The last part of my DMZ tour including the Joint Security Area and Dorasan was a visit to the ‘Third Tunnel’. Since photography in the Third Tunnel is not permitted, I will have to use words alone to describe it.
In 1968 (I think 1968 is the correct year) a defector from North Korea warned the South Korean government that North Korea planned to dig a series of tunnels under the DMZ to invade South Korea.
The South Korean military started monitoring the DMZ for signs of the digging of these tunnels – and lo and behold, they found a tunnel, which is now known as the ‘First Tunnel’. Another tunnel was found in Cheorwan, which is the ‘Second Tunnel’. The tunnel I went to was discovered by digging boreholes and checking for spurts of water when the North Korean tunnel diggers used dynamite, and it is not called the ‘Third Tunnel’. One more tunnel was found, called … try to guess what the name is … the ‘Fourth Tunnel’. There are believed to be more tunnels, possibly twenty more, which have yet to be discovered.
Nowadays, North Korea is known as one of the poorest countries in the world, certainly much poorer than South Korea. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, the North Korean economy was stronger than the South Korean economy, and their received considerable military assistance from both the Soviet Union and China, so it was plausible that North Korea could invade a weaker South Korea at that time if they could catch South Korea and the United States military by surprise and move soldiers in very quickly.
The Third Tunnel is supposedly big enough for 30,000 soldiers to move through it in an hour. It had a much bigger capacity than the First and Second Tunnels, so when it was discovered the United Nations accused North Korea of trying to violate the armistice. At first North Korea claimed that South Korea dug the tunnel in order to invade them (or maybe that’s what they claim now, I forget), but then later claimed that it was for a coal mine. The retreating tunnel-diggers covered the walls of the tunnel with coal ash, which we, the tourists, could see and touch. However, the tunnel is cut through igneous rock, whereas coal is only found in sedimentary rock, which makes the North Korean claim a very bold lie.
So, what was it like to enter the tunnel (aside from not being able to take photos)?
We walked into the tunnel through a passageway which had been bored especially for tourists, though there is also a little train (my tour did not include the use of the little train in the package). The tour guide warned us that nobody complained about going down, but that coming back up would be very strenuous, that we wouldn’t need to go to the gym that day, and that if we had any doubts about our physical stamina we shouldn’t go in. Well, since I do things like hike the highest mountain in mainland South Korea, the highest mountain in South Korea, and a South Korean mountain known for being very steep, I figured that coming back up would be no challenge for me – the warning is probably for tourists who don’t get much exercise.
We all had to wear hard hats, and a good thing too, since many of us banged our head on the ceiling. I think the guy behind me asked ‘Am I the only one banging my head on the ceiling?’ and I replied ‘I’ve banged my head once or twice’.
Inside the tunnel it’s very moist, and there is even a little spring with a cup so that visitors can drink the water of the DMZ. In a way, it’s impressive that this tunnel can accommodate 30,000 soldiers per hour … but remember it would take an entire hour for 30,000 soldiers to get through.
We could go as far as the third concrete barricade, which is very, very close to the Military Demarcation Line (i.e. the border between South and North Korea). We could also look through the little window to the second concrete barricade. There is a little door in the barricade because this used to be guarded by South Korean soldiers. Now, it’s guarded by CCTV.
In the tunnel, or maybe it was in the little museum exhibit at the entrance of the tunnel, there were signs pointing out the way the tunnel is sloped and the way water flows proves that the tunnel was initially dug from North Korea, not South Korea, and this proves that North Korea is responsible for the tunnel’s existence.
I generally think tunnels and caves are cool, and this is no exception, even though (or perhaps because) it has such chilling connotations.
And on the way up? Yeah, it was exhausting. It turns out that I had underestimated just how steep the connecting tunnel is. Even though it was only a few hundred meters long, I had to rest a few times, and by the time I got up my legs were sore.
So, that was the end of my DMZ tour in the Panmunjeom area. We all got back on the bus and returned to Seoul.