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Korean War, The DMZ, and Reunification


Nothing To Envy

Before we even added South Korea to the itinerary, a co-worker recommended the book “Nothing to Envy“, which documents the lives of six “ordinary” North Koreans, all of whom eventually defected (mostly into South Korea). In my opinion, the book is a must read for a better understanding of North Korean culture and of the history between the two Koreas. It was full of tear jerking insights into the struggles of daily life in North Korea that I was instantly enthralled into Korea’s dark history, the war, and the current situation between North and South Korea. I felt as though everything I should have learned in school about the Korean war, but unfortunately never did, I was able to ascertain from this book.

The Korean War Museum

statue of brothers at war museum

When we finally reached Seoul, I knew that our first stop had to be the War Museum. I obsessively went through each sign and explanation, meticulously trying to absorb all the information.

The historical facts are astonishing and tragic.

Initially occupied by the Japanese in the 1900s and then split in half between the Soviet Union and the US in order to punish the Japanese after World War II, Korea has had a turbulent history over the last century. The idea of two foreign countries coming in and splitting one nation in two, to then further install completely opposite political parties is simply bizarre, if not completely unacceptable. With a roll of the dice, your entire future lay in the matter of where you are geographically (kind of similar to being born again, but this time as an adult).

Soon after the split at the 38th parallel in 1945, the Soviet supported communist North Korean government was ready to engulf the entire peninsula as early as 1949. With Stalin’s backing, North Korea illegally attacked South Korea at 4am on June 25th, 1950. As US and UN troops were able to push back North Korean forces, China, as promised, got involved to support the North Korean cause. In 1953 the war reached a stalemate and the 38th parallel line was restored as the border – with neither side surrendering though the war technically is still not over.

3 years and over 3 million casualties.

Trip To The DMZ

DMZ MDL Line Divider

This border between North and South Korea is the most heavily militarized border in the world. As independent travelers, we would have wanted to visit the DMZ on our own, but unfortunately, it is only accessibly via a pricey tour.

Our guide warned us how dangerous it was and that anything could happen. Normally I scoff at these types of scare tactics, but as it turns out, just three days before an 18 year old North Korean soldier shot and killed two of his superiors and defected – the tour was canceled that day.

DMZ North Korean soldier

The tour begins with a trip to the JSA (Joint Security Area) and the MDL (Military Demarcation Line) where both North and South Korean soldiers stand guard, with literally a small concrete divider in between them. Through the adjacent building we observed the North Korean soldiers. I couldn’t help but wonder how he felt about South Korea and about the busloads of tourists that get shipped in to gawk and stare at him.

Does he know what goes on with the rest of the world?

Does he want to leave North Korea or is it his home where he belongs?

DMZ South Korean soldier

Opposite the North Korean soldier stands the South Korean soldier – always wearing sunglasses so the North Korean one never knows where he is looking.

During the tour, a strong emphasis was placed on North Korean acts of provocation/aggression, most notably the Axe Murder incident of 1976. Little did we know, sporadic outbreaks of North Korean hostilities have killed over 500 South Korean soldiers and 50 U.S. soldiers along the DMZ between 1953 and 1999. 

One of the most interesting parts of the tour came towards the end – a 1,635 m long, 1.95 meters high and 2.1 meters wide tunnel discovered by South Korean forces in 1978. Evidence indicates that these tunnels were intended to be used by North Koreans to invade South Korea in a joint land/air attack. So far, 4 such tunnels have been discovered, and there could have been as many at 10.

DMZ Dorasan Station

Somewhat ironically, the atmosphere around the DMZ is a cheerful one. With numerous banners and billboards spelling out reunification dreams, you get the feeling that this is meant to be a positive place. A happy place. A place for things to grow and thrive and come together once again. In fact, we were even taken to Dorasan Station, a train station heralded as being the future gateway to the North (remember that South Korea is entirely cut off by land from the rest of Asia).

DMZ Dorasan Station Plan for RR Route

Korean Reunification

DMZ End of Separation

Is the reunification of South and North Korea a complete pipe dream? What do the people think?

We asked our Couchsurfing host in Busan, George, and American professor of Anthropolgy, what he thinks about Korean unification?

Never going to happen.

According to George, when Kim Jong-il died, South Korean radicals jumped on the idea of Korean reunification, but it quickly fizzled.

But what do Koreans think? Unfortunately, our chances to ask them were fairly limited. In Gyeongju, we stayed with a South Korean couple in their young 30s. When asked what they thought about North Korea, their answer:

“We hate”

She briefly went on to state that the countries have grown too far apart, economically, politically, and culturally.

“We are too different”

And that was the end of that conversation.

However, not everyone felt the same. On our DMZ tour when we asked our tour guides (one older woman, one woman considerably younger), both seemed to imply that they hoped for an eventual reunification of the two Koreas. They are the same people, speaking the same language (though dialects differ), and inevitably they should unify.

Based on the limited number of people we asked, it definitely seemed like a hot topic. However, if there is one thing that is certain, it’s that the prospect of reunification presents a significant burden for South Korea, which is the naturally the case when an economically and technologically more advanced country combines with a weaker one.


War Memorial Museum (Seoul)

Cost: Free
Time: Dedicate about 2 hours
Location: 10 minute walk from the Namyong Subway Station Line 1 or 5 minute walk from Samgakji Station Subway Line 4 and 6

DMZ Trip (from Seoul)

Cost: 120k KRW per person (includes lunch)
Time: 8:50AM – 5PM
Location: Lotte Hotel 6th floor

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9 Responses to Korean War, The DMZ, and Reunification

  1. very interesting article..I learned lots that i didn’t know!

    greenejean October 19, 2012 at 8:49 AM Reply
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  4. Amazing.. I love the photo of the South Korean guard looking at you. The look of suspicion he has on his face is just priceless.

    The DMZ is one of the top places I want to visit and people think I’m crazy for it. Will have to check out ‘Nothing to Envy’ – thanks for the suggestion!

    Nicole November 5, 2012 at 11:13 PM Reply
    • DMZ is unlike anything we’ve ever been to. We went to the Israel border with Syria, which had a similar feel, but not quite the same. Check it out (but expensive)!

      Dave and Vicky November 5, 2012 at 11:38 PM Reply
  5. Glad that you’re having a good time here.

    I have to disagree with the article’s statement that unification will never happen. As things currently sit, that is correct. However, as the wold economy changes, so will things in North Korea. Ultimately, they will need to be more open to the west and that will translate to better economic conditions there. We already see that with Gaeseong. I suspect that in two generations a near parity will exist between the two countries so that normalized relations can being. Then in another generation or two, talk of unification might occur. The most important thing is to strive for normalized, bilateral travel between nations.

    Steve Miller November 8, 2012 at 6:48 PM Reply
    • It’s true that never is a dangerous word, however, in my opinion as time goes on the countries tend to grow further apart and not together. With older generations being replaced by younger ones (many of which don’t want reunification and have no ties to NK), it’s hard to imagine if it hasn’t happened already, it will.

      Dave and Vicky November 8, 2012 at 9:23 PM Reply
  6. I read this post just now. Although this was written about a year ago, I can still feel that, you guys, had a heart-warming experience of your travel to SK. Like many other people, I am hoping that there will be a total peace between these countries. 🙂

    Ria Dancel July 27, 2013 at 11:12 AM Reply

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