Disclaimer: I started writing this a long time ago….
This week South Korea celebrated 광복절 (Gwangbokjeol) on the 15th of August, the date that in 1945 Korea was liberated from 40 years of Japanese occupation. This happened at the end of the Second World War when the Axis forces were defeated. The withdrawal of Japan left a power vacuum in Korea. The US and the Soviet Union became potential parties to claim responsibility for administering Korea until it could become independent. Being unable to reach a joint agreement Korea was divided into two along the 38th Parallel. By 1948 governments had formed in each section, both desiring the unification of Korea following their respective visions of communism or capitalism. Tension between governments increased until 25 June 1950 when North Korean forces invaded South Korea. This was the start of what we know to be the Korean War.
One of the things that first fascinated me about South Korea was that they had pulled themselves from the devastation of war to become the 13th largest economy in the world. At that early point I had not heard about the Japanese occupation that had oppressed them just a few years beforehand. Their progress then became all the more impressive.
A year after deciding to move to Korea I had learnt a little more about the war but, not being a fan of military history, had never really delved into it. A trip to South Korea would not be complete without a visit to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Koreas. So when the opportunity came I booked myself on a tour to visit the two main tourist areas of this infamous strip of land (a day which would then be followed by a second of whitewater rafting and bungee jumping).
At first going to the DMZ may sound like a bit of a stodgy thing to do, unless you’re a military buff or have some sort of personal connection. But when you think about it what you’re doing is travelling to the front line of a battle without fear of being shot at (or at least very minimal justified fear). That was one thing I did know, that this is not a border. The Korean War is not actually over. There are also vantage points from which you can look into what is perhaps the most mysterious country in the world. If you don’t think it’s mysterious, check it out on Google Maps. In what strange land will ‘Google it’ not answer all your questions?
Before my trip I decided to get a little bit more educated. I headed to Youtube and found this 30 second clip showing the change in territory over the course of the war. I could not believe that at different points the peninsula had been almost completely overtaken by each party. I then found a semi decent looking documentary to fill in some blanks (But of course I can’t find it again to share with you).
The tour fell on a weekend where my usual travel buddies were busy. I knew there would be other tours, but I particularly liked the itinerary of this one, so decided to sign up by myself. I was relieved to spot a number of familiar, faces as I boarded the bus.
The journey from Seoul to the DMZ is short, taking less than two hours. As we traveled our tour guide briefed us on the history and significance of the area we were visiting. It was interesting to hear a Korean talking about these things. I thought he did well to give a balanced presentation. At the end of WWII communism had promise, and North Korea initially fared better than the South as the Soviet Union provided a great deal of support. Both sides desired to see Korea reunited, which seems like a good goal to me. Oddly the person who was spoken of most critically isn’t Korean at all. According to our guide, progress was being made in peace talks. Things were looking so promising Dorasan Station (more about this below) was refurbished in South Korea, in the anticipation that travel from the South into the North would soon be permitted. Then George W. Bush won US presidency and named North Korea on the ‘Axis of Evil.’ North Korea got defensive and peace talks were halted. Now they wait to see what direction Kim Jong-un will try to take the North. It was the hope of our guide that he would resume peace talks and that the North will begin to make moves towards capitalist trade like those being made by China.
Our first stop was Imjingak (임진각). Here we saw a number of different monuments, but bypassed the main facility. Our main point of interest here was the Freedom Bridge over which prisoners of war were returned from the North. The bridge is covered in emotional photos of that famous day and of colourful ribbons on which people’s prayers for peace and reunification with family are written. There was also a train punctured with bullet holes rusting away. I couldn’t quite work out its story, but I love trains, so I was fascinated nonetheless.
From here we went through the military checkpoints and to the Dora Observation platform. Here we could see across the 4km wide DMZ into North Korea. We were told that on some days you could see people working in the fields by using the binoculars there. On this day we didn’t see much.
We drove from here to the third of four tunnels that have been discovered by South Korea. These were dug from the North into the South. They appear to have been dug for a surprise attack on Seoul. They’re not big enough for vehicles to pass through, but they estimate that thousands of lightly armed infantry could pass through every hour. We were able to enter the tunnel through a tourist access shaft. Donning our yellow safety helmets, and getting our ajuma bend on to avoid hitting the ceiling with our heads, we walked through the roughly cut tunnels. How thousands of troops could travel through here at a consistent pace beats me.
From here we moved on to the Cheol Won area. Here we visited a peace observatory. There were binoculars here, but no towns to look at. Instead you looked over the green of the DMZ into the fields and hills of North Korea. It was really pretty. The DMZ, an almost surely fatal place for people to wander, has become a safe haven for many rare species of birds and animals. Many people hope that this area will remain protected if ever the two countries are reunited.
We got back on the bus and travelled to Dorasan Station. This is a railway station on the Gyeongui Line which runs between Seoul in South Korea and Pyongyang in North Korea. Services do not run across the DMZ, but at the height of peace talks it was hoped that it would just be a matter of time before they would resume. The station was restored and outfitted to be a customs port for travel in and out of South Korea. Instead it stands as a weird monument of hope and disappointment. The station is large and spacious, the departure gate is labeled Pyongyang, there are metal detectors and luggage scanning machines. It looks all set to go. But there are no passengers. The station is open as a tourist destination, not a thoroughfare. A world map above the ticket booth links rail lines from Busan, at the Southern tip of the Korean Peninsula, through to tracks in China and into Europe via the Trans-Siberian. What a magnificent trip that would be.
After this we went to the second tunnel, which was much like the first, and to a memorial park where an English speaking soldier gave us a tour and told us about the Battle of White Horse, a name given to a hill the park looked towards. I don’t remember too much, as I was pretty tired by this point, but I do clearly remember looking at a gun that was on display. It had got so hot from use that the barrel was bent about 20 degrees. With thoughts of war and peace, conservation and trains I settled into our accommodation for the night.
A couple of years ago I didn’t know much about Korea (quite likely I would have got the North and South confused in my head), except that they made Hyundai cars and that there was a war there. Now that I live here these would not be the first things to pop into my head when you said Korea. When I first got here I was driven crazy by the prevalence of Hyundai cars, trying to spot non-Korean model cars whenever I was out and about. But I’ve (mostly) gotten over that. In the same way war doesn’t quickly come to mind. But there are certainly frequent reminders. Young soldiers are frequently seen particularly about train stations. Military training is compulsory here, so I guess all my male Korean friends have been in training, and if things don’t change my students will have to do it. You also see weird military outposts dotted about the place, and every now and then a raid siren can be heard. The war is not officially over, and so South Korea remains prepared to defend themselves. I’m aware that people around me have differing opinions about independence or reunification. Either way I sincerely hope no act of violence takes all this progress away from them.