Visiting the scariest place on Earth
Bill Clinton described the DMZ as the ‘scariest place on earth.’ With a reputation like that, and with Kim Jong Un firing missiles towards Japan just days before our arrival, how could I possibly resist? A visit to Seoul would simply be incomplete without a visit to the Demilitarized Zone, a 4km wide, 240km long buffer slicing the Korean peninsula in half. Although physically connected, South Korea may as well be an island considering its hostile and inpenetrable neighbour.
We booked our tour through VIP Travel, paying 65,000 each (around £50). Tours vary immensely in terms of price so feel free to shop around for the best deal or DIY your trip. You may find there is limited availability for certain days and months depending on when you visit so it pays to make contact before your trip if you are limited on time.
We are picked up promptly at 11am from our hotel. Passports in hand, we complete the formalities, providing our passport numbers whilst listening intently to the rules. Perhaps the stern warnings are deliberately intended to instil fear from the outset. After all, we are heading towards the ‘most closed country in the world‘ according to many reporters.
North Korea is a country which does not play by the rules, acting with frequent, reckless abandon. Like an annoying younger sibling, this country seems to derive pleasure from antagonising its neighbours. Three of the four ballistic missiles launched in March flew 620 miles before falling into the Sea of Japan. Pyongyang has also made threats to fire missiles in response to joint US and South Korean military exercises which it considers preparation for an invasion of North Korea. Wow, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is not a country to be trifled with!
Playing by the rules
Miso, our smiling guide, forbids us to take photos of the South Korean solider who will check our documents on the bridge to the DMZ. We must also enter the infiltration tunnel with no belongings. Although five million visitors per annum visit without a hitch, it is starting to feel a little ominous!
This sliver of land dividing North and South Korea is lined with tank traps, electrical fences, landmines and armies ready for battle. It can only be visited with a DMZ escort and if tensions escalate, your tour may rapidly be cut short. The prospect is sobering and terrifying.
The journey to the border
The journey to the border is a fascinating drive through barren farmland with glimpses of towering mountains and shimmering inlets. The road hugs an estuary fringed by hazy hills rising dramatically from the sea. Watching these scenes slide by, it is hard to imagine there is any kind of threat at all.
The enormity of tensions between North and South soon becomes apparent however, as impenetrable barbed wire borders the road, a stark contrast to the idyllic scenery. Thick, double width metal fences form a no-mans land along the waterfront. I’m unsure whether it is to keep North Koreans out or South Koreans in. Perhaps both, as I discover stories of those defecting from and to the North!
Heavily fortified watchtowers sit atop the fencing every few hundred yards, a reminder that this nation is on high alert for possible invasion from the North. Rather than making me feel scared, it fills me with a sense of despondency. Hasn’t enough time passed to put an end to this enforced separation? But, unlike the Berlin Wall, the legacy of the allies’ response to Japanese imperialism after WWII shows no sign of collapse.
Kim Jong Un
The 34 year old despot rules with an iron will, disposing of those who dare to question him or disrespect him. Defence Minister, Hyon Yong-Chol, was brutally murdered with an anti-aircraft gun recently, merely for falling asleep during a meeting. He is more than one of 70 officials executed since Jong Un came to power. One defector describes his relentless control over the media, unceasing propaganda, brutal repression and severe restrictions on freedom of movement. With this lunacy, who would dare to rise against the dictator? Isn’t it ironic that this the Democractic People’s Republic?
As the only country in the world not connected to the internet, many North Koreans probably have no idea that a different life even exists. Miso, stresses repeatedly her sadness at not being able to meet North Koreans and live in a unified Korea but I fail to see any hope for a united Korea. With increased tensions between the two nations and North Korea’s overt nuclear ambition, this small nation strikes fear into the hearts of many around the world.
Our first introduction to the DMZ
Imjingak is the gateway to the DMZ and a cross between an amusement park and memorial museum. On the one hand, sympathetic black and white photos recount the horror of the Korean War and the refugees’ desolation. On the other, loud pop music blares from pirate ships and roundabouts. Children paddle around a bathing pool in brightly coloured boats, and countless coloured kites fly high in the sky. Surely this cannot be the scariest place in the world? The only thing that is scary here, is the amount of traffic trying to cram into the car park.
The Freedom Bridge
Beyond the fairground attractions however, is a more sombre scene. Passing the gigantic peace bell, you reach the Freedom Bridge, a poignant symbol of the ongoing tensions between these neighbouring states. Gigantic rolls of barbed wire float above tall glass walls where you can witness messages handwritten by families and friends of those stranded in North Korea.
