Delving beneath the DMZ
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While many may not recognize it while looking at a map, South Korea may as well be an island. Surrounded by water on three sides, this robust little nation is bounded on the north at the 38th parallel by the Demilitarized Zone with North Korea, a 151 mile stretch of barren land that at only 2.5 miles wide, isolates the South from the rest of the world. This dead-zone is simply known as the DMZ.
This fact is driven home at the now defunct, yet still incredibly symbolic Dorasan rail station, which is the northernmost stop on the South Korean rail system. Unable to run trains through isolationist North Korea, the sole vein of land transport stretching to the world outside of the Korean peninsula abruptly ends here. If trains could simply run north to the border with China, they could from there connect to anywhere on the Eurasian or African supercontinent; goods and people could be transported to far away lands such as Portugal, Russia, Germany, Singapore, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Norway, or Angola via a global network of roads and railways. The first obstacle standing in the way of this fantasy, however, is the fortified northen border known as the DMZ.
A barren stretch of land with a lengthy history, the DMZ is a turbulent zone both above and below the surface. Manned by the military of both nations, cross-border tensions sometimes flare around the DMZ, with the occasional case of the errant defector as well. Former President Bill Clinton went so far as to call it the “scariest place on Earth”. Just days before I visited, soldiers from the South exchanged gunfire with Northern soldiers who had made a feeble attempt at crossing into southern territory. The most infamous border skirmish, however, was a grisly event in which a group of American servicemen went out to trim an overgrown tree, and ended up being hacked to death by a rogue group of North Korean soldiers. Needless to say, tensions still run high.
One of the more powerful sights on a tour of the DMZ (many tour companies run from nearby Seoul), is a stop at the hopefully-named “Freedom Bridge”. Essentially a bridge to nowhere, the gate on the bridge is symbolic of a link that separates the nearly 5 million families whose relative lay out of reach on the opposite side. Many South Koreans venture here to hang handwritten notes on the gate, and hang ribbons of hope that someday they will be reunited with those stuck on the other side.
The most popular site in the entire DMZ area, however, is undoubtedly taking a tour down into the tunnels that run beneath the DMZ. Discovered by the south in the late 1970’s with the help of a North Korean defector, four extra-large tunnels have been found nearly 500 ft. below the surface that are capable of allowing over 30,000 troops/hour to spill into South Korea. Denied by Pynongyang, the tunnels are obviously dug in the direction of north heading south. North Korea claims they were dug for coal mining. Only problem is that there is no coal in the all granite walls, though in some areas the walls have been painted black. Descending into the tunnels via a trolley car, it is an incredibly eerie feeling being taken deeper into a black abyss that was hand chiseled by thousands of soldiers plotting a large-scale invasion. It’s sort of like walking inside the world’s largest failed prison break attempt. Anyone visiting the DMZ should definitely make sure to spend the couple extra dollars and delve deep below the surface into these potentially catastrophic caverns.