For our last day in Seoul, we have booked ourselves a tour to visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and Panmunjeom. I have always been curious and intrigued about the DMZ ever since I first saw it being featured on National Geographic. Known to be as the “Dangerous Divide” between the two Koreas, the Korean Demilitarized Zone is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula that serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea which runs along the 38th parallel.
Our hostel recommended that we contact Cosmojin Tours to make reservations for the DMZ and Panmunjeom Tour at least a week before our desired tour date. The tours are only available from Tuesday to Friday and since we will be leaving for Jeju Island on Thursday, our only options were either Tuesday or Wednesday. We originally booked for a Tuesday tour but they informed us that there is a military training scheduled for that date, so we settled for Wednesday. We were glad that they did not require any advance payments from us, just our names and passport numbers. They also offered free pick-up from our hostel, which made it even more better.
A week before our Korea trip, I got myself a haircut. Yeah, after three years, I finally decided to chop a big chunk of my hair off. Only for the DMZ. They have a lot of strict guidelines and instructions on the site and the line “no shaggy or unkempt hair” scared me. There is also a dress code, and nobody under 11 years old is allowed on the DMZ. What really got me curious though was the list of nationalities that are not allowed to visit the Panmunjeom area (not sure if they are allowed to visit the DMZ though). This included Koreans and a bunch of other Asian countries. I think only Japan, Brunei, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines were not listed there on the restricted nationalities that could not enter the Panmunjeom area. I think the fact that the Philippines sent about 7,000 soldies to aid South Korea during the Korean War was the main reason why Filipinos are very much welcome to visit this place. We woke up really early for this since we are being picked up at 7AM. The driver then dropped us off at the Lotte Hotel to meet up with the other tourists that are taking this tour. We settled our payment with the Cosmojin representative and in about an hour, we were on our way to Panmunjeom and to the Joint Security Area.
It took us about an hour and a half to arrive at the Panmunjeom Area. We were transferred from one bus to another, making sure that all seating arrangements assigned to us are followed. A passport check was performed when we reached the Unification Bridge, then we went ahead to Camp Bonifas. Home to the United Nations Command Security Battalion – Joint Security Area, whose primary mission was to monitor and enforce the Armistice Agreement of 1953 between North and South Korea, Camp Bonifas is where the security escorts conduct the UN Command DMZ Orientation Program tours of the JSA and surrounding areas. After receiving a detailed briefing at the JSA visitor’s center and after signing a waiver that states that the United Nations Command are not to be held accountable in the event of a hostile enemy act and the possibikity of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action (whew), we then went ahead with the tour to visit the Joint Security Area.
Before entering the Freedom House, we were assigned to form two lines and to have a partner with us. Probably the most exciting and stressful part of this tour, we went ahead inside the Freedom House and just outside the Military Armistice Commission (MAC), came face to face with North Korea. We were instructed to form two horizontal lines, facing North Korea, making sure that the one in front of us is shorter. We are only allowed to take photos of the person in front of us, with their backs to North Korea, and never the other way around. You can really feel the tension at this point. Our guide then announced that we can now go inside the MAC building. It’s this small blue mini-conference room a few steps from the Freedom House. The Military Armistice Commission has held secretary’s meetings, joint duty officer’s meetings, and general meetings for observation of the Armistice Agreement since its signing. Joint duty officer meetings can be called by either side. The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) of the Joint Security Area runs through the middle of Panmunjeom and even the meeting buildings. The line of microphone wires on the table of the conference room traces the path of the MDL. We were then reminded not to touch anything that belongs to the North, from their microphones to their flags. I will never, ever dare touch anything by the North Koreans! Haha!
