Vagabond Tales: Tunneling beneath the ‘scariest place on Earth’

This may come as a shocker, but traveling to North Korea as a tourist isn’t exactly easy. In a country that tops the paranoia charts when it comes to dealing with “outsiders,” the tourist administration in Pyongyang isn’t real cool with throngs of camera-toting tourists soiling the ultra-pure North Korean populace with their strange and fetid ideals. Better to simply keep them out.

Sure, there are still ways of traveling to North Korea as a tourist, but lets just say it’s not the type of trip where you get to put your two cents in on the itinerary. Or, for that matter, what you can pack, whom you can speak to or what you can photograph.

So have I actually been to North Korea? Technically, no, I haven’t.

Wait. Did you just say that you technically haven’t been to North Korea? That doesn’t make any sense.

Although it may be difficult to actually travel inside of North Korea, there are various opportunities for you to actually travel beneath it.

C’mon. How do you travel beneath a country? You’ve had one too many shots of soju again haven’t you?

When the Korean War came to a politically awkward stalemate in 1953, troops on both sides were required to pull back 2,200 yards from the initial Military Demarcation Line, thereby creating a 2.5 mile wide stretch of no man’s land known today as the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone).

This, however, did not stop the wily North Koreans from still trying to find a way to win the war and stage an all-out ground attack on the South Korean capital of Seoul. If they couldn’t send soldiers across the DMZ any longer, then by golly they were going to go under it.

And go under it they did. And now, strangely enough, so can you.The first “incursion tunnel” was discovered by South Korean soldiers in 1974 after witnessing heat vapor rising inexplicably from the frozen Earth just south of the DMZ. A second tunnel was discovered in 1975, a third in 1978 and a fourth in 1990. Though these are the only four to have been found, it’s rumored that there are upwards of 20 tunnels, which undermine the fragile border of the politically tenuous nations.

At first the North Koreans denied the existence of the tunnels and labeled the discovery as South Korean propaganda. When intrepid teams of South Korean and American soldiers explored the first tunnel (which was booby trapped), the North Koreans denied any knowledge of the tunnels and claimed they had been dug instead by South Korea.

After markings on the tunnel walls confirmed that the tunnel had been constructed from north to south, Pyongyang came up with its best excuse to date and adamantly claimed that the tunnels were simply for coal excavation, even though there isn’t any coal in the granite rock beneath the DMZ. Firmly clinging to their alibi, North Korea proceeded to paint the rocks inside the tunnels black, because, as everyone knows, when you paint rocks black it totally fools everyone into thinking that it’s a coal mine.

Now, over 30 years after its initial discovery, it’s possible to book a tour down inside of the third tunnel and actually walk beneath the North Korean side of the DMZ.

This, as you might expect, can be a little scary. Tensions run so high at the DMZ that former U.S. President Bill Clinton once labeled it as “the scariest place on Earth.”

Even though the war has been confusingly “on hold” for the past 58 years, the situation at the DMZ really hasn’t been all that rosy. There have been numerous instances of North Koreans being shot and killed for wandering into South Korean territory as well as an odd event in which a Soviet Union defector ran across the two-and-a-half mile-long DMZ, an incursion which eventually culminated in the deaths by crossfire of three North Korean and one South Korean soldier.

Then, of course, there was the issue of the overgrown poplar tree in 1976 where a joint team of U.S. and South Korean soldiers were hacked to death with axes by North Korean soldiers while attempting to trim tree branches within the Joint Security Area, a shared space where peaceful meetings are meant to take place.

Oh, and three days before I arrived the two sides were back at it again exchanging volleys of heavy gunfire. Perfect.

So what’s the natural thing to do when standing amidst tens of thousands of soldiers ready to go to battle at a moment’s notice? Strap on a helmet, climb aboard a motorized tram cart, and descend 1,100 feet below ground, of course.

Clicking the plastic pieces of the helmet together and nestling in for the slow descent, I reflected on the odd sensation of riding on a contraption better suited for a theme-park into a place originally dug for the express purpose of killing people. Over six feet high and six feet wide, the tunnel was capable of transporting up to 30,000 troops per hour.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” I continued to think to myself. “I’m about to walk through a tunnel which leads to North Korea.”

