how to explore the korean war sites

Exploring the Korean War – South Korea and the DMZ

The Korean War is often known in the western world as the Forgotten War.  It’s the war that’s not over yet.  We explore its history and sites in South Korea.



Korean DMZ

Best Korean DMZ Tour

Understand more about the two sides of Korea, with a visit to South Korea’s DMZ, the 3rd infiltration tunnel, Dora Observatory, and suspension bridge for scenic views and its war story.

Unlike other war memorials, the War Memorial in Seoul, Korea, is also a full museum.  It memorializes war in general in Korea and if that’s not enough for you, then the huge collection of tanks, armored vehicles and planes outside will surely round off your trip.

Panoramic view outside at Korea war history museum

We went expecting to take a look at inscribed names of the dead and to take photographs of a statue of two brothers.  We planned to spend the majority of our time at the Korean History Museum just down the road. We never made it to the History Museum and were kicked out at closing time, easily having spent 3.5 hours there.

Military Demarcation Line sign Korean War History museum

June 25, 1950 marked the start of the Korean War, when 75,000 soldiers from the North Korean People’s Army (supported by the Soviet Union and China) invaded across the 38th parallel.  This had been the boundary between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea to the south.

Korea war history museum statue of fighting Soldiers

Korea had been ruled by Japan from 1910 until the end of World War II. The Soviet Union declared war on Japan in August 1945 and, in agreement with the Allies occupied Korea north of the 38th parallel, the United States occupied the South. The Soviet Union and the USA withdrew, as agreed in the late 1940’s, yet neither the north nor the south accepted the 38th parallel border as permanent, neither did they accept that the other party was the governing ruler of Korea.

Following the North’s invasion, The United Nations Security Council called for an immediate ceasefire and decided to form and dispatch UN Forces to Korea. In all, 21 Countries from the UN dispatched troops and/or supporting equipment and medical assistance.

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The war lasted 3 years, one month and 2 days, and while it is not technically over, a ceasefire was signed on 27 July 1953 which still holds today. The United Nations forces counted 178,426 dead and 32,925 missing. The names of the dead are inscribed onto the War Memorial in Seoul as you walk through the covered hallway towards the entrance of the museum, it’s extremely sobering to see name after name and country after country.

Throughout the museum part of the memorial, there is signage in English and it provides a fully engrossing walk through the history of the war and the outcomes. There is a degree of propaganda, which is interesting to hear the opposite from the communist propaganda, we had previously heard and seen in Russian, China and Vietnam, but it needs bearing in mind. Our guide to the Vietnamese DMZ is here.

There are several 4D experience rooms – all of which are free, but which operate at certain times only and can only accommodate a certain number of people. The first of these was the Incheon Landings, which only takes 15 at a time, and runs for 7 minutes, but operates only every 30 minutes. I found it hard to stifle a laugh when the session started with a badly animated “MacArthur” who I hope bears no resemblance to the leader of the United Nations forces prior to his dismissal for insubordination. The animation is like a bad Disney ride, with a few jolts around while you’re wearing 3D glasses.

Ship at the Korea war history museum

Virtually all of the displays include full English translation and it’s easy to become completely engrossed in the full story of the War. There’s an excellent section on the third floor on the United Nations involvement country by country, not just the USA. On the ground floor there’s an area to the right after the cafe, where there are a couple of historic limo’s, planes, armored cars and jeeps, some of which you can climb into, but the display of tanks, missiles, planes and the boat outside is just superb and will satisfy the most dedicated military historians. Dominating the outside space is a B52 Strato-fortress, one of the long range bombers used during the Korean War. It’s vast. Standing next to the landing gear, looking up at the undercarriage, it’s frightening to see the size of this beast. It was like being a kid in a candy shop.

B52 at the Korea war history museum
Statue of soldiers at Korea war history museum
Statue of Brothers at Korea war history museum

It’s a superb museum and memorial to the war and it was a fitting introduction to the trip to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the Joint Security Area (JSA) that we took the following day.

“Do you have proper shoes?” said the travel agent, as we stood in her office on the sixth floor of the Lotte Department Store. Um, no, it’s this or sandals we said. “Hmm, I suppose it’s OK, but wear trousers and a shirt, no round necks OK? And be here at 8am” And so we had our instructions not just for arrival but for our dress code, for our visit to the DMZ .

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It was a stiff hit to the budget, at US$120 each, and driving along the highway en route, seeing the barbed wire fences along the river, it seemed like it was going to take a heck of a lot to be worth the spend.

Barbed wire on way to DMZ Korea
Rail line and bridge between North and South Korea at the DMZ

We visited Dorasan station. The June 15, 2000 South-North Joint Declaration made by both Koreas agreed to connect the Gyeongui Railroad line. On June 14, 2003 the lines were connected in the DMZ. Dorasan station is 56km from Seoul, 17km from Gaeseong station and 205km from Pyeongyang (the capital of North Korea), it’s touted by the South Koreans as the first station towards the north and they aim to connect the Trans Korean Railway to the Trans Siberian and Trans China railways, going all the way to Europe. We bought our platform tickets and took a look. (there’s also a tourist train that rides from here to Seoul).

