South Korea’s DMZ tours surreal, extensive

The landscape is desolate, dotted with concrete military bunkers and elevated lookout posts. Swirls of razor wire, atop chain-link fencing, seem to stretch on forever. There are armed soldiers, passport requirements, photography restrictions.

This is a tourist attraction?

Add a park with room for both amusement rides and war/peace memorials. A tram carries kids and adults into a military invasion tunnel. There are pay-to-use telescopes, cartoonish statues, souvenirs to buy.

This is the DMZ?

The military demarcation line that has separated North and South Korea since 1953 is 155 miles long, and the 2-kilometer buffer on each side of it is the demilitarized zone. Visiting is a surreal experience, a mix of regret, hope and caution. It is hard to not be both tense and curious, to feel like you MUST be someplace else.

DMZ tours began in the 1960s, but they encompass more points of interest today. Admission fees are not expensive (roughly $2 to $12 per attraction).

It is easy to spend a day in the area, and Seoul is merely 35 miles away. Hotels arrange bus or private driver visits, through tour companies. Just make sure that yours has an English translator.

June is the prime season for crabbing along the nearby Han and Imjin rivers, so fishermen will inadvertently and inevitably cross into the DMZ buffer while at work. That means more gunfire than usual, we were told, quite matter-of-factly.

Some say more than a million land mines remain here. So do myriad species of plants and creatures, one of the few blessings of this no man’s land.

By default, the DMZ is an excellent refuge for wildlife because much has been untouched by humans and economic development for more than 50 years. George Archibald, founder of the International Crane Foundation, near Baraboo, has been fighting to keep it this way.

He is one of nine board members for The DMZ Forum, a nonprofit that argues about how the area is an ecological treasure whose stunning biodiversity should be preserved as a world peace park.

“Providing habitat for rare cranes and other birds and animals, the DMZ is essential for preserving globally significant species,” this group, around since 1998, says in its mission statement.

“The land devastated by war has become a rare sanctuary for endangered native species” and “a sacred resting place for millions of innocent compatriots, foreign friends and soldiers of both sides who died for freedom and peace.”

Visiting this part of the world in early spring is a lot like being in Wisconsin. It is light jacket weather and drab, more hues of brown than green. We are driven inside the civilian control zone, the buffer before the DMZ buffer, where about 7,000 people live. Many farm rice or ginseng. All are descendants of people who lived here before the Korean War; that is a requirement.

From here is access to the Third Tunnel Tour — a dank, dark and steep dip into a one-mile infiltration tunnel discovered in 1978. Although less than 7 feet wide and high, guides say the tunnel would have been big enough to move 10,000 soldiers (with gear) per hour.

This is one of four tunnels that have been confirmed to be under the DMZ. The most recent was discovered in 1990.

Visitors ride a tram about 300 meters, then getting out to walk underground. The last 50 yards is a relatively narrow and hunched hike to a bolted and locked gate. The tunnel continues, but you won’t.

Instead of riding the tram again, the physically fit can walk a modern and well-lit but steep path out. It is a short but aerobic workout.

Where else do tourists go? At Imjingak – a park – are amusement rides, plus a memorial and altar that honor ancestors. It is a short walk to the Freedom Bridge, where South Korean prisoners of war walked to freedom in 1953. Today it is a bridge to nowhere, but people still walk it and tie scraps of paper or fabric to the DMZ fence. Many messages are pleas for peace, unity of nation or reunion of family.

Dora Observatory, open since 1986, is the only place for civilians to safely get a look at North Korea. When it’s hazy, there is little to see. On a clear day, through a telescopic lens, it is possible to glimpse people and buildings in Gaeseong, North Korea’s second largest city.

The lens, though, won’t be part of a camera. Yellow paint shows the ground boundary for taking photos. Soldiers are quick, vigilant and vocal about enforcing the rules.

Although we didn’t get there, it also is possible to visit Panmunjeom, where the armistice agreement was signed to end the Korean War in 1953. Home of the Joint Security Area, this is the only place where North and South Korea connect. The tour includes a peak at the conference room (and conference table) that is split by the actual demarcation line.

If North and South Korea decide to dissolve the DMZ, it would not take long for the two Republics to physically reconnect. Dorasan Station is a new but empty highway and train transportation hub that awaits reunification accords. It is less than 800 yards from the DMZ.

“Kind of like being in a Stephen King novel,” a colleague remarks, as we get out to gawk at vacant toll booths for the barricaded, four-lane highway. The station was built in 2003, as another symbol of hope.

Had it not been a Sunday, we could have gotten a Dorasan Station passport stamp, in the train transit building. As it was, we simply reboarded the bus, which did a U-turn and sped away.

For more about Korea tourism: www.tour2korea.com, 800-868-7567 (Chicago office).