The DMZ is about an hour's driving distance north of Seoul. Enroute, our local tour guide gave us several precautions including taking photographs only in approved spots, being careful not to point or gesture at anything, and avoiding communication or contact with any North Korean or United Nations military (!!!).
Our first stop was Camp Bonifas. This is a military post located within the Joint Security Area (JSA) in Panmunjom. This is the only place where North Korean and South Korean forces stand face-to-face, and it is nicknamed "Truce Village." When we arrived, it was clear how heavily guarded the premises were. There were military personnel everywhere. We were not allowed to take pictures.
At this point, American military took over the tour. They did a very thorough check of all of our passports. Then, they gave us each one of these visitor badges:
|UNCMAC stands for United Nations Command, Military Armistice Commission|
We were asked to attest that we were not intoxicated or under the influence of controlled substances; that we were not carrying any weapons; and that we were not planning to defect into North Korea. This drew some laughter from several folks - but I fully realized that this was no joke.
Another tour group arrived with a large group of media representatives wielding video cameras and microphones. Military personnel sternly apprehended them, saying that media visits required a special permit and escort. Again, this was obviously not a joke.
We watched a slide show explaining the history of the DMZ:
After the slide show, we were shown the Freedom House. It is intended for possible use to host reunions of families separated by the Korean War. (Note that "possible" is the operative word; my understanding is that no such reunions have ever occurred there.) No pictures allowed.
We were then shown the Military Demarcation Line marking the border between North Korea and South Korea. In this picture, the blue buildings are the JSA where negotiations are held. The blue buildings straddle the border and anything beyond them is North Korean soil.
Our guide warned us that North Korean snipers were in the building carefully monitoring our every move. We were reminded again not to point or make any gestures, as this would risk endangering ourselves and everyone around us. This made me nervous about even pushing my hair out of my eyes or adjusting my glasses!
Here's a closer shot of some of the military guards on the South Korean side. The cement line in the middle of the picture is the official demarcation line.
We were told that sometimes North Korean soldiers will guard right at the line, so the two sides could literally be standing facing each other. (Awkward?)
We then went inside one of the conference rooms where the negotiations take place. The blue flag on the conference table represents the demarkation line. The right of the flag is North Korean territory, and left of the flag is South Korean. Note the Republic of Korea soldier standing guard right along the flag, as well as the American soldier on the left.
In case you were wondering, the guy in the white shirt was trying to take a picture with the Korean soldier.
Here are some closer views of the Korean soldier. Check out the armband.
We were permitted and encouraged to step into the North Korean side of the room - so we all did. Given the controlled environment, it didn't feel dangerous to me.
We were heavily warned that we should NOT attempt to exit the conference room on the North Korean side. I believe the exact words used were, "Don't even think about it. Just don't." You got it, buddy.
At this point, the tour was turned back over to our local tour guide and we departed Camp Bonifas.
We then drove past the Dorasan Observatory, where North Korea's landscape is visible. On clear days, you are able to see mountains that are in North Korean territory. Unfortunately it was very overcast when I was there, so visibility was quite poor. But here is what I got:
Next, we saw the Bridge of No Return. The bridge crosses the Military Demarcation Line and was used for prisoner exchanges at the end of the Korean War.
|We were not allowed to step outside by the bridge. Therefore, I took this picture from inside the bus. |
(Hence, the poor picture quality.)
Our last stop was Injimgak, which is a park built in Paju (South Korea's northernmost city). The park was built to console those who were impacted by the division of Korea. The area is filled with statues and monuments from the Korean War.
This is the Bridge of Freedom, which is a former railroad bridge for repatriated soldiers returning from North Korea:
Throughout the park, various walls are filled with peace-wishing ribbons, flags, and other personal notes:
There is a lot more detail on the DMZ and JSA that I am not including here for sake of brevity. However, the more I reflect on the experience, the more I am realizing the magnitude of the area and all of its history.
I am usually not big on guided tours, but seeing the DMZ is most definitely NOT something that you can do on your own. In summary, I think the tour was well worth it. I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to go.
In case you missed it, check out some of my other pictures from Seoul here.
Wow. Very cool. That part of the world is such a mystery to most of us Americans.ReplyDelete
Thanks Marcia! Sadly, I think North Korea is a huge mystery even to a lot of South Koreans, too.Delete
Isn't seeing things like this such an eye opener? When I traveled in Asia (although not Korea), I was shocked by things not much unlike this. Coming home afterwards, you really learn to appreciate what you have ... and, it's much harder to listen to people gripe about what they don't have, and other things like "America's overpowering government". I mean - come on! Our government isn't perfect, but we can freely go about our day, choose our own paths in life, and can even browse whatever we wish on the internet!! (Unlike one country I went to, where I couldn't even access my own blog - makes you wonder). Not to mention, we certainly don't have border controls like you mention above in place with Canada or Mexico ... where we can't even point due to fear of being shot. BLAH!ReplyDelete
You're brave to go on a tour like that!! Like you, I would be worried to even adjust my hair, too. I would also be afraid that some dummy in the group would decide to break one of the rules just because, and I'd end up as a casualty due to their poor decision making. But you HAVE to go when an opportunity like that arises!!
