Where: The Demilitarised Zone and the Joint Strategic Area on the North and South Korean border .
When: June 2011
Why? Day trip whilst staying in South Korea with my boyfriend.
One of the most interesting day trips I have been on is the tour to the De-Militarised Zone (DMZ) and the Joint Strategic Area (JSA), between North and South Korea. If you want to understand the history of the conflict and why this is still such a dangerous, contentious border – then a visit to the DMZ is a must.
The tour that I went on was run by the USO, which is the recreation wing of the American military. We went to the JSA, the third infiltration tunnel, Dora observatory and Dorasan Station, all of which are in the DMZ.
I really enjoyed the tour as I found it fascinating – but I’m glad that I had already seen North Korea from the Ganghwa-do Peace Observatory (see Ganghwa-do blog), as the day we visited the DMZ the weather was really foggy and we couldn’t see much of North Korea at all.
I have to confess, I also went on this trip as I wanted to add another country to my list. Although the DMZ is managed by North Korea and the UN, we were allowed to go to the North Korean side of the table – so I think that means I can count North Korea as another country visited.
The tour that I took was run by USO (the United States Army entertainment division). The front of house for the USO unit is called Koridoor, and this is who I booked the tour with. You can only visit the JSA with the USO. There are other tours to the DMZ area, but only this tour will take you to the JSA, which is really the most important thing to see.
The tours usually run on Thursdays and Saturdays, but occasionally they will run on a Tuesday too. They are very popular and do get booked up – so it’s worthwhile reserving a place as soon as possible.
The cost for a civilian paying by credit card was 92,400 won (about £55). It would have been cheaper if I’d paid in cash in the office, and had I known how easy it is to find the office, I might have done this.
My tour started at 7.30am from the USO office, which is at Camp Kim, next to the Yongsan army base, in the heart of Seoul (directions here). It was very easy to find and well sign-posted. There were toilets at the office, but no drinks or snacks machines.
When I went on this trip, we had to take our passports with us and there was a dress code: no leather chaps allowed.
You can find out more, make reservations, get directions and read the full dress code at the Koridoor website: www.koridoor.co.kr.
There were gift shops at each of the sights we visited where we could buy drinks (including North Korean beer and wine).
What I did on my day trip
The first stop on our JSA/DMZ tour was Camp Bastion, where we had a briefing about the tour and the history of the DMZ. I was very excited to be given a UNCMAC Guest badge here. With my UN badge on I was able to pretend that this was an important diplomatic briefing and I was an important UN diplomat (in my dreams). In the lecture/briefing there were lots of rules about safety and what to do if a war breaks out etc. It was quite exciting.
We were then put onto coaches, and driven through the DMZ to the old village of Panmunjom, which is now the Joint Strategic Area (JSA). This is where the talks take place between North and South Korea.
We had an American soldier guide who was lovely and really informative. He had some great stories to tell about his time as a guard/guide in the DMZ and about the history of the area. A lot of what happens here sounds really stupid and silly (guards communicating by loud-hailer, rather than picking up the phone), though there have been real tragedies on this border too and this is one of the most tense, unstable areas on the planet.
The JSA is set up on the Demarcation Line (a.k.a. the border), within the UNCMAC compound. Here there are two major buildings facing each other, one in North Korea (Penmen Hall) and one in South (Home of Freedom), and in-between there are the blue UN huts where talks take place.
On this section of the tour we had to be very well behaved. There were instructions on where to walk, talk, stand and where we could take photos. All around us were US soldiers and Republic of Korea soldiers who were ROK ready. These soldiers are ninja warriors. Because no weapons are allowed in the DMZ, they have been trained to fight with their bare hands. They look kind of comical, in their mirrored sun-glasses, half-hiding behind buildings.
This section of the tour was also a little scary as we were being watched by the North Korean guards in Penmen Hall. They were watching us with binoculars.
We were able to go into the blue UN hut where the talks take place (see above). This was fascinating. The microphones in these huts are always live and someone is always listening. Officially, one side of the table belongs to North Korea and one to South – and we were able to go to the North Korean side of the table (that counts as a visit to North Korea, right?).
We were then put back onto the coaches to go see the Bridge of No Return, the tree over which a man was killed, and an observation post from which you can see North Korea.
At the end of the Korean war, soldiers were given the choice over which country they would stay in, but once they had chosen they would never be able to go to the other country. For many, this meant the hard choice of whether to leave their families behind, or whether to go to a regime they did not believe in. The Bridge of No Return is where the soldiers chose which way to go.
The incident with the tree is that in 1976 some US Army Officers were trying to chop down a tree that was blocking their view of the North Koreans, and a North Korean soldier attacked them with an axe, killing two of them. If you’re feeling morbid and want to know more then you can read the Wikipedia page about the incident.
Finally, we were taken to an observation tower where we could see into North Korea. Apparently you can see a big flag and some propaganda villages, though when we were there – all we could see was fog.
After this, we were driven back through the DMZ to Camp Bastion ready for the rest of our tour. The DMZ is actually very pretty. There were storks in paddy fields, trees and flowers. Because the land has been untouched for 60 years, this has now become a wonderful wildlife sanctuary. There are loads of birds, a huge wild boar and vampire deer in the DMZ.
After the JSA tour, we had time to visit the Camp Bastion gift shop. We should have had ten minutes in the museum, but this had been closed for a visiting president.
3rd Infiltration tunnel
The 3rd Infiltration tunnel was one of a series of tunnels dug by the North Koreans under the DMZ. This tunnel was discovered in 1978 – although I’m not sure when it was built. It is two meters high and two meters wide and 1.5km in length. You can go into the tunnel. To get into the tunnel, you walk down and down and down and down a steep slope (seriously, if you can’t walk very well this will probably be too strenuous for you). You can then walk down the tunnel until the third line of defence (i.e.South Korean soldiers).I did have to bend over quite a lot – and I often heard the clunking of hard hats on pipes. Tall people might have problems on this section of the trip. We could stand up straight at the end though.
If you look at the walls, you can see they are painted black. This is because apparently the North Koreans tried to pretend that this was actually a coal mine that had just gone the wrong way – even though there’s no coal in this area.
I actually found walking up the tunnel to be a bit dull – it’s just a tunnel after all – until I realised that tunnels have to lead from somewhere to somewhere – and this tunnel leads to North Korea! Not only that – but there’s sodliers facing off against each other in this tunnel. What a crazy situation.
Walking up out of the tunnel was the best work out that I’d had in a while. Luckily for unfit me, they did have chairs for me to rest at.
Our next stop was at Dora Observatory, where we observed… fog. Lots and lots of fog. We couldn’t even see the Demarcation Line. Luckily for me, I’d already seen North Korea from the Ganghwa-do Peace Observatory, so I didn’t mind too much.
We had an interesting talk here which pointed out things we couldn’t see, but should have been able to.
After that – it was off for a yummy lunch of Bulgogi (10,000 won) or Bimbimbap (6,000 won), and then we headed off to our final destination of Dorasan Station. This is a station which has been built ready for the opening up of the border. It’s a bit strange to visit an empty station. There’s guards there waiting for a train that never comes and a sleeper signed by George Bush.
After the visit to the station, the bus ran us back into Seoul and we got back to the USO office at about 3.30pm ish.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is our own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.