DMZ & JSA Tour: Parents Tour #1
Something I’ve wanted to do since I got to Korea, was visit the DMZ; or more specifically, the JSA. At the end of May when my parents came to Korea, it seemed like the perfect opportunity–and not only because they were paying!
I had read a lot of tour reviews beforehand, and my main concern was the possibility of the JSA section of the tour–the only part I cared about–being cancelled due to tensions at the border. Though this doesn’t happen a lot, I had read a review where it did happen, and I was terrified about missing out. The JSA (Joint Security Area), is the area between South and North Korea guarded by North Korean soldiers on one side, and South Korean soldiers on the other. This is where you can see the physical line drawn between the two countries and I had always imagined it would be the most thrilling part of the tour.
Mum and I stand on the Dorasan station platform–a railroad to nowhere.
After reading a lot of reviews, I soon found the most positive were for KORIDOOR, plus they had the best price too! It was 96,000 won each for the DMZ/JSA & 3rd Tunnel Tour (about $120NZD) whereas the others were more like 120,000 won for the same type of tour. I also chose this company because in the schedule it said the JSA was done first and the DMZ after, which meant I wouldn’t be so worried all the time. However, once we started it became clear that on this particular day it wasn’t, and it’s likely decided based on what is most practical on the day.
On Thursday night, I finished work and got to Busan station with plenty of time to spare. After getting into Seoul around 11:30pm (and deciding I was never taking the train this late ever again), I finally made it to the apartment near Sinchon where my parents were staying. As I walked along the street I kept looking for two foreigners looking out of place headed towards me, and finally, just as I thought I had missed them, there they were! Turns out they had got a little lost and walked the wrong way. They were exhausted after getting into Incheon at 5:30am that morning and not being able to fall asleep properly since.
So the next morning the three of us–having had no sleep the night before, and my parents now having been awake for more than 30 hours–literally dragged ourselves out of bed around 5:30am. The tour company emphasised the dress code (which you can view here , it’s intense), but it basically comes down to smart casual, and no shorts or sleeveless tops. I read somewhere that this came into force because North Korea takes photos of tourists and if they look scruffy or unkempt, will use this as propaganda to show their citizens that other countries are poor and not doing as well as them. I’m not sure if this is totally accurate, but it sounds like something the North would do. I figured erring on the safer side was better, so I went with jeans (no rips of course) and a shirt with a collar. I don’t think the collar is important for women, but I wasn’t going to risk my chance at the JSA!
Our tour with KORIDOOR started from Camp Kim in Seoul, and was very easy to
get to on the subway.
We arrived in good time at the USO at Samgakji, around ten past 7. We’d all remembered our passports, so didn’t have any issues getting sorted and being the first to get on our bus to snag a couple of window seats. There was one woman who didn’t have her passport, and they told her that it would be up to the staff at the JSA. I’m not sure what happened exactly, but they didn’t seem to have any issues. So, don’t plan on forgetting your passport, but if you do, still come (after all you’re not getting a refund) and then hope for the best!
We got acquainted with our tour guide, Vincent, on the hour-ish ride to the first part of the tour. His English was amusingly not that great, and we learned a lot about “the Korea” (which will sound very familiar to anyone teaching English here). He taught us a bit about the Han River we were driving alongside, and also pointed out places where we could look across and actually see North Korea! I was surprised that less than an hour from Seoul there are places where you could conceivably cross the Han and be in the North. I didn’t see any people, but I saw some houses. It was pretty surreal.
Our first stop was Dorasan station, a fully functional but no longer fully operational train station that is the last stop before the border, where the railroad crosses into North Korea and continues on until terminating at Pyeongyang. It opened in 2002, at a time when relations were warmer between the North and the South, and there was a real hope of reunification in the near future. However as I stood in the empty space of the station, the optimism that fueled its commissioning seemed completely out of reach.
No trains to Pyeongyang today, or any other day.
Next stop, Gaesong!
Until recently, South Korean employees working for Kaesong Industrial Park, which was a joint venture between the North and South, travelled in on the train from Seoul. However in February this year it all ground to a halt, due to rising tensions after a rocket launch by the North led Seoul to halt all operations at the plant, and the North to expel the South Korean workers.
A sad reminder of the time ticking by, but also a celebration of the possibility of being
reunified like Germany.
Mum and dad outside the station on the platform side.
