Going to the DMZ and Stepping Foot in North Korea

Before leaving Korea, one of the things I really wanted to do was go to the DMZ. It was on my Korean bucket list, if you will. Recently, I was finally able to go, and Kelly came with me (her second time going, although with a different tour this time)! It was a fascinating experience, and I felt the thrill of being a student again, learning all about something I was genuinely interested in. I would certainly recommend this experience, if you want a memorable and unique thrill that only a tour like this can give you!

For the uninitiated, DMZ stands for demilitarized zone. This zone was created in 1953, at the cease-fire that marked the “end” of the Korean War (although it never officially ended). The DMZ stretches about 2 kilometers (km) north and south of the Military Demarcation Line, or MDL, the true border between North and South Korea. In the DMZ, civilian access is limited, and normally only authorized tourists can enter, along with soldiers stationed there, as well as a very special group of resident farmers.

I’m sure most of you have at least heard of the DMZ, but perhaps not the JSA. JSA stands for Joint Security Area, also known as Panmunjom. Panmunjom is located in the western portion of the DMZ.

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Map of our tour route, including Imjingak and the JSA

At the JSA, a truce was officially signed, and it now serves as a place of dialogue between North and South Korea. When choosing a tour for yourself (there are a lot to choose from), the first consideration is whether you want a DMZ tour, JSA tour, or a combined tour. If you want to step foot in North Korea, which was my main goal, make sure that your tour includes the JSA (or Panmunjom). Next, think about the points of interest most important to you, and then your budget and customer reviews of the individual tours. I’ll talk more about what we saw later, but here are some highlights to consider when choosing a tour:

  • The Joint Security Area (JSA), or Panmunjom: As mentioned above, the JSA is the closest point a tourist can get to North Korea. At this spot, you’ll have a chance to actually stand in North Korea for a few minutes and take photos (only facing North Korea, no pictures in the direction of South Korea as they’ll be sure to tell you!)
  • Odusan Unification Observatory: You can view North Koreans just going about their lives and get a glimpse at their daily routines at this site. There are binoculars that let you see super-zoomed images of North Korea opposite the Han river.
  • Infiltration Tunnels: In the 1980’s, when the North and South were having peace talks, several underground tunnels were discovered. North Korea had been digging these tunnels to infiltrate the South, and although they were never completed, they got pretty far. The 3rd tunnel is the closest to Seoul (about 44 km away) and could potentially move thousands of troops in the event of an attack.
  • Dora Observatory: This observatory allows one to zoom in on North Korea’s fake town, called Kijong-dong. The town was built in the 1950’s to make South Koreans want to defect and move north across the border. It doesn’t do a good job of that however, especially since it’s uninhabited with windowless, incomplete buildings. We caught a quick glimpse of the fake village on our bus ride, but didn’t stop for a closer look on our tour.
  • Freedom Bridge: The Freedom Bridge connects North and South Korea, although right now there’s a huge barricade blocking passage across. If the two sides are ever reunified, this bridge may be used to enter and exit North Korea in the future.
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More information about the DMZ and 3rd Tunnel Tour, which we didn’t do this time, but I’m sure it’s amazing!

And there you have it, some points of interest to keep in mind! This time, Kelly and I booked an all-day tour with the main point of interest being the JSA. It was called the Full-Day JSA Tour with Lunch from Seoul, and we booked it through tripadvisor.

Click here to see the tour we booked

You can also check out other tours provided by tripadvisor by searching from here.

If you want to contact our tour company, Joongang Express Tour, directly, use this info:

website – click here         ;              e-mail: info@joongangtour.com

There are many other options, and I’ll list below a few that are highly recommended for tourists, click on the links if you’re interested:

GetYourGuide

Viator

You can also book a tour directly with the Panmunjom Travel Center, which includes an opportunity to meet a North Korean defector. This is where Kelly booked a tour last time, when she brought some of our friends to the DMZ. Their North Korean defector didn’t speak English, but they could ask her questions through a translator. She had to leave her family in order to defect through China, and therefore they couldn’t take any pictures with or of her. If any of those photos got out, North Korea could punish her family because she defected. It was an enlightening experience, and we recommend this tour if you’re interested in talking to someone like that.

Click here to visit the website        ;         Telephone: +82-2-771-5593

Remember, many tours require reservation 2-5 days in advance, so check ahead. I booked our tour with three days to spare, and everything went smoothly. Also, make sure to bring your passport on the day of the tour, and dress appropriately. These rules are strictly enforced as North Korean soldiers could take photos and produce propaganda that other countries are too poor to afford proper clothing. Finally, when you actually get to the JSA, don’t speak with or make gestures towards personnel on the other side.

