A day trip to the Demilitarized Zone, the world’s most heavily-fortified border, is essential for anyone traveling to South Korea. It was practically the first thing we put on our agenda as we planned our study abroad trip. My preferred tour is operated jointly by the USO and Koridoor, and it’s located in the USO offices at Camp Kim in Seoul.
I’ve been on the DMZ/JSA & 3rd Tunnel tour four times (twice on this trip), and it’s always great. But here’s some solid advice: these tours fill up fast, so make your reservations a few months in advance. We booked our June trip in March. But back to the tour. We fill up a bus and embark on an hour or so ride northward.
Once you arrive at Camp Bonifas, which is an active military camp, photographs are not allowed. The tour group was taken into a small auditorium where American military personnel briefed us on the history of the Korean conflict and what we could expect on the day’s tour. You’re allowed to take pictures of the slideshow.
Afterward, we boarded a military bus and drove to the area where I believe the most significant moments of the tour occur: we were mere feet away from the North Korean border, and we could see a North Korean soldier on the other side monitoring us.
The blue building with the open door is a United Nations conference building. That’s where delegates representing North and South Korea (and other countries, at times) meet to discuss whatever issues might be on their agendas.
The raised concrete line to the left of the building marks the border between South Korea (the Republic of Korea, or ROK) and North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK). The tour group is taken into this building, and it is in here where we actually cross over into North Korean territory.
While inside the building, the group is under the constant guard of two ROK soldiers, and there are a few rules regarding them. Don’t speak to them. Don’t get closer than arm’s length to them. Don’t walk behind them. That’s especially true for the solider in the picture just above this paragraph. The door behind him opens into North Korea. Any attempt to get through that door would create an unwanted international incident. Furthermore, the soldiers are there because we’re in the Joint Security Area. That means North Korean soldiers can walk in there anytime they like, too. We were instructed that if that were to happen, we should ignore them.
For me, this is the eye-opening portion of the entire tour, and my students told me they had a reaction similar to the one I experienced during my first trip there: it’s easy to think of the Korean War, and the DMZ, and the continuing conflict on the Korean peninsula, in abstract terms. But once you’re there, and you’re experiencing it, the reality — and gravity — of the situation sets in. You simply can’t get that knowledge in any way other than being there.
But don’t let me sell the rest of the tour short! Here’s a brief review of what else we were able to witness and experience. Gijungdong, perhaps better known as Propaganda Village, sits right across the border in North Korea. It got its nickname because it was built simply for show. As far as anyone can tell, no one lives there.
That flagpole, by the way, is one of the largest in the world. But it would take a powerful gust of wind to blow the DPRK flag hanging on it because the flag weighs about 600 to 700 pounds. The “Bridge of No Return” is also located here.
After the Korean Armistice was established in 1953, a POW exchange took place here. Once you crossed the bridge into either the North or the South, you could never return. Not too far from Camp Bonifas is Dorasan Station, the last railway station in South Korea before one crosses into the North.
The next stop in the north is the Gaeseong Industrial Complex (also spelled Kaesong), and the photo above is pointing in that direction. If the haze isn’t too bad, you can actually see the Gaeseong complex from the Dora Observatory, another location on the DMZ tour.
For a little perspective, even though the Korean Armistice was supposed to end active hostilities between the North and the South, the DPRK continued with plans for another invasion of Seoul. During the past few decades, several tunnels have been discovered. All of them lead from North Korea in the direction of Seoul. The 3rd Tunnel, so named because it was the third one discovered, is part of this tour. It’s too tight and wet for photos down there, so you have to leave your cameras up top. But the surrounding complex also features a museum, a small movie theater, and some photo opportunities.
My students found some parts of the tour a bit … touristy. I was proud that while they were processing all of the big issues related to history, military conflict and political dynamics, they were also cognizant that the DMZ facilitates big-time international tourism. In all of this, though, the military conflict isn’t far away. Just a few feet from where the above photos were taken, one can see razor wire and small, red signs.
“Mine” — that’s the word on the red triangles. We were surrounded by active minefields during portions of this trip. Even on the ride back to Seoul, there were reminders of how tense it still is near the South Korea-North Korea border.
A visit to the DMZ is simply a must for anyone who wants to gain a greater understanding of the relationship between the ROK and the DPRK and the future prospects for that relationship. This tour remains among the top highlights of all of my travel experiences, and I hope it will be for our study abroad group, too.
On the next post: visiting the Korean War Memorial, coffee at COEX, and three reunions (all in one day).