An Overland Trip to the Demilitarized Zone (South Korea)

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The Demilitarized Zone divides North from South Korea via a strip of forested mountains. However, that peacefully looking landscape is hemmed in by fences and barbed wire. What goes on around one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world? We decided to take a closer look.

(In 2016/2017 we spent 9 months in South Korea, find all stories & info pages here).

Meet Mr. Kim

About half of the Koreans carry the last name Kim, Lee or Park so when three men walked up to the Land Cruiser and they all introduced themselves as Mr. Kim, we were not surprised. The chat took place along a reservoir, northeast of Seoul where we were camped for the night. We had woken to the deafening sound of rain pelting down on the rooftent and decided to stay for a day so we didn’t have to fold the RTT soaking wet. 

Read More: Why we Travel with a Rooftop Tent

Not long after the weather had cleared, we heard a knock on the door and Mr. Kim, Mr. Kim, and Mr. Kim shook hands with us, curious as to whom these foreigners might be. The first two Misters Kim were visiting Mr. Kim #3, who lived uphill just down the road.

He had been a successful entrepreneur in Seoul where he owned a shop and sold car parts until, one day, he had been fed up, sold his business and built a house in the countryside on a hill overlooking the lake. Here his family lived mostly from what they cultivated in their large, beautiful vegetable garden and orchard. He asked if we’d like to join them for lunch at his home.

Of course we would!

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Let’s Share Lunch

We were welcomed into a spacious living room with comfy sofas. The small coffee table doubled as dinner table, as in many Korean homes. During the meal we sat on the floor or, to be more exact, a linoleum mat that is electrically heated in winter. Mr. Kim’s wife and mother-in-law served us noodles, vegetables and different kinds of kimchi (Korea’s staple of fermented cabbage with red peppers and other condiments).

Lunch with South Koreans (©Coen Wubbels)

The visiting Misters Kim talked about their years in Germany. One had lived there for forty years, had flown to South Korea for a vacation, but continued postponing his return to Germany. His stay had grown into three years. Mr. Kim #2 had returned permanently to his home country after having lived in Germany for twenty years.

Our conversation was largely in German until the owner’s sisters returned home, one whom lived in Hawaii, so we switched to English. It was an inspiring and internationally oriented group of people. We took out our road map and the Misters Kim indicated minor roads that would take us to the so-called Peace Dam, which was on our way to the Demilitarized Zone.

In parting they handed us a bag of tomatoes and zucchinis from their garden as well as a massive bag of popcorn. We enjoyed the vegetables in the days that followed but all that popcorn was impossible to eat and we gave it to a group of gardeners that were taking a break along the side of the road.

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The DMZ & Peace Dam

Early morning we packed up and followed the asphalted road that meandered through rice paddies, fields with ginseng and zucchini, and traversed forests. Main or minor, all roads in South Korea are paved. Off-roading is a non-existing concept in this small, highly developed and densely populated country. The charm of overlanding for us lies in driving through lands with totally different ways of life and fascinating (historic) cultures.

In this region the accent of our journey lies on the Korean war and the subsequent and continuous division of North and South Korea. The Demilitarized Zone, often shortened to DMZ, is a 155-mile strip of land across the Korean peninsula, running from the Yellow Sea in the west to the Japanese Sea in the east. It has divided North and South Korea since the end of the Korean War and serves as a buffer zone. It is not uncommon to see military vehicles, among which tanks, on the roads.

Read More: South Korea Overlanding Travel Guide

In the 1980s, two years prior to the Olympic Games in Seoul, the North Koreans started to build the Imnam Dam in the Bukhan River just north of the DMZ. It came with the threat that this structure would enable North Korea to destroy a large part of Seoul by means of a killer flood. South Korea countered the threat by building the Peace Dam south of the DMZ in the same river in order to stop that potential mass of water from reaching their capital.

Visiting the Peace Dam

The project grew into much more than a dam. Around the Peace Dame extends a manifestation of what the South Koreans (and, I assume, the North Koreans as well) want: peace. Part of this is the Peace Art Park with brightly painted tanks. One is tied to the ground with a thick chain, another has been transformed into a slide and the barrel of a third tank has been turned into a trumpet.

On the hill stands the Bell of Silence. The clock is made of wood and cannot be rung – serving as a symbol of the two nations that don’t talk with each other.

We couldn’t drive across the Peace Dam due to maintenance but higher up was another manifestation expressing a wish: The World Peace Clock. Made in 2008 with shells from thirty conflict zones in the world it weighs 9,999 gwan. The missing piece lies in a showcase below the clock with an explanation saying that when North and South Korea are reunited, this last piece will be added to the clock, which will then weigh exactly 10,000 gwan (about 37,5 tons).