By Josh Berglund [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Not far from the station is Dora Observatory, where you can view the South Korean village of Daeseong-dong, and the North Korean village of Kijong-dong. These two villages are in different countries currently at war, but exist only one mile apart. Looking out at the landscape, the first thing you notice is the two flagpoles–one flying the South Korean flag, the other, slightly taller, flying the North. Here the dichotomy between the two countries is the most apparent of the whole tour; two villages so close in proximity, yet so far from one another in beliefs and way of life.
In the 80’s, South Korea built a 98.4m flagpole in Daeseong-dong, which flies a South Korean flag weighing 130 kilograms. The North responded, in what has been called the “flagpole war”, by building the Panmunjom flagpole in Kijong-dong–at 160m tall and flying a North Korean flag weighing 270 kg, it’s more than one and half times the size of that in the South.
Kijong-dong, known as “Peace Village” by North Korea, is known as “Propaganda Village” by South Korea. Though North Korea claims the village contains a 200-family collective farm, observation from the South long ago proved that it’s a fake village, built in the 1950’s to encourage South Koreans to defect to the North. The buildings appear to be empty shells; concrete blocks with glassless windows that look into uninhabited spaces with the electricity on a timer to imitate daily life. There’s something very eerie about them when viewed up close. Some buildings lack interior rooms entirely, and behind the dark windows you can almost image the vacant space that lies behind, the buildings transforming into huge hollow beasts with dead yet watchful eyes.
Sadly for North Korea, the flag was not flying that day. Apparently it hardly ever does, due to it’s ridiculously heavy weight.
Spin the binoculars to the right and Daesong-dong comes into view. My first thought was why would anyone live so close to the border? Turns out it’s a lucrative place to be. Residents are allocated extremely large plots of land and according to Wikipedia, “have some of the highest farming income in the nation.” They also retain their right to vote and to education, but are exempt from military service and taxes. However it’s not all roses. They have to be back in the village by 11pm for their own safety–Daeseong-dong lies only 350 metres from the border with North Korea.
Mum and I by the statue outside the Third Infiltration Tunnel entrance.
The Third Infiltration Tunnel
There’s a fascinating history to the tunnels dug by the North in failed attempts to infiltrate the South, and the short video at the DMZ Theater was well worth watching. The fourth tunnel was only discovered in 1990, and you can read more about the history of the tunnels here . Luckily for mum and I, we didn’t linger too long in the museum area–though I’m sure my dad would have been okay with staying a lot longer!
After putting on our hard hats we made our way down the wide shaft that led to the tunnel. At this point, I thought the hats were just a precaution, but once in the actual tunnel everything was a lot tighter and having seen my dad hit his head a bunch of times on the low ceiling, I realised they really were necessary! It reminded me of a little of caving, as the walls were slick and dripping water, and without the overhead lights it would have been pitch black. It was fascinating to look at the walls and imagine the North Koreans down there, chipping away little by little. You could see the coal dust they lined the sides with, so if the tunnel was discovered they could pretend they were mining for coal. It’s laughable when you see it for yourself and I wonder if they ever expected to have to use that excuse.
This concluded the DMZ part of the tour, and I was eager to move on to the JSA. We were shepherded onto a second bus, and after a few moments of panicked breath holding (for me alone it seemed), our US Army guide put down his cellphone, spoke to the driver, and we were on the road again.
The Joint Security Area
It’s hard to describe the experience of seeing the demarcation line for yourself. It was terrifying and at the same time, exhilarating. The knowledge that crossing that line meant taking your life into your own hands with no guarantee of safety, reminded me of the feeling I get on the balconies of high buildings. You know you shouldn’t jump off, but a little voice inside you wants to find out what would happen if you did.
I wonder if I’m in any similar photos?
And then it got even more surreal. As we gazed at the grandiose building opposite us (careful not to point at anything), more people appeared on the balcony, and they weren’t North Korean soldiers. They were tourists. We were viewing another tour group across the border, and we were now taking photos of each other across a space small enough to yell and be heard. I could only imagine what the North Korean tour guides were telling them about us. Our tour guide, Vincent, was amazed; it was the first time this had ever happened to him.
US and South Korean soldiers working together to protect the border.
1. As we approached the building, North Korean soldiers hurried down the steps to keep an eye on us. 2. A South Korean soldier keeps watch on those entering.
