Panmunjom, the border of North Korea and South Korea
If you are looking for a little adventure while visiting Seoul, take a day trip to the Demilitarized Zone, the DMZ. Known as the world’s most secure border, the DMZ is located just about 35 miles north of Seoul, the capital of the Republic of Korea (“South Korea”). You will travel along the eerily desolate Freedom Road to Camp Bonifas where you will pick up your military escort to Panmunjom, the abandoned village that lies on the border between the North and South. This village is now called the Joint Security Area (the “JSA”), and it is the only place along the DMZ where military forces from both sides stand face-to-face. It is used for diplomatic engagements, meetings, and of course, tours.
What is the DMZ?
Chances are you already know what the DMZ is, or you have at least heard of it on the evening news whenever tensions rise in the region due to the North’s threats against the South. The DMZ is a de-facto border that runs across the Korean Peninsula separating North Korea from South Korea. This strip of land (250 miles long, 2.5 miles wide) is considered “no man’s land”, and it serves as a buffer between the two countries. It was created as part of the Korean Armistice Agreement, which was a formal agreement signed in 1953 between military forces to put an end to the warfare. No peace treaty was every signed between North and South Korea, and as such, the war has not technically ended and instead, the two sides remain in a state of cease-fire. So, despite its name as the demilitarized zone, it is actually the most heavily militarized border in the world.
So, are you ready to travel to one of the most dangerous places on Earth? As long as you are comfortable with the risk of kidnapping, being shot at by a North Korean sniper, or having your photo taken by the North Korean military and tagged as a possible spy, then here is how you can get there and what to expect.
Let’s Get Tripping!
There’s not a whole lot of planning that needs to go into this trip, as to reach the DMZ, you need to be escorted by a tour operator. There are a few companies offering tours to the DMZ, but I believe they are not permitted to tour the actual Joint Security Area, and only the USO tours can get that access. So, I chose the USO tour because a trip to the DMZ without seeing the JSA is not really worth the time and money. It was very easy to reserve my tour in advance via email, and they were very responsive to my questions, including up until the day before my tour when there was a possibility it was going to be cancelled due to escalated tensions between the North and South.
Advance Reservations are Required
As soon as you know the dates of your trip to Seoul, check the USO’s website. They don’t offer tours every day as they are restricted by the military as to when a tour group can visit. So if you really want to incorporate the DMZ into your itinerary when visiting Seoul, check the calendar and coordinate your visit to Seoul accordingly!
The USO Tour is open to both civilians ($80) as well as military servicemen ($40). The tours start either early or late morning and take up to 8 hours of your day. Upon confirming your date, they will send you additional information such as the guidelines for visiting the DMZ including what clothing you should wear (there is a dress code).
You should keep in mind that this is a unique tour, not like visiting the Great Wall of China or a Disney Park; it is truly a very dangerous place being guarded by military forces on both sides. That being said, if there are tensions building between the North and South or some other security threat arises, your tour will be cancelled. I decided to visit Seoul and plan a trip to the DMZ at the end of a two week vacation in Japan in October 2012. Tensions can rise very quickly in this region as I learned on my flight from Osaka to Seoul. I was reading the the newspaper and saw that a group of North Korean defectors were planning a massive propaganda balloon launch of thousands of leaflets close to the border around the same time of my scheduled tour. North Korea threatened to attack South Korea if this were to take place. Now, enroute to Seoul, I was worried that my tour was going to get cancelled and was really feeling bummed out (the fact that I was going to be in Seoul when the North was threatening to “strike mercilessly without notice” didn’t seem to impact me as much as the possibility of my DMZ tour being cancelled).
Upon arriving in Seoul, I was expecting the city to be in lockdown since this country was dealing with such a serious security threat. Instead, everyone was going about their day enjoying what was a pleasantly warm and sunny autumn Sunday. I was later informed by the hotel staff, store employees, and random people I met around Seoul that this threat was “business as usual” and not to worry about it. They were right. The South Korean government prevented the protestors from getting to the border town, and the launch was terminated. The balloons may not have passed over, but the security threat did, and my tour went on as planned. Apparently these balloon launch attempts take place every few months, and the same scenario plays out each time.
Arriving at the USO Office at Camp Kim
The USO office at Camp Kim is located within the city of Seoul and is easily accessible via the subway. You can take either the blue or brown line to the Samgakji Metro Station. Leave the station via exit 10 and walk north one to two blocks towards Seoul Station. The USO will be on the left side of the street.
What to Expect
Freedom Road and The Unification Bridge
As you make your way outside of the city limits to get on Freedom Road to the DMZ, you’ll leave the skyscrapers behind, and you’ll start to notice a surreal change in scenery about half way through this hour long ride.
The road to the DMZ is a very desolate one, and you’ll see it lined with barb wired security fences and watchtowers, stretching for miles. You’ll barely see anything else along this road.
As you get close to the general area of Camp Bonifas and Panmunjom, your bus will cross the Unification Bridge, go through a few checkpoints, and you’ll finally cross over into the DMZ.
