My trip to Korea’s demitarised zone

When I visited Korea in the first time around, my most surreal and strange experience was a visit to the demilitarised zone which separates the two Koreas. I used the experience as grist for a college assignment when I was studying Journalism in Balyfermot. Here it is:
 
‘You may believe that as a human being you’re free, but here you will have no freedom,’ explains the tour guide, as our bus rumbles past endless barbed wire topped fences and military lookout posts. We’re on our way to one of South Korea’s most popular tourist attractions, just an hour north of Seoul. It’s not a famous temple, a magnificent mountain or a thrilling theme park. It’s an active war zone, on the world’s most heavily armed border.
 
On the way we stop at Freedom Bridge, a simple structure which was crossed by 13,000 prisoners of war when they were exchanged following the Korean War. Tied to the locked gate are thousands of colourful ribbons containing heartfelt messages from some of the five million families still divided by the conflict. The gesture is symbolic, and though a few brief family reunions have been made possible by the Red Cross, most have no means of contacting the loved ones they have been separated from for over half a century.
 
Some of the messages of hope at Freedom Bridge  
 
 
 
Our next stop is at the entrance to Camp Bonifas, the United Nations army base just outside the demilitarised zone. A soldier examines our passports and attire. The dress code is strict, and anyone wearing such items as sleeveless shirts, faded jeans or military style clothes will not be allowed to come any further. Most frighteningly, backless sandals are not permitted in case the wearer must suddenly run away.
 
Inside the briefing room, I’m handed a piece of paper to sign. It’s a visitor declaration which warns of ‘the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action,’ and sets out all of the rules which must be adhered to. Our guide has already advised us against having hands in pockets, pointing, or making any sudden movements or gestures.
 
A brief slide show outlines how the ‘temporary occupation’ of Korea by the United States and the Soviet Union after World War 2 has led to the division which continues to this day. After the bloody Korean War the South became a liberal capitalist state, while the North isolated itself under the communist rule of Kim Il-sung. When he died, his son and successor Kim Jong-il took over. He presided over an impoverished people, while investing heavily in a plutonium-based nuclear programme. When Kim Jong-il died in 2011, the regime was carried on by his inexperienced youngest son, Kim Jong-un.
 
Boarding a different bus and this time escorted by soldiers, we head to the UN buildings used for direct talks between the two Koreas, known as Conference Row. Just yards away, in North Korea, several Chinese tourists peer over a balcony. They are taking photographs of us, and we are taking photographs of them. A soldier wearing a Korean People’s Army uniform stares at us through binoculars. 
 
View of conference row: The grey building opposite is in North Korea  
 
We are ushered into one of the conference rooms, where guards resembling wax figures stand perfectly still, their whole bodies clenched. A woman’s expression turns from excited to horrified when she steps too close to a soldier for a photograph, and he silently grabs her and moves her to the side. Careful not to touch anything, I venture to the other end of the room. Now I’m in North Korea.
 
Inside one of the conference rooms  
 
Back on the bus, I’m surprised when the we pull up outside a souvenir shop, apparently inescapable even when the tour is of a war zone. The postcards, t-shirts, mugs and other tourist tat seem to trivialise the reality of lives lost and families torn apart. I’m particularly horrified to see toddler sized soldier’s costumes for sale.
 
Handing back our UN guest badges and leaving the surreal experience behind, the mood on the bus is sombre. I stare out of the window at the beautiful landscape set between minefields along the demilitarised zone. This unintentional nature reserve, containing a wealth of endangered animals and rare plants, is an unintended result of the division.
 
As we leave Camp Bonifas, some tourists discuss the possibility of a reunited Korea. A few argue about the crippling financial burden which reunification would place on the South, to sustain its neighbour’s failing economy. Others say that China will do all it can to prevent the influx of North Korean refugees which would result if the Kim dynasty were to fall.
 
It all seems insignificant, however, when I remember the messages fixed to the gate at Freedom Bridge.
 
As the bus rounds a corner, I turn around to take in the stunning views. If the country is ever reunited the area will probably be preserved as a national park, for all Korean people to enjoy. But for now only the birds and other wildlife are free in their accidental paradise, oblivious to the pain and separation from which it was born.
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About Clare Hartwieg

My name is Clare Hartwieg. I come from Ireland and I'm a GET (Guest English Teacher) at a middle school in South Korea. So far I love Korea. I love the fast pace of life, the food, the bright lights, the warm and generous people – I even love my job! Please follow my blog and share my posts if you are interested in hearing about my adventures in South Korea!
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