Fluttering in the wind, these messages express hope for reunification. It is hard to imagine the torment experienced by families torn apart by this enforced seperation and the march of time may mean many are never reunited. Mothers without sons, siblings in seperate nations and husbands and wives divided by hatred and politics. I have to fight back tears at the thought of such ravaging pain.
Peeking into the scariest country on earth
Paying the 2,000 won (c. £1.50) to walk the last few hundred metres for a peek into the ‘scariest country on earth,’ I half expect to hear bullets whizzing by as the North Koreans stage another overt display of their military might. Instead, I find solitude, a meandering river and little signs of life.
Just a few hundred metres away, is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, according to the Global Peace Index, yet all troubles seem a million miles away. Bullet ridden remnants of bridge supports damaged in the Korean War stand as a stark reminder that this is no playground.
Note: Iminjak is the last place you can visit independently before entering the DMZ. If you are not fussed about visiting Dorasan Train Station, the Dora Observatory or the Third Tunnel, then you could save buckets by just visiting this landmark. The post below includes useful information detailing how to get there.
Korea has 5 DMZ and 1 Panmunjeom. If you want to know more information, check last posting. (Link click here) Nearest DMZ from Seoul is Dorasan (도라산). You can get to Dorasan (도라산) DMZ by bus and train. Here is official website for information of ‘Seoul to DMZ’ (Link click official) You must bring your passport to get permission of enter DMZ.
Making sense of Korean public transport websites is a challenge. LetsKorail seems to suggest the trip to the DMZ costs 8,600 won (less than £10) but if anyone can confirm this, I would be grateful. If only my Korean extended to more than one pitiful word!
If you are in town for just a few days, it may be more hassle than it’s worth to attempt to go it alone. I suggest you just suck up the cost and book the trip. This is one trip you do not want to miss!
Entering the DMZ
Entering the DMZ feels more akin to crossing a border. Heavily armed border guards wander between a myriad of objects designed to deter invasion and sullenly step onto our bus. They stalk the gangway, impassively glancing at the proffered passports.
It is intimidating although I secretly wonder what purpose this exercise serves. I later discover that citizens of certain countries are prohibited from entering the DMZ and suspect this may be why. If you are unsure, please check with the travel company before booking, as the official Visit Korea website provides no information on this subject.
Dorasan Train Station
Waved onwards, the bus weaves through the defense lines of the Reunification Bridge, passes the Kaesong Industrial Zone (now abandoned) and pulls up at the Dorasan Train Station. This station is a poignant symbol of destroyed hope. Signs proclaim that it is ‘not the last station from the South, but the first to the North’.
Sadly the reverse is true. Although the Gyeongui Line has connected the two countries physically since 2003, it was only used for freight trains and in December, 2008, the border was closed permanently by the government of North Korea. Now it is less a sign of reunification and more a blazing symbol of the distrust between two nations.
The security and immigration area stands empty, a forlorn space. This is not your typical bustling train station but a memorial to a ghost town.
The Dora Observatory
By the time we reach the Dora Observatory, I can feel my mood sinking. Loud music blares from speakers like war time propaganda. In the distance, a North Korean town rises from the haze, whilst trucks patrol the barbed wire fencing. Through binoculars you can peer into the silence of the DMZ, the only signs of life those of wildlife which have reclaimed this land as their own.
The Third Tunnel
Moving onto our final noteworthy stop, we watch a short video with more haunting scenes and music. The South Koreans claim the third tunnel is just one of the tunnels the North Koreans built to attempt invasions of the South. Four have now been found but they suspect there are many more burrowed beneath the landscape.
Unless you have a fascination for tunnels, or are desperate to inch closer to North Korea, I recommend giving it a miss. It is over a kilometre round-trip with the return journey up a steep incline causing severe calf pain! There is nothing notable to see, especially if you are remotely claustrophobic.
So, is the DMZ the ‘scariest place on earth’?
Personally I am pretty sure there are scarier places in SYRIA and Afghanistan but those countries weren’t embroiled in internal conflict in the days of Clinton’s visit.
I think ‘the saddest place on earth‘ would be a better description. It’s a poignant memorial to the lack of progress humanity has made in respecting human rights, a reminder of how tenuous peace can be. The DMZ is not just a scar on the landscape, but a scar on the psyche of those whose families were torn apart along with the country.
What do you think?
Have you visited? What did you make of this place? Did you find it scary or sad? I would love to know so feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.