Excitedly, I turned to the Japanese tourist seated next to me, the dark green helmet swallowing her tightly pulled black hair.

“Nervous?” I inquired.

“Hai. Yes. Nervous.”

“Yeah. Me too,” I confided. “Me too.”

Want more stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” here

[Tunnel image by Flickr user, WanderingSolesPhotography]

Video of the Day – Inside North Korea

North Korea is undoubtedly the most difficult country in the world to gain access to, especially if you’re a journalist aiming to produce a video about the reclusive nation. For months, the travel bad boys over at VBS.tv corresponded with North Korea’s representatives to arrange a guided tour of the infamous Mass Games.

After being selected as one of the only groups to cover the event, VBS Founder Shane Smith and director Eddy Moretti were taken on a journey that gets more bizzarre by the minute. From the streets of Pyongyang, to the International Friendship Museum, to deserted banquet halls – it’s worth watching the entire series to get a rare look at a country that rarely exposes itself to the world.

Do you have clips from an epic investigation of your own? Found a video online that inspires you to travel? Share it with us in the comment section below and it could be our next Video of the Day!

Making sense of the North Korean artillery attacks

Seoul, South Korea

I left Uijongbu, South Korea in the second half of September 1998. My olive drab duffle bag slung over my shoulder, I walked to the bus that would take me to Osan Air Base and a flight back to Boston. My one-year tour had come to an end, and it was time to leave, with eight months in Georgia all that stood between me and my discharge.

It was a busy year, particularly because of the U.S. missile strikes on Tanzania and Afghanistan, not to mention the entangling of a small North Korean submarine in South Korean fishing nets. Because of this, not to mention my proximity to the DMZ (and North Korean artillery on the other side of it), I took an interest in activity on the Korean peninsula that has not waned in the ensuing dozen years. So, when I awoke this morning to news of an artillery exchange on the west coast of South Korea, I paid attention immediately.

Seoul, now the second largest city in the world, is only around 35 miles from the DMZ, making it highly vulnerable to attacks from North Korea. Uijongbu has turned into a second city of sorts – think of it as similar to Stamford, CT in relation to New York City – turning it into a valuable target, as well.

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Though most North Korean artillery can’t reach Seoul – Business Insider reports that only 17 of them can – there’s plenty of havoc that can be wrought between the capital and the border.

Early in my tour, a simple lesson was communicated: get comfortable with your protective mask (called a “gas mask” by those not in the business of wearing them). My memory has faded – it has been a while after all – but I think I can recall it with some degree of accuracy. In Seoul, you have 60 seconds to don your “pro mask” in the event of an attack. In Uijongbu, it shrinks to 16 seconds. In Dongduchon, where I was stationed for a few months, you have nine seconds … and in Panmunjom, on the DMZ, all you have time to do is gasp.

This is the reality of the peninsula. Seoul is an incredible destination – and one that should be on your list. The DMZ tour is a unique experience, I’m told (I couldn’t go because of service obligations the night before), offering a rare look at one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Nonetheless, it remains a region at risk.

Well, how risky is it?

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That’s difficult to say. During my stint in South Korea, there was little happening day to day to remind you of the unpleasantness only a road march away. We conducted the business of keeping the army running in much the same manner that we did when I was stationed in Georgia. The growth of the South Korean economy demonstrates this on a larger scale, and even the recent attack seems unlikely to be followed by an all-out war. The shelling has been called the most aggressive act since fighting was ended by cease fire in 1953, but there have been other instances of hostility in the intervening decades, from acts of terrorism to exchanges of small-arms fire.

The timing of the incident also indicates that there is underlying motivation aside from an urge for conquest or destruction. U.S. envoy Stephen Bosworth indicated that it probably wasn’t coincidental, reports Time Magazine, saying that it followed the inspection of a new nuclear facility by former Los Alamos labs director Siegfried Hecker (who, interestingly, spoke at my undergrad commencement ceremony in 1997, only a few months before I checked in at Dongduchon’s Camp Mobile to begin my tour). Also, the recent leadership succession announcement, in which Kim Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong-un was anointed, may have played a role.

