A Trip to the Cheorwan DMZ
A friend and I headed up to Cheorwan in Gangwon-do last week to see what we could of the DMZ. We started out the morning getting an intercity bus from Dong Seoul Terminal outside of Gangbyeon Station. The bus is not your normal intercity bus and stopped every 5-10 minutes or so making what could have been an hour and a half trip on the highway into a three hour journey along the back roads. By the time we arrived we had 15 minutes to get to the Iron Triangle Tourist Office from the bus terminal. We hopped in a taxi and told the driver of our deadline and he rushed us to the location. Reservations for tours are not necessary however, you must arrive 15 minutes prior to departure to give everyone time to get their cars in line and the tours start right on time at 9:30, 10:30, 1:00 or 2:00.
As we did not have a car and the tour doesn’t provide buses, we hired our taxi driver for the remainder of our journey. I suggest getting a flat rate for the whole trip rather than letting the meter run while on the tour. We managed a rate of W60,000 for three hours, but the meter that he had left running said W90,000 by the end of the trip.
We were off in a caravan of six cars, just us, our guide and some older Korean men. The guide provided by the museum is not really a guide that can share stories and tales of the war, but more of your way through all of the checkpoints. An informational packet was provided, so it was fine. She did point out the mine fields along the way though, which was rather unsettling. Our first stop was the 2nd Underground Tunnel. The tunnel was discovered on March 19th, 1975 after a soldier heard an explosion from beneath the ground. The tunnel is 3.5 kilometers long and sits 50 to 160 meters deep. Hard hats were provided and we descended. It was wet and dark like most underground caverns and along the way we could see holes that the engineers had made to the surface so they could see above. At the very end there are mannequins dressed up in uniforms and cameras to monitor that no one tries to go any further.
A couple stops later, we headed to Woljeong-ri Station. The information provided explained that this name means the moon and the well and there once lived a girl and her sick father here. She prayed every night for her father to get well once again and one night she dreamed that by giving him water from a nearby well his health would improve. The only condition was that she had to take the water to him using only her hands and it should be done 1000 times before the moon set. Eventually, she completed this task and saved her father, but in so doing lost her life from the hard work. The town was named in her memory. There’s a small statue in front of the station to remember her, but other than that the station is not as beautiful as the story.
The building is just the shell of what it once was, a stop on the Seoul-Gangwon line, but sitting in the back is an old North Korean transport train, bombed by American forces. The women in a group behind us began picking berries growing through the skeleton of the old train and we ate together while thinking about the very recent past in this area. The sign before us read, ‘The iron horse wants to run’, a fitting epitaph for this train that once frequently made trips to North Korea on a line that connected the country.
The last stop on the tour was the North Korean Labor Party Building, built in 1946 and used until the armistice in 1953 by the party. North Korea controlled this area for five years as it falls above the 38th parallel but during the Korean War this area came under the control of South Korea and UN forces and when the armistice was signed was still under the control of the South.
The bullet holes and loss of the ceiling of the building are blunt reminders of the violence this area saw and though there was once a vibrant and large city here, now there are just rice paddies and checkpoints.
The violence did not only come from battles that commenced in the area, the building was also notorious for the brutal acts that happened inside. People used to say ‘anyone who goes in there never comes out unscathed,’ according to the information provided. The building is now a Registered Cultural Asset of Modern Cultural Heritages and every year hundreds of thousands of people, young and old alike, visit to remember and learn.
Directions from Seoul: Bus from Dong Seoul Terminal to Cheorwan Dongsong, running time said to be 2 hours and 20 minutes, closer to three hours. Catch a taxi to Goseokjung to get a guide and buy tickets.
Tour Running Time: 3 hours
Tour Stops: North Korean Labor Party Building, Woljeong-ri Station, Cheorwan Peace Observatory, 2nd Underground Tunnel