Wednesday, June 21, 2017

My Hike Close to North Korea

April 2017: I set myself the goal to hike on my own as close as possible to North Korea without breaking any laws.

The demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas was certainly out of bounds. As was the area immediately to the south of the DMZ where civilian access is strictly controlled. The southern boundary of this area is called the Civilian Control Line, marked by military checkpoints and fences with signs warning of landmines.

To cross the Civilian Control Line, I would have to join a tour group escorted by the military. I would be in a bubble, driven around in a bus, surrounded by other westerners, listening to a well-rehearsed tour guide, waiting for people to take their pictures in front of exhibits, then waiting while they purchased souvenirs.

I wanted to be quietly in the area, hiking along the Civilian Control Line, with only my thoughts for company. By avoiding a tour, I would see less and experience more.

I wondered how I would get there. I wasn't even sure where "there" was on the 160-mile line that divides the two Koreas.

Rail maps I found on the Web did not show any stations near the Civilian Control Line.

I poked around the map in the Korean Rail app on my phone, and discovered a short, isolated train line that would take me within an easy walk of the Civilian Control Line.
I rode the surprisingly long Seoul Subway Line 1 to Dongducheon, about 75 minutes from central Seoul.

I switched to a rattly old diesel multiple unit train for the slow 55-minute journey along the full length of the Gyeongwon Line to Baengmagoji. [I found train times in the Korail timetable.]
On the train heading to the DMZ.
I was now just a few hundred yards south of the Civilian Control Line.
Interactive Map.
The Civilian Control Line borders the east/west road.
I found myself in a peaceful, rural place where it was hard to imagine the unresolved conflict. An occasional car or truck broke the silence.
End of the line, Baengmagoji Station, looking north.
I was surrounded by farms. Beyond the farms were gentle hills with trails I'd love to hike: maybe another time.
Looking south.
I would stay away from the hills to the north: they're in the DMZ and North Korea.

I headed north along a quiet road. At a T junction, I turned left (west) and walked towards a sad place: the site of the Battle of White Horse.

In 1952 one of the bloodiest battles of the Korean War was fought here. The fight was between the Chinese and the UN (American, French, and Korean troops). Over 10 days, this hill changed hands 24 times. The UN prevailed, but at a huge cost on both sides.
Memorial to the Battle of White Horse.
I walked up to and beyond the memorial to the high point that was so tragically defended. From this vantage point, I could see into the DMZ.
Back to the road, I headed east beside the Civilian Control Line.
"Restricted Area Warning. Unidentified Mine Zone. Do not cross the installed barbed-wire fence."
I walked past military checkpoints which I did not photograph. A few days earlier, a soldier had politely, but firmly ordered me to delete photographs I had taken of defenses protecting the presidential palace on the outskirts of Seoul.

Gunnery positions looked hardly up to defending the nation against the forces of Kim Jong-un.
Signs on each side of the road warned of landmines. 
Later I would read these signs are not security theater. I was surrounded by areas that had never been properly swept for mines. Every now and then a resident inadvertently sets off one of these remnants of the Korean War.

I walked between huge concrete tank traps (pictured at the top of this post), reminding me there could be a next war. If the time comes, explosives will tip the concrete blocks into the road.

Banners hanging from the concrete blocks advertised a local herb festival.

A few hundred yards further, the shelled-out Labor Party Building came into view. 
The only tourists were young conscripts serving out their compulsory military service. A guide was reminding them of the story of this building. Here, the North Korean Labor Party projected their power through torture and firing squads. 

I retraced my steps to Baengmagoji Station and back to Seoul for my final evening in South Korea.


  1. Do you remember Simon? He seems remarkably little changed!

    1. I do indeed. It looks like his enthusiasm is keeping him young.