A new day and a much earlier start for my Sunday in Seoul. If I was looking forward to anything the most in the week, it was the morning trip to the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. My interest in history and politics came together nicely for this one.
We were picked up at our hotels at around 8am, unfortunately for me I was told the bus wouldn’t be able to make it down the small street to my hostel. My pickup point was the nearest subway station, so it could have been worse.
The first stop was half an hour out of Seoul, what struck me was how soon it was before our guide was pointing to our left explaining that North Korea lay behind the fence across the Imjin river. It is so close to a thriving modern city such as Seoul yet so far behind in terms of development.
The bridge of freedom was the first stop, the old railway bridge once allowed repatriated soldiers and POWs to return home from the north. It linked the south directly through to the north via train yet is now just one of many monuments in place to reflect the current tensions which have scarred the Korean Peninsula for decades.
Back on the bus for a shorter period next, heading to the Dora Observatory. Located at the stop of a fairly steep hill, one which I felt the bus struggle to wind its way up, the observatory gives a clear viewpoint over the border and into North Korea. It is possible to see the flags of both North and South Korea flying, with the north’s purposely much higher flag pole being very noticeable.
Away to the right of the observatory is a radio tower which marks the spot for the joint security area (JSA). This being the only place where the border allows for the countries to be face to face. What was more frustrating was that just as I arrived back into the centre of Seoul Donald Trump would be meeting North Korean leader st the JSA. That would have been a sight to see around the DMZ. Not bad timing for a visit.
From the observatory you could actually see our next stop. Down the hill and closer to the border was the third invasion tunnel. Constructed by the North Koreans as a plot to attack the south in the 1970s, the tunnel was only discovered by the south thanks to intelligence from a North Korean defector. The aim was to dig right through to Seoul, but the efforts were thwarted just hundreds of metres across the border.
It was a incredibly steep walk down to the tunnel, but the 300m trip would be so much harder on the way back up I kept thinking to myself. Donning a hard hat, we reached the tunnel which starts at the point that the south discovered it. Stretching far back, it is cramped and water is almost constantly underfoot. It’s hard to imagine this at the time it was dug or even that an invasion force was scheduled to travel through it, reigniting the war on the Korean Peninsula.
We were told of the efforts from the north to cover up the reasons for digging the tunnel, such as painting the granite black and claiming they were mining for coal. It gave a chilling insight into how the Korea war and the subsequent divide affected both countries.
Our trip was almost at an end, but on the way back we stopped off at the train station where the last train headed for North Korea departed. Dorasan station is situated just 700 yards from the southern border of the DMZ and it makes for an unusual place. For just 1000w you can buy a souvenir ticket from the station to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. It is charming in a way, and something which I didn’t pass up. I also didn’t miss the chance to take my picture under the station sign stating where to catch the train across the border.
The station and all of the other stops on the trip signify the struggles which these two countries have had for the last three quarters of a century. It’s hard to know exactly what life is like in North Korea and it might be many more years before we find out more.
What can be said is that the history between the two nations is unlike any other the world has ever seen. The dividing of the country saw families ripped apart and a great deal of suffering, it can only be hoped that the negotiations between the two nations and the wider world can improve; bringing to an end the hardships of division and dictatorship.