The Demilitarized Zone
The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a heavily fortified buffer zone set up between North and South Korea. The 4km wide DMZ stretches 250km (160miles) across the Korean peninsula and was created in 1953 during the armistice after the Korean War. The DMZ has been the scene of many tense stand-offs between the North and the South (and by proxy, America) as soldiers eyeball each other across the demarcation line. Thankfully, the situation has improved a lot recently, with tensions easing between the two Koreas.
After an incredible Christmas Day in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, we were to be spending Boxing Day at the DMZ and border with South Korea.
It was another early and freezing start when we left the Ryangang Hotel. The empty streets were cloaked in a thin layer of mist as we drove to our first destination of the day. The Arch of Reunification (otherwise known as the Monument to the Three Point Charter to Reunification, but that’s a bit of a mouthful) is a 55m (180ft) tall triumphal arch crossing the Reunification Highway that leads from Pyongyang to Kaesong in the south.
The bus pulled over by the side of the road so we could take pictures as the sun started to rise over the fields to the East. It was good that it was so early as the pictures weren’t marred by traffic or pedestrians, but being as the arch is on the edge of town I think it would have been quiet regardless.
We were soon on our way again for the 3 hour journey south. It was interesting to be crossing the country again, but this time by road rather than rail, affording us all a better look at the countryside and small villages we passed by.
Before we arrived at the border we were briefed about etiquette. Obviously taking photographs of soldiers and at certain sensitive areas of the border was forbidden, but we would have the opportunity to get some nice images if we checked before shooting.
Arrival at the DMZ
Once we reached the first checkpoint we left the bus and entered a gift shop selling posters, wine and other souvenirs. There we waited to be met by a North Korean army major who would guide us around the DMZ.
As we crossed the checkpoint it was possible to see a large flag of the DPRK (the fourth-highest flagpole in the world at 160m/525ft) on a nearby hill and opposite a kilometre or so away was the same but with the South Korean flag. Watchtowers and radio masts dotted the horizon and gave the place a slightly intimidating feel. Ditches and dugouts covered in barbed wire hid dummy soldiers clutching wooden guns like angry scarecrows.
The Joint Security Area (JSA)
We were first taken to a series of wooden huts where various peace accords were signed. Within the wider demilitarized zone is the JSA, or Joint Security Area, where important cross-Korean talks are held. The major gave a talk on relations between North, South and the rest of the world. When talking about previous American provocations, he tensed and said that they would surely crush the Americans if they dared to interfere in the politics of the DPRK!
We moved on through the JSA to the demarcation line where the famous blue huts stood. North Korean soldiers and border guards marched in step back and forth along the outside of the huts, looking smart in their new uniforms that had replaced the old soviet style greatcoats and oversized hats.
We entered a modern building and went up to a balcony on the top floor for a birds-eye of view of the demarcation line and Joint Security Area. It was at this point where I managed to get a photo with the major; a real coup!
After 30 minutes or so we left and drove back through the checkpoints to spend the afternoon in the ancient city of Kaesong.
How to visit the DMZ
Traditionally things have been very tense at the DMZ with propaganda being blared across in both directions via large loudspeakers. Defections from the North and other ‘border incidents’ have done little to help ease tensions. However, things at the DMZ are changing rapidly. Where you could once enter the blue JSA huts and stand astride both Koreas, the South Koreans have locked the doors and left in a gesture of goodwill. On 25th October 2018, 22 North and South Korean guard posts as well as numerous landmines were destroyed in another act of reconciliation.
With the above in mind, if you wish to see the DMZ as it still is in its heavily fortified incarnation, then, now would be the time to visit! YPT can arrange group and bespoke tours to the DMZ, so visit while you still can!
If you want to know what it’s like to spend Christmas in North Korea, read here!
Guest post by Steve Rohan at thetripgoeson.com.