Next on my itinerary was a tour to the border area between North and South Korea, also known as the Demilitarised Zone or DMZ. This tour was one of the few things I had booked in advance was my DMZ/Panmunjom (JSA) Tour. Reasons for this are explained below. My friend also recommended me to go to the Joint Security Area or JSA, as this takes you as close to North Korea as you can get (actually a few steps into North Korea!). Due to the strict photo regulations during the tour and the fact that I was not allowed to bring my 18-200 mm lens and had to bring my 50 mm lens instead (with no autofocus on my body), the pictures accompanying this blog are perhaps of little less high quality.
There are three main reasons why you should book DMZ/Panmunjam (JSA) Tours ahead:
- Since the DMZ and Panmunjom (JSA) are outside the civilian border, it is only possible to visit these area’s with special tours.
- The tours are very popular among tourists visiting Seoul.
- The tour operators have to register their tour groups going to the Panmunjom/JSA at the Bonifas military camp at least 2 days in advance. This does not apply for tours going to the DMZ.
There are several tour operators providing tours to the border area between North and South Korea, also known as the Demilitarised Zone or DMZ. All basically provide the same tours, but there are several options possible, taking you to different sites. Some variation in the program is possible between tour operators.
- DMZ Tour: Also known as 3rd Infiltration Tunnel Tour. Takes you on a bus to Imjingak and Freedom Bridge and across Unification Bridge (civilian border) to visit the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, Dora Observatory and Dorasan Station.
Note: Does not actually enter the DMZ.
Duration: Half day tour.
Price: 60.000 KRW
- Panmunjom (JSA) Tour: Takes you on a bus to Imjingak and Freedom Bridge and across Unification Bridge (civilian border) to Camp Bonifas. From there you will be guided by UN soldiers inside the DMZ to the Joint Security Area to visit Freedom House and Conference Room (at the actual border line).
Duration: Half day tour.
- Price: 77.000 KRW
- Combined Tour: A combination of both tours is of course also possible.
Duration: Full day tour.
Price: 120.000 KRW
There are many operators providing tours, but I booked my tour at the Panmunjom Travel Centre. Tours were you are (partly) guided by a North Korean defector are also available. Usually a lunch is included in the tours. All tours depart early in the morning from the Lotte Hotel in Seoul. Note that you are not allowed to uses lenses with more than 90 mm zoom on the tours.
At 7:30 I was supposed to be at Panmunjom Travel Centre inside the Lotte Hotel, so I took an early subway to Euljiro 1-Ga and had breakfast on the way. While waiting for the tour to depart I took an elavator up to one of the top floors of the hotel to check out the view. Quite some impressive buildings around. At 8:00 we were lead to a big tour bus and headed towards the north.
During the bus ride our tour guide explained us about the DMZ and the Korean War. The DMZ is a 4 km wide, 250 km long buffer zone separating North from South Korea. Inside the DMZ lies the Military Demarcation Line, which is the actual border between the countries. The MDL was established at the ceasefire line at the end of the Korean War in 1953. Some 5-10 km outside the DMZ lies the civilian border. Just 55 km from Seoul and at the MDL lies the ‘village’ of Panmunjom, also known as the Joint Security Area. It is the only place inside the DMZ where visitors are permitted. In the JSA are the famous blue UN buildings where negotiatons between North and South Korea occasionally still take place.
Our first destination on the tour was Imjingak, where we arrived after a bus ride of about 50 min. At Imjingak we were let off the bus for 15 min to take a look at the Freedom Bridge. In 1953 about 13.000 prisoners of war crossed this bridge when returning to their homeland from the north, shouting “Hurrah for Freedom!”, which gave the bridge its name. Pilars from the former railway bridge, which was destroyed in 1951, are still standing. Here you immediately notice the South Korean’s will to reunite with their northern neighbours. The fence marking the civilian border is covered with South Korean flags and vanes with wishes of freedom and reunification. A huge steam locomotive which has been destroyed during the Korean War is still standing on the former railway next to the fence. There’s a lot more to see at Imjingak, but unfortunately we were only given 15 min to look around. Also, don’t think you will be the only one there. Tour busses drop of tons of tourists at Imjingak every day.
3rd Infiltration Tunnel
Next was a visit to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, also known as the 3rd Tunnel of Agression. After passing the checkpoint at Unification Bridge and passing several fences and tank traps we arrived here. After a short explanation, storing our backpacks and camera’s (unfortunately…) in a locker and grabbing a helmet, we descended into the tunnel. A 358 m long steep tunnel led us 70 m down the ground to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. The tunnel is one of the 4 infiltration tunnels found so far. Many more may still remain. It was build by the North Koreans to infiltrate South Korean territory unseen. The tunnel has a total length of 1635 m. Down in the tunnel the necessity of the helmet becomes clear. The tunnel is only 2 m wide and 2 m high, so if you’re afraid of small spaces you better stay above the ground. For me, being 2.05 m tall, it meant walking head down and knees bent all the time. Fortunately, as an ice skater, I was quite used to this position. After 265 m we hit the first of three thick concrete walls which are built to close of the tunnel from the North Koreans at the MDL, which is still another 170 m away. This is as far as you can go. Through a tiny window you are able to see the next wall. From thereon we had to go back the same way.
