Probably the scariest place I've ever been!

Trip Start Aug 07, 2011
Trip End Jul 14, 2012

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Flag of Korea Rep.  ,
Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Andy here today.

Well, after a good few days chilling out and spending time with (and being spoilt by) our family we thought it was time to get out of Seoul and visit a little place called North Korea. The only way to get there is on an organised tour - this tour is even illegal for South Koreans to go on - and so we booked with a company called 'TourDMZ'.

The night before we had second thoughts about going when we turned on the news to watch a north korean lady fiercely saying that North Korea would attack and reduce any South Korean city to ashes within 3-4 minutes. Hmmmm. Cue a quick call to Uncle Jay,

"Don't worry, they do that all the time. It's normal", he said.

Normal huh? Imagine the Scottish broadcasting a statement like that to the English!

Anyway, the next day after having our passports checked we caught the tour bus from the centre of Seoul. It wasn't long before we were on the highway heading the 55km north to the DMZ (demilitarised zone). I didn't actually realise that North Korea was only 55km north of Seoul - it's a scary realisation!

North and South Korea are 'technically' still at war and this becomes ever more apparent the further north from Seoul you travel. As soon as we hit the Han river there were high fences with barbed wire on the top running the entire length of the river banks (we're talking tens, if not hundreds of miles in total). At regular intervals along the fence there were look-out posts, some containing South Korean troops on sentry duty. It's a scary image and one which we were a far cry from in the modern sprawling capital of Seoul!

The DMZ is a 4km-wide, 240km-long buffer that separates North Korea from South Korea formed after the Korean War armistice. The 4km-width of the DMZ itself is made up of two DMZ areas. The north DMZ is 2km wide, as is it's southern counterpart, and in the middle is the DML (demarcation line) which is the actual 'border' between the two countries.

We soon reached the entrance to the Civilian Controlled Zone, which was still a few kilometres away from the entrance to the southern DMZ. After having our passports checked by a South Korean soldier we drove to Camp Bonifas - named after one of two US soldiers hacked to death with axes in 1976 by North Korean soldiers after the former had tried to chop down a tree that was obstructing one of the US watchtowers. Here we had a quick and informative briefing about the Korean war and why the DMZ exists before getting onto a military bus and being driven straight into the southern DMZ itself passing areas to our right and left covered in landmines, and over bridges loaded with TNT ready to be blown in case of a North Korean invasion (to slow them down). Needless to say it was a scary place!

Weirdly though in the middle of all this there's a village called Daeseong-Dong or 'Freedom Village' which is a South Korean Government subsidised village populated by farmers with large farmland. There's a large 100m high flag-pole here flying the South Korean flag. From here you can see the southern most village in North Korea, called Gijeong-Dong, AKA 'Propoganda Village' because virtually all the buildings are empty or just facades. Supposedly all the lights come on and go off at exactly the same time each day and night. The other funny thing is that after seeing the South Koreans put up their flag, the North just had to go one better and built what is still today the largest flag pole in the world at 160m high!

As we were now in the DMZ we headed straight for the JSA (Joint Security Area), called Panmunjom - lots of acronyms in this blog I know! If you've ever seen a documentary on the Discovery Channel you may have seen Panmunjom/the JSA. Panmunjom is basically a village controlled on one half by the South Koreans and on the other half by the North Koreans. As we entered the compound we were confronted with various blue UN buildings on the outside split down the middle with a small concrete step signifying the DML or border. This is the only place you can safely cross into North Korea - there were no takers that day!

On the South Korean side there were 3 soldiers guarding the gap in between the UN buildings, one standing half obscured by the building wall in what we were told was a modified Taekwondo stance, and having got the north korean lady from the previous nights news broadcast in our heads it's safe to say our hearts were beating a little faster than usual! We were then ushered into one of the actual UN buildings where official meetings are still held. In here were two further South Korean soldiers in their modified Taekwondo stance standing guard. Remember half of this building is in North Korea and half is in South Korea - obviously we're not going to pass up the opportunity for a photo snap of us actually standing in North Korea and so we soon ticked that one off our travelling to do list!

We were then taken outside to get a proper view of the JSA/'border' (from the South Korean side!) where we could take some photos. It was here that I noticed two North Korean soldiers standing guard in a building opposite so I thought I'd see what they were doing.....after zooming in it was quite scary to see them looking straight back at me through a pair of binoculars! Ah! Cue me looking high and away and whistling to myself!

After this photo-op we were taken back to the bus and driven around the Southern DMZ where we saw the location of the axe murders and the 'bridge of no return' - effectively the bridge into North Korea and no coming back!

We were soon dropped back at Camp Bonifas, picked up our normal tour bus and headed to a Korean War memorial park built next to 'Freedom Bridge'. 'Freedom Bridge' is the bridge where the South Korean POWs walked their way to freedom after the war. Although the end of the bridge was adorned with flags together with messages of peace and the desire for re-unification, it was sad to see it blocked off with fencing and barbed wire as protection from the North - very sad really.

Afterwards, we had some bulgogi for lunch (standard) and then headed to the 'Third Infiltration Tunnel'. Essentially the South has found 4 tunnels that the North has dug underneath the DML to invade the South. The 'Third Infiltration Tunnel' was, surprise, the third to be discovered with the help of a North Korean defector. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to take any pictures in the tunnel but we can tell you it was pretty small - I had to stoop most of the 265m of the tunnel that we were allowed to walk along. Ridiculously, when the South found the tunnel the North claimed that they didn't dig it even though there was damning evidence it was them. They even tried to cover it up by painting the rocks inside the tunnel black and claiming it was a disused coal mine. Hilariously while we were down there we could touch the rock and literally see the black paint come off in our hands! The tunnel was 73m deep and at the end of our walk it had three concrete blockades all covered by CCTV to stop the North Koreans using it again!

From the first blockade we were only 170m from the DML, i.e. North Korea. It's crazy when you think how close North Korea got to completing this tunnel (and the other three!) and potentially invading again. How many more tunnels could there be that the South just haven't found? After having seen the news the night before the potential danger was all very scary and oh so real now!

After the tunnel we headed to the Dora Observatory where we used binoculars to peer into North Korea and were able to see Propoganda Village together with the humongous flag pole! It was a bit of a misty day so the picture is a little unclear but you can still make it out, just!

After the observatory we headed to Dorasan Station which is the most northerly station in South Korea and funnily enough where you can get a train directly to Pyeongyang. So we bought a ticket each and headed off for a North Korean adventure....

I'm not sure there'll be Internet access where we're going but if you don't here from us in a week or two, call a guy called Mr Kim!

Until next time,
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