You often hear news of foreigners being imprisoned by North Korea. But did you know there’s a place where you can safely cross the border? (Mostly safely.) I’ll get to that later.
After months of living in Seoul, I finally got to visit the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) and JSA (Joint Security Area) in Panmunjom. I shouldn’t be surprised that Koreans have made the DMZ a tourist attraction, but it’s still amusing to me that they allow steady streams of tourists into such a highly sensitive and politically charged area. In fact, our tour guide noted that, despite its name, the DMZ is the most militarized area in the country.
We booked a full-day tour that took us to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, the Dora Observatory, the Dorasan Station, the Freedom Bridge, the JSA and famous MAC Conference Room, and the Bridge of No Return. (Will had already been to the DMZ, but he hadn’t done the full tour, so some of this was new to him, too.) Here’s our spiffy tour bus.
The DMZ is only about an hour away from Seoul. At a certain point during the drive up, I started noticing barbed wire fencing and guard posts along the Hangang (Han) River. If you look across the river, you can see the mountains in North Korea, which our tour guide said are bare because they still use wood for a lot of construction. She also said they believe the dark green patches are places where the North Koreans are hiding weapons.
As you can imagine, there are a lot of rules on these tours. You can’t take photos from inside the bus once you pass the first checkpoint. When you’re in the JSA, you can’t take photos of the South Korea side, only the North. You have to bring your passport, and they check it three times during the tour. No pointing or waving. And there’s a dress code. Among other rules.
The first checkpoint was in order to enter the CCA (Civilian Control Area). No one can enter this area unless they are on a tour, or they work or live there. Turns out, there are numerous villages of farmers that live and work inside the CCA — and one village inside the actual DMZ — who grow rice, beans, ginseng and other crops and are exempt from federal taxes and the mandatory military draft. Fascinating.
On our way to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, our tour guide told us all about it. The South Koreans discovered it in 1978, it’s located at a depth of 73 meters below ground — crazy! — is about 1,635 meters long, 1.95 meters high and 2.1 meters wide. They believe it was dug for a surprise attack on Seoul. Though it’s a small space, they say it’s big enough to move a full division of soldiers and their weapons per hour. It’s one of four tunnels discovered along the DMZ since the armistice agreement was signed. The North Koreans deny that they built them and claim they are coal mines.
We took a tram down to the actual tunnel. Once there, we quickly walked through the tunnel (too many tourists down there to just take your time), ducking the whole time, and realized just how tight the space is. It’s impressive. They don’t let you walk the whole thing, of course. At a certain point they’ve sealed it off — our guide said they don’t let anyone past that point in case there are booby traps further down the tunnel.
Quick primer: The official border between North and South Korea is called the Military Demarcation Line. The area spanning two kilometers north and two kilometers south of the MDL is called the DMZ. This map gives you an idea:
From there we headed to the Dora Observatory. It has a huge viewing platform with binoculars you can use to peer into the DMZ and North Korea. Luckily, we were there on a fairly clear day, so you could actually see some stuff, like the giant North and South Korean flagpoles (the North’s is taller), and the propaganda villages in the North. Keep in mind, though, we’re looking out a distance of at least four kilometers. We did actually see some farmers in the distance working in the fields, some of the South Korean farmers who, as I mentioned before, live and work inside the DMZ. The buildings in the North just looked like big warehouses and modern apartment buildings. There was a large sculpture looking thing, but I have no idea what it was.
Our tour took us to Dorasan Station next. It is the closest train station to North Korea on the Gyeongui line. (Apparently, you can currently take a train from Seoul to Dorasan Station.) They have high hopes that someday, at the time of reunification, this will become a major transportation hub into North Korea.
It is somewhat eerie to walk around inside the station. It looks brand new, but appears to never be used. And because they’re thinking about the future, it’s already set up for when the countries reunite. For instance, security terminals are already in place, airport TSA style. They have tracks labeled for Pyongyang. There’s also a large map on the wall of the Trans Eurasian Railway Network, showing how the whole country will one day be connected with the rest of Asia and Europe, since South Koreans are currently “cut off” and can’t travel there by train.
