For many Koreans and Asians and anyone else taking part in Lunar New Year festivities, the time is for family and remembering those who came before. On a day where people throughout Korea travel to visit loved ones, we’re visiting the place where separation for many begins at The Korean Demilitarized Zone along the border of the North and South. It’s a symbolic and military line reminding everyone of Korea’s separation from one into two countries after thousands of years together.
Taking a Korean DMZ Tour in South Korea
“When unification takes place….,” was how our confident Tour Guide started things off during this Lunar New Year trip to the DMZ. Heading north toward the border at the crack of dawn starts things off on a groggy footing. We spend 40 minutes on the bus and then a brief stop so some Korean military guys can come on board and look at our passports. The bus continues after everyone’s passports pass inspections.
Note: At no time did I feel any sense of danger or need to buy a stress ball throughout this trip.
Third Tunnel of Aggression
We come to the first stop which was the “Third Tunnel of Aggression“. It’s named the “Third Tunnel” because it is the third one of four discovered at the time of writing. Popular thought dictates many more tunnels exist with plans for a future invasion. The last point to allow photos is right before venturing down and from there, our group walk around the tunnels while I bang my head quite a bit. The ideal height for walking around the tunnels is about 4 1/2 feet. Be careful. It hurts.
Dora San Observatory – Peering into the North
After leaving the tunnel, we move on to Dorasan Observatory where visitors can check out a view of North Korea and Kaesung City. Until tensions kicked up again in 2013, it was NOT well-known that quite a few (South)Korean companies in Kaesung employ North(Korean) workers for very low wages. As we stare out to Kaesung and the neighboring mountains, a stark difference becomes very clear. The south appears green and full of beautiful trees while the northern side is clearly not the same. Bare and easily defendable mountains take the place of life and nature on the other side. Not a single tree in sight and a great sadness falls upon me.
It’s at this moment when my wife begins feeling guilty for our presence here. I certainly empathize with her and briefly sense that this is some sort of touristy theme park, insensitive to the anguish experienced by generations of Koreans largely unable to cross the border and visit their families. From there, the third stop on our tour is the northernmost train station in South Korea. Dorasan Station is a beautiful facility but largely unused due to the lack of traffic heading to Pyongyang and Kaesung.
When Unification Takes Place…
In this station that our guide continues with the theme that I’d picked up on early in the tour. Always prefacing things with “When unification takes place…” is the way she talks about the situation and I really admire that idea. I know that the scenario is more complicated than words, but that’s what some people want and it’s hard to ignore. Dorasan Station will be a popular stop before heading on towards Pyongyang. “When,” not “If.”
I liked that she speaks of the possible event as inevitable. She mentions that Dorasan Station will be a popular stop before heading on towards Pyongyang in the future. Again it’s “when” and not “if.” This is where I really begin to appreciate this trip and our taking part in it. I start to understand the importance of this place while recognizing the DMZ as the site of one of the most dramatic family separations in history. The fact that we’re here during Lunar New Year – largely, a family holiday – speaks even more to me.
The final stop at the Imjin River brings out more emotion. This site was built to remember those who were left behind in the North and unable to reunite with family members. The fences are lined with wishes hoping for peace and family. Once again, I think about our guide saying “when” and not “if.” Thinking to myself, this is what I imagine some in Korea are saying right now – It’s only a matter of time. Don’t worry. You’ll be back with your family soon enough.
Back to Seoul
After heading back to Seoul for the remainder of the weekend, we witness joyous Lunar New Year celebrations and family gatherings. I can’t help but think of those people separated by the war. No matter how tense relations get between Korea’s North and South, no fears of danger are ever sensed from the people here. Perhaps they’re already prepping for the next step, or they don’t care.
Our Thoughts and yours, Too!
Although wary of the outcome, Koreans must know what will come next. Rejoin their northern brothers and sisters as one nation, one family. It could happen. Thanks to our enthusiastic guide and the tone set by the tour, it’s understood as not a matter of “if” but “when” reunification will take place. I’ll never forget that.
What do you think of the Korean DMZ from this tour? Ever been here? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments section below:)
This travel guide is part of our series on South Korea Travel and East Asia Travel. It was originally created on January 30, 2014. It has been maintained and updated (as of December 28, 2018) to reflect current viewpoints and travel trends.