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Doubtless, this event will have an effect on tourism to South Korea – especially if financial market activity is a reasonable indicator. A reminder that we live in (and travel to) a world at risk, however, shouldn’t act as a deterrent. I miss Uijongbu and Dongduchon, sipping soju and chomping yaki-mandu. It’s a strange environment, moving freely when you know the same opportunity isn’t afforded a dozen miles away, which only serves to define the experience further.

So, you tell us: would you visit South Korea right now?

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[photo by tiseb via Flickr]

DMZ peace park a hopeful Korean destination for children

In my career as a writer – and before that as a management consultant – I saw some pretty strange proposals. But, nothing that crossed my desk compared to what Jonathan Lee has put together. The 13-year-old was born in South Korea and lives in the United States, and he’s going on a most unusual journey. The enterprising teenager was scheduled to fly Thursday night to Pyongyang to pitch an idea to Kim Jong-il … yes, that Kim Jong-il. The one who rules the reclusive North Korea with no tolerance for dissent.

Lee hopes to secure support for his idea to create a children’s peace forest in the heavily mined Demilitarized Zone. He expects to meet with officials in North Korea, to whom he will proffer his idea, which will include “fruit and chestnut trees … and where children can plan,” according to the Huffington Post. Most likely, armed guards will continue to stand on either side of the Zone with weapons ready to be used if necessary.

The DMZ is not a peaceful place, of course. Though the Korean War’s fighting stopped in 1953, peace was never formally attained, and a cease-fire has been in place for close to six decades. The United States doesn’t have diplomatic ties to North Korea, and any interaction between the two governments usually takes place through the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang.

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Lee says he knows the visit is supposed to be safe, but he’s a bit nervous, given that North Korea is still a communist country. His mother, Melissa, adds, “”We know, it sounds crazy.” She continues, “When he first said, ‘I think we need to go to North Korea,’ I looked at my husband and said, ‘What?’ It was a radical idea.”

Lee has already worked on laying the groundwork south of the DMZ:

Reports by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency say Jonathan met former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung three years ago and suggested planting chestnut trees on the Korean peninsula and that he went to see the then-ailing former president again last year.

In a letter Jonathan hopes to give to Kim Jong Il, he wrote that Kim Dae-jung talked with him about his “sunshine policy” of peaceful coexistence with the North.

So, if l works out, there will be a new destination for the family – in neither country! Doubtless, the likelihood of Lee’s dream being realized is pretty low, but let’s give him credit for a valiant effort that is leading to some wild places.

[Via Foreign Policy, photo by UNC - CFC - USFK via Flickr]

DMZ water coming to a Korean grocery store near you

With all the bottled water you’ll find on grocery store shelves these days, any new player absolutely has to have a gimmick. There are just too many brands on the market. So, a company really does need to go the extra mile to stand out. That’s probably why “DMZ 2km” is getting some media love.

DMZ 2km is drawn from a plant in the southern half of the Korean peninsula’s Demilitarized Zone, the 4 km border area that has split North Korea from South Korea for more than 50 years. On land, there is razor wire – and plenty of landmines. Soldiers walk patrols, and there’s sometimes gunfire. Underneath all this is a spring that ultimately feeds the plastic bottles that consumers can buy for 600 won (50 cents) a pop.

The water bottle is adorned with a bird, which is representative of the wildlife that now lives in the DMZ, which hasn’t had much human activity in half a century. More than 2,900 different plant species are estimated to live there, along with 70 mammals and 320 bird types.

Lee Sang-hyo, spokesman for Lotte Chilsung Beverage, tells Reuters, “We decided on water from the DMZ because it’s different, and the environment there is untouched, so many people thinks it’s clean.” Fortunately, he continues, “Getting the water is not dangerous at all. We worked it all out with the military.”

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[Photo by Constantin B. via Flickr]