Going Underground in South Korea – Visiting the 4th Tunnel at the DMZ

Entrance of the 4th tunnel.

Entrance of the 4th tunnel.

In the 1960s-1980s, North Korea dug tunnels under the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) into South Korea in an attempt to surprise attack their neighbors from underground, Depending on the size of the tunnel it can funnel 10,000-30,000 soldiers an hour and some are big enough for vehicles as well. Unfortunately for North Korea, the tunnels were discovered.

That is to say, four of them: three just north of Seoul in the 1970s and the fourth farther east near Yanggu in the early 1990s. There is speculation whether there are more, but nobody on the South side really knows.

As Coen and I were driving through South Korea in an oh-let’s-take-that road-to-see-where-it-leads kind of way, we got a regional map at a tourist information office and learned that we were near the fourth tunnel. We knew that in Seoul you needed to sign up for an organized tour to visit the tunnels near the capital, which we didn’t feel like doing, and hoped this wouldn’t be the case here.

Entrance of 4th tunnel site at the DMZ.

Entrance of 4th tunnel site at the DMZ.

We were in luck. No guide or tour needed. We bought a permit at the Yanggu tourist information office and drove a couple of kilometers out of town to the tunnel. By the look of the size of the parking lot it can be packed here, we assume on weekends and during holidays/vacation. We were the first ones today and had to wait half an hour before the tour would start.

We walked along the explanatory panels and photos inside the building on site. I was disappointed. No, to be honest, I was annoyed. Everything was in Korean, nothing in English. Why this bothered me? Because half of the presentation was about the Korean War, specifically the battles fought in this region. It was largely fought by Koreans but also by soldiers from many other nations and I think it would be a sign of respect to those soldiers – and their countrymen – to have translated the panels.

So I set off to find a brochure in English, but that didn’t exist either. I felt kind of laughed away, ‘Neah, we don’t have that’ and that annoyed me as well. As I considered my actions for a moment the soldier looked at the storm brewing on my face. “Okay, let’s go,” he said and accompanied me to the rooms where in broken English he tried to capture what we were looking at.

Number of Dutch soldiers in the Korean War.

Number of Dutch soldiers in the Korean War.

Initially his explanation was focused on weapons and mines, which Coen was interested in. I then asked for the more elaborate explanations on the panels.

“Oh that’s about the battles,” he answered.

“I understand. That’s where my countrymen fought, from the Netherlands. Please tell me,” I asked.

I think only now he understood my point. But this was too much to ask. Not because he didn’t want to but this was beyond his translation skills. We stood in the front of the panel of Heartbreak Ridge.

“Ah, Nederland fought here,” he said and read more. “They did good,” he added but I have no idea whether that really stood there and let the matter rest.

Museum about the Korean War in Yanggu.

Museum about the Korean War in Yanggu.

Museum about the Korean War in Yanggu.

Museum about the Korean War in Yanggu.

Our tour was about to begin. We were invited to sit down in the otherwise empty auditorium with a huge screen to watch a documentary. Music blasted through the speakers as if it needed to be heard ten miles away. With fingers propped in my ears I searched for my translator. The volume was turned down.

I understand, and really appreciate, the need for background information on a site like this and film is a great way to do so. I do not understand, however, the need for nationalistic, fear-mongering rhetorics demonizing North Korea and heralding South Korea. It was not so much the text as it was the tone, for me very reminiscent as to how Chavez approached the masses in Venezuela. But then, it may work for certain people; it’s something that turns us off completely. The situation between North and South is serious enough and without any need for further dramatization.

Oh well, off to the tunnel. Our soldier guide explained how they had learned about this tunnel from a defecting North Korean soldier. They had searched for it by drilling narrow holes into the mountains until one drill hit a void; they had discovered the tunnel. It had not yet been finished and the South Koreans built the last 700 meters to create an opening. They closed down the tunnel underground at the end of their side under the DMZ, which is now monitored with CCTV while they use the first part of the tunnel for tourist purposes.

Example of the type of train you take inside the tunnel.

Example of the type of train you take inside the tunnel.

While the South Koreans side drilled their 700 meters with enormous machinery, the North Koreans had dynamited the tunnel of roughly 1.7 by 1.7 meters wide. This, our guide explained, is high enough for the short North Koreans to walk through. We took a seat in the narrow-gauge tourist train that rode into the tunnel for a couple of minutes, and returned to the open air.

While somewhat disappointed with the explanatory part of the visit, to have been here and to have seen to what an extent people (a power/government) can go in order to fight with fellow humans, was a sobering experience.

Surroundings of Yanggu

Surroundings of Yanggu

Powerful poem about the battles of the Korean War here near Yanggu.

Powerful poem about the battles of the Korean War here near Yanggu.

Practical Information

All photos by Coen Wubbels (follow him on Instagram here and here).

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