Sokcho, located in the northeastern region of South Korea, is a coastal city nestled along the Sea of Japan. Most people visit because it serves as a gateway to the scenic Seoraksan National Park, a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts and hikers. I (Merge) had an opportunity to visit it for one day while on board the MS Westerdam.
Sokcho also happens to be less than an one hour drive from the easternmost point of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), the border that separates North and South Korea. The DMZ consists of two kilometers on either side of the border that separates North from South Korea, and there is no military presence, equipment, or activity permitted in this zone. This unique location offers a glimpse into Korea’s complex history and it was something I wanted to learn much more about. The DMZ has two destinations worth visiting, obviously both civilian since military installations are not permitted. The first is the Goseong Unification Observatory (that overlooks the demilitarized zone into North Korea), and the second is the DMZ museum (containing the history of the DMZ and associated exhibits). Both are located on the South Korean side of the DMZ.
The conflict between South and North Korea, which dates back to the Korean War (1950-1953), is characterized by a longstanding division on the Korean Peninsula. Following the war, an armistice was signed, creating a demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separated the two nations, but no formal peace treaty was ever established. This ongoing conflict is rooted in political, ideological, and economic differences, with South Korea following a democratic system and market economy, while North Korea adheres to an authoritarian regime and a state-controlled economy. Tensions periodically escalate due to military exercises, nuclear ambitions, and border incidents, though both sides have engaged in diplomatic efforts to seek peaceful solutions and reunification. The conflict remains one of the world’s most enduring and unresolved geopolitical disputes.
I found two other adventurous souls – Carol and Mark – aboard the ship who were also interested in seeing and learning more about this history, so we hired a taxi to take us there and back. Including transport, waiting time, and a generous tip, it cost us about USD 180 which we split three ways. An absolute bargain for a very interesting day! To get there, we had to stop first at a central administrative building to complete forms and pay separate entry fees for the vehicle and its occupants. I don’t remember exactly what it cost, but I remember that it was not unreasonable. Then we had to make our way through military-controlled checkpoints to get into the demilitarized zone.
We went first to the Goseong Unification Observatory. This structurally-unique building was commissioned by the South Korean government, designed by Yeoseng Architects, and completed in 2015. It offers a perfect vantage point to view the DMZ and North Korea on the other side. We had brought our own binoculars but they have pay-telescopes you can use as well.
Next we went to the DMZ museum that first opened in August 2009. It is self-described as a place to honour people’s hope for a reunification of North and South Korea. It has four sections that I found very interesting. The first section documented the history and chaos during the Korean War that culminated with the birth of the demilitarization zone. The second section highlighted the continuing military tension between the two Koreas after the signing of the Armistice agreement. The third explained the current day DMZ. Surprisingly, in addition to the Geseong Unification Tower and the DMZ museum, there are also two villages in the zone – one, an inhabited village on the South Korea side, and second, a supposedly-abandoned village on the North Korea side. The final section of the museum expressed hope for the future, including hundreds of thousands of paper flowers, each with a message of hope written by museum visitors. These filled a whole room before the museum opened into a gift shop.
While I was there, I had an opportunity to overhear a conversation between a visitor and a local tour guide. The visitor asked how the everyday South Korean feels about reunification, and the tour guide gave a very candid answer. He said it depended on your age. Older people were more likely to still carry hope and desire for unification, but younger people did not tend to have the same sentiments. Much of the younger population in South Korea sees the reunification efforts as very expensive and a waste of money without any real return. It was an unexpected, but in hindsight, not surprising response.
After a very thought-provoking day visiting the DMZ, we made our way back to Sokcho town. Since we still had some time before we had to be back to the ship, we stopped at the Sokcho Central Market. I had been told that it was a bustling vibrant traditional market, and it certainly was. It was at least the size of a city block with hundreds of small stalls selling just about everything. Fresh seafood, produce, local Korean street foods, clothing, household items are just some of what I remember. And it was busy with locals doing the daily shopping and hundreds of tourists milling around.
All in all, a very satisfying end to a full day!