Interesting fact: my grandfather served in the Navy during the Korean war. When he found out I was studying Chinese, he just about had a stroke. He saw some bad things happen over there, and NEVER wanted me to go. Thankfully, he passed away before I started traveling there for my studies, and later for business. After reading your post above, I can only imagine some of the things he must have endured.
Wow, that is terrifying that you couldn't access your own blog in one country! Yes, i think about the comparison between the U.S. Borders with Canada and Mexico. The Mexican border is considered tight but it is nothing compared to North Korea. Absolutely - I think the best part of traveling is how it helps you to appreciate where you are when you are not traveling!Delete
You are absolutely right that I was worried about my fellow tour goers misbehaving, LOL. Thankfully we were all so nervous that we were almost scared to breathe too deeply.
Wow on your grandfather. I shudder to think of what he must have endured, too. Let's not think about it!
Wow, thank you for sharing. I felt nervous just reading this. It kind of reminds me when we were on our honeymoon, a caribbean cruise, and we took a bus into Mexico to go to some ruins, and our bus passed groups of heavily armed soldiers along the highway. Makes you realize how much we take for granted in the US.ReplyDelete
Thanks Maggie! That would be terrifying to see heavily armed soldiers in Mexico. It's a huge jolt of reality when you are on your honeymoon, right? But it very much makes us appreciate how good we have it in the States!Delete
We saw armed soilders all over Mexico when we were there. It was one of the first things we saw driving from Cancun to Playa del Carmen - a truck driving down the highway with a bunch of soldiers in the back with machine guns. It was definitely a shock to see! They'd patrol the beach on ATVs with big guns too.Delete
It would be terrifying to see soldiers patrolling the beach with big guns. So much for being able to relax and enjoy yourself, right? =(Delete
Wow. That must have been such a powerful thing to see. It looks like an incredibly intense and eye-opening experience.ReplyDelete
Yes - it really made me appreciate so many things that I take for granted. I also realize how lucky I am that my family is right there and that we are not separated by political lines! We have it so good in the States. We really do.Delete
Very cool pictures. Hope you have having a great time!ReplyDelete
Thanks so much, Amanda! It has been a great vacation!Delete
Wow. I never would have thought to go on a tour there, but it really does bring history to life.ReplyDelete
Yes - there is something to be said for seeing things in person versus just reading about them in history books!!!Delete
This is so cool and yet sad. It reminds me of going to East Berlin and into East Germany in the 80s. I have officially put Korea on my "bucket list" now! I wonder if there are any races there? :)ReplyDelete
Good comparison with Germany! Yes, go visit Korea! There are not many runners in Korea, sadly. I was the only runner on the streets! But I missed a Nike race by one weekend. :(Delete
Wow. Didn't that make you appreciate your freedom? What a wonderful experience! Thanks for sharing it. I'd love to read more!ReplyDelete
Thanks Wendy! Yes, we have things so good in the States. It really puts things into perspective. More pictures are up now. :)Delete
I have so many thoughts! First of all, I've never been to any part of Asia, but it's on my life to-do list. I'd love to get over there some day, and South Korea is at the top of the list.ReplyDelete
Also, I have a huge fascination with North Korea. It was unbelievable to me that it could be as horrific as it is there, but it's not really talked about. (I didn't know about it until I was an adult.) I've read a few books and watched a few documentaries, so I'm def not an expert, but I'm highly intrigued.
I had no clue tours like this were even a thing! You even got to go in a conference room! I mean, I'm just in awe over here. I hope the rest of your trip is just as enjoyable!
Amy, I was thinking about you and Stephen when I saw all the American military on site! It really made me appreciate what our military do to keep people safe. I think you would have really enjoyed the tour, and visiting Korea in general!Delete
I am intrigued by N Korea too. I have heard so many different sides so it would be interesting to see things firsthand instead of relying on the media, right? I didn't know about this tour either until Helen told me (she is Korean and has lived in Seoul for a year). If it weren't for her, I would never have heard about it either!
Thanks for the travel wishes Amy!
Thanks for sharing this, I learned a lot from it (as it made me research a few things on Wikipedia). I think it's fantastic you were brave enough to go on this tour and see it for yourself. I think it's actually amazing they are taking people there at all!ReplyDelete
Thanks Kim! I actually did a lot of research on the DMZ after I got back from the tour, too. There were a lot of things that we talked about on the tour that I didn't fully understand while seeing it. I was surprised at how much of a tourist attraction the tours are! Not surprisingly, my tour group was very international. And from what I hear, North Korea WANTS people to take the tour because it brings awareness to the situation!Delete