The DMZ Theater and The Third Infiltration Tunnel
Your first stop will take you to one of the infiltration tunnels, the third one to be exact. Since November 15, 1974, four tunnels crossing the DMZ have been discovered by South Korea. Once discovered, the North Korean government claimed that the tunnels were blasted for coal mining, yet there was no coal in the tunnels. In actuality, the walls were granite, and some tunnel walls were painted black to resemble coal to support the North Korean’s story. South Korea believes that the true purpose of the tunnels was to serve as a military invasion route by North Korea.
To get to the infiltration tunnel, you can either take a trolley or walk down the steeply graded interception tunnel. The USO tour did not offer the trolley option, and I couldn’t find anywhere to purchase a ticket for it (but later realized, they probably sell the tickets at the gift shop). If you are not physically able to do the walk down to the tunnel, be sure to ask your tour group about the trolley in advance. In hindsight, I am glad I didn’t take the trolley. I read that it goes down a very narrow passage with low ceilings. It sounded very claustrophobic, and what would you do if it broke down in such a tight passage? I didn’t want to find out.
So, off I went in the other direction towards the interception tunnel. All visitors to the tunnel are required to wear a hard hat, so be sure to pick one up before you begin your trek down the steep, dark, and damp tunnel. You will definitely be happy you are wearing it because the actual infiltration tunnel is not very high and water drips from the ceiling – it’s a good thing for protecting your head as well as your hair!
The infiltration tunnel itself is narrow and dark and leads you to a cement wall blocking further passage into North Korea. You will be squeezing past people going in the opposite directions as you walk through tight quarters. That being said, the tunnel isn’t for everyone, so keep a few things in mind before you decide to trek down to the bowels of the earth: the tunnel is pretty confined and a bit claustrophobic; there’s not a whole lot of fresh air down there; and the climb back to the top is a bit strenuous, about a 1/3 of a mile uphill. Also, no one is permitted to take photographs in the infiltration tunnel (so I borrowed this photo from an unknown source to at least give you an idea of what to expect).
At the Third Tunnel site, you’ll also find several monuments and sculptures including the DMZ letters, which provide a great photo op, as well as the Reunification Monument. There is also a gift shop onsite selling everything from bits of barbed wire to DMZ t-shirts.
Dora Observatory and Propaganda Village
The Dora Observatory was quite interesting because here, on top of Mount Dora, is your opportunity to peer into North Korea. What will you see? A North Korean town, well,sort of.
Known as Peace Village by the North, it’s referred to as Propaganda Village by the South. It was built to resemble a prosperous, industrious town. However, it is a ghost town, and the buildings are concrete shells with no windows or interior rooms.
When you are at the Dora Observatory, you will be able to peer into North Korea with fixed binoculars, but don’t try to take a photo. You are only permitted to take photos behind a yellow line which unfortunately, limits your ability to photograph the village. Military Police strictly enforce this rule, and they will make you delete your photos if you get caught breaking the rules. I followed the rules and snapped my pictures from behind the yellow like. Thanks to my height and a good zoom lense, I was able to get a few snapshots of the village.
Camp Bonifas and the Joint Security Area
You know you have arrived at Camp Bonifas when you see the large water tower declaring the Camp’s motto, “In Front of Them All.” Here is where your adrenaline will start pumping. You’ll be required to sign a Visitor Declaration which reminds you that you are entering a hostile area, and that there is a “possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.” You are also reminded that you are not permitted to cross the Demarcation Line into North Korea, and that the military cannot guarantee your safety.
Next, you receive a briefing in Ballinger Hall which is essentially a slideshow that provides information on the history and the present situation at the DMZ. After the briefing, you will meet your military guides, American Marines assigned to the United Nations Command. You will be required to transfer to a military bus, and finally, you begin your ride up to Freedom House. To get into the JSA area, you will travel along a narrow road that is heavily fortified, passing between large anti-tank explosive barricades, barbed wire, and minefields on either side of the road. It was certainly an unnerving scene. Photography was strictly forbidden, so you’ll have to take my word for it or go see it for yourself.
The central part of the JSA is where Freedom House on the South stands facing the North’s’ Panmun House. In between the two buildings is a courtyard with a row of small blue buildings straddling the Demarcation Line.
Before we stepped out into the courtyard, we were once again briefed. We were warned that once we stood “in front of them all”, our photograph would probably be taken by the North Koreans who would then search social media and the internet for our image in an effort to classify us and to determine if any of us were spies. I had once considered a tour to North Korea when it was announced that Americans were permitted to enter the country again through China and with Chinese tour operators. However, now that I’ve been possibly identified, as what, I have no clue (curious tourist? cute blonde? evil American? spy?), I wonder how wise it would be to book that trip.
We entered the courtyard where soldiers from both sides spend their day staring each other down. They had us file out and stand in line facing the North. We were instructed to look forward and refrain from smiling or laughing. The JSA soldiers did not lie when they said the North Koreans would be watching our every move once we went outside. There were cameras everywhere, and when I zoomed in on the North Korean soldier with my camera, he was looking back with his binoculars. The motto, “In Front of Them All,” along with the Visitor Declaration Form was now making more sense. There is no doubt, I felt like a sitting duck and started to question my decision at this point.
