A foot into the hermit kingdom

Diary of an Autumn Leafer – DMZ and JSA tour 

When in Seoul, I felt that it was absolutely important that I visit the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) and the JSA (Joint Security Area) near the shared border with North Korea.

In order to visit inside the DMZ and the JSA, a tour was necessary, and it had to be booked quite sufficiently ahead of time, as these tours tended to fill up quickly. The JSA part of the tour required that a scan of passports was sent ahead to the tour operator, as did bring one’s passport along on the tour itself.

Another thing to consider when visiting the JSA is the strict dress code – loose-fitting trousers, cover-all shirt without logos and rips, close-toed shoes (no flip-flops or sandals), and a bit like Sunday dress code where skirts had to go below knees, no tight yoga pants or leggings, ripped jeans, and all that. The reason? Well, partly for security, but it is mostly because North Korea is watching. And, since we don’t want to give them any propogandic fodder to show the masses how poorly other countries treat their people and can’t take proper care of their citizens, we have to dress nicely and appropriately as so to leave a good impression – and not become a propaganda poster child. So, less Onslow from Keeping Up Appearances and more like meeting for a garden party minus the fascinators.

The tour group picked us up early from the hotel, which started our day heading north from the city toward the DMZ.

A few first peeks into North Korea were visible from the bus just beyond the heavily-fortified border. The land was mostly flat, deserted, and just – well, normal-looking near the curve of the Han River.

Our first stop on the tour was at the amusement park-esque atmosphere of the Nuri Peace Park at Imjingak. There are merry-go-rounds, little shops, and other rides, a sculpture park, and other small historical bits. The main part of it, in my mind, was the Freedom Bridge, where the South Koreans hoped one day to be reunited with the North Koreans as they once were. The ribbons and wreaths tied on a nearby chain-link fence, with the flag flying brightly overhead, were wishes for reunification and hopes for a better, more stable future. The large bells symbolize, in some ways, the prayers for peace, while the bullet-riddled train reminds people of what the current situation is.

Imjingak bustled with tourists because it was a final stop before having to go through official military checkpoints. From there, we stopped at one military checkpoint, had army personnel enter the bus, and check our passports. Then, we were allowed onto the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel and the small museum nearby. This tunnel was one of four infiltration tunnels built by North Korea to spy on the South, and, in the case of the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, bring their army over. It was built wide enough for troops and equipment to move through.

Tourists could go inside the tunnel, provided that they leave their cameras, phones, and other unnecessary equipment in a locker before entering. No photography was allowed. Inside the tunnel, it is cramped, dark, and hot, and as I had a rather nasty headache already, I decided to skip going in – Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam had been worse, but I wasn’t really keen on being crammed into a deep tunnel today – and instead stayed out in the cool sunshine and wandered around the area.

After the tunnel visit, we hopped on the bus again and headed to the Odusan Observatory, one place where you can see right into North Korea and to the largely abandoned propaganda village on their part of the divide. With a long-range camera lens, the village would come more into focus, but my nice little iPhone 6s was able to get some decent shots of the landscape and somewhat of Kijŏng-dong village.

Before we settled back at Imjingak for lunch, we made one last stop – the abandoned Dorasan Train Station. It used to be one of the northernmost stops on the railway between Seoul in South Korea and Sinuiju in North Korea, which shares the border with Dandong, China. Workers would go back and forth on the railway up until about eight years ago, when it was clear that North Korea was conducting nuclear tests, and, on the other side of things, North Korea didn’t like the new conservative government in South Korea and closed it on their end.

Whatever the story was, the tension between North and South, and the tentativeness of the DMZ area, only increased with every stop we made from the park atmosphere of Imjingak to the awkward silent tracks of Dorasan.

Those blue skies above us could change at any moment.

The afternoon tour, which would consist of the JSA (Joint Security Area) and Panmunjeom (peace village huts), highlighted just how important keeping the peace really was.

We got on different buses than in the morning – smaller ones, in smaller groups of people – and headed toward Camp Bonifas and the JSA area. Once we were through the military checkpoint again – with another check at our passports – photography was absolutely off-limits until we were permitted to do so at the JSA.

Upon entering Camp Bonifas, we waited for our military escorts, a few South Korean soldiers who would take us around the camp and lead us into the JSA. Once our clothing was inspected and our passports looked over again, we were taking to the camp store and the cinema, where we viewed a film about the Korean conflict and the reason for the DMZ and the current heightened tensions. After the film, we signed a form stating that no one was responsible for us should something happen beyond their control.

Along the way, inside the actual DMZ (there is small strip of land on either side of the border that makes up the DMZ area), we could see the flags and buildings of the villages in this zone. On the South Korean side is Daeseong-dong, a small village of about 200 people who owned the land before the DMZ was set up. They were allowed to keep living there, and they were under constant security. They grew ginseng and raised bees for honey. Villagers were exempted from military service and paying taxes. It sounded like a good deal – but when you think about how close you are to almost immediate conflict, maybe not?

On the North Korean side was Kijŏng-dong, the quiet, concrete industrial town which, to all intents and purposes, was vacant and meant only to be a propaganda village for anyone in South Korea spying on it. The lights on the building go on and off at the same time each day. So much for that!

We finally arrived at Panmunjom, home of the Joint Security Area (JSA). We were allowed to take pictures within the light blue huts, whereupon, after walking about halfway through the building, I officially stepped into North Korea. A South Korean guard stood in front of the door, and we had been warned ominously that if we were to go through the door, we’d be in North Korea, and there was nothing they could do for us.

Back on the steps of the South Korean “welcome” center, we were allowed to take photographs toward North Korea only, of the lone guard standing outside and the tae-kwon-do ready South Korean soldiers.

This was the conclusion of our tour; we left Camp Bonifas and headed back toward the freedom and more relaxed atmosphere of Seoul, whereupon we would try, once more, to find the Outback Steakhouse.

And once again be denied – but that’s another post.

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