Just an hour north of Seoul is the de-militarized zone (DMZ) which contains the military demarcation line that separates North and South Korea along the 38th parallel and serves as the de facto border.
Panmunjeom, the village within the DMZ, is where the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953. This was a cease-fire agreement and put the Korean War on pause. Since no peace accord was signed we can say that there has officially been no conclusive ”end” to the Korean War, just a stalemate. To this day, troops are stationed on both sides to guard against any potential threat from the other side.
Although Panmunjeom is not a friendly place for humans, because of its isolation over the years, it has actually become an ideal location for the preservation of endangered species and ecosystems.
Several agencies offer tours to the area, though it requires some planning ahead of time. The day starts at 8am and ends around 2pm and includes a visit to the border, which you view from an observatory, and a walk to the 3rd blockage of an underground tunnel built by North Koreans to infiltrate the South. Since 1974, the South has discovered that four tunnels crossing the DMZ have been dug by North Korea. They have erected several sets of blockades, and the 3rd blockade is the closest a civilian can get to North Korea underground.
Map of the tunnel and blockades:
Our guide explained that when the tunnels were discovered, North Korea claimed that they were for coal mining. When no coal was found in the tunnels, the North Koreans responded by painting the walls of the tunnel black to render them more believable. Eventually, more evidence found in the engineering of the tunnels lent support to South Korea. For example, the third tunnel (the one I visited) slopes slightly upwards as it progresses from north to south, which lets water drain back for use in North Korea.
From the observatory, it is quite stunning to see the difference in land between North and South. Even without a formal military demarcation line, you can tell the difference in landscapes: the hills in the South are lush and verdant, whereas those in the North are completely razed, no trees whatsoever. The reason for this is that the North’s poor and isolated economy necessitates it to cut the trees and use them for firewood. Also, according to my guide, North Korea likes to have a clear and open view of its land in order to spot any potential transgressors or, defectors.
View of North Korea from observatory (I have better ones not yet uploaded though)
For a while, South Korea adopted the “Sunshine Policy” of kindness toward North Korea. Efforts have also been made towards reunifying the Korean peninsula. A train line connecting the North and South was erected under this policy, and our tour included a trip to Dorasan Station, however in 2008 North Korea closed the border crossing after accusing South Korea of policy breaches, and South Korea elected a more conservative government that veered away from soft relations toward the North.
At Dorasan Station, which one can visit, and just a few years ago, maybe even could have traveled to Pyongyang.
The reactions I got from South Koreans I spoke to regarding reunification were varied. For the most part, the older population supports reunification, or more openness, given that a large number of them have friends or family in the North. However, the younger generation seems less enthusiastic. For them, North Korea barely exists and to reunify the peninsula would mean sharing their economic prosperity and opportunities with a population they feel little attachment towards.
Who knows how things will play out. We can only hope for the best.
At the entrance to the 3rd tunnel: