DMZ-Panmunjeom. The words appeared yellow and white against a backdrop of red in a brochure published by Grace Travel. I got a copy of the brochure from the Tourist Information Center at the corner of Namdeaemunno Street in Seoul, capital of South Korea. Yes, besides beautiful and exotic scenery, South Korea is also offering a demilitarized zone as a tourist attraction.
The DMZ, short for Demilitarized Zone, came into existence at the end of the Korean War in 1953. Extending 248 kilometers from west to east, the zone is 2 kilometers deep into North Korea and 2 kilometers into South Korea. It’s divided along a demarcation line. Three tourist spots are offered: Third Infiltration Tunnel, Dora Observatory and Panmunjeom.
All three are located on the western side of the demilitarized zone. Paju, located about 40 kilometers from Seoul, is the entry point. I was among 20 journalists who entered the demilitarized zone recently through Paju where we were subject to a security search at a military post at the Tongil border before being allowed into the Third Infiltration Tunnel. I saw many objects of interest, but alas we weren’t allowed to take pictures.
A museum and a theater have been built in the tunnel area. A souvenir shop marked the area as a tourist site. Our tour of the DMZ began with the showing of a short documentary on the 1950-1953 Korean War and the history of the zone. The 10-minute film opened with a sad note: a Korean child crying by the side of a barbed-wire fence on one side of the DMZ.
The division of Korea into two separate states, the North and the South, is a tragedy. Despite lingering suspicion, there’s a strong desire for reunification. The Third Infiltration Tunnel was built by the North Koreans in 1978. The tunnel, 44 kilometers long, was dug to a depth of 73 meters. North Korea dug a total of 1,600 kilometers of tunnels, claiming it was for the purpose of mineral exploration. The South challenged the claim. It said there were no geological signs of any mineral deposits in the area.
The tunnel is only 2 meters wide. We started our journey down the tunnel in a long, multi-seat lorry. After a long ride we came to a more open part of the tunnel where we disembarked to explore the underground work.
The tunnel ends at the demarcation line where a barbed-wire fence blocks the way. The entrance door was padlocked and a sign on it read: “Restricted Area.” According to Atena, our tour guide, North Korea constructed the tunnel using hand grenades to break up the hard granite and open up a passage.
Leaving the tunnel, we went to the Dora Observatory. The name reminded me of Dora the Explorer, the cartoon character loved by Indonesian children. But Dora Observatory had nothing to do with the cartoon. It was a military observation post with a view below of Gaesong, a North Korean city closest to the border with South Korea.
Built in 1986 the observatory provides a visitor with a view of the border separating the two Koreas, like a person looking out from the balcony on the front yard of his house. The demarcation line is located a kilometer away.
We could see with our naked eyes an expanse of land grown over with grass and drying vegetation. Over the side was a hill rising up to the sky. If you want to make out the view in greater detail, you can hire a telescope for 5,000 won (about Rp4,000) per minute. If you are lucky with your telescope, you can see children in military training on the other side of the border.
Sergeant Kim, a South Korean military officer acting as our guide, said North Korean soldiers were frequently seen coming close to the border through a
public road to avoid stepping on land mines in what was once a war zone. “There could be as many as 150 mines in 1 hectare of land over there,” Kim said as he pointed beyond the border.
Although you can freely use a telescope, you are not allowed to take pictures from inside the observatory, nor even from outside close to the observatory for that matter. The demilitarized zone covers a wide area. Look at Panmunjeum, a joint security area of the UN and North Korean forces in the demilitarized zone. The 800-square-meter area cuts right through the demarcation line, the sites of the Peace House, Freedom House, and Conference Room.
Built after the Korean War, Panmunjeom is where the two sides have their headquarters and where they used to meet to discuss border security.
The UN and North Korea have their own observation posts located opposite each other in the middle of the demilitarized zone, the North on the northern side, the UN on the southern side. Military personnel from both sides freely moved within the zone until August 18, 1976 when North Korean soldiers axed Captain Auther G. Bonifas of the US Army to death. In memory of the slain officer, the UN headquarters was named Camp Bonifas.
“The DMZ is a fortified border area only Korea can offer,” an advertisement in Grace Travel reads. The ad reminded me of tourism tips given by Kris, our tour guide. She said there were three things a visitor to Korea shouldn’t forget to do: enjoy its food, take as many pictures as possible, and go shopping. Reading the advertisement, I think Kris forgot one thing. That is, don’t forget to visit the tunnel in the DMZ.
Abdul Manan (Panmunjeom)
TEMPO MAGAZINE, No. 35/VII/May 01 – 07, 2007