Built for Invasion, North Korean Tunnels Now Flow With Tourists

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A fourth tunnel was discovered in 1990, and while none have been found since, some speculate that dozens have yet to be spotted.

What visitors to the tunnels can expect

Tourists in the South are able to visit three of the tunnels through guided tours.

For the equivalent of $10, according to South Korea’s official tourism site, visitors can explore the most popular of the passageways, the “Third Tunnel of Aggression,” located at DorasanObservatory in South Korea’s northwest.

Inside The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel At The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) In South Korea Video by The Seoul Guide

This tunnel was deemed to be the “most threatening as an invasion tool” by the tourism office, because of its proximity to Seoul, just 32 miles away.

The tunnel is 240 feet below the surface. Tourists enter through a gift shop before beginning a steep descent. They wear helmets to protect themselves from the low ceilings.

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A South Korean tour guide showing a map of one of the tunnels.

Credit
Eric Lafforgue/Corbis, via Getty Images

While tourists can see the North Korean handiwork, what they cannot do is cross the border, as the passage to the North is now blocked by concrete slabs.

The DMZ’s decades of evolving tourism

While South Korea began its official efforts to bring visitors to the Demilitarized Zone in the mid-1960s, tourism to the area has boomed since the early 2000s. After the end of the Cold War, it became a place were tourists could see the tension of that era play out in relative safety, said Scott A. Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The rest of the world wasn’t on this kind of trigger edge, and yet here was this anomalous place where there were still guns kind of pointed at each other,” Mr. Snyder said. “But at the same time, it was like a little secret that everyone knew there was not going to be war.”

Photo

Tourists exiting a tunnel near Cheorwon, South Korea.

Credit
Ed Jones/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In addition to the tunnels and the village of Panmunjom, ecotourism has become a popular draw for tourists. More than six decades as a no-man’s land has allowed some endangered species of plants and wildlife to thrive in the Demilitarized Zone. South Korea’s tourism authority says it has “unintentionally become a haven for wildlife.”

As threats from both sides have again sparked fears of war on the Peninsula, Mr. Snyder urged caution in seeing the Demilitarized Zone as an artifact of a bygone era and warned that its popularity had potentially negative consequences.

Photo

A North Korean Army officer at the Demilitarized Zone in 2016.

Credit
Wong Maye-E/Associated Press

“The danger is that it actually trivializes the threat,” he said. “I do think there is this sense that the potential risks of war are in the past — and yet the conflict remains unresolved.”

He added: “They are seeing a frozen conflict but they aren’t necessarily taking it that way because of the tourists elements.”

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