Now that Cuba has opened its doors to the United States, the Korean Peninsula really has become the last ground of the Cold War. One mustn’t forget, though, that the Cold War is not so cold on this land; North Korean provocations continue to shake up the peninsula ever so often, and families separated by the war and seven decades of division still long for their loved ones.
None of this, of course, is apparent when you’re in Gangnam or Hongdae in Seoul; streets buzzing with shops, people oblivious to the memories of war, all seemingly in peace. It is a chilling reminder of the sombre reality of the Korean peninsula, then, that both Gangnam and Hongdae are only within an hour’s drive from the demarcation line which divides the two Koreas. Here are a few places which bring us closer to that reality.
1.Panmunjeom, Joint Security Area
Dividing the peninsula from the east to the west is a 4km-wide strip of demilitarized zone (DMZ) where, in theory, neither side should bring in arms; in reality, the no-man’s land remains one of the most heavily armed areas in the world.
In the middle of DMZ, right on the demarcation line, is Joint Security Area – a small area within the DMZ where the two sides, under the auspices of the United Nations forces, stand nose-to-nose (quite literally). Panmunjeom is a compound at the center of Joint Security Area where most of inter-Korean negotiation and the exchange of personnel (North Korean fishers sometimes drift down into South Korea’s territorial waters) take place.
You can visit Panmunjeom on an official tour programme guided and supervised by the military. In the blue pavilion which sits on the demarcation line and is a neutral zone, you can actually walk on to the northern side of the border. If you have a day to spare, it’s a must.
These are tunnels which North Koreans dug to bypass the heavily-armed land border and infiltrate to the south. Since the 1970s, four such tunnels have been detected and uncovered by the South Korean military; these have now been opened to the public, except for the first one which is too close to the border.
A trip down one of these tunnels is an eery experience. Down a long and dark shaft and meandering through cave-like vaults and tunnel, you reach the northernmost end of the tunnel which has been blocked after the discovery – what, if not who, is on the other side of the wall? You’ll find your hurrying back to exit; the war is still a reality on the Korean peninsula.
The museum is full of military memorabilia and the records of the Korean war. Make sure to visit the outdoor galleries on each side of the main building which house memorial walls in honour of those who died in war. Men and women from 16 UN sending states fought in the Korean War to support South Korea, and 40,896 of them died in battle.
If you do not have enough time to go out of Seoul but want to understand the Korea war, this is the place to go. The memorial sits in the central district of Yongsan, just across the Korean Ministry of National Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff which neighbor the headquarters of the United States Forces Korea – another reminder of the continued reality of war.
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