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 some pictures.
DMZ Underground Tunnel 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.
If you are an equities investor, then please be careful of home country bias. The Russians have huge home country bias, which has resulted in economic devastation once Putin invaded Ukraine. Russia will likely now go the way of North Korea as it gets shut out by most countries.
Curious to know what North Korea is actually like? There's an amazing documentary you should check out from National Geographic: Inside North Korea's Dynasty. It is mind-boggling!
THE ONLY LIFE NORTH KOREANS KNOW
The only positive I can think of for the North Koreans is their life is all they know. The North Korean government strictly forbids Western television programs for the mass public. Therefore, if all you know is a simple life, then there's no longing for more. Isn't this the key to happiness?
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.
Related: The Historical Korean Meeting Between Kim And Moon Is A Big Deal
Track Your Net Worth And Travel To The DMZ And Beyond
If you love to travel, be sure to utilize one of the best credit cards for international travel. Travel is going to boom now that COVID is finally under control.
Pick up a copy of Buy This, Not That, my instant Wall Street Journal bestseller. The book helps you make more optimal investment decisions so you can live a better, more fulfilling life.
For more nuanced personal finance content, join 60,000+ others and sign up for the free Financial Samurai newsletter. To get my posts in your inbox as soon as they are published, sign up here.
26 thoughts on “A View At The Edge Of The World: The DMZ, North Korea”
“Curious to know what North Korea is actually like? I found this amazing documentary from National Geographic. It is mind-boggling!’
Was there a link to the documentary? I want to see it (if I haven’t watched it already yet :3). I watch some of the free documentaries they have on YouTube. I’m still not over how odd the fake grocery stores are but their version of street food looks pretty good as they make due with what they have.
I didn’t know that about Hyundai Group’s founder. That’s really really really cool :O
I am a South Korean and served Korean mandatory military service for 2 years before moving to Canada. South Koreans feel very sorry for North Koreans. If greedy leaders of North Korea did not exist, North Koreans would have lived their lives fully. Very sad. All we want is unification of Korea. I hope this happens before I die!
Thanks for sharing and reconfirming the feedback while I was at the DMZ, and in South Korea. It does feel sad how much differently life could have been for the North.
I also understand how the North hate Americans for helping the South fight them in the Korean war.
War, overall is just terrible. I hope diplomacy can continue to make the world a better place. I just realized… given I am the son of US foreign service officers, I feel strongly about the power of negotiating positive scenarios. Hmmm.. maybe a new post!
Fascinating post Sam. This is the kind of stuff I like to read on blogs that I follow. Rather than the same ole money mumbo jumbo. I genuinely feel like I learned something by reading about your experience and now I am motivated to learn more about North and South Korea. Definitely want to watch those documentaries when I get time. Thanks for enlightening those of us who otherwise wouldn’t care about what goes on over there.
Glad you liked it Matthew. Happy to share some adventures, as it helps me learn and record my journeys as well.
Watch the national geo documentary. It’s pretty darn amazing. We are really lucky in America!
A friend of mine took a trip there. He didn’t go into the tunnels, but he went to where the leaders of the two countries often meet. The conference room is in a building that runs right along the MDL and the table where the ambassadors sit is actually divided in half by this line (so if you sit on one side of the conference table, you are in North Korea, and if you sit on the other side, you are in South Korea). There were guards all over the place, of course, and if the tourists were warned that if they moved too close to the door that leaders to North Korea, they would be taken down and arrested. Ironically, there is apparently a gift shop outside the building for tourists.
ARB–Angry Retail Banker
I went on a trip to NK about 6 years ago. Fascinating place – it was like visiting a museum. As Americans, we were separated from other tourists and our minders were specially trained to deal with “enemies.” The Arirang games that we were forced to watch was worth the price of the trip alone!
It was generally quite safe but there have been tourists who broke the rules and found themselves in hot water. I had an Economist magazine that happened to have some articles about NK with me that I handed over to my minder. I’m sure having them find it during the airport screening would have been slightly less pleasant.
Very cool! How did you go about getting the visa and such?
Pretty easy actually. I went through but there are other approved tour groups out there. :)
Can’t contribute much, but next time you’re in NY try the Korean BBQ here! West 32nd Street in Manhattan just east of Penn Station is almost like a Little Korea.
Was there last month! I’m always eating Korean BBQ in NYC.
The documentaries about North Korea fascinate me. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to live there and have very little idea what life is like outside the country. It would be amazing if the North and South could unite in our lifetimes though. I have my doubts. Those tunnels are nuts!
