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]