DMZ: wildlife refuge, tourist attraction, war reminder

Nearly 6,500 miles separate most Wisconsinites from South Korea. Among the exceptions, for now, are around 270 airmen from the 115th Fighter Wing of the state’s Air National Guard.

These troops and one dozen F-16 aircraft this month were deployed to Kunsan Air Base on a four-month assignment to help stabilize and secure the region. Kunsan is within 150 miles of Seoul and the demilitarized zone that divides Korea.

An always-harrowing part of the world? Not necessarily.

Strange but true: Parts of the 155-mile-long DMZ are major, longtime, family-friendly tourist attractions. Saw it with my own amazed eyes on a gray, spring day a few years ago.

A demarcation line has separated North and South Korea since the Korean War armistice in 1953. DMZ tours began in the 1960s.

Sites and scenery are a mix of chain-link fencing and razor wire, cartoonish statues and amusement rides, war memorials and handwritten notes, land mines and bird sanctuaries.

Think armed soldiers and a souvenir shop, park-like settings and concrete bunkers, military lookout towers and photo areas for gawking tourists.

The DMZ is a two-kilometer-wide buffer on either side of the demarcation line. Where tour buses go is the civilian control zone, which is a geographic buffer before the DMZ. You need a passport to enter. No exceptions.

Much of what is inside – an off-limits, no man’s land – is a haven for wildlife because people haven’t disrupted the DMZ acreage for 60-plus years. Some species are rare. That includes two types of cranes, red crowned and white naped, whose preservation is part of ongoing work for the International Crane Foundation, near Baraboo.

George Archibald, the crane foundation’s co-founder, in 1974 began working with conservationists at the Han River estuary in South Korea, pointing out the area’s significance as an unplanned wildlife refuge and helping to lay groundwork to protect this habitat from urban development, should reunification happen.

So the area remains wildlife-rich, but it’s not like binocular-clad travelers can roam the estuary now. So what other attractions bring them to the DMZ?

The Third Tunnel Tour uses a tram to take kids and adults underground, following a dark and dank infiltration passage that stretches under the DMZ. Although less than seven feet high and wide, guides say the tunnel – if left undiscovered during wartime – could have moved 10,000 soldiers (with gear) per hour.

In Imjingak, a park less than five miles from the DMZ, are amusement rides and a memorial with altar to honor ancestors. Visitors walk to the Freedom Bridge, where prisoners of war were allowed to walk to their freedom in 1953. Now it’s a footbridge to nowhere, blocked by a wiry fence that is stuffed with handwritten pleas for peace and unity.

Telescopes at Dora Observatory, on a clear day, provide a squinting glimpse of North Korea’s second largest city, Gaeseong. Soldiers in fatigues make sure that photos are only taken from behind a thick yellow stripe on the floor.

Less than 800 yards from the DMZ is Dorasan Station, a train transit hub, and four-lane highway toll stop. Don’t expect traffic because there is nowhere to go, unless reunification happens.

So tour buses do a U-turn after passengers unload to collect their Dorasan Station passport stamp (unless it’s a Sunday, when the station is closed).

For more about tourism along the DMZ in South Korea: tour2korea.com (select “english” and search “dmz tour”). DMZ site admissions are $10 or less and within 35 miles of Seoul.

Another unusual and memorable tourism draw in South Korea are half-day, overnight or multi-day stays at a Buddhist temple. Many participate, in all parts of the country.

My experience at Beomeosa temple, on a mountainside near Busan, meant a quick sleep on a heated floor, repetitive and multi-step bowing that resembled calisthenics and seeing the consequence of taking more than you can eat. But that’s a story for another time. Prices vary but are much closer to hostel lodging than a five-star hotel. templestay.com

The International Crane Foundation, E11376 Shady Lane Rd., Baraboo, is the only place in the world that is home to all 15 species of cranes. Visitors are welcome from April 15 to Oct. 31, and guided tours happen at 10 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Admission is charged. savingcranes.org, 608-356-9462

Keep up with the work of the 115th Fighter Wing through facebook.com/115FW. Periodic Airmen Experience events at Truax Field in Madison explain job opportunities to prospective recruits. 115fw.ang.af.mil, 608-245-4395