A Bus Trip to the North Korean Border

Demilitarized Zone between north- and south-korea
Pic 1: Demilitarized Zone between North- and South-Korea

North Korea is one of the most isolated places in the world, shrouded in secrecy. It is just a half-hour drive away from Seoul. Companies like the ‘DMZ tour bus’ run bus tours to the border and offer travellers a glimpse of the inaccessible territory. By Janna Axenbeck

While I was doing my rite-of-passage-trip through Asia, I met a man on the plane to Seoul who told me that he was going to do a tour to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). That is the border between North and South Korea. It sounded tempting: I am a curious person. To see first hand how dark and threating North Korea is in reality, seemed like a must-do during my stay.

The DMZ is a buffer zone between the two countries. No soldier is allowed to enter. It was established in 1953 and is 250 km long and about 4 km wide. No human being is permitted to enter the zone. By the way – fun fact – the flora and fauna there is supposed to be super pretty, but since nobody is allowed to enter, nobody really knows. Also, it is extremely dangerous to enter the DMZ, because of all the land mines left from the war (Picture 1).

In the 1970s, South Korea discovered four tunnels dug by the North below the DMZ. Officially, North Korea stated that the tunnels had been built to find coal. Apparently, the chances to mine coal here are about zero percent and it is unlikely that Kim Il-sung, the then-president, did not know about that. Probably, the tunnels were constructed to invade the South from below and there are probably many more hidden tunnels below the DMZ.

I decided to do this bus tour to see one of the tunnels. The tour was affordable and cost only 36.000 Won (30€). However, I started to be concerned about the seriousness of our trip when the first question of our tour guide was: “Are you hungover, guys?”

Our first stop was the destroyed “bridge of freedom”. Being the railroad connection over the Imjin River between both parts before the conflict started in the 50s, the bridge is now a war memorial. These kinds of memorials – naturally – can be a bit depressing. Maybe that is why you can find a little theme park directly next to it. For me it was confusing to find a rollercoaster and a carrousel beside a war memorial. But one has to admit: they are useful tools to cheer up little kids while their parents are coping with serious stuff. Another theory: the theme park and the war memorial together are supposed to represent the ups and downs of life. “Life is a roller-coaster”, according to Ronan Keating.

Next, we drove to the invasion tunnel. On the way there, our tour guide Rebecca told us about life in North Korea. People are starving there. “The only fat person in the country is the current dictator Kim Jong-un”, she stated. I had the feeling, however, she was exaggerating a little bit. But it is understandable why her view on North Korea is not particularly positive.

Invasion tunnel made by north korea
Pic 2: Invasion Tunnel made by North-Korea

Before entering the tunnel, they warned us that it was going to be difficult to climb down. Pregnant women or people with a disability were not allowed to go. We needed to wear helmets and it was forbidden to take pictures. But in the end, it was totally unspectacular and just a tunnel. I was already disappointed, because the tour was not as adventurous as I had expected, so I decided to thrill it up a little and took photos. Luckily, I managed to take a dangerous-looking picture at the end of the tunnel – the North Korean border (Picture 2).

After visiting the tunnel, we went to a recently built train station, which the South established close to the border a couple of years ago. Although, there are no cities close by the train station is huge. But one train from Seoul is the only arriving each day. Why do you need to invest millions of taxpayers’ money in a train station set up in the middle of nowhere? The station is built to connect trains to the North, which would link the South Korean peninsula with the rest of the world via land route. This would be a huge economic advantage for the South. Yet the way is blocked by North Korea and there is no sign that they intend to open their borders. The train station, however, is ready – including a sign giving the direction to Pyongyang and a security checkpoint with a baggage scanner. If reunification would happen tomorrow, trains from the South could go to Russia the day after.

I asked the tour guide how she feels about the possibility of reunification and if there are any signs of a “Wind of Change”. She did not have any doubt that the reunification will happen one day – the sooner the better. She believes that the North Korean people will start revolting against their leader at some point. Considering that movie documentaries frequently show that North Koreans are devoted to their system, this seems quite unlikely. And considering the German reunification, to reunite two countries also involves political, economic and social issues.

Our last destination was a Gingseng shopping center. Gingseng is a Korean root and very healthy. Basically, it protects you against everything from cancer to potency troubles. That was our bus tour. I am not sure if I learnt as much about the Korean conflict as I wanted to, but it is good to know that Kaffeefahrten do not exclusively exist in Germany.

It remains to be seen if the train station will one day be used.


Die Bildrechte liegen bei der Autorin.

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