Despite everything that is K-pop colourful about South Korea, there is one inevitable truth that is hard to ignore, and that is the volatile instability of its relationship with neighbouring North Korea.
I can’t think of living in a country where the possibility of war is so real, as if in any moment the simple and quiet lives that people get accustom to will be halted in a second, maybe by one misstep, by one wrong decision.
Like most tourists in Seoul, stepping inside what is consider as one of the most dangerous place on Earth will be an experience like no other though it is not something that is hard to arrange as there are numerous government accredited tour agency offering several packages that takes tourist right inside Korea Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
I wasn’t able to book in advance for the complete day tour that includes going inside the heart of DMZ- Panmumjeom/ JSA (Joint Security Area), so I settle for the half day tour that still go inside South Korea’s portion of DMZ but limited to Dorasan Station, Dora Observatory and Third Infiltration Tunnel (one of the tunnels discovered from information gathered from a defector, the tunnel was secretly built by North to use as a surprise attack on Seoul).
Regardless of which DMZ tour you will take, there are certain rules that civilians needs to follow. First rule is to bring your passport as there will be a military officer that will board the tour bus and verify everyone identification against the list that the tour operators presented to them. Next is to wear proper and decent clothing and finally and I think most importantly, listen and follow your guide when they tell you about the places that are off limits for photography.
To reach South Korea DMZ, it takes an hour bus ride from Seoul city center and on a perfect sunny weather it is easy to shrug of the idea of entering what is indeed a dangerous place when you are in fact seeing the openness beauty of Han River and farm lands, the only thing that will remind you of your location are the barbed wire fences.
First stop of the tour was Dora Observatory for a peek inside North Korea.
Visitors are allowed to take photographs behind the yellow line only, as any glare from camera lens might be consider as a threat by the North Korea soldier on the other side of the border and might trigger them to take necessary action.
Though there are binoculars in place that can be used by visitors to have a better view of Daeseong-dong village (Freedom Village) on South Korea side and North Korea Gigeong-dong (Peace Village) or what the South calls as :Propaganda Village” cause in reality no one resides there.
Both villages are marked by towering flagpoles, which became some sort of competition among the two countries. The South Korea built their flagpole first at the height of 100 m and the North not wanting to be outdone erected a higher flagpole at a height of 160 m.
If there is one thing inside DMZ that best symbolizes that hope of one day the North and the South will be peacefully united, it has to be the empty and unused Dorasan Station.
There was a time when the talks of unification seems so real and Dorasan Station was built in preparation for the realization of that dream, a station that will not only easily transport materials to the significant Kaesong Industrial region but will one day connect that missing piece for a Trans-Korea, Trans-China and Trans-Siberia journey.
To completely understand this significant part of South Korea, I highly recommend to spent a few hours in Seoul by visiting the War Memorial Museum to understand the country’s past, present and its continuous struggle for peace.
Reachable by Exit 1, 11 or 12 at Samgakji Station from Seoul Subway Line 6, divided into seven exhibition hall including the outdoor area of display military equipment , the War Memorial of Korea details the country history from pre-historic era to Japan colonial period, the Korean War and the dispatches of Korean troops during the Vietnam War and Gulf War, though much emphasis is given to the Korean War and the involvement of the international community.
Admission to the museum is free and during my visit there was a great photography exhibit at the basement floor showing the present day relationship of South Korea to the possibility of another war and its take on conscription or mandatory military service.