the pyeongyang train line

My trip to the DMZ was an experience I will never forget. Two years ago near the end of my world history term, my teacher had assigned a project on conflicts among countries during the Cold War era. Having studied Korean for several months at the time, I jumped at the opportunity to delve further into what really happened during the Korean war. What I had learned during that time all came rushing back to me when I got the opportunity to witness first hand the area I had spent so much time studying.

That morning I met up with a friend who was also studying in Seoul with me, and we headed to Paju with her host family. After purchasing our tickets and boarding a charter bus, a soldier who worked at the DMZ checked everyone's passport. When he had finished, our driver proceeded to slalom around heavy barricades that were blocking the bridge. Once we got across, I was immediately alarmed by all the warning signs lined up on the side of the road. Many of them pointed out the dangers of encountering a land mine.

image of north korea from the dora observatory

Our first stop on the tour was Dorasan Station. Outside of the station there was a bulletin board that showed where we were, where the demilitarized zone was located, and other checkpoints along the line of demarcation. The first thing I noticed when we entered was the blocked off train entrance that read "Pyeongyang". I began to realize that I was very close to North Korea. Beside the entrance were tourist shops, sculptures, and a place to put stamps inside your passport.

Our next stop was the Dora Observatory. I was really excited to finally get the opportunity to look into the most isolated country in the world. In my project that I had created sophomore year I included pictures of the Dora Observatory, and to finally be there myself just felt exhilarating. With the binoculars they provided I was able to spot Panmunjeom, the demilitarized zone, small abandoned villages, and a bronze Kim Il Sung statue.

image of north korean currency

Our final stop on the journey was visiting the "Third tunnel of Aggression". I had mentioned the statue in my project and included pictures of it in my report, so I was very excited to see it with my own eyes. The "Third Tunnel of Aggression" was the third tunnel that was constructed by North Korea and later discovered by South Korea. North Korea had constructed tunnels leading into South Korea anticipating secret attacks. The tunnel is just over 1,000 meters long, however only about 300 meters are open to the public. Before heading in you watch a video on the war and the tunnels that were discovered, and then you proceed to the tunnel entrance lobby where you put on a yellow hard hat. It gets colder the further down the tunnel you go and water drips from the ceiling as well. When I reached the end of the tunnel I was overcome by fear. It was the most intimidating thing I had ever encountered. There was a large strip of barbed wire separating me and the tiny, yet heavily sealed, door that lead into the demilitarized zone. From where I stood I could peer into an empty, silent room. I took a deep breath as I stood there quietly, in awe of my eerie surroundings.

After two years of highly anticipating this experience, I could not be more moved by what I had seen. This trip to the DMZ has forever impacted my views on North Korea and its people. With this in mind, I will work harder with the hope to one day take part in helping reunify the two Koreas. Nicole is an alumna of Korean Summer 2016 program.