Next stop, Imjingak, or the Freedom Bridge. After the armistice agreement was signed in 1953, thousands of war prisoners were exchanged at the Bridge of No Return, which is located in the Joint Security Area and you’ll see a photo of at the end of this blog post. However, those heading back into South Korea had to walk further and also cross the Freedom Bridge. The area has been turned into a huge park with monuments, old tanks and trains used during the Korean War, and more viewing platforms.
The second half of the day’s tour is what I imagine people get most excited about — visiting the DMZ and JSA. Having left the CCA for lunch and had our passports checked a second time on re-entering the area, we now headed toward Camp Bonifas, the United Nations Command military base located just 400 meters south of southern border of the DMZ. Before entering the base, we had to have our passports inspected one last time, a bit more thoroughly, by a UNCSB-JSA (South Korean) soldier who then gave us badges to wear. He stayed on the bus with us for the remainder of our tour into the JSA, watching us and making sure we didn’t take any photos from the bus except where permitted. He did call out one guy who took a photo, and told him he’d delete it from his phone when we got off at the next stop.
They made us watch a video briefing at the visitor center on base, explaining the history of the area and reiterating some of the rules. Finally, we boarded the bus and drove into the DMZ and to the JSA.
We wound along the DMZ’s narrow, dirt roads, looking out at a lush, green landscape, devoid of humans but a rich ecosystem home to many types of plants and animals such as cranes, fish, the Amur goral, Asiatic black bear, musk deer and even spotted seals. It may look peaceful, but what you don’t see are the thousands of land mines scattered throughout the area (officials have previously estimated there are more than 1 million of them).
A couple of kilometers later, we pulled into the JSA. All I’d ever seen of the JSA was what they show on TV — mainly, the blue MAC (Military Armistice Commission) Conference Room with the large, North Korean building in the back where you usually see one or two soldiers looking back at you. What I didn’t realize is that the JSA complex houses numerous other buildings. The JSA used to have a mix of North and South Korean buildings spread out across the grounds. However, after North Korean soldiers attached and killed several South Koreans (including Captain Arthur Bonifas) in 1976 over the trimming of a poplar tree near the Bridge of No Return in what’s now known as the Axe Murder Incident, they decided to recognize the military demarcation line (MDL) inside of the JSA. It is now split into North and South. Here’s a model below — where you see the blue conference room buildings in the middle, the blue ones are South Koreans and the silver ones next to it are North Korean. The dotted line you see is the MDL.
We waited patiently on the bus as other tour groups had their turn. There were at least four other tourists buses there. Once we stepped off the bus, it all happened very fast. They led us up the steps of the Freedom House and out into the clearing facing the MAC Conference Room. We were allowed a few minutes to take photos of the buildings — facing North only —and were told we would only have three minutes in the room, that we were running late and needed to hurry. People snapped away with their smartphones and cameras.
There was just one North Korean soldier there, standing in the distance at the top of the steps, to the left. You can see him if you zoom into the photo.
Once inside the room, it was like a zoo, everyone trying to get their photos. What’s incredible is that the MDL runs smack through the middle of the room, so once you cross the large conference table in the middle, you’ve technically crossed into North Korea. We managed to get our photos, and even though the soldiers in the room were South Korean, I was still careful not to get too close or, heaven forbid, accidentally bump into one. I didn’t feel like getting punched in the face or arrested.
What an experience. We finished the tour by driving past the site of the Axe Murder Incident, where a marker now stands in place of the poplar tree, which was eventually chopped down. We also stopped briefly at the Bridge of No Return (briefly as in, we didn’t even get off the bus). As I mentioned earlier, this is where the POW exchange took place after the armistice agreement was signed. The bridge is located right at the MDL, and prisoners were given the choice — you can stay in the South or go back to the North, but once you cross, you can’t return. Hence the bridge’s name.
All in all, it was a great tour. I learned a lot, we saw a lot, got to buy some souvenirs at the end (of course). I only wish we’d had a bit more time at some of the stops. The tour seemed a bit rushed at times. Then again, it’s hard for one petite Korean lady to keep 40 or however many of us tourists wrangled from stop to stop.
I feel privileged to have been able to explore the CCA, DMZ and JSA. Even though there are bus loads of tourists flowing in and out of there, I know it’s not something most people will get to do in their lifetime. What’s amusing is that, according to our local friends, most South Koreans don’t even tour the DMZ. It’s definitely mainly a tourist/foreigner destination.
Hope you enjoyed the tour! You can see more photos on my Flickr.