Vail Daily travel: Peering into North Korea |

Vail Daily travel: Peering into North Korea

Nicole Frey
Travel Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the Daily/Nicole Frey

Editor’s note: Vail native Nicole Frey spent 16 months living in South Korea and now is traveling through Southeast Asia for a few months. We’re serializing her blog about living overseas Sundays in the Vail Daily for the next few months. E-mail comments to

Korea, like most Asian countries, is in love with all things cute. While the United States showcases a stern bald eagle as the symbol of our nation, the Korean Army has a smiling cartoon rodent (a red panda perhaps) in camouflage as their mascot. Here, if they can make it cutesy, they will.

Still, it was a surprise that as we entered the Korean demilitarized zone, the huge, metal cutout DMZ sign was in pastel pink, purple and green with flowers sprouting out from each letter. Way to make one of the potentially scariest places on earth seem like a walk in the park, Korea.

I understand that a demilitarized zone is an area in which military action is not allowed to take place. But it still seems like a misnomer to me, since in reality, this 155-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide stretch of land is the most heavily militarized border in the world.

On a beautiful, albeit scorching hot day, Amy, Kristi, Sarah and I set out to see just what all the fuss was about. It was an eye-opening field trip.

You can’t just waltz into the DMZ, so we made like good tourists and signed up for a bus tour. During the hour-long bus ride from the South Korean capital of Seoul to the border, our tour guide caught us up on the last 100 years of Korean history.

The Korean peninsula was one country until after World War II when the Soviet Union and the United States split the country in half down the 38th parallel, with the Soviets taking the north and the Americans claiming the south. These sponsor states drilled their ideologies into their spoils of war, and the Soviet Union eventually backed North Korea’s invasion across the DMZ in 1948.

The next five, war-torn years claimed more than 3 million lives and cemented the divide between the two countries. The ceasefire in 1953 was never followed by a peace treaty; so technically, the Koreas are still at war.

Living in the United States, military squabbles always seem so far away. I know we’ve got our fingers in every pie, but the pies aren’t usually at home, and certainly not in my hometown of Vail. So it was surreal to see the camouflaged guard towers pop up along the Han-gang River, parallel to the highway, surrounded on both sides with layer upon layer of barbed wire. The Han-gang River runs through Seoul and into the Imjin-gang River, which flows into North Korea, and there have been innumerable attempts by the North to sneak into the South via these waterways, our tour guide said.

Our first stop was the beautiful Imjingak Park. It’s open to the public and includes Freedom Bridge, which was used to exchange prisoners of war. There are train tracks that once traversed the peninsula and a massive steam locomotive full of bullet holes that was shot off the tracks during China’s invasion of Korea. Among the stone statues and monuments are living exhibits -messages written on bits of ribbon and scraps of cloth covering the chain link fences topped with razor wire.

Approaching the DMZ and our second stop, we were reminded of the dos and don’ts in our brochure. The rules governed issues like dress code, photos and passports. They also included:

– Any equipment, microphones or flags belonging to the communist side are NOT TO BE TOUCHED.

– Do not speak with, make any gesture toward or in any way approach or respond to personnel from the other side.

At the Dora Observatory, we got a hilltop view of the DMZ and the southern tip of North Korea. There is one farming village within the DMZ, but the area is primarily a wildlife preserve. On a clear day, you can see Gaesung City in North Korea, but it was hazy when we were there. The two flagpoles, however, were all too visible. The North and the South have been in a pissing contest to see who can build the tallest flagpole in the DMZ for years now.

The third stop was perhaps the most interesting – an underground tunnel drilled by the North with intentions of attacking Seoul, South Korea says. It’s one of three or four tunnels the South has discovered so far. A North defector led them to this one. The North claims they’re old coal mines, but the rock is granite.

A little monorail took us more than 200 feet down into the earth where we wandered the cold, dank tunnel until we reached the guardhouse. There’s someone on duty around the clock. Seems like a raw job to be shut up underground for hours on end.

Our last stop was Dorasan Station, Korea’s hope for the future. A rail line had been under construction up until just a few years ago when the North decided it didn’t want to play anymore. It would have connected to a greater Eurasian rail system. Now this modern station sits empty, except for tourists and military personnel.

Here, we posed for photos with stoic soldiers and stamped our passports with the North’s seal, though I’m not sure we were supposed to do that.

While the whole experience was very controlled and regimented, it was simultaneously enlightening with great lessons in history and culture. I know a trip to North Korea would be similarly structured, likely even stricter, but I want to go anyway. As of this writing, Americans aren’t allowed in, but these things change with Kim Jong-Il’s mood swings, so we’ll see.

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