Saturday, September 5, 2015
Wow – just wow! Our visit to the DMZ and JSA yesterday was incredible. I can’t stop thinking about it. The feeling you have when standing at Conference Row directly facing North Korea, fully aware you are being surveillanced, is nearly stifling. This place is really unlike any other in the world, and it feels that way. We may rag on Korea a bit for everything being the same everywhere we go. But this – this is different. This is unique. This is crazy. If you are traveling to Asia this is something you shouldn’t miss.
Not all DMZ tours will take you to the JSA, or Joint Security Area, which is an area 800m in diameter (Panmunjeom) outside administrative control of North or South Korea. This is what you picture in your head when you think of the DMZ, and what I mentioned above – the blue houses, the soldiers standing guard. It’s a must-see! We took our tour through Koridoor/USO which we would highly recommend! They book up fast, so reserve in advance.
Without further adieu, here’s how our tour went yesterday:
Our first stop on the tour was the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. This tunnel was discovered in 1978 with the aid of a defector who had helped build it. There are 4 total tunnels that have been found, but many more that have yet to be located. The tunnels were built so the North could make a surprise attack on Seoul. When accused of such, the North spray painted the interior black and called it a coal mine, which is not geologically possible in this area.
The tunnel was built to fit the size of a North Korean soldier. That means short, very short. They provide hard hats for you to to wear and they are not for show. Even I, standing at not quite 5’4″, bumped my head a couple times. Thank you, Hard Hat.
Here are some photos from this portion of our trip.
Our next stop was Dora Observatory, which looks across the DMZ. On a clear day (unlike yesterday), one can see the cities of Kaesong and Gijong-dong, aka the “Propaganda Village.” We could see a bit better with our naked eye than the cameras let on.
The third stop was nearby Dorasan Station. This is the northernmost train station on Korea’s rail line and, pending reunification, will one day connect Seoul to Pyongyang. We were able to pay 500 KRW (~ 40 cents) for a ticket to the platform.
The last, and most exciting, stop of the day was the JSA. First, we headed to Camp Bonifas, where we added a US Army Lieutenant to our group as our security escort aka tour guide. At the visitor center in Camp Bonifas, we sat through a presentation about the two Koreas, the DMZ and the JSA. From there, we went to the Freedom House. I didn’t know what to expect. We walked into the building and stood in a line waiting to move up the stairs. Once we got the go-ahead, and we climbed the stairs, the back windows of the Freedom House revealed all. We were heading to Conference Row! My body tightened. I couldn’t believe I was there.
It was chilling.
Next, we got to step foot inside one of the old Military Armistice Commission conference rooms, and subsequently, inside North Korea. The blue conference rooms straddle the MDL. Even the tables are situated so the MDL runs directly through them. There were 2 ROK (Republic of Korea/South Korea) soldiers inside the room with us, solely for our protection. One stands at the head of the big conference table, right on the MDL. The other stands on the Northern side of the MDL, in front of the door that leads out to the DPRK. If you take the tour from the North Korean side, two KPA guards stand inside the room with you, one guarding the door to the ROK.
After our short visit here, we headed to Checkpoint 3. When we stand in front of it, we are surrounded by North Korea on 3 sides, the border visible a few tens of feet away. From Checkpoint 3, we can view the propaganda village of Gijong-dong. It was built to encourage South Korean defection. The flagpole is the 4th largest in the world, and was made twice, the second time to be higher than a neighboring South Korean flagpole. The flag itself weighs in at 600 lbs, making it difficult to sway in the wind. The buildings here are fake. Many have painted-on windows and doors. Others with actual windows (or holes with no glass) are empty inside. You can tell because the automatic lights will turn on and the “top floor” will be bright, but the light dims as it reaches the “bottom floor.”
This is one of 2 villages allowed within the confines of the DMZ. The other, Daesong-dong (Freedom Village), is on the South Korean side. We are unable to photograph it. The people who live there are tax-exempt and get paid $82,000 a year. Men are exempt from military service but most join anyway. To live there, you must have had family living there before the Korean War. Women can marry into it but men cannot. The population is about 200 and for every child there is a teacher. You can go to school here up until high school, at which point you can go to any school of your choice in South Korea.
Here are 2 photos standing in front of Checkpoint 3. We cannot photograph Checkpoint 3. The last picture is of the Bridge of No Return, where POW’s were exchanged after the Korean War. The MDL runs right through it.
And so ends our trip to the DMZ and JSA, from the South Korean side. We were awarded a rare glimpse at the Hermit Kingdom and the daily life of soldiers who look toward the enemy at all times. The seriousness of this encounter is not lost on me and I’m grateful to have experienced it. I will never forget this.
Before I go, here’s a few interesting points I want to share:
- There is a strict dress code on the tour, including not being able to wear ripped jeans or sandals. This is because the North Koreans can use that as propaganda. “Look at all these Westerners who can’t even afford clothes that fully cover them!”
- We sign a release form when we get to Camp Bonifas, the first line reading the tour “will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.” It also says not to wave, point, or gesture. Ever. No communication using anything, including your eyes.
- The borders of the DMZ are complete with tank walls, cement blocks, and barbed wire. Within the DMZ itself, you’ll find it to be almost a nature conservatory, though there are plenty of land mines.
- There is a souvenir shop at Camp Bonifas. It’s the only place you can buy North Korean produced wine, brandy or whiskey, and North Korean currency. Word on the street is the wine is awful.