Soon after, we entered the central blue conference building. It was a strange thought knowing that the tour on the other side of the border was waiting for us to leave, so they could enter the room with their North Korean guides. The conference buildings span the separation between the two countries, so they can meet for discussions on neutral ground. At the back of the room there’s a nondescript door, painted the same blue as the walls, which would be easily missed if not for the tough looking South Korean soldier standing in front of it.
We’re told that if we walk through that door, we’re in North Korea and on our own.
1. Standing in front of the door to North Korea is a full time job. 2. The soldiers stationed at the JSA are always on alert.
Once crossing to that side of the building, I am officially in North Korea but still safe inside the conference room. Yet again I’m tempted by the need to jump off that metaphorical ledge, just to see what would happen on the other side. The soldiers in this area, one of the most dangerous places in the world, are specially trained and all hold black belts in Taekwondo. You get a glimpse of this in the modified Taekwondo stance they hold at their positions, while remaining impassive and unmoving, ready to spring into action if needed. Their statue-like stillness reminded me of the guards at Buckingham Palace, but there the comparison ended–these guys look tough , and there’s no messing around here. Take a photo by all means, but don’t stand too close.
While I am doing just that, there’s a sudden flash of movement in the window behind us, and for just a second a North Korean soldier is visible, peering in at us from his side of the demarcation line. Truly one of the bizarrest experiences of my life.
The Bridge of no Return and the Axe Murder Incident
Also in the JSA, is the Bridge of No Return. This bridge straddles the line between the North and South, and until the end of the Korean War in 1953, was used for exchanging prisoners of war. It gained its name since prisoners brought to the bridge for repatriation were given a choice: stay in the country that captured them, or return to their homeland. After crossing the bridge, the decision was final and they would never be able to return, even if they later changed their minds.
View of the bridge and the surrounding area where the tree used to stand.
We were also introduced to the strange tale of the “Axe murder incident.” It’s a rather long story, but the basics are: back in 1976, South Korea had a checkpoint that was obscured from the observation post and the other checkpoints by a large poplar tree, which left it open to attack by the North Koreans. Repeated attempts had been made by the North Korean soldiers at the checkpoint nearby, to kidnap UNC personnel working there. So a group of ROK and US soldiers were sent to trim off the limbs. The North Koreans didn’t like this, and it escalated into them crossing into South Korean territory, attacking the ROK and US soldiers with various weapons (including axes brought for the tree trimming) and killing two US soldiers. Later “Operation Paul Bunyan” was carried out with a great show of force, and the tree was removed. The Wikipedia page entry has a really detailed run down of the whole situation if you want to read further.
From a vantage point within the JSA, we also got a much better look at Daesong-dong and Kijong-dong, where we could see a lot of details with the naked eye. Honestly I felt this was much better than the observatory.
At many points in the JSA it felt like we were being watched…
I cannot recommend visiting the DMZ and JSA enough! It really did live up to all my expectations, and left me feeling very satisfied that I finally made it there. If you have the chance to, read a few books about the Korean War and the situation in North Korea before you go, as having some knowledge of the history and what life is like in North Korea made the whole experience even more engaging for me.
1. This friendly South Korean soldier at Dora observatory put up with dad failing to take a photo for about 5 minutes. 2. Our awesome US Army guide!
Tour : Make sure you do a DMZ and JSA tour, otherwise you miss out on the best part. We went with KORIDOOR and had a great experience.
Booking: If you want to book with KORIDOOR, you can do that here . It’s just a matter of sending through a request and they will email you with all the details. Tours don’t usually run on weekends, and certain days when the soldiers are training. You need to check this before you book your trip.
Time: Earlier is better! Especially if you get worried easily like me about missing the JSA. It’s an early start (be there at 7am) but it means you have a lot of afternoon left when you get back to Seoul.
Other notes: Bring your lunch if you want to save money. They take you to a canteen type place, but it’s a bit overpriced and it’s nicer to sit outside with a sandwich anyway (unless it’s winter, maybe don’t do that in winter). There’s also a convenience store with lots of reasonably priced drinks, so you don’t need to bring a huge bottle of water.
DON’T FORGET: Your passport, and the dress code!
Let me know in the comments if this is something you would like to do, or have already done! Have you had a similar travel experience to the situation at the Korean border?