Here was the itinerary for our particular tour: Meet at the President Hotel -> War Memorial Hall -> Lunch (Bulgogi) -> Explore Imjingak Park -> Unification Bridge -> Camp Bonifas -> Panmunjom Tour (JSA) -> Bus back to the President Hotel

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Itinerary and information pertaining to our JSA tour, from the pamphlets we got in the morning.

Kelly and I started out bright and early, on what happened to be the coldest day of the year (-23 ℃, or about -10 ℉ with wind chill). We were both feeling pretty good despite the time and weather, and I was so excited as we waited in the lobby of the President Hotel for our tour to begin. We got on the bus at 9:45am, right on time. Our tour guide was a friendly, happy-looking Korean woman named Sunmi. On our way to the War Memorial museum, she started to explain what we were in store for that day.

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On the tour bus, heading to our first destination!

As we approached, we realized that we’d been to this museum before, but we had only explored the outside (and I was a bit hungover at the time). Our first time at the museum, we had seen vehicles, airplanes, and warships outside. The Exhibit for the PKM-class Chamsur Ii Warship No. 357 was notable, and according to the museum pamphlet, it’s “a life-size replica of the actual vessel attacked during the Second Yeonpyeong Naval Battle. Visitors can experience a realistic reenactment of the heat of battle.” We were able to climb into the replica and see the innards of the ship.

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Map of the War Memorial Museum of Korea

On this day, the cold compelled us to stay inside, and we had a little time to explore the inner part of the museum, which we had somehow missed last time. Before entering, we walked by all the names of fallen soldiers in the Korean War. This area is called The Monument of KIA (Galleries), and “it is engraved with the names of ROK Armed Forces, police officers and UN forces who died in the wars after the ROK foundation, such as the Korean War and Vietnam War.”

After heading inside, Sunmi gave us a brief history of the Korean War and the DMZ. I thought the real names for North and South Korea were interesting to examine, as South Korea is officially called ROK (The Republic of Korea), and North Korea is known as DPRK (The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). In order to call themselves democratic, North Korea does technically have an election every 5 years, but of course, there’s always one uncontested candidate. The DMZ was established to separate the ROK from the DPRK, after the cease-fire which “ended” the Korean War (like I said, it never really ended, and is ongoing as a type of Cold War). The southern portion of the DMZ is owned by the UN, and the Northern side by North Korea. It was interesting to learn that none of the DMZ is solely owned by South Korea, but instead by the UN and the U.S. Anyway, after Sunmi’s talk, we were set free to walk through as much as we could in the remaining 30 minutes at the museum.

A controversial and interesting part of the museum was the photo op with a model of Dokdo. I would consider this a form of South Korean propaganda, since there is a big territorial dispute over Dokdo (or “Takeshima” in Japanese). Both South Korea and Japan have claimed sovereignty over this area, and of course, North Korea claims sovereignty as well. However, whenever I hear anything about Dokdo, it is the unshaking conviction South Korea has that it belongs to them. There was also a Japanese tour with us, and I can only imagine what their tour guide said when they got to this point.

 

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Dokdo, or Takeshima, depending on who you ask. An interesting exhibit in the War Memorial Museum.

We saw some reconstructions of war scenes, vehicles, and flags of UN countries, as we explored all we could in our limited time. Before we headed out, I took a picture with The Turtle Shaped Battleship, or Geobukseon, which “is a warship designed by Admiral Yi-Sun during the Imjin Waeran, which played a pivotal role in leading the Royal Korean Navy to defeat the Japanese and win numerous naval battles.”

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Clockwise from top left: entering the museum, depiction of soldiers in the Korean War, The Turtle Shaped Battleship called Geobukseon, some artillery used in the Korean War.
museum tiger
War drum featuring Korea’s national animal, the Siberian Tiger.

On the bus to our next stop, Sunmi told us more about the remaining sites we’d be visiting. We learned about the three border lines: the CCL (civilian control line), south border of the DMZ (demilitarized zone), and the MDL (military demarcation line, or the true border with North Korea). We then got our first glimpse at North Korea, in an area called Udo-san. This is the point where the three border lines are closest, and they converge enough for us to see over to the North Korean side during the bus ride. We could see some North Korean mountains in the distance. You can tell which mountains are North Korean, because they’re bald and stripped of resources, as opposed to the vegetated South Korean mountains. Sunmi told us that soldiers use this point to watch out for spies, and one man bravely entered South Korea successfully here during the summer. This was rare, because most North Korean defectors leave through China, instead of directly to the South. Anyway, we could see North Korea for about 1 1/2 minutes during this first viewing.

korean mtns
Sorry for the bad picture, the windows were foggy and I forgot to zoom in. Still, notice the bald mountains of North Korea in the background.

