DMZ Tour Review

First, a few definitions, from Wikipedia.

Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) : a strip of land running across the Korean peninsula that serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea. The DMZ cuts the Korean Peninsula roughly in half, crossing the 38th parallel on an angle, with the west end of the DMZ lying south of the parallel and the east end lying north of it. It is 250 kilometres (160 miles) long, approximately 4 km (2.5 mi) wide and is the most heavily militarized border in the world.

Joint Security Area (JSA) : the only portion of the DMZ where South and North Korean forces stand face-to-face. The JSA is used by the two Koreas for diplomatic engagements and, until March 1991, was also the site of military negotiations between North Korea and the United Nation Command (UNC). The Joint Security Area is located within the village of Panmunjom.

Many companies offer DMZ tours, we chose Service Club. Compared to others, their tour was complete, the price was ok (120 000 KRW) and the English website was not too bad. The tour can be reserved on their website. Reservation was fast and convenient. For the Joint Security Area, you have to reserve at least one day in advance. The guide told us that South Korean need to apply several months before to go to the Joint Security Area. It’s a lot easier for foreigners.

We left from Lotte Hotel at 8h30. The bus was quite cozy.

As soon as we were out of Seoul, the guide made us notice that there is barbed wire all along the Han river. The Han river flows in the middle of Seoul, but it goes to North Korea as well. The wire is there to prevent spies entering South Korea through the Han river.

The first stop is Imjingak. This is the last point before Civilian Limited area : people who came by car must take the shuttle bus here to go further. In Imjingak there are some monuments of the Korean war and more importantly, the Freedom bridge, where prisonners were exchanged after the war.

We leave Imjingak to enter the Civilian control zone. People can not go there with their own car : they have to be in a tour bus. At the check point, a soldier enters the bus and check each passenger’s passport. Starting from there, taking pictures is strongly regulated. We’re heading for the 3rd tunnel.

We have to leave belongings in a locker. We put on a helmet and sit in a monorail to go down the tunnel. It’s very impressive. As we go down, it gets narrower. Before going, the guide advised that people with claustrophobia or respiratory problems should stay outside; I understand why. The monorail arrives in the tunnel and we walk to the end and back. I’m not so tall, and I had to bend over in the tunnel. It looked painful for tall people ! Back to the surface, we watched a short and interesting movie about the tunnel and the DMZ.

Back in the bus, next stop is Dora Observatory. Here we can get a view of the DMZ and the North Korean city of Kaesong. We can pay to use the binoculars, but I didn’t. Since the weather is clear, the view is pretty. Pictures can only be taken from a certain distance, a clear yellow line marks the limit. Yet, one tourist disrespected the rule and was noticed by the soldier. He erased her pictures.

The scenery is beautiful, with plenty of little mountains. However, there are almost no trees on the North Korean side : they were all used for heating, according to the guide.

Back to the bus again. We’re going to Dorasan Station. Located on the now closed railroad connecting North and South, it has been completely restored. The station is fully ready to operate when the reunification is completed. (the guide was always saying when the reunification happens, and not if the reunification happens) It’s possible to buy a train ticket as a souvenir.

This ends the first part of the tour. We’re going to a restaurant in the city of Paju where we have delicious bulgogi for lunch.

We go back to Imjingak and separate. Some people didn’t take the combined tour and are going back to Seoul. We took the whole tour and are going to the Joint Security Area, which is the most impressive part of the trip in my opinion.

From now on pictures are even more strictly regulated. We have to pass a couple of check points before arriving to the JSA Tourist Center. Here we watch a presentation about the JSA. We leave everything in the bus : we can only bring a camera without the case. We cannot have anything else in our hands. We take another bus driven by a soldier. Another soldier stays in the bus and watches us. The guide tells us that soldiers working in the JSA are the best South Korean soldiers : they are the most intelligent, they must be black belt of taekwondo and must speak English as well as a third language. They are actually very impressive.

First we enter the DMZ itself. There is a village inside the DMZ called Panmunjeom. (apparently people living there do not pay taxes due to their dangerous location) We see rice fieds, and we learn that farmers are always escorted by soldiers when they go work in the fields. However, we don’t see anyone. We arrive at the JSA, a couple of meters away from North Korea. We are actually facing a North Korean builing, and we can see a North Korean soldier watching us. We are allowed to take pictures of what we see in front of us. We are not allowed to point in any direction.

If you look very closely on the next picture, you can see the North Korean soldier.

We enter in the conference room in the middle, and we learn with surprise that half of the room is in North Korea. The demarcation is on the table :

I am actually standing in North Korea. We are allowed to take pictures anywhere in the room. The two South Korean soldiers in the room stay still : they look like statues.

That was really impressive ! On the way back, we pass by the place where the Axe Murder Incident took place. We can take pictures from the bus, but there’s not much to see. The story is more interesting.

Nearby, we see the Bridge of No Return. At the end of the war, prisoners were brought there and given the choice to go to North or South. After they chose, they could not come back.

We go back to the JSA Tourist Center where we can buy some souvenirs. We meet some US soldiers there. Then we’re going back to Seoul and arrive around 5h15.

The guides were great, though the one we had for the first part was better than the second one. The tour was interesting and informative. I did know about the DMZ, but I learned a lot more. Definitely a must-do !

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