So I finally made it to the DMZ. I had a tour booked last year when I was in Seoul, but due to airline mishaps, I ended up missing it. It’s pretty much impossible to reschedule a DMZ tour at the last minute because the tour organizer has to provide your passport information to the authorities ahead of time.
“What is the DMZ and why were you so interested in visiting it?” you may ask. The DMZ is the Demilitarized Zone, an extensively patrolled strip of land that runs between North and South Korea. After the Korean War, the North and the South signed an armistice agreement and Korea was divided in two, roughly along the 38th parallel. South Korea is known as the Republic of Korea (ROK) and North Korea is known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Despite the armistice, a peace treaty has never been signed so the two Koreas are technically still at war. The DMZ is the most heavily militarized border in the world.
I’ve read a lot about North Korea and I find it both fascinating and horrifying. I still want to visit North Korea for real, but I couldn’t pass up a chance to see the DMZ while I was in Seoul.
At the time of our tour, the tensions between North and South Korea were pretty high. In Japan, there were daily updates on the news about the possibility of a North Korean missile launch. The Kaesong Industrial Region was closed. The day of our tour was actually the day that a bunch of South Koreans were released from Kaesong, so it was a bit iffy that the tour would even go ahead. But it did!
I did the Panmunjom tour with Tour DMZ. It was a good tour, but I definitely wished that I did a full day tour that included everything instead of just Panmunjom, because it was so interesting. Another popular tour is the USO tour, but I prefer my tours with as little of an American slant as possible. (However, once you get to the DMZ you will be escorted by someone from the US military regardless of which kind of tour you’re on.) Our tour guide Mr. Kim was really funny and included a lot of Korean history and trivia on the ride to the DMZ. A guided tour is the only kind of tour you can take to get to the DMZ.
One thing I have to note is that it almost seems kind of pointless to post all these photos because I know that they’re the same photos that everyone takes. But for most of the tour, photographs are not allowed. The DMZ is something you should just go and see for yourself, because you’ll never get the real experience via photos. (Plus you should go to Seoul anyway because Seoul is awesome.)
Our chariot awaits. Most tours (except the USO tour) start at the Lotte Hotel. The DMZ is maybe an hour and a half from Seoul.
The inside of the bus. I thought it looked like the Gangnam Style bus…
… right? Similar curtains and everything! But our tour guide was not Psy.
No jeans and no short pants, said our receipt.
The tour included lunch so we stopped in some town near the DMZ for lunch.
They warned us not to drink the water, but that may have been a scam to get us to buy drinks.
First stop, Imjingak. Imjingak is a park in Paju, South Korea, quite close to the North Korean border. It’s the closest that South Koreans can get to North Korea — South Koreans are not permitted to visit the DMZ. Says Wikipedia, The park was built to console those from both sides who are unable to return to their hometowns, friends and families because of the division of Korea.
“Go ahead and take pictures,” said our guide.
The Bridge of Freedom, where 13,000 POWs were exchanged after the Korean War.
Cute little guard statue.
I just found this to be horribly sad. People from South Korea can leave messages for their friends and relatives in North Korea on the bridge. Friends and relatives they were separated from after the Korean War and who they will probably never see again.
A train derailed by bombs during the Korean War, and covered in bullet holes.
More messages and wishes for peace/reunification of the North and South.
A crazy amount of barbed wire. On the other side of the river is North Korea.
Strangely fitting, there were two white doves on the ground near the fence.
I think it would be fairly impossible to cross this fence.
Imjingang Station is the second last station towards North Korea on the Gyeongui Line. The last station (closest to North Korea) is Dorasan Station, which is only open to tourists. Before the Korean War, the Gyeongui Line connected Seoul to Pyongyang.
Just one of the many, many anti-tank walls on the way to the DMZ. The walls are made so that they can be blown up to block the path of advancing North Korean tanks if necessary. They’re often covered in ads, but it’s still a bit disconcerting.
Guest pass to get inside the DMZ area. There’s also a passport check. We ended up sitting on the bus for a long time because of the Kaesong workers being released. There was a lot of reporters camped out near the DMZ, but we couldn’t take any photos.
You must basically sign your life away and agree to the possibility that you may be killed. “The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”
Inside the JSA (Joint Security Area), where the North and the South hold diplomatic negotiations. Technically, half of the room is in South Korea, and half of the room is in North Korea. The door on the far side of the room opens up in North Korea.
You can take photos with the ROK military guards, but they do not move and their arms remain firmly clenched.
You know, like this.
Outside the building, the line marks the boundary between South and North Korea.
Right down the middle of this table separates the North Korean side and the South Korean side.
In case you want to defect or something, there’s the door to North Korea.
Always wearing Ray-Bans, and always clenched.
From Wikipedia: Above the interpreter’s station is a plexiglas-covered board on which the flags of the nations that are part of the UN Joint Command are printed. There used to be a shelf with miniature silk flags on small poles in that spot, but the shelf was removed after two North Korean soldiers showed disrespect by defacing the flags of both the United States and South Korea.
Yep, that’s North Korea.
The North Korean guard on the other side.
North Korea and South Korea stare each other down.
I guess North Korea doesn’t have Ray-Bans.
The JSA is patrolled by both South Korean military and US military.
The ROK military guards all seem so young, since South Korea has mandatory military service.
A monument commemorating the axe murder incident in 1976.
The Bridge of No Return.
At the end of the tour, there was a small gift shop where you could buy DMZ stuff, the Ray-Bans the guards wear, and North Korean merchandise. We bought this bottle of Paekrosul, a kind of North Korean brandy, made in the DPRK. I’m a bit afraid to drink it.
Again, I could only take photos of what we were allowed to take photos of — which didn’t include a lot of things. For most of the time we were on the bus, we couldn’t take photos. One of the cool things we passed was the North Korean Propaganda Village — they have this massive flag, mostly for the sake of having a massive flag that’s bigger than South Korea’s flag. (In the 1980s, the nearby South Korean village of Daeseong-dong put up a large South Korean flag, and North Korea responded by putting up even larger North Korean flag.) It’s weird to see the two flags waving so close to each other.
If you have any interest in North Korea or even just in history, definitely check out a DMZ tour if you’re ever in Seoul. Just make sure to plan ahead by at least a couple days. And on your flight to Seoul, I recommend Barbara Demick’s very good book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea if you need some background on North Korea.