A lot of people don’t know this, but at one point N. Korea reached out to the country of Ghana to propose a union which would have been known as “North Gonorrhea”.
Seriously, the thing that caught my eye in this post was the height of the tunnels being 5’6″. Very strategic, the average S. Korean male is 5’8.5″, while the average N. Korean male is 5’5″. Females are on average 5’3″ in the south, and 5’1″ in the north. In 2010, the N. Koreans actually lowered the minimum height for the military conscripts. N. Korean females not in university have mandatory military conscription from 17 to 20.
That is very interesting about the height differential. 5’6″ is perfect then! After about 5 minutes of crouching over at 5′ 10″, my back really started to kill me.
FS, you might also be interested to know that the S. Korean military requires that every conscript learn the national martial art of Taekwondo, and their training enables them to become black belts within two years.
You had mentioned some time ago that you held a black belt, and the sheer popularity of taekwondo worldwide makes me think it is quite possible that is your martial art. If so, then your name is on the wall of the Kukkiwon in S. Korea. You can check it yourself, here…
Nice post. I find it interesting that many societies have voted in Communism, but you are apparently no allowed to vote yourself out of Communism.
Great post, Sam!
I grew to love South Korea, it’s people, culture and food as I lived in Seoul and surrounding areas for a few years. Koreans are some of the most humble and hard-working people I have ever met.
I hope someday the countries will become harmonious and re-unite to be a prosperous nation.
If you haven’t already, I highly recommend trying Korean BBQ. It changed my life!
Here is a link to a documentary National Geographic did on North Korea years ago: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=AlJUGZPanB8
I ate kalbi every day! Thanks for the suggestion. Will check it out.
I spent a week in North Korea a few years ago. Fascinating place, easily one of the best vacation I have ever taken. The people don’t seem as unhappy as you would think, the whole country is like a religious cult, and with the limited outside information (no internet, no cable TV, government controlled media), ignorance is (almost) bliss. It is certainly much wealthier than most African countries I have visited, but obviously much poorer than the rest of Asia. South Korea almost feels more modern than the US, so North and South Korea are polar opposites.
It is not difficult to arrange with an agency in China to go in. You have “guides” 24/7, and have to be on a tour, however it is very safe. Those americans you see on TV in North Korean jail have either crossed in illegally without a visa, or were trying to spread religion / propaganda. No one there on vacation has ever had any issues.
That sounds pretty amazing. The people don’t seem unhappy at all, and if all they’ve ever known is the lifestyle they are currently living, then the rest of the world is no big deal. The problem is that the leaders know how the rest of the world is living, and how advancements in health, science, and technology could improve the quality of life for their citizens but don’t do anything about it.
It’s almost like the movie, The Village, by M. Knight Shyamalan. I see why the leaders would want to hide everything, as there’s a lot of bad in the world. But shouldn’t the people have the freedom to choose?
I just retired from the military in January of this year. I was stationed in Korea four times for a total of over nine years but only just visited the DMZ for the first and only time in 2012. I wish I had seen it earlier! I’m Korean American, so it was a humbling experience.
I highly recommend Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. It’s a collection of North Korean defectors’ accounts of their lives in North Korea and how they’re adjusting (or not) to life in South Korea.
We need to be reminded how fortunate we are to live in a world where our biggest worries are how to create a better retirement or how to be more healthy. Many are not so fortunate and are consumed with simply surviving.
Congratulations! Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll definitely check it out from the library.
Great post, Sam. I ended up watching all three parts of the documentary and it was fascinating. It really solidifies my understanding that we can all believe anything we want to and the surrounding world can just blend in to fit into that belief (especially if you are in a leadership position and can project power outwards!). Here in Thailand the King and all the previous monarchs are given near deity status and people show genuine love for them all and basically everything they did was great. An insults or disputes to this, even if backed by fact, is punishable by 15 years imprisonment. So it’s just a big blackout as far as media goes.
Given that we can believe anything we want and have our surroundings adjust to this reality, it’s a great opportunity to create a wonderful life full of the best of whatever you have to offer. Follow your calling.
So did I! Fascinating 3 part series right?
We really can believe anything we want. So much of life is just having a positive mental attitude.
My dream is to one day visit Asia, but so far we’ve been only ‘west’ from where we reside.
I do plan on pursuing my dream, when daughter is older. Husband is not that thrilled with my plans, but she’ll probably love some trips there :D
I’ve lived in Japan for 10 years and loved the experience. I haven’t visited any other country in Asia, sadly.