Last weekend I had the opportunity to visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea.
I never had the interest of getting too close to North Korea, but after many friends recommended me to go I finally decided to sign up for a tour. Keep in mind, I had literally no idea any of the history between the North and the South so I knew this would be a good way to get information about the conflict and the current situation.
I signed up through Koridoor tours and I highly recommend them!
Even though I had to book my tour a month in advanced, I found that the full tour was worth the money and the wait. I’m not going to lie, it was pretty expensive for a short tour (around 100$ and steadily increasing) but I’m glad I went.
You start your day at 7am so I would recommend booking accommodation near the USO.
I stayed at a pretty crappy hotel, I usually prefer hostels, but it was only a 3 minute walk to the departure point and one metro stop away from Yongsan train station (aka where I go to take my train back home to Mokpo).
The bus promptly leaves at 7:30 and if you’re not on it, then you won’t be on the tour so make you’re not late late.
One the way to the DMZ, the tour guide pointed out some landmarks, such as the Han river, and also talked about the barbed wire that began to emerge as we drove closer our destination. Even with his brief history lessons on the bus, I was not prepared for what I saw when we arrived.
When we finally arrived, we were greeted by very 2 daunting American military men. They came on the bus to verify our identification documents before ushering us to the next security gate.
Don’t forget to bring your passport! It’s essential for the tour and they won’t allow you on the bus without it.
We were instructed not to take pictures unless told to do so (you literally can’t get away with sneaking a picture because they will catch you! Trust me I saw it happen twice!) and we were handed a form and a pen to sign during our briefing. I found the briefing to be quite informative, although the speaker spoke a bit too fast for non-native English speakers so do your best to follow along.
*The form basically states that if something happens, and we get hurt or die, it’s not their fault or responsibility since we chose to do this crazy tour.
We then got back on the buses and headed to our first stop, the JSA or “Joint Security Area”, this for me was the highlight of the tour.
We were held in a place called the Freedom Building, which was built in order to house and reunite North and South Korean families that were separated at war, until it was out turn. It has never fulfilled it’s purpose because North Korea will not allow their people to enter, even though they apparently agreed to it beforehand. Upon exiting the Freedom building we were set up in a line facing directly towards North Korea and their soldiers.
The animosity is palpable in this one small area.
You cannot imagine the gravity of the situation between the North and the South until you see the stone still soldiers standing and waiting for a move.
Once in the meeting room, that is used to hold meetings between both countries, you are able to cross into North Korea and even take pictures. For some reason taking pictures while in this environment felt strangely inappropriate , however I did manage to take one. We were told that once in this room there was a meeting that lasted so long that no one would get up to use the restroom in order to not show the other weakness. These stories that the soldiers and tour guides told during the tour were lighthearted but also very intense.
We were told about the axe murders, the infiltration tunnels and dynamite, the old woman shot while hiking a mountain, and the countless accidents that have happened through the years. Things have become more serious recently, from what I can gather, because they cut one part of the tour “The tunnel of no return”. The soldiers said that North Korea had started adding mines there and it was now unsafe for tourists. This is even more unbelievable because just 3 months ago I had friends going to see it. This was a little bit of a disappointment, but I am glad for the precaution.
After we left the JSA we went to one of the infiltration tunnels to see the dynamite holes and fake coal painted on the walls. Our tour guide explained that the North Korean government claimed they were looking for coal, when in reality they were/are not. This isn’t even the only tunnel found, so far there have been 4! Cameras were not allowed in the tunnels, but I did manage to get a picture outside along with a stylish photobombing adjuma.
After the tunnel we went to have our lunch then head to the lookout point and the Dorasan train station. This was my least favorite part of the tour, but I know that it is important in order to get the full experience.
At the train station everything was all abut unity and creating “One Korea” and the efforts the South Korean have done in order to create a unified country.
When you enter, there is a large map showing the train systems from Asia to Europe. The most interesting thing is the idea of a cross-country train leaving from Dorasan station and running through North Korea all the way through to Europe. A trip that would take 2 weeks. This, in theory, would be so awesome! I can only imagine the possibilities of being able to leave Korea by land, as we are basically living on an island here. It really is a shame that despite their efforts, it has done little to stir any action from the North.
Now, I’ve never really been a history buff, nor have I ever had a great interest in global politics, but I must say that I am glad that I went on this tour. I learned a lot about the country and the reasons why some people fear while others seem oblivious to the threat.