DMZ: The long road to reunification | Daily News


DMZ: The long road to reunification

One people divided by an imaginary line. Like North and South Vietnam before it, this is the story of North and South Korea. Divided by the 38th parallel and decades of hostility, there is yet a sliver of hope that the two Koreas might one day be reunited, a la East and West Germany (1989) as result of a thaw in once frosty relations. Until then, it is a case of sisters and brothers who speak the same language and share the same traditions living apart, unable to see each other, due to no fault of their own.

South Korean President Moon Jae in and North Korean leader Chairman Kim Jong Un have held several meetings on both sides of the border and so have US President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim, in Singapore, Vietnam and North Korea itself. In fact, Trump became the first US President ever to step into North Korea as he took a historic 20 steps into the isolationist country to shake hands with Chairman Kim.

No one expects unification to happen overnight and some Koreans even doubt whether it will happen at all. After all, the two countries are still technically engaged in conflict – only an armistice, not a full peace treaty, was signed at the end of the Korean War in 1953. Besides, North Korea, usually described as a “hermit kingdom” by Western media, has hardly hidden its nuclear capability and ambitions, having tested a number of missiles even after talks with President Trump. Many South Koreans naturally feel apprehensive about having a nuclear-armed Northern neighbour with a youthful, impulsive leader. They would rather have a semblance of peace in the Korean peninsula than a perception of conflict. Peace, and eventual reunification, will be a boon for the two Koreas in particular and the Asian region in general.

Since the signing of the Armistice following the devastating Korean War that claimed three million lives, the two countries have held onto a Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that runs roughly 250 Km between them. Popularly called the DMZ, this is the line that was crossed by President Trump as he stepped into North Korea. There is a No Man’s land of nearly 4 Km along the length of the DMZ which divides the two countries.

The DMZ is accessible to civilians only at one place and it is a tour that every visitor to South Korea must undertake to understand how conflict has carved two countries out of one. This zone is called the Joint Security Area (JSA) which includes the border village of Panmunjom. A couple of months ago, I, along with 12 other journalists from the Asia Pacific and the US participating in the Jefferson Journalism Fellowship of the East West Centre, Honolulu, boarded a bus from Seoul to visit the DMZ, around 3-4 hours away. This is a must-do trip when in South Korea as there is no other way to have a glance at North Korea, visiting which separately is a rather convoluted and difficult process.

Not surprisingly, the JSA (there is even a famous Korean film by this name) is one of the biggest tourist draws in South Korea, with good infrastructure. Your ticket includes an AC bus ride that takes in all the “attractions” including the lookout point over North Korea, which is built on a steep hill. This has powerful telescopes that enable you to see several kilometres into North Korea. Incidentally, it is not at all difficult to discern the borders as both countries have erected giant flagpoles to mark the start of their territory. The North Korean flagpole, at 160 m, is the fourth highest in the world but the 98 m South Korean one is no slouch either. Of course, the North Korean capital is some distance away from the DMZ, so do not expect to see it from the DMZ.

For two countries that are seemingly at conflict, we learned one surprising fact – their train systems are fully interconnected and it is actually theoretically possible to travel by train from the DMZ JSA to Pyongyang, though the trains do not run with any kind of regularity at present. (The North Korean train system is also integrated with that of China as the two countries share a border – this is how Chairman Kim, who is said to harbour a fear of flying, travelled to China recently).

Your starting point for the journey into North Korea is the huge Dorasan Station in the JSA area, which many South Koreans think of as a symbol of peace that could one day play a major role in a unified Korea. The station is fully manned just like any other regular station in South Korea and you have to buy a blue ticket that doubles up as a souvenir, to enter the platform. This is one of the most well-known selfie spots in all of Korea, as tourists wave mock goodbyes in front of a signboard that says “To Pyongyang”. The only caveat is that the actual trip is not possible at the moment.

Dorasan Station on the Gyeongui Line is the northernmost stop on South Korea’s railway line. Located 56 kilometers from Seoul and 205 kilometers from Pyongyang, the station was opened as a tourist attraction on April 4, 2002 right before the 2002 Korea-Japan Soccer World Cup. If you do not want to do the bus tour from Seoul, Dorasan can be reached by train from Seoul. Get on the Gyeongui Line from Seoul Station. After presenting your identification (since Dorasan is treated as a border station) at Imjingang Station, you can get on a train bound for Dorasan. Once you enter the Dorasan Station, you will notice that Pyongyang is not even the final destination on the planners’ minds if a signboard erected there is anything to go by. The train could connect the southern tip of South Korea, to Pyongyang, Ulan Bator, Paris, London and finally Edinburgh in Scotland. It would act as a major station on the Trans-Korean line, and later on the Trans-Siberian line, before connecting to the Paris-London High Speed Eurostar Line. This is eminently possible, as passenger trains already do run between China/Russia and Europe. It is just a matter of extending it to North and South Korea.

But the North Koreans apparently had another method in mind to enter the South – albeit for an invasion, not a friendly trip. They had dug a network of infiltration tunnels that reached into South Korea for troops to penetrate and bypass the above-ground defences. There are four known tunnels, although some experts believe that as many as 20 more tunnels are awaiting discovery. Korean Armed Forces have a specialist unit that continues this search using sophisticated equipment.

North Korea has however denied that the tunnels were meant for a mas-scale invasion, but rather to search for coal which is anyway not known to be present in the region. Visitors to the DMZ who miss the tunnel tour miss a vital part of the complex relationship and historic interplay between the two Koreas. Local and foreign visitors are permitted in only one tunnel, known as the Third Tunnel of Aggression in South Korea. Discovered as recently as 1978, the tunnel reaches 435 meters into South Korean territory, at a distance of just 44 Km from Seoul. The incomplete tunnel is 1,635 metres long, 1.95 m high and 2.1 m wide. It runs through the ground at a depth of about 73 m below ground. The tunnel could accommodate a movement of around 30,000 troops per hour.

The South Korean military has actually blockaded the Military Demarcation Line in the tunnel, but visitors can reach the third barricade, from which the second barricade can be seen through a window. There is a small railway that goes partly into the tunnel, but this may not be operational on some days, which means walking is the only option. All visitors must wear hard hats, as some of the passageways are rather cramped and there is a chance of banging one’s head against a steel beam.

The tunnel walk is literally not for the faint-hearted as the return climb is rather steep. If you have a breathing or heart ailment, do not tour the tunnel, but even completely healthy people could feel tired midway through the walk.

The bus will take you to a couple of souvenir shops, but save your cash for the final stop which is a shop run by the South Korean villagers who live in the DMZ area.

This has everything, from the rice grown in the border area to cloth maps of the DMZ at very affordable prices. Also make sure to sample authentic Korean fare at one of the many restaurants in the JSA.

A visit to the DMZ sheds light on why peace – and eventual reunification - matters to both Koreas. It is an experience that one cannot forget in a hurry. Living under the shadow of conflict is never easy – peace will give Koreans a chance to breathe free once again.

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