Driving along the Han River from Seoul toward the Korean DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) , it’s difficult not to notice riverbanks lined with razor-wire fences and military watchtowers. Despite being a thriving hub of capitalism and democracy in Asia, Seoul is less than 40km from North Korea.
For several weeks, I’ve made regular trips up to the DMZ with a team from NTD Television Korea. It’s been an amazing experience. The DMZ is an unusual place – sometimes disappointingly touristy, sometimes profound – but always surprising. During these trips I’ve photographed some fascinating landscapes and historical sites. I’ve also been lucky to meet plenty of friendly, down-to-earth people who live their daily lives right by the DMZ, with the infamous Communist dictatorship on their doorstep.
The DMZ was created as a part of the Korean Armistice Agreement that ended the Korean War in 1953. It separates North and South Korea, cutting the Korean peninsular roughly in half. Approximately 250 km long and 4km wide, the DMZ is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Asia and is also the most heavily armed border in the world. Every healthy young man in South Korea has to serve two years in the military. A lot of them are posted here to patrol the DMZ and surrounding areas.
Twenty-four incidents involving North Korea have occurred in the DMZ since it was formed. These include many commando raids, the digging of spy tunnels, mass troop movements and occasional gunfire. The most recent was this year, when an eighteen year-old North Korean soldier killed two superior officers then defected to the South by walking across the DMZ.
The most popular DMZ tourist spot is Panmunjeom. Surprisingly, it’s easy to go inside the DMZ near Panmunjeom, as long as you’re part of an organized tour. Panmunjeom is famous for three small blue shacks in which high-level talks between the two Koreas are held. The buildings lie exactly halfway between North and South Korea. It’s quite an experience to stand one meter from the border, with nothing between you and the North but tarmac and a white line painted on the ground.
The ride to Panmunjeom takes you through the Joint Security Area (JSA), a tranquil rural landscape riddled with landmines and heavily patrolled by the military. The wooded countryside is free from modern eyesores such as trash, traffic and high-tension power lines – in stark contrast to modern Seoul and its surrounds.
Aegibong is a small mountain near Gimpo where you can get a good view of North Korea and its people going about their daily lives. It isn’t on the itinerary for most DMZ tours, but is one of my favorite places along the DMZ. Unlike the more famous Dorasan Observatory inside the DMZ, you can visit independently without being a part of a bus tour. The viewing area at the top of Aegibong has a commanding view of the Han River, a natural border between North and South Korea. On the far bank you can see North Korean farms, uninhabited apartment blocks and mountains stretching away into the distance. With the aid of binoculars you can see people working in the fields. The windswept hills of North Korea are strikingly bare and desolate compared to the forested slopes of the South.
During my travels along the DMZ I was struck by the number of ordinary people living ordinary lives under the shadow of razor wire and machine guns. The division of the Korean Peninsula has shaped the lives of its people and the history of the world. To truly experience the DMZ and the surrounding area it’s best to take your time, visit some of the less famous sites and talk to the locals. It’s definitely worth looking deeper.
To get to the DMZ you usually need to book an official DMZ tour to gain access. Tours are around $50-80 per person and can be booked through the tourist information booths or online through various companies. Unfortunately this isn’t a family outing, kids under 11 y.o. can’t come along. Make sure to bring your passport on the tour and also plenty of warm clothing and a heat pack– it’s freezing in winter!