It’s only four kilometers wide and 160 kilometers long, but it’s one of the most militarized, mysterious and ultimately meaningful borders in the world — the Demilitarized Zone that divides North and South Korea.
Before I moved this fall from Bonn, Germany, to Songdo, South Korea, the idea of visiting this infamous border would have seemed like a distant and unlikely experience. But on Oct. 18, I set out to the notorious DMZ to find out what it is really all about.
The tour began in Seoul, and from there we hopped into a bus for an hour-long drive north to the DMZ.
As we left, I began to see that the roadway was lined with barbed wire, with defensive outposts all facing out towards the Han River. The bus was shrouded in a lingering morning fog. It felt a very appropriate entrance into one of the most hostile borders in the world.
Our guide, Narae Seo, spoke of the tumultuous history of a line that has divided two countries since 1953.
That includes several attempted incursions by North Korea, such as the notorious Blue House Raid in 1968. Our guide also spoke of the 66,000 Korean families that believe they still have relatives in the North. We heard about significant points on the border, including an observatory and a freedom bridge.
However, what immediately caught my attention was that the German president, Joachim Gauck, had visited just four days earlier.
On Oct. 14, in what was undoubtedly a message to the North, the German president offered South Korea a carriage from an old train that had once crossed what is now one of Berlin’s most popular tourist attractions: the Berlin Wall.
As we toured the border that day, the hope of reunification was present throughout — on the information boards, the names of places, and in our guide’s voice.
Our first stop, a strange one, was the rather rugged and tired-looking Bridge of Freedom.
From here, we could see the North, still shrouded in that dense morning fog, but closer now.
Restaurants sold everything from traditional Korean treats, to fried chicken and bagels. A wire fence held prayers on colored strips of paper.
Returning to the main road, we saw what appeared to be a military barracks, surrounded by military equipment and personnel.
Our next stop was the Third Infiltration Tunnel, dug by North Koreans to sneak into the South.
Though the attempt failed, the tunnel is an impressive one, stretching beyond where the eye can see and well under 73 meters underground.
Unfortunately the ceiling is also very low, making it easy to bump your head on the ceiling. We had to wear hard hats.
I was forbidden to take my backpack, reporter’s notebook and pen. But phones were allowed:
Despite that head bump (“owww”), the most memorable moment of the entire tour took place when I reached the end of the tunnel.
There, through a small hole in a gate, was the North. It was surreal. There was nothing strange on the other side; no one was even there). Yet it felt strange.
On the bright blue destination board, there was a sole destination: Pyongyang.
On the desolate platform outside, with only a handful of tourists like me to see it, a train waited, as if ready to make its journey and able to leave at the slightest signal.
That was when I saw the gift — the train donated South Korea by President Gauck, including a sign with a timeline of Germany’s efforts to reunite. This train station was irrefutable evidence of Korea’s lingering hope to be united again.
But the message of unity is not accepted by all. The differences between the Koreas have not decreased over time. If anything, they have grown as a result of incessant disagreements and the military presence on each side.
Thanks to the 66,000 families South Koreans who still have family in the North, hope lives on. But 66,000 no longer seems like such a large number, considering the 50 million people now living in South Korea.
Still, history has a way of repeating itself. Tony Chow, a fellow tourist on the bus, was in Germany when the Berlin Wall came crashing down in 1990.
“People couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I hadn’t seen it coming. Some things are just unforeseeable. And so even though I don’t think I’ll be alive when they unite, you never know.”
And that is what I took away from this border.
The mystical fog described it well. It’s a mystery what will become of the DMZ. No one can foresee if it will continue to separate two fully independent Koreas. Or like the Berlin Wall, perhaps it will come crashing down.
One day, the train at Dorasan might leave for Pyongyang. And those 66,000 families could see their loved ones again.
—This story was reported and written in collaboration with Global Student Square. Kiran Dwivedi is a junior at Chadwick International School in Songdo, South Korea. All photos by Kiran Dwivedi unless otherwise credited. Email Kiran at firstname.lastname@example.org.