In order to get to my friend’s wedding in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I stopped by Seoul, Korea for five days. In addition to checking out some amazing palaces and eating kalbi every day, one must also take an hour bus ride, 35 miles away to the Demilitarized Zone, aka the DMZ.
The DMZ is ironically one of the most militarized areas of the Korean peninsula. It was established on July 27, 1953 as a 2.5 mile wide buffer between the North and South. The line in the center of the DMZ is called the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). I was curious to see the place for myself since a flare up in country relations always seems to occur at least twice a year.
So why was the DMZ created in the first place? It started with the Japanese when they took over Korea from 1910 until the end of World War II in 1945. In August 1945, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and—by agreement with the United States—occupied Korea north of the 38th parallel. The US subsequently occupied the south and Japan surrendered.
From 1950 – 1953 over three million people died fighting for the sovereignty of Korea. The North, influenced by the Soviets and the Chinese with their communist ideology, felt they had right to rule the land. The South, helped by the Americans and our democratic ideology strongly disagreed.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THE DMZ?
You might think that South Koreans hate North Koreans for all the threats they’ve made taking over South Korea. However, this attitude is not true. Instead, the more common attitude is that of sympathy and a longing for a peaceful reunification. The South Koreans are keenly aware they could have ended up exactly like the North Koreans. It’s just like all of us living in a developed country like the US could have easily be born in much harsher conditions.
Before the DMZ was set up in 1953, Koreans were free to cross the 38th parallel to see family and friends. There are families that have not seen each other for decades, because it is forbidden to cross.
In 1933, a 17-year-old Chung Ju-yung sold one of his impoverished family’s cows, stole the money, and traveled from the north to the southern part of Korea to become a lawyer. Instead, he went into business.
Before his death in 2001, Chung Ju-yung returned to his homeland of North Korea in 1998 with 50 trucks of cattle as a gift to North Korea in hopes for peace.
He said, “I am finally visiting my birthplace I only saw in my dreams to pay back the one cow with a thousand cows. I hope that this trip will not end at being a dream come true for just one person, but will realize the dream for all Koreans and help to bring the country together.”
Chung Ju-yang was the founder of The Hyundai Group, one of the largest conglomerates in the world, and a multi-billionaire. Both citizens of North and South Korean cheered when the cavalcade of cattle were peacefully sent across the border.
One of the most interesting things about the DMZ is its four tunnels. The first tunnel was discovered in 1974 by a South Korean army patrol after noticing steam coming from under ground. The second tunnel was discovered on March 19, 1975. Then a third tunnel was discovered in October 18, 1978 240 feet below ground thanks to a tip by a North Korean defector. Finally, a fourth tunnel was discovered on March 3, 1990 476 feet deep!
So what’s the deal with these 1X1 and 2X2 meter tunnels? To secretly attack and take over Seoul of course. Each tunnel could move at least 2,000 soldiers per hour. Can you imagine waking up in the capital and being surrounded by 20,000 soldiers from just one tunnel?
The scarier thing is that there are more tunnels according to North Korean defectors. They just haven’t been found yet.
Before getting to the DMZ, I had no idea these tunnels ran so deep. I thought they were 20 feet underground just below the root system of the trees. 200 – 450 feet underground is absolutely nuts! Can you imagine being one of the workers who had to dig these tunnels? Remember, the DMZ area is 2.5 miles wide, so each tunnel from start to finish had to be at least 1.25 miles long to be effective.
If you are claustrophobic, do not enter these tunnels! Here are three short videos and some pictures.
Walking in the tunnels to the Military Demarcation Line.
At the end of the yellow brick road. A door you can peak through to see the North Korea tunnel door. No pictures allowed!
A SIMPLE LIFE IN NORTH KOREA
If you haven’t figured it out by now, life in South Korea is so much better than life in North Korea. North Korea seems to be stuck in a 1960s Communist regime where there is no innovation, a lack of colors, plenty of mind-bending propaganda, no freedom, and a country ruled by a dictator.
Curious to know what North Korea is actually like? I found this amazing documentary from National Geographic. It is mind-boggling!
The problem is that the North Korean government leadership knows what’s out there in the world, yet they prohibit progress because they don’t want to lose control over their people. Can you imagine the kind of social revolt that would happen if all North Koreans realized how much more freedom South Koreans have?
The goal of the North Koreans after the Japanese were defeated was to help all people who suffered under Japanese oppression through a unified Korea. Unfortunately, 60 years of time has proven that democracy is a better way to govern than communism.
Governments must give people the freedom to choose, yet there is this unstoppable inertia that has set in that prevents the North Korean government from change.
Update 2020: What a historical moment on April 27, 2018 when North Korean leader Kim met with South Korean President Moon. And also what a historic moment when President Trump met with North Korean leader Kim in July 2019. Who would have thought? These men deserve a Nobel Peace prize. This post was first written in September, 2015.