The Korean Demilitarized Zone is, in fact, the most heavily militarized border in the world. At the end of the Korean War, the DMZ was established to create a barrier (2.5 miles wide) between the Republic of Korea on the south side and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north.
Somehow, though, this area has become a kind of dark tourist attraction where you’ll spot carnival rides, fried food and smiling cartoons on the South Korean side, despite the fact that the countries are still — technically — at war. Just this August, there were two notable incidents at the DMZ: two South Korean soldiers were injured after stepping on landmines allegedly laid on the southern side of the DMZ, and at the end of the month, North and South Korea exchanged artillery fire in response to some disputed audio broadcasts that were being made via loudspeakers across the border.
Regardless, the DMZ remains a huge tourist attraction in South Korea. There are a number of places available for visits if you want to learn more about the relationship between the Koreas. Here is my guide to a few of these spots:
Imjingak is a park located in the city of Paju, north of Seoul. It’s sometimes called Imjingak “resort,” and it’s a little disconcerting.
On one side of the village is a sizeable amusement park where people play on bumper cars and there is continuous pop music blasting from overhead. There are gift shops selling Korean souvenirs, and there are a wide variety of vendors selling delicious street food around every corner. There’s even a pretty thorough soybean museum detailing all the uses of the beans and offering samples. The whole feeling is like being at a state fair.
But the other side of the village is a stark contrast. Barbed wire fences surround the area where the Bridge of Freedom juts out into the distance. The bridge was formerly used by South Korean soldiers returning home from the North and is now decorated with brightly-colored ribbons that are memorials for lost family members or messages to those still living in North Korea. In front of the bridge is the Mangbaedan Alter, which was constructed so that people separated from their families or hometowns in the North could gather on traditional Korean holidays such as New Year’s Day and Chuseok.
Imjingak displays a very strange dichotomy: there are war memorials just outside the doors of a Tony Moly cosmetics store. It’s pretty somber until some laughing children run past you to get on the merry-go-round. But it’s also very hopeful. One of the most poignant spots at Imjingak is a wall of bricks, each representing a country that endured a civil war or other division but was eventually united again.
Mt. Ohdu Unification Observatory
The Unification Observatory is a five-story museum from which you can look out over the Han and Imjin Rivers and see North Korea up close.
From the roof, powerful binoculars allow you to see all the way from Seoul to Mount Kumgang in North Korea. As I was gazing out across the landscape, I watched a tiny figure riding a bike down a dirt road on the North Korean side. According to the employees at the observatory, most of the visible North Korean buildings are for propaganda purposes — meant to make the area just over the border look more prosperous than it is. I watched the little figure riding his bike for a long time, wondering who he was and what he was doing and if he was thinking about all of the eyes peering at him through binoculars from the other side of the river.
Inside, the museum offers a variety of information on North Korea and the DMZ. There are a lot of interesting North Korean artifacts and maps to help illustrate important locations such as the military demarcation line. Two grim dioramas depict typical rooms in a North Korean elementary school and a home. In the classroom, you can walk inside and peruse the books taught in North Korean schools. In both rooms, the portraits of North Korea’s former supreme leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, keep watch over the comings and goings.
In one part of the museum, visitors can leave messages urging for the reunification of the Koreas, and a mock-up of the Berlin Wall crumbling down serves as inspiration.
Tongilchon Unification Village
Tongilchon is a very small agricultural village near the DMZ. There are few buildings in the area save for the market where you can pick up Korean souvenirs (again), ginseng, liquor and soybean products. The village is centered on farming, and those living within this area are exempt from paying taxes and from Korea’s mandatory military service.
Tongilchon is located so near the Civilian Control Line that entrance to the village is strictly guarded. Military officers boarded our bus and checked everyone’s identification before letting us continue.
In Tongilchon, we stopped into a fantastic little restaurant to feast upon everything soybean. I have never had tofu so delicious, but everything at the Tongilchon feast was perfect.
The town is a very peaceful spot, and it’s a unique place to stop while exploring the infamous DMZ and its surrounding areas.