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Tunnels Underneath the DMZ

The earlier mentioned Imnam Dam was not the only large-scale infrastructure project of the North Koreans. South Korea discovered that their northern neighbors had dug tunnels underneath the DMZ. The construction took place in the 1960-1980s with the intent of springing a surprise attack. Four tunnels have been found so far and it is speculation whether there are more.

Depending on the size of the tunnels, 10,000-30,000 soldiers can cross per hour and some are big enough for vehicles. Three of the tunnels are just north of Seoul and the fourth, only found in the 1990s lies here, nearby Yanggu, the so called Fourth Tunnel.

Considering the size of the parking lot, the site must be packed at times, probably during weekends or vacations. Now we were all by ourselves. We checked out the museum but all explanatory panels were in Korean.

Outside the museum was the entrance to the tunnel. A soldier accompanied us, explaining how the secret of the tunnel had been revealed by a defected North Korean soldier. They found the exact spot by drilling holes in the mountain until one hit a hollow, which pinpointed the tunnel. The construction hadn’t been finished yet and the South Koreans built the last 765 yards.

Fourth Tunnel, South Korea (©Coen Wubbels)

Halfway, the tunnel was bricked up and now has a CCTV system. We sat down in a narrow-gauge train, rode into the tunnel for a bit where the soldier explained some more, talking through a megaphone which made it impossible to understand one word. The train turned around and we exited again, grateful to return to the fresh air.

The Demilitarized Zone

North of Yanggu runs the DMZ and we wanted to see it. However, we had no idea how close we could get. Most visitors visit the DMZ directly north of Seoul, having signed up with a guided tour from the capital but we were set on finding another way. We slowly made our way north and just as we thought we could reach the buffer zone without a hiccup, the road was barricaded.

A young soldier emerged from his post along the side of the road, waving us to stop – as if we had another option. I rolled down my window.

“Stop,” he instructed, making sure we knew what to do.

His English was minimal and he was talking about a ‘pest card’. We assumed he was talking about a permit but that’s where our understanding gave out despite efforts on both sides. A second soldier finally joined the conversation and explained we had to return to Yanggu to get a permit. That sounded easy enough.

It was only a couple of miles’ driving and at the local tourist information we bought the permit for a few dollars. Back to the soldiers. This time they took their time to jot down in detail what we we looked like and what we were wearing.

“Shoes?” one asked.

“I raised my feet, “Purple flip flops.”

He wrote it all down. Were they afraid we’d try to cross the DMZ into North Korea?

The barrier was pushed aside and we drove on, up the hill until we reached barbed wire. The fence stretched to the left and to the right, as far as we could see. It was topped with razor wire and cameras. This intimidating image was intensified as it was set against an ominous sky quickly filling up with grey-black clouds and contrasted with the idyllic wilderness of green mountains right behind the fence.

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Too stunned to express what went on in our minds, we drove along the fence in silence until we reached a building in a parking lot. A soldier motioned us to park the Land Cruiser and to walk upstairs, saying that taking pictures was prohibited.

The second floor had an auditorium-style layout and through the wall-to-wall windows we had a view of the DMZ. We were the only visitors and an English speaking soldier explained what we were looking at: the guard posts of minuscule white squares amidst a green world. He knew the names of the mountain tops and pointed out the Fairytale Waterfall, named so after North Korea had its female soldiers bathe there to seduce the South Korean soldiers.

Overlanding to the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea (©Coen Wubbels)

Living in Fear

The Korean War (1950-1953) ended with an armistice. A peace treaty was never signed. When, over the stay of our seven-month visit, we asked the South Koreans about the political situation between the two countries, most shrugged their shoulders. To the question whether they were afraid of a North Korean attack one answered that this used to be the case.

“I remember hoarding when I was young but in the early 1990s we stopped doing that. There were (and are) too many threats, too often. North Korea can win a battle, but never the war. Most of us believe these are threats only.”

For them daily life goes on. Just like in Europe people don’t stop going about their daily lives because of possible terrorist attacks, so do the South Koreans live with the threats.

The mountains in South Korea look the same as those in the north. Wildlife thrives; this zone is paradise for animals because there is no hunting. Birds have never been bothered by borders anywhere in the world and a number of birds live here that are threatened with extinction elsewhere, such as the Chinese crane.

On both sides of this no-man’s land are soldiers, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Men with families. People who want peace. On both sides live people who have the same needs and desires. Borders are among the most ridiculous inventions people have ever come up with and this DMZ represents one of the worst in today’s world. We can only hope the recent, carefully taken steps towards officially ending the Korean War will continue and result in a situation that is favorable to both sides.

As for us, we left the DMZ and drove to see a truly astounding part of this country: national parks. It was time for some hiking and see some of the fabulous landscapes that South Korea has on offer: Seoraksan National Park.

View Border Region South Korea (©Coen Wubbels)

First published in Toyota Trails – find their magazines here.

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