Glimpses of the her­mit state

This writer is fas­ci­nated by the Korean Demil­i­tarised Zone, and its his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Travel - By YASODHA PANIRSELVAM star2­travel@thes­

GANGNAM, Korean dra­mas, K-pop, and cos­met­ics and Korean dra­mas are some of the usual rea­sons to visit South Korea. My trip was for a dif­fer­ent rea­son; it was be­cause of my love of his­tory and my strong in­ter­est in the DMZ, or the Korean Demil­i­tarised Zone.

It is a buf­fer zone for­mally set up on July 27, 1953, when the Ar­mistice Agree­ment was signed dur­ing the Korean War.

South and North Korea drew a truce line across the Korean Penin­sula, from the mouth of the Imjin­gang River in the east, to the town of Goseong in the west. On either side of the truce line is a 2km-wide stretch of land where mil­i­tary ac­tiv­ity is for­bid­den.

For­mer Amer­i­can pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton called it the “scari­est place on earth!”

As the of­fi­cial site of the DMZ notes, “The DMZ vividly cap­tures the scars and wounds of the Korean War as well as the wishes and hopes for the fu­ture.”

My first visit to Seoul last Septem­ber re­in­forced my be­lief that vis­it­ing the DMZ is a must-do. It is a place where we can feel the re­al­ity and pain of a sep­a­rated na­tion.

I booked a tour with the help of a friend, as it is im­pos­si­ble to go there on your own. Ac­cess is re­stricted to civil­ians and mil­i­tary es­cort is manda­tory.

If there is ten­sion at the bor­der or be­tween the South and the North, the tour could be can­celled for se­cu­rity and safety rea­sons.

I joined a bunch of back­pack­ers from other coun­tries and trav­elled with them for this ex­pe­ri­ence. It was a half-day tour which cov­ers Imjin­gak Re­sort (Nuri Peace Park), the Free­dom Bridge, Third Tun­nel, DMZ Theatre, Do­rasan Sta­tion and Dora Ob­ser­va­tory. We would also pass by Tongilchon Uni­fi­ca­tion Vil­lage.

Please do not for­get to take your pass­port as it would need to be pro­duced dur­ing the se­cu­rity checks.

The tour started as early as 8am as there was a briefing to at­tend, as well as se­cu­rity check­points and pass­port ver­i­fi­ca­tion to clear.

First, we vis­ited Imjin­gak Re­sort, which is lo­cated 50km north­west of Seoul. Imjin­gak was built in 1972 with the hope that some day uni­fi­ca­tion would be pos­si­ble.

From the park, the Free­dom Bridge is vis­i­ble and gives one hope that maybe there will be re­uni­fi­ca­tion in the fu­ture.

We next vis­ited the Third Tun­nel. We were given a locker to keep all our be­long­ings and no cam­eras were al­lowed.

This tun­nel was dis­cov­ered in Oc­to­ber 1978. It was dug by the North Kore­ans to spy on their neigh­bours. It is 1,635km long, 2m high and 2m wide. It pen­e­trates 435m past the South Korea mil­i­tary de­mar­ca­tion line and starts at Pan­munjeon, North Korea.

It was quite chal­leng­ing to as­cend and de­scend as the tun­nel was steep. As I am on the taller side, I have to walk hunched and my head banged the ceil­ing a few times in the tun­nel. It was my unique way of say­ing “Hi” to North Korea. Luck­ily I had a safety hel­met on. It was cer­tainly a unique ex­pe­ri­ence and I was all sweaty, like I just had a full body work­out, when I came out of the tun­nel.

Our next stop was the Dora Ob­ser­va­tory. It is a place not to be missed as we could view a North Korean vil­lage, us­ing binoc­u­lars. If you’re lucky, you get to view vil­lagers go­ing about their ac­tiv­i­ties. I took ex­tra time to look around.

Fi­nally, at around 11am, we reached Do­rasan Sta­tion. This was built with high hopes for uni­fi­ca­tion, so that peo­ple would be able to travel up and down the bor­der .

A sign at the sta­tion goes, “Not the last sta­tion from the South, but the first sta­tion to­wards the North”.

We again viewed the Uni­fi­ca­tion Vil­lage from the bus as we headed home. I left the bor­der with the hope for uni­fi­ca­tion some­day.

My visit al­lowed me to learn more about some­thing that is not so known to peo­ple around the world.

As for now, I have the bragging rights to say, “I’ve been to North Korea.”

The views ex­pressed are en­tirely the reader’s own.

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Yasodha (right) at the en­trance to the Third Tun­nel, dis­cov­ered in 1978.

A view of the Free­dom Bridge from Imjin­gak Re­sort.

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