(THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Gangnam, Korean dramas, K-pop, cosmetics and Korean dramas are some of the usual reasons to visit South Korea. My trip was for a different reason; it was because of my love of history and my strong interest in the DMZ, or the Korean Demilitarised Zone.
It is a buffer zone formally set up on July 27, 1953, when the Armistice Agreement was signed during the Korean War.
South and North Korea drew a truce line across the Korean Peninsula, from the mouth of the Imjingang River in the east to the town of Goseong in the west. On either side of the truce line is a 2km-wide stretch of land where military activity is forbidden.
Former United States president Bill Clinton called it the "scariest place on earth".
As the official site of the DMZ notes: "The DMZ vividly captures the scars and wounds of the Korean War as well as the wishes and hopes for the future."
My first visit to Seoul last September reinforced my belief that visiting the DMZ is a must-do. It is a place where we can feel the reality and pain of a separated nation.
I booked a tour with the help of a friend, as it is impossible to go there on your own. Access is restricted to civilians and military escort is mandatory.
If there is tension at the border or between the South and the North, the tour could be cancelled for security and safety reasons.
I joined a bunch of backpackers from other countries and travelled with them for this experience. It was a half-day tour which covers Imjingak Resort (Nuri Peace Park), the Freedom Bridge, Third Tunnel, DMZ Theatre, Dorasan Station and Dora Observatory. We would also pass by Tongilchon Unification Village.
Please do not forget to take your passport as it would need to be produced during the security checks.
The tour started as early as 8am as there was a briefing to attend, as well as security checkpoints and passport verification to clear.
First, we visited Imjingak Resort, which is located 50km northwest of Seoul. Imjingak was built in 1972, with the hope that some day unification would be possible.
From the park, the Freedom Bridge is visible and gives one hope that maybe there will be reunification in the future.
We next visited the Third Tunnel. We were given a locker to keep all our belongings and no cameras were allowed.
This tunnel was discovered in October 1978. It was dug by the North Koreans to spy on their neighbours. It is 1,635km long, 2m high and 2m wide. It penetrates 435m past the South Korea military demarcation line and starts at Panmunjeon, North Korea.
It was quite challenging to ascend and descend as the tunnel was steep. As I am tall, I had to walk hunched and my head banged the ceiling a few times in the tunnel. It was my unique way of saying "Hi" to North Korea. Luckily, I had a safety helmet on. It was certainly a unique experience and I was all sweaty, like I just had a full body workout, when I came out of the tunnel.
Our next stop was the Dora Observatory. It is a place not to be missed as we could view a North Korean village, using binoculars. If you are lucky, you get to see villagers going about their activities. I took extra time to look around.
Finally, at around 11am, we reached Dorasan Station. This was built so that people would be able to travel up and down the border.
A sign at the station goes, "Not the last station from the South, but the first station towards the North".
We again viewed the Unification Village from the bus as we headed home. I left the border hoping for unification some day.
My visit allowed me to learn more about a place that is scarcely familiar to people around the world.
I now have the bragging rights to say: "I've been to North Korea."