Next, we stopped at Imjingak, located 10 km from the MDL. This is the closest point to North Korea that South Korean citizens can regularly visit. Kelly and I had a bulgogi lunch at a restaurant here. As we walked by a sign for Popeyes, I couldn’t help but think that this may be the closest example of Western capitalism to the border with the North. If North and South Korea are reunited, I imagine Popeyes will be one of the first Western establishments people emigrating to the South will ever see.

After lunch, we looked upon the Freedom Bridge, and the altar for broken families, called Mangbaedan Memorial Altar. Families originally from North Korea congregate here during Chuseok (Korean thanksgiving) and Seollal (Korean New Year) when they would traditionally return to their hometowns to spend time with family and perform holiday rituals. Imjingak Park holds a lot of sentimental and symbolic meaning for many Koreans. This whole area serves as a monument to families separated due to the division of the North and South. In addition to these sobering sentiments, there is also hope that one day reunification can be achieved. There is potential to reestablish transportation between the North and the South at Imjingak, both by bridge and by train.

Below, you can see our view of Freedom Bridge, from the roof of the building containing our lunch restaurant. I payed 500 won (about 50 cents) to look out over the scene with binoculars.

We soaked in the snowscape and got a panoramic view of the fields below, before returning to our bus to continue further than most civilians are allowed to travel freely.

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Rooftop view of Imjingak

After we got back on the bus, we passed over the CCL, about 9.5 km from the MDL, and travelled down a road called Old Highway #1. Our passports were checked by a South Korean soldier, and we continued on. Sunmi told us more about Freedom bridge as we passed it. It’s also known as Cow bridge, because the last time South Korean citizens crossed over to North Korea, it was to transport 1000 cows to the North as humanitarian aid in 1998. We also passed by Tongilchon, a small village where people are paid richly to live and farm within the DMZ. It is a highly controlled area, and although people receive between the equivalent of 80 and 120 thousand US dollars a year for their crops, it’s certainly not the ideal area to live in.

At the second checkpoint, we met an American soldier from Oregon, who was to be our guide in the Joint Security Area. We got off the bus at Camp Bonifas, where our soldier gave us a very brief presentation about the history and a general overview of the DMZ. He talked very quickly, and I felt bad for non-native English speakers on the tour. But he told us afterward that it was his 157th time doing the presentation, so I couldn’t blame him too much. One of the things that stuck out to me during the presentation was the Korean axe murder incident. On August 18th, 1976, there was a work party of U.S. Army officers cutting down a tree in the JSA that blocked the view of the UN observers. Suddenly, the North Koreans, who claimed that the tree was planted by their leader Kim Il-Sung, attacked the U.S. soldiers. They killed two United States Army officers, Arthur Bonifas and Mark Barrett. That’s why Camp Bonifas got its name; it had been known as Kitty Hawk before that, but after the incident, the name was changed to remember the fallen. Three days later, American and South Korean forces underwent Operation Paul Bunyan, when they finished cutting down the tree as a show of force. North Korea backed down at this point, and since then certain parts of the JSA have been inaccessible to visitors.

Other sections of the JSA of note include the Panmun-gak (main North Korean building in the JSA), Conference Room (where we would step into North Korea later), and the Bridge of No Return. This bridge was a site for many Prisoner of War (POW) exchanges in the past, and it earned its name because once a POW crossed this bridge to enter North Korea, they could never go back. Interestingly, when Kelly visited the JSA last time, they drove near the Bridge of No Return and the tree stump leftover from the infamous axe murder incident. It’s fascinating to note just how much these tours can change in a couple of years. Part of me was anxious to take this tour, in order to enter the Conference Room and step into North Korea while it’s still possible. I suspect that someday, something will happen, and tourists will no longer be allowed to visit the JSA. If you really want to do something or go somewhere, go for it before the opportunity is no longer available to you!

One more interesting tidbit which we kept hearing about, and passed by on our bus ride, was the huge North Korean flagpole, produced because of a flagpole competition between the two sides. This flagpole is located in Kijong-dong, called Peace Village by North Korea and Propaganda Village by those outside North Korea (it’s the fake town that I mentioned earlier). In the 1980s, the South Korean government built a 98.4 m (323 ft) tall flagpole with a huge flag of South Korea in the DMZ village of Daeseong-dong. The North Korean government responded by building an even taller flagpole, at 160 m (525 ft) with a flag of North Korea in Kijong-dong. South Korea allowed the North to win this competition, and one can see the competing flagpoles to this day.

