Korea in 1978. No photos are allowed in the tunnel, we must leave cameras and phones in lockers before going down.

These strapping (mannequin) dudes welcome you to the 3rd infiltration tunnel

The tunnel is 73 metres underground, so it is a rather steep climb down. 1,635 metres long, it begins in North Korea, go past the MDL (military demarcation line), and end up 435 metres into South Korea. We can only walk 265 metres in; concrete barricades are put up before we reach the MDL.

The floorboards have water seeping through, and it feels a bit like walking on soggy sponges. The tunnel is about 2 metres wide and 2 metres high, although it feels lower at some points. I am far from 2 metres tall and I would have hit my head a few times if I had not worn a hard hat. Probably not a good idea if you are claustrophobic.

Going back up the steep incline then, is 73 altitude metres spread over only 350 metres – and a pretty decent cardio workout. (Annoyingly, Cat beat me going up!) But at least I was warm at last. (It has been a biting -10° today).

HOPES OF REUNIFICATION

The numbers of visitors to the DMZ are limited and rationed throughout the day. Previously, there was a limit of 1,000 people allowed in per day. After Covid, that number has been reduced to 600, and it is first come, first serve. We get a time slot a couple of hours after we arrive. In the meantime, we have a look at statues and monuments at Imjingak Park.

In 2000, a peace bell was put up, with hopes for reunification.

I remember that was the hope up in the northern country as well. ‘One country, two systems’ was their mantra.

Then, there is Dorasan Railway Station, built for commuter trains that one day would connect the rail services of the two countries, across the Freedom Bridge. Once, soldiers and war prisoners from the north were brought home across this bridge.

Freedom Bridge

There is also an odd little house in Imjingak Park, where you can buy North Korean money and coffee to go. Allegedly. I didn’t try.

Coffee and currency

DMZ PRACTICALS

  • The DMZ is ca. 50 km north of Seoul (about a 1-hour drive), so you get a look at the surrounding countryside.
  • Passports will be checked both when entering the DMZ and when leaving.
  • I booked our tour last night from the concierge at our hotel. That was easy enough, but then December isn’t exactly high season, I expect. It is probably a good idea to book in advance, though.
  • When the JSA opens back up, it is not merely a good idea, but necessary. And even so, there is a risk the JSA part can be cancelled at short notice for military reasons. But worth the risk, if you’re interested enough. And if it doesn’t work, you can always try again. Also, Seoul has a lot of other fun stuff on offer. But that is a whole other post for a whole other time.