Before I arrived in Seoul, my cousin asked me what I wanted to do and see in the week that he was taking off of work to be my personal tour guide. I told him a few things that I wanted to see: Gyeongbokgung, Bukchon Hanok Village, and the DMZ/Joint Security Area. He said that the only thing that he had not yet done was a DMZ and JSA tour, and it was the last thing on his bucket list of things to do in Korea before he moved back to the United States just two months later. I immediately started searching tours online and settled on a full day tour that was advertised on TripAdvisor. This tour included transportation to and from Seoul including hotel pickup, a tour of three sights just outside of the Demilitarized Zone, the four-kilometer-wide border between North and South Korea, including the Third Infiltration Tunnel, The Dora Observatory, Dorasan train station, and lastly a tour of the Joint Security Area (JSA), which meant that I was going to be able to set foot in North Korea for about five minutes, much to my mother’s dismay. To be fair, when I was over there, Kim Jong Un was flexing his figurative muscles by doing some test launches of missiles. I was surprised by the laid back attitude of the South Koreans in regards to their crazy neighbor to the north. While my mother was freaking out and making me register my address with the US State Department, the South Koreans were merely briefly reporting his actions on the news and going about their daily lives. I guess if you always have a crazy dictator as a neighbor, you take everything with a grain of salt until he actually does something destructive? To my mother’s dismay, I booked two tickets and told only my dad the date that we were going. Sorry, Mom!
On the morning of the tour, I met my cousin at the Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon where we were being picked up by our tour guide. We then rode on a large charter bus about an hour to Imjingak, a park that has a small amusement area with rides and a few restaurants. Later we returned here to have lunch between the morning and afternoon tours.
After our tour guide bought our tickets, we got back on our bus and headed to our first destination, the Third Infiltration Tunnel. There are two parts to the site. The first is a building where you watch a video giving a brief history of the Korean War and an introduction to all of the infiltration tunnels. The second part is the actual Third Infiltration Tunnel that you can walk down into. It is one of four tunnels the North Koreans have created that have been discovered since 1974. They were to be used for an invasion into Seoul from the North. According to the information given at the tunnel, 30,000 North Korean soldiers could pass through the tunnel in just an hour. The tunnel is 1,635 meters (1 mile) long with 435 meters of that being past the Military Demarcation Line in South Korea. At its maximum height and width, the tunnel is only 1.95 meters (6’5”) tall and 2.1 meters (6’11”) wide. All visitors are required to wear a hard hat when they go into the tunnel. I am a very short female (5’1”), and most of the time I was ducking my head. There is a chorus of hard hats hitting the ceiling of the tunnel the entire time you are down there, which is really hilarious to me. (I even hit my head a couple of times, which was slightly embarrassing.) This attraction is definitely not for people who have back problems or people who are not very physically fit. There is too much bending, and hiking back up from the bottom of the tunnel is very rigorous. The path to get down to and back up from the tunnel is 358 meters long, and it is steep! I have had knee problems for twelve years, and I could really feel the stress on them going down the hill to the tunnel which is 73 meters below ground. Once in the tunnel, you walk single file, one line going in and one line going out. The length of the tunnel that tourists are allowed to walk is 265 meters long, and ends at a concrete blockade, which has a hole that you can look through to the other blockades. No pictures were allowed inside of the tunnel, but I did find a picture on Google of the inside of the tunnel to post. Even though I couldn’t take pictures, I definitely won’t forget that experience.
After we finished our hike to and from the Third Tunnel, we got back on the bus and headed to the Dora Observatory, which overlooks the DMZ. From the observatory you can view Daeseong-dong (대성동), the only South Korean village that lies within the DMZ, and Kijeong-dong (기정동), the only North Korean village that lies within the DMZ. These villages are located only 2.22 kilometers or 1.38 miles apart. Daeseong-dong is inhabited only by those who lived in the village before the Korean War and their descendants. There is a flagpole in Daeseong-dong that was erected in the 1980s by the South Korean government that stands 98.4 meters (323 feet) high. The North Korean government responded to this by erecting a flagpole in Kijeong-dong that is 160 meters (525 feet) tall. Kijeong-dong was built in the 1950s, and is known in North Korea as Peace Village (pyeonghwachon 평화촌). The North Korean government claims that it is a two hundred family collective farming village with schools and a hospital. Further inspection with telescopic lenses, however, has shown that the buildings lack glass windows and interior rooms. It appears that lights are turned on and off at scheduled times in an effort to make it look as if the village is inhabited. It is referred to as Propaganda Village (seonjeon maeul 선전마을) by countries outside of North Korea. It seems clear that the town was built in an effort to encourage South Korean defection and to house North Korean soldiers manning the network of positions around the border zone. From the Dora Observatory, you can see both villages with your naked eye, albeit with difficultly due to the haze of pollution, and more closely with the telescopes on site that cost 500 Won (a little less than 50 cents) to use. You can see both flagpoles and the vastly empty North Korean landscape beyond Kijeong-dong. The landscape of North Korea is beautiful, but it is very eerie looking into the countryside knowing the things that go on beyond this border.
After the Dora Observatory, we boarded the bus again and were transported to Dorasan Station (도라산역). This train station is the northernmost stop on the South Korean Gyeongui Line. The Gyeongui Line connects to North Korea, and Dorasan Station used to be a functional station many years ago. This station was restored and reopened as a tourist attraction in 2002; however, on December 11th, 2007 freight trains full of materials began to travel to the Kaesong Industrial Region and returned with finished goods. Not even a year later, on December 1st, 2008 the North Korean government closed the border to these trains. The Kaesong Industrial Region is a complex that opened in 2002 located just north of the DMZ, in which a few hundred South Korean citizens worked jointly with North Koreans. This complex was temporarily closed in 2013 due to tensions between the two countries, and it was permanently closed in 2016. Dorasan Station still can be reached from Seoul Station (서울 약) four times a day and through DMZ tours. The station is within the Civilian Control Zone, like all of the sites other than Imjingak on this tour, so identification is required for all Koreans, and passports are required for all foreigners. If you reach the station through Seoul instead of through a tour, your passport will be checked at Imjingang Station, the station just before Dorasan Station.