MAC (Military Armistice Commission) Building
One of the bright blue buildings sitting in front of Freedom Hall and right along the Demarcation Line is known as the MAC Building. It is used primarily for talks between the United Nations Command, North Korea and China. The other blue building is known as the UNC Joint Duty Office Building. Opposite the Joint Duty Office Building is the Recreation Room in North Korea. Our military guides told us that the North Korean soldiers are known to peer out the windows, take photos, and make lewd gestures at them. As a result of these antics, this building has been coined the “Monkey Room.” (Believe it, or not!).
Tourists are permitted to enter the MAC Building where they can cross the Demarcation Line and step into North Korea for a moment. However, during my visit, we were not permitted inside because of the high tensions at the time. For all you border runners…No, you cannot get your passport stamped if you cross the border in the MAC Building.
You’ll also notice the ROK (Republic of Korea) soldiers standing on guard, shielding half of their bodies behind the blue buildings. They stand guard armed with a pistol when visitors are in the courtyard, standing in a modified Tae Kwon Do stance with clenched fists. These ROK soldiers have a height requirement and must have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do or Judo. They really do look intimidating.
My adrenaline was surely pumping as I stood there facing North Korea. It didn’t help matters when our jovial military escorts were approached by a few other US military personnel and lost their smiles. Movement began with some ROK guards in front of us, at which point we were told that we needed to return to the Freedom House. I can tell you that as I stood on what is considered one of the world’s most secure borders, I wasn’t feeling very secure. I wondered, would this be the moment the North would seize to reignite the war with the South or to make a statement? Although it appeared something was going on, thankfully, nothing happened, and we continued on with our tour.
The Ax Murder Incident
After your visit to the Freedom House, you’ll be driven around the rest of the grounds of the JSA. Your first stop will be a drive-by past the scene of the Ax Murders. In the past, soldiers from both sides had access to all parts of the JSA. In 1976, there was a gruesome incident in this remote section of the JSA resulting from an altercation over the trimming of a tree. There was a large poplar tree that obstructed the South’s view of the North’s checkpoint. As a result, the UN would regularly prune the leaves of the tree. One day, the North’s solders approached US soldiers during the pruning, and an altercation arose resulting in an attack on the US soldiers with their own axes. Two US soldiers, Captain Arthur Bonifas (for which the Camp is now named) and 1st Lieutenant Mark Barrett, were killed in this incident.
The tree was chopped down, and this site is now marked with a monument over the tree trunk. It was this incident that resulted in the JSA area no longer being opened to both sides. Instead, the North and South now remain on either side of the Demarcation Line.
Bridge of No Return
Close to the Ax Murder Monument is the Bridge of No Return. At this point of your tour, you are basically surrounded on 3 sides by North Korea, and you feel as if you are in the most remote place on earth.
We were not permitted to get off of the bus anywhere along the route including at the Bridge. The Bridge of No Return crosses the Demarcation Line, and at the end of the Korean War, it was used to exchange prisoners of war from either side. The prisoners were brought to the bridge and were given a choice of which side they preferred, and once they crossed it, there was no going back. Thousands of prisoners being held in North Korea chose to cross the bridge into South Korea, and apparently, there were a few souls on the South Korean side who opted to go to North Korea. It was no big surprise that everyone on the bus chose not to cross the bridge (but it’s not like we were given a choice, either).
At the end of the JSA tour, we were taken back to souvenir shop at Camp Bonifass. I wondered if I just toured a war zone or was it actually a tourist trap? Regardless, an opportunity to shop is never lost on me. You could by anything from fridge magnets and t-shirts to North Korean currency and liquor.
Dorasan Rail Station
Our last stop was the Dorasan Rail Station, a station on a line that once connected North and South Korea. A few years ago, it was used primarily to ship goods to an industrial zone in North Korea, and the finished products would be shipped back to South Korea.
Now the station is the last stop in South Korea, as the border is closed off once more. It serves as a tourist attraction until the day the border opens again.
I’ve been to a lot of train stations in my life, and this was by far the cleanest and most deserted one I’ve been to. Another eerie stop in the DMZ area.
You will have the chance to purchase a ticket to Pyongyang and stand on the train platform to wait for a train that is never going to come.
A Theater of War
Although there was a strong element of theater with this tour, it does provide for an interesting, if not adventurous, day out of bustling Seoul. Sure, you hear stories of kidnappings of villagers from border towns, or about gunfire being exchanged at the border, and you have to sign a form acknowledging that you know you could be killed, but I still felt safe. There are moments you might forget where you actually are and about the gravity of the situation. However, there always seems to be a ROK soldier close by with a pistol or assault rifle to remind you that you are not in Kansas anymore.
Every so often I think back to my trip to the DMZ, usually after watching the evening news and being reminded about something scary that North Korea did or said. I sit in amazement knowing that I was just a stone’s throw away from that place, the most closed off nation in the world.