By Finbarr Bermingham
Everybody comes to Korea with a list of things they want to do, see and accomplish as long as their arm. Taking in Asia seems to crop up on most of them, along with learning the language, taking up Taekwondo and, of course, saving money. But anybody with of a passing interest in history (or a slight penchant for voyeurism) is guaranteed to make a trip to the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South. That it featured so highly on my own list is slightly worrying, but I’m happy to have checked it off and in the process of doing so, I had one of the most sobering, surreal experiences of my life.
There are various trips to choose from, each with their own selling points and packages. I was sold on Adventure Korea’s promise to take me off the beaten track. Rolling through the deserted countryside beyond the civilian control point that precedes the DMZ, I felt reassured that they had kept their side of the bargain, but a slight unease at the eeriness of the surroundings.
The once bustling metropolis of Cheorwan has long since been reduced to a ghost town. Stray machinery peppers the endless rows of rice paddies, conceivably abandoned at the outbreak of war, but more probably by the farmers who must leave the zone before their curfew. It amounts to a whole lot of suspense before we reach the first point of the tour, the Second Tunnel.
One hundred and forty five metres deep and 3.5 kilometres long, the tunnel was intercepted 1.1 kilometres in to South Korean territory in 1975 and had the power to transport 16,000 soldiers an hour under the border. The figure beggars belief. I have to crouch as I make my way down to its base, wondering how long it would’ve taken to carve this into the rock. The guide reveals, to gasps of astonishment, that there is an estimated twenty other tunnels like this yet to be unearthed, but that despite the recent decline in relations, they don’t anticipate an invasion. His words emphasize just how volatile the Korean situation is.
The centerpiece of the tour is a visit to the Cheorwan Observation Centre, situated a mere stone’s throw from the DMZ, with a bird’s eye view of North Korea. Of course, there is scant opportunity to see what life is actually like in the most secluded country on earth, but the little we can see is equal parts fascinating and shocking. On the South Korean side, the farmland is lush, the vegetation rich; a reflection of an age of prosperity. It’s in marked contrast with what we see on the other side.
On the entry point to North Korea, the thriving nature reserve that has been created by default in the DMZ comes to an abrupt halt. Everything living has been flattened, lest it provide camouflage for anyone attempting to escape across the border. There is a North Korean army base visible, looming disturbingly large on a hilltop. The smoke of a fire evidently lit by there soldiers rose towards the sky. Since I’ve been in Korea (actually, since long before it), I have wondered about the North and the peninsula’s situation. Being within such proximity was surreal and if truth be told, thrilling.
Traveling to the DMZ was a worthwhile experience: interesting and enlightening… and, yes, fun. However, it would be advisable to keep your expectations in check. You will not see anything you’re not supposed to, so be realistic… if you manage to do so, you’ll be in for a real treat.