Before finishing the presentation, we all signed a Visitor Declaration, acknowledging that we understood all JSA rules and regulations. We also had to assure our soldier that none of us were planning on defecting to North Korea that day. After the briefing, we boarded the special bus bound for Panmunjom.

visitor dcl
My Visitor Declaration Form (it got a little beat up on the journey, sorry about that!)

When we arrived at the JSA, we were told that North Korean soldiers were watching us carefully, so we could not make any physical gestures or verbal sounds aimed at North Korea. Also, when in the conference room, if anyone walked behind the soldier and to the opposite door, they would be alone and in North Korea, and no one could assure their safety any longer. We were walked to the conference room area in two single file lines, where we could take pictures of (some of) the buildings for three minutes. I was a little nervous, and the other tourists stressed us out even further. When we had first arrived, there was either a miscount or a stray tourist, and people kept taking pictures after the allotted time was up (as our Oregon soldier scolded them). Our soldier escort also told us about the soldiers who are always on guard, on both sides. I didn’t see any North Korean soldiers outside that day, but when Kelly went previously, she saw a soldier known to the Americans as “Bob.” This North Korean soldier has 17 hour shifts of standing still and just watching the South. Too bad that I wasn’t able to see Bob this time (he was probably standing inside, shielded from the cold).

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The blue buildings you can see here are UN Command neutral zones. The inside of these blue buildings crosses the North/South Korea border. You can see our American soldier in the foreground, as well as South Korean soldiers, always keeping watch (some of them half-hidden behind the blue buildings, so they will not be easy targets in the case of a surprise attack).
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Behind me is the Conference Room, where we stepped into North Korea for a moment. The gray building in the background is called the Panmun-gak, from which North Korean soldiers monitor the JSA (we were told there were seven soldiers watching us that day).

Despite some bumps, our journey went pretty smoothly. We walked into the blue conference room, and our American soldier informed us not to take any pictures facing South Korea, and not to touch either of the South Korean guards stationed there for our protection. They remained motionless and wore sunglasses in order to appear intimidating to the North. I stepped beyond the middle table, and I was in North Korea. I gave the guard way more space than I needed to, got a picture with him, and then peered outside to snap a picture of the small concrete divide that marked the MDL. Soon enough, I returned safely back over the true border, and we began to make our way back home.

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Here is the Conference Room. Inside this building, meetings between North Korea and the UN are housed. I took a picture with one of the South Korean soldiers (scared to get too close!)
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Picture taken out the window of the Conference Room. This concrete slab marks the MDL. Left of the slab is North Korean soil, and to the right, the UN-controlled DMZ.

On our way back from the JSA, our soldier said he’d answer any questions we had. When asked if he had ever met a North Korean soldier, he mentioned that he helped drag a North Korean soldier into a van, who had tried to defect and been shot. Pretty recently, this man had started fleeing from a North Korean guard post when he was shot at 40 times by his former comrades, and actually hit 5 times. He was escorted to get emergency medical attention, and our soldier was part of that operation. He was then treated at Ajou University Hospital in Suwon, the city where Kelly and I live now! He was one of three successful defections to South Korea within three years.

Also, someone asked if he’d had any crazy experiences with the tours. He told us that about a month ago, a woman had accidentally touched one of the South Korean soldiers when she was moving a chair to walk past him. In response, she was punched in the face. I was glad that I heard about this after the experience, because I would have probably stood even further from the soldier if I’d known about that beforehand.

There used to be a gift shop at Camp Bonifas, and on Kelly’s previous tour it was open. Our friend Tracy bought some souvenirs when she was there a while ago. She bought some army patches and North Korean wine while she was there. I would have probably gotten something too, but it was closed down when we visited! If the gift shop is finished for good, I think Tracy’s unopened wine could be very valuable in the future. Pictured below: Tracy’s North Korean wine.

When all is said and done, I’m so glad that I had this experience, and that Kelly was willing to come along with me, despite the cold. I think North Korea and the DMZ are mysterious to a lot of people, and we don’t think too much about the day-to-day operation of this area. Taking part in the JSA tour allowed me to see some of this for myself. It is simultaneously tragic and sad, while also being hopeful and optimistic, as I know South Korea wishes to reunify with their family to the North one day. I can only hope that a peaceful resolution will be reached, and in the future, we can visit the former North Korea under much happier conditions. That being said, it felt like I was witnessing part of history, and I learned so much on this tour. I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning a lot, respectful to a deeply dividing situation, and open to a uniquely human experience.

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At the end of the tour, with our lovely tour guide Sunmi!
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