Our guide then told us that we can go ahead and have our pictures taken with the South Korean soldiers standing on the North Korean side of the room. My eyes suddenly lit up and I was the first one to stand beside that soldier and had my picture taken, right there in North Korean soil. It took about a minute when our guide suddenly raised her voice and said, “Everybody get back to South Korea now!” Seriously, we were scrambling like crazy. We then went out of the MAC building, back to the Freedom House and back to our tour bus. We were dropped off at a souvenir shop and I went ahead and bought a couple of books about the Korean War. Yes, I was very, very interested about all this. I normally do not care about history stuff, but I was really curious about how this all happened.
We were scheduled to do the DMZ Tour next, so we had lunch in this restaurant in Imjingak Park. More than half of those who joined us for the Panmunjeom Tour are not taking the DMZ Tour, so there were like just 6 of us left that’ll spend the rest of the day in the area. After lunch, there was a new tour guide that joined us and he took us to this mini-museum and gave us a brief overview about the history behind the DMZ. And yes, I was paying really hard attention to every word he was saying. We then had a quick film viewing, more like snapshots about the Korean War and how the DMZ came about, and it was truly a learning experience.
We then went ahead to visit the Third Tunnel Of Aggression. The largest tunnel of the four underground tunnels dug under the DMZ by North Korea, the 3rd Tunnel is so large that an army of 30,000 fully-armed North Korean soldiers and their vehicles and weapons can pass through the tunnel in an hour. Upon discovery of the third tunnel, the United Nations Command accused North Korea of threatening the 1953 armistice agreement signed at the end of the Korean War.
Its description as a “tunnel of aggression” was given by the South, who considered it an act of aggression on the part of the North. Initially, North Korea denied building the tunnel. However, observed drill marks for dynamite in the walls point towards South Korea and the tunnel is inclined so that water drains back towards the northern side of the DMZ, and thus out of the way of continued excavation. We were instructed to leave our cameras on the lockers provided just outside the tunnel, but, well, since we won’t be coming back here again, guess who forgot to leave his camera behind? Hehehe! It was pretty cold down there and you can easily run out of breath from the long walk all the way to the blocked entrance from North Korea’s side.
After returning back to the tunnel entrance, we then went ahead to the Dora Observatory. Located on the South Korean side of the 38th parallel, the Dora Observatory is situated on top of Mount Dora, and looks across the Demilitarized Zone. It is the part of South Korea closest to the North. Visitors can catch a rare glimpse of the reclusive North Korean state through binoculars from the 500-person capacity observatory. They will be able to see the North Korean propaganda village situated in the DMZ, a remnant of the old prosperity of the North, and can see as far as the city of Kaesong. A photo line is also designated there if you would like to take pictures of North Korea, but you won’t be allowed to take any pictures once you have crossed it. A South Korean soldier had me delete some of the photos I took outside the photo line and I just pretended and acted that I did. I mean, it was just a bunch of bushes and trees anyway. Even with me using the binoculars, seriously, it was all just bushes and trees. I was hoping I’d get to see a North Korean farmer working or something.
We then went ahead to our last stop of the tour, which was the Dorasan Station. Dorasan Station is a railroad station situated on the Gyeonguiseon Line, which once connected North and South Korea and has now been restored. However, on December 1, 2008, the North Korean government closed the border crossing, after accusing South Korea of a confrontational policy. This coincided with the South Korean legislative election, 2008, and a change to a more conservative government. Plans to begin regular passenger service across the Imjin River to North Korea have yet to be finalized. However, a tourist visit in January 2010 showed clearly that the station was completely shut to all train travel, and that the station was only open for tourists. We were there for about fifteen minutes, took some photos with the ROK soldiers and went back to our bus that’ll take us all the way back to Seoul.
We were dropped off at Itaewon and we decided to just roam around the area and visit Domdaemun. Domdaemun is another shopping district in Seoul, much better than Myeongdong since it’s a larger area and there are malls open 24 hours. I find it weird though that some of the mall’s opening hours are from 10PM to 5AM. We spent the rest of the night hanging around Domdaemun, watching the locals dragging their huge shopping bags and did some last minute shopping ourselves since it’s our last day here in Seoul and we are off to Jeju Island the next day.Follow @iamthegarysia