Dorasan station at the DMZ

As part of the trip we visited the “Third Tunnel”, discovered in September 1974, as a North Korean defector advised it had been built, the South Koreans discovered it by systematically filling PVC pipes with water and installing them every two metres, and FOUR years later found the tunnel when one of them exploded. Now, some thirty four years later its a major tourist attraction, where you don hard hats, sit three to seat on a small monorail train that takes you 300 meters below ground level. Here you then, walk along a low tunnel, (no photos here either), to a walled off area, turn around and come back again. Walking towards the walled off area, 20 perhaps 30 troops headed towards us and passed us. Not, we assume an invasion, as there’s been no news story.

The Third tunnel at Korea DMZ

Complete South Korean families live here in the DMZ – and get military exemption for being here, they go about their normal lives – passing through regular checkpoints when they travel of course, farm the area and perhaps provide for some of the items you can buy in the gift shops along the way. We declined a 20 kilo bag of DMZ rice on the basis that we didn’t have room in our backpacks.

Rice for sale at the DMZ Korea

Passports in hand, we were driven through two security check points into the Joint Security Area (the JSA), “no photos, no photos” shrieked the tour guide, obviously realizing she should have told everyone BEFORE we got to that particular stop.

Signs at the side of the road denote land mine territory. Even if you could get off the bus, you’re not going anywhere. Next is the observatory, where you can see North Korea and we duly take photos and squint looking for something to focus on other than a very tall flag pole.

View over to North Korea from the DMZ
DMZ visit in Korea looking towards North Korea

It’s after lunch that it gets interesting. A final security check, this time by an American MP, who joins us on the bus as our escort for the duration of our time in the JSA. Here is the conference centre, where we are given a briefing, no photo’s still and we have to wear badges for this part, and sign a declaration.

The tour guide gets huffy with the German tourist who wants to read what he’s signing indicating that he’s holding up the proceedings. It’s an informed and well scripted briefing, given by our hereto almost stammering tour guide, but completely drowned out by the Japanese tour-guide at the back of the room giving her version of it.

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Before we walk outside some final instructions. Do not make faces, do not be rude, do not make hand signals. You may take photos – WHEN WE TELL YOU and only then. You may only take photos facing towards North Korea, not towards the south. You must line up two abreast and you must stay in line.

First view of the JSA on the DMZ tour Korea

And with that the tension rises and the reality that we are actually in the Korean DMZ hits.

Guards outside the JSA in Korea

We duly follow our MP and guide into the central hut. It’s crowded – some of us are still in South Korea, the rest of the group is on the other side of the table in the North. DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING. But take photos only towards the North.

Inside the JSA at the DMZ in Korea

The Republic of Korea military stand in an exaggerated Tae Kwondo stance throughout their duty. Each soldier must be a minimum of 170cm and must be an expert in at least one martial art. They must stand like this when they are on duty here, in a show of aggression. We’re allowed to stand next to him to get our photo taken, but he can’t make eye contact because he has to wear sunglasses to specifically prevent this. We adopt a less aggressive stance in the smartest clothes we can muster.

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And then we’re off again. To line up outside, while the second half of our group goes in. We spot a North Korean guard occasionally, looking at us through binoculars, but mostly they’re staying out of the heat of the day. “They come out more if there’s a celebrity here”, says our MP as he takes questions from the bus on the way back to the gift shop where we drop him off.

Outside the JSA looking towards North Korea

En route we pass the plaque marking where a tree once stood, famous for the axe murder incident and then the “Bridge of No Return”.  The name originates from the claim that many war prisoners captured by the United States did not wish to return home. The prisoners were brought to the bridge and given the choice to remain in the country of their captivity or cross over to the other country. However, if they chose to cross the bridge, they would never be allowed to return.

The Bridge of No Return at the DMA Korea
The Bridge of No Return
memorial to the Korean axe murder incident

Our MP takes one final question, “What would you do, if something kicked off like now, when we were here on this bus”, asks an American visitor, “Well, I expect I’d ask the driver to go a little faster, Sir.” he drawls, clearly this isn’t the first time he’s heard this one, “but we have a plan to get y’all out of here”.

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It’s in Busan – formerly Pusan – where we bid farewell to Korea – taking a ferry to Shimonoseki in Japan. It’s here too, that the UN forces fell back to in 1950 and it’s here that the only United Nations Cemetery is located. Of the United Nations troops who fought here in Korea, 40,895 of them are buried here in Korea. Established in 1951, the cemetery stands in peaceful grounds and provides two memorial halls, a symbolic area and monuments from some of the countries involved. Here you’ll find many graves marked “Known unto God” and even an area for those men where no name, nor country can be identified.

UN cemetery in Busan Korea

There are also several graves where, having survived their husbands for many years, wives have been laid to rest alongside their husband here, in Korea.

Busan UM cemetery - wife buried alongside husband

And then there’s Paul McCune, an American Lieutenant Colonel. He fought in World War I, World War II and Korea. At his death in 1962 he was laid to rest here.

UN Busan cemetery - Paul McCune fought in both World wars and Korea
Memorial at Busan for Durham Light Infantry soldiers who died in Korea
United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea at Busan

As I write this, a week after we left Korea, there’s news that a large delegation from the North was at the closing ceremony of the 17th Annual Asian Games in Incheon – and the BBC reports that peace talks may be on the cards again. It wouldn’t be an easy task, with one in 80 folks in Seoul now being a millionaire and freedom taken for granted in this incredible capitalist society one imagines that unification would be tremendously difficult, but an end to conflict, the dream for many in this land of the morning calm.

Sunset at war memorial Korea

Travel Tips for Exploring South Korea

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