To be honest, I was not too impressed by the tunnel itself. Basically the first 10 m are exactly the same as the next 255 m. The fact that you are walking (or crawling, like me) through the tunnel in a long line of tourists also makes this a less exclusive experience. The story behind the tunnel of course makes it a lot more impressive. It is estimated that over 10.000 soldiers could enter South Korea through the tunnel in just one hour. The tunnel was discovered by the South Koreans and UN by drilling holes in the ground and filling them with water. Any explosions under the ground from dynamite would move the water in the pipes and reveal the location of a tunnel. At first when the tunnel was discovered North Korea denied having built it. However, drill marks for the dynamite all point towards the South. Look carefully when going trough the tunnel and you will be able to see them. After a while North Korea declared that the tunnel was part of an old coal mine. Coal residu was applied by retreating North Korean soldiers to support this statement. However, rocks in the area are all granite and no coal exists.
Next stop was the Dorasan Observatory, another short bus drive away. The Dorasan Observatory is built on top of the Dorasan Mountain and looks out over the DMZ towards the north. Here you can spy with binoculars towards North Korea. You can see Kaesong, the closest city in North Korea and home to a large South Korean Hyundai factory, or Propaganda Village, a village of empty houses with no doors or windows which was used to show off the luxury life North Korean citizens supposably had. The North Korean side of the DMZ has been completely deforested for firewood and for having a clear sight on South Korean infiltrants and North Korean defectors. Two enourmous flagpoles stand on either side of the MDL with North and South Korean flags, the North Korean pole being the tallest in the world with 162 m and carrying the largest flag of the world, which weighs about 300 kg. Pictures were only allowed from behind a certain point, but I managed to take a few sneaky shots from North Korea without getting noticed.
Our final destination before the lunch break was the Dorasan Station. This station is the northernmost station in South Korea and another symbol of South Korea’s wish of reunification. It’s a modern fully functional train station by the same architect of the Incheon International Airport. However, since 2007 not a single train has crossed the border. South Korea hopes once the station will connect South Korea to North Korea again and also to the Eurasian railway network. Tourists can buy a ticket (400 KRW) to enter the platform of the station.
Panmunjom (Joint Security Area)
For lunch the tour bus took us back outside the civilian border to a restaurant where we had a delicious bulgogi. After lunch most of the people headed back to Seoul with the bus, as they had only booked a DMZ tour. Eight others and I were transferred to a different bus, packed with 30 Japanese, and headed towards the Bonifas military camp, which lies just 400 m south of the DMZ, to visit Panmunjom, also known as the Joint Security Area. After a series of security checks we received our visitor badges and entered the camp under supervision of a US soldier. Inside the camp we entered the JSA Visitor Centre and received a (very poor) briefing about the Korean War, the JSA and the strict regulations during our visit.
After the briefing we were led to a UN bus which took us past a series of barbed wires, tank traps and mine fields to the actual Joint Security Area. This is when I felt things were really getting serious. I was no longer in a tourist attraction, this was a dangerous military area. Lined up in rows of two we were guided through Freedom Building. Inside the Freedom building I noticed a dummy in Korean military outfit. When we got back outside again on the other side of the building there were a few more standing facing towards the North Korean side of the JSA. It was then that I noticed that these we not dummies at all, but actual ROK soldiers, wearing the green ROK uniform, dark shades and a black helmet and standing in taekwondo pose, ready to strike. The soldiers were so perfectly dressed and standing so still that they only seemed like dummies. The US soldier reminded us not to come too close to the soldiers, as they would put you down to the ground in a blink of an eye and that they were mainly there to intimidate the North Koreans. The strict supervision and seriousness of the personnel really contributed to the strong feeling of tension in the area.
In front of us were four blue UN buildings, one of which was the United Nations Command Military Armstice Commission (UNMAC) Conference Building where where negotiations between North and South Korean officials take place. The buildings are placed across the MDL. Behind the UN buildings was a building similar to the Freedom Building. This building was the North Korean ‘visitor centre’. To my surprise I noticed a North Korean soldier standing at the doorway. With his binocular he was following our every move. The US soldier managed to break the silence by bringing in some humour and joked that, as we were taking pictures of him, probably ten times the amount of pictures was being taken of us from behind the blinded windows.
After the group of Japanese had gone before us, we were also allowed to have a look inside the Conference Building. In the centre of the room was a table with chairs on each side. The MDL runs exactly across the centre of the table. On the table are microphones which are being monitored by both the North and South 24 hours a day. At the head of the table are two chairs for the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC). There was a very special atmosphere in this room, which is the only place where North and South Korea communicate with each other. Inside the building we were allowed to cross the MDL to the North Korean side of the table.
Back outside we were given some more time to take pictures before we headed back to Camp Bonifas. Back in the camp we could do some souvenir shopping before the bus took us back to Seoul. This second part of the tour, visiting the JSA, was definitely the highlight of the tour. Although I got to see a lot more during the first part of the tour in the morning, the atmosphere at the JSA and the fact that I got to see a North Korean soldier and that it was a lot less touristic, made paying extra for the JSA part definitely worth it. I recommend everybody who would like to get an impression of the never ending tension between North and South Korea to do a DMZ and/or JSA tour.
Dinner at Hongdae
In the evening I headed out for dinner in the Hongdae area with some people I had met in my guesthouse. Guided by an exchange student who was studying in Seoul and spoke a few words Korean we went to a galbi (korean BBQ) restaurant. Accompanied by some beer and soju we enjoyed the delicious meat and banchan (total costs per person about 15.000 KRW). After dinner we went to a jazz bar were we comfortably listened to the jazz sounds of a live band. Although this would have been a great night to enjoy the Korean nightlife, I decided to head back to the guesthouse early, so I could get the most out of my next and last day in Seoul. More about this in my next blog!