Upon entering the station, I stepped into the main waiting area. The two platforms were located beyond glass doors. The platform for trains heading to Pyongyang was straight ahead, and the platform for those going to Seoul was to the left. Between the two platforms is a gift shop which sells a few unique items, such as wire from the fences on the DMZ border, North Korean wine, and soybean chocolates produced in North Korea. I bought some wine for my dad, which we still haven’t opened, and my cousin bought some of the soybean chocolates, which were delicious! The station heavily emphasizes the hopeful unification of the Korean Peninsula everywhere you turn, from the signs out front to the Inter-Korean Transit Office desk. It seems unusually optimistic, considering the relations that the two countries currently have. This concluded our morning tour. We went back to Imjingak, where we had lunch and joined our new guide for our tour of the Joint Security Area.
We were loaded onto the bus again and rode to Camp Bonifas, a joint South Korean and United States military base. Here we had our passports checked, signed a waiver that stated we knew the danger of entering the area, and had a security briefing for about ten minutes with our tour guide Private Rana. We were shown a map of the Joint Security Area and where we would be located within it. Private Rana told us to follow all of his directions, including when to move, where to stand, and to speak only when he said it was allowed. In the briefing, he gave us a brief history of the JSA including different aggressive encounters that have occurred between the North and the South within the JSA. One of the incidents he talked about was the “Axe Murder Incident” of 1976 where United States officers Arthur Bonifas and Mark Barrett were killed by North Korean soldiers for trimming a poplar tree on the South side of the Military Demarcation Line in the JSA, which was obstructing the view between the United Nations Command checkpoint 3 and observation post 5, all of which were on the southern side of the Military Demarcation Line. Private Rana also clarified the difference between Panmunjeom and the Joint Security Area. He explained that Tours of Panmunjeom do not exist from the south, as Panmunjeom is actually located in the North Hwanghae Province of North Korea just north of the military demarcation line, and 800 meters east of the JSA. The Joint Security Area lies within the original boundaries of Panmunjeom, a farming village. However, Panmunjeom is no longer an inhabited village; it was destroyed during the war. It is much smaller now than it was before the war. Panmunjeom is where the Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953, and the only building that remains in the village is the pavilion constructed for the signing of the agreement. It is now the North Korea Peace Museum. The history and proximity of Panmunjeom and the JSA and has led to using their names interchangeably, but they are now two separate locations. Tours of the Joint Security Area from the south are led only by soldiers. Finally, before we left the briefing, Private Rana asked if anyone had any intentions of defecting to North Korea today. He emphasized that if anyone did run for the other side of the border that a fire fight would ensue and he and all of the other US and ROK soldiers around would have to do everything in their power to stop someone if they did try to defect. To lighten the mood, he asked us not to make his job any harder today than it needed to be.
After the briefing, our group boarded another bus from Camp Bonifas, and we were driven to the JSA. Private Rana led us off of the bus and into the Freedom House on the South Korean side. The Freedom House was constructed as a place for North-South meetings and exchanges. We were instructed to be silent and walk with Private Rana to the back side of the building. We lined up and faced forward towards the border/the North. We were allowed to take pictures only in the direction of the North, not the South. The building that mirrors the Freedom House on the North Korean side is called Panmungak (판문각), and North Korean soldiers can be seen there standing guard. On the day that we were there, it was Kim Jong Un’s birthday, so we only saw one soldier who is referred to as “Bob.” Private Rana also told us not to be alarmed if a North Korean soldier was to approach us and that they are allowed to approach tour groups. He didn’t think anyone would be approached today because Bob was the only person there. We were then led into the middle meeting room that encompasses the Military Demarcation Line. The southern end of the room is part of South Korea, and the northern part of the room is part of North Korea. There is a table in the middle of the room with microphones whose wires mark the Military Demarcation Line. In the northern part of the room there were two South Korean (ROK) soldiers who we were able to take pictures with. We were allowed five minutes in this room, and then we were escorted back to the Freedom House and onto the bus.
The entire experience was surreal. I have never been in a situation that is so serious and where the outcome of my actions mattered so much. Someone running fifty feet in a straight line, a normal action, would cause a devastating scene and put many lives in danger. It could even cause an international incident. It isn’t sure how things would unfurl, but none of the options are positive. That was strange to think about while I was standing in front of the three blue meeting houses. When we entered the middle meeting house it was scary to think that Private Rana told us to ask him questions back on the bus because the room was bugged by both sides, and he was not at liberty to answer them. Everything that was said could also cause international conflict. The tensions between North Korea and the United States were high at that time, now even more so. When I went back to Korea in August of 2017, I did not do another tour of the JSA. Once was enough for me in one year, but I would go back if a family member or friend wanted to see it on a future visit to Korea.
When we arrived back at Camp Bonifas, we went into the small gift shop that was next to the building where we had been briefed prior to heading to the JSA. We were allowed to go in and shop, and we were also allowed to explore the other buildings around the parking lot which were a Christian church and a very small Buddhist temple. After that we got on our bus, and we headed back to Seoul. The trip was a full day; the entire tour was eight hours long. This tour was one of the highlights from my first trip to Korea. It was very educational and powerful. It was something that most people never get to experience, and I am glad that I had the opportunity to. I would recommend anyone visiting Korea to do a tour of the DMZ and JSA. It is something that I will never forget.