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Yesterday (Wednesday) was an incredible day touring the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) with a tour group. It was a surreal experience: we were on a tour bus, driving past a Popeyes rest stop and an amusement park, right at the most fortified military area in the world. When we arrived at the DMZ, we changed buses and South Korean military police climbed aboard our bus to check our passports before we took off.
The normalcy and tourist attraction feeling from the DMZ is interesting: Is it that South Koreans are naive to the threat over their border, or are they longing so deeply for reunification, they want to maintain as much of a sense of normalcy as possible at the DMZ? I suspect it’s a bit of both, but likely a lot more of the latter.
Our first stop on the tour was an observatory, overlooking the DMZ, where we had a clear view into North Korean territory. We could see buildings associated with the propaganda village, which the New York Post described a decade ago:
Built in the two-and-a-half-mile wide DMZ that was set up in 1953 as an armistice to end the Korean War, the town claims to have 200 residents and boasts an image of economic success.
However, observations from the south have suggested that Kijong-dong is fake and is devoid of human life.
The buildings are actually concrete shells with no glass in their windows, electric lights operate on an automatic timer, and the only people in sight are maintenance workers who sweep the streets to give the impression of activity.
Named Peace Village by North Korea, it has been used by the government as a battleground for supremacy between the two powers.
In the 1980s, the South Korean government built a 321.5-foot-tall flagpole in the opposite city of Daeseong-dong to antagonize the north. This was quickly countered by North Korea, which built a 525-foot-tall flagpole in response. It was at the time the tallest in the world.
We couldn’t see anyone in the town, though the flagpole was clearly visible. The Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) staffer traveling with us remarked “It’s sad to think that this is the closest spot to South Korea from the North, and also the most impossible point to defect. Almost all of the North Korean defectors come from the border provinces with China. North Koreans are extremely limited in their freedom of movement, allowed to go less than 15km freely before needing government approval. Anyone able to make it over the border with China, the only point of escape, is already living on the border to begin with.
Our next stop on the tour was the most impactful: Dorasan train station. It is a symbolic station situated on a line that once connected North and South Korea. Around the area, there are signs from the future South Koreans long for: maps showing South Korea connected to Asian and European railway lines via North Korea, and departure gates for Pyongyang. As I took photos around the area, I made a prayer that one day I would return with my children with Dorasan station fully operational; not merely a tourist attraction.
Next on our list was a visit to one of the four tunnels discovered by South Korea, created with the intention of sending troops from the North in the event of another invasion. It is thought that these four tunnels are just a few of the perhaps 20 created by the North Korean government. The South Korean government has turned the site into a tourist attraction, building a walkway down into it, allowing visitors to walk a few hundred meters through what would have been a route straight into Seoul by armed North Korean military.
This spot is perhaps the most glaring reminder of just how hard the North Korean government has worked in its war preparations. The tunnel is deep into the ground, wide enough for pairs of soldiers to walk through side by side, and well-built. It’s disturbing to think of how much time, effort and resources went into building these tunnels instead of providing for its citizens.
In lighter news, I’m on this trip with all college students. Yesterday, the LiNK Instagram account did introductions of the folks on my trip, with the template being “Name, School, and one word to describe the organization.” Here was my contribution: