May 20, 2017
On our way back from the Philippines, we had a connection through Seoul. Of the few people I’ve known that have been to South Korea, they all loved the DMZ (or Demilitarized Zone), a strip of land on the 38th parallel between North and South Korea that offers a buffer zone which was created during a cease fire arrangement in 1953. Given we didn’t know if we’d be back anytime soon, we scheduled a weekend layover.
Our guide book suggested we make the reservation for the tour through the USO and at least four days in advance. I emailed the USO a few weeks in an advance to get on the tour, and the tour was fully booked! I was a little surprised as it wasn’t yet summer and the activities on the border didn’t exactly invite any tourists.
Much to my dismay, I began emailing a variety of companies. All were booked though one suggested we could come on Friday. I indicated we were flying in Friday morning, and though we were landing at 5:30am, the 7am start time seemed too ambitious to make. Luckily, just a short time later, the company, Cosmojin, relayed that one of their couple clients moved to Friday and now there was a spot for us. Whew…I was sweating it since the DMZ tour was the main reason we were laying over! I suppose I’ll settle for the significantly higher pricing, $131 vs $92, as I’m going!
All the full day tours are similar as it relates to the most important stops which originally concerned me as I wasn’t familiar with the JSA, the Unification Bridge, the Dorasan Station, Camp Bonifas, The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, Check Point #3, the Bridge of No Return, or the Dora Observatory. The biggest differences are the starting/ending point, whether or not lunch is included, and if there is an additional shopping stop at the Amethyst Center. Our tour included lunch and the shopping stop, neither of which we liked. The USO tour didn’t.
So our day started at 7am when a small van picked us up at the hotel. It then went on to pick up three more tourists at 7:10. It was important to be punctual as the tours had allotted times at each location. The van brought us to a bus. We left Seoul, followed the highway lined with barbed wire and crossed the Unification Bridge to begin our tour at Camp Bonifas where soldiers boarded our bus to welcome us and to review our passports.
We entered the building housing a small auditorium, museum and gift shop. There, we acknowledged that we could die on the tour and then watched a fifteen-minute presentation. The presentation covered the Korean War, the DMZ, as well as incidents that have occurred at the JSA including both military and civilian deaths and a Russian defector who ran across the border. Afterward, we were given time to shop at the gift shop and visit the museum. Korean must be read backwards as the exhibits were displayed from right to left.
We were allowed to take pictures in this area, but we were not allowed to take pictures while in route from Camp Bonifas to the Freedom House and JSA (Joint Security Area) Building. The property is peppered with land mines that have yet to be cleared, so soldiers stuck to specific areas. Black bears and wild boars, however, sometimes misstep. The soldiers are somewhat isolated on the base, though they do have a one hole golf course!
Upon arrival to the JSA area, we formed to lines on the stairs of the Freedom House and walked through to the other side. The first group entered the JSA building while the second group stood at the base of the Freedom House for an outside view of the Military Demarcation Line (DML).
The Military Demarcation Line runs through the middle of the JSA conference room and table where the Korean Armistice Agreement was negotiated and signed to bring a cease-fire to the Korean War and to establish the Military Armistice Commission to supervise the truce terms All Korean diplomatic relations have since build held here. Up until 1991, it was also used for military negotiations between North Korea and the United Nations Command. We entered to see ROK soldiers (Republic of Korea) guarding the door entering to the north. We promptly took our quick chance to stand in North Korea and passed to the other side of the conference room table as US soldiers explained the meetings that took place in the building.
We exited the building back to south, and while the other group entered we learned more about conference row and the soldiers who stood directly facing the enemy. We were briefed that we would see at least one KPA (a North Korean soldier) who stands guard at their building, but that it has been very active so we might get to see them marching. It was quiet when we visited. Just one North Korean stood at his post while several ROK soldier held their stance, most looking half into the blue building and half toward North Korea.
After visiting the JSA, we went to an early lunch at the transit center. The lunch wasn’t good and while apparently there was some significance to the building, we would have much rather spent more time at our next stop, Imjingak Park, a theme park located on the Imjin River. The park includes several monuments to the Korean War, an observation deck to view the Freedom Bridge, an old train, a few restaurants and even some rides.
This place was much more interesting and we could have had options for lunch…Popeye’s if we wanted! What felt the strangest to me was to be in a theme park just inches away from fences draped with circular razor wire. Prayer flags hung on the surrounding fences which represented wishes by the South Koreans who hoped for unification with North Korea as the Military Demarcation Line was never meant to separate the two countries, but just to cease fire.
After our thirty minute stop at the park, we continued on to the third infiltration tunnel. This is one of four tunnels that South Koreans have found that the North has built! The third tunnel is closest to the JSA which is why we visited it. It is unknown whether or not there are anymore tunnels. The four tunnels are strategically located and directed toward Seoul. The third tunnel was located in 1978 after smoke was coming from it. The North Korean used explosives to progress 1,427 feet south of the DMZ. It took four months to locate and dig an intercept tunnel.
The tunnel is about six and a half feet high at its highest point. It can accommodate 30,000 men per hour. Tourists don hardhats and walk while slightly bent over about a ¼ mile through a small, steep tunnel created by South Koreans to the infiltration tunnel 240 feet below ground which is now blocked off by three concrete barriers three feet wide. Landmines are also planted on the other side of the barricades. We shared the tunnel with a large group of school children. It was a bit loud! What was interesting is we noticed most Korean children wear glasses. We were wondering if this was due to race, nutrition, environment or something else.
From the tunnel, we continued to the Dora Observatory where we could look through telescopes and see the fake city that North Korea built in order to try to entice residents from Panmunjom to defect. The Observatory plays music over the loud speakers so North Koreans can hear it.
The citizens in Panmunjom are paid $80,000 a year to farm land. No one can move into the city except women who marry a resident. While the residents make a good living they are subject to strict rules like curfew. They all must be inside their house by 9pm.
After our visit to the Observatory, we were bused to the Dorasan Station. This is a train station was designed to connect North and South Korea in the future. There is a Pyeongyang, North Korea destination sign hanging above the stairwell to the platform. Another sign in the main waiting area says, “Not the last station from the South, but the first station towards the North.” The train station is used for commuting from Seoul, though it looks mostly untouched. Tickets from Seoul to Dorasan must be purchased as a roundtrip.
Our final stop was at the Amethyst Center which I don’t have much to say about except I felt like a tourist in Egypt when they take you to the rug shop, the perfume shop, and so forth. Fortunately, it wasn’t a long stop, and the rest of the tour was awesome! At the end, we were dropped off in Itaewon where we rode two subway lines back to our hotel.
Unfortunately, we did not get to see Check Point #3 and the Bridge of No Return where POWs were taken and given the choice to remain in the country of their captivity or to return to their homeland after the Korean War. Once they crossed the bridge, they could not return, thus the name. The area was closed due to security reasons. I thought it might be due to the recent tensions, so I asked how long had been closed. The soldiers said for at least a year as land mines have been planted, and it isn’t safe! That made me feel better in the sense I didn’t miss it by a few months! At the same time, with all the security, I wondered how landmines even got planted. With the bridge closed for a year, I think the Tour Companies should update their websites!!! They all say it is a visiting point, and it is not. Anyway, it was a really cool tour which I highly recommend. It is one of the best things to do in South Korea…ETB
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