South Korea: An inside look at the DMZ tour

If you’ve been watching the Rio 2016 Olympics recently you might’ve heard about the famous selfie taken by South Korean gymnast Lee-Eun Ju of herself and fellow competitor, Hong Un Jong of North Korea.screen-shot-2016-08-11-at-11-39-22-am

Tensions between North and South Korea still run high as both countries are still technically at war with one another.The brutal force that was the North Korean invasion is still keenly felt and is not forgotten by the South today. With the presence of American soldiers in South Korea still to this day, definitely not helping the unsettled feelings between countries. This is shown truly at the War Memorial Museum of South Korea in Seoul. However the now famous selfie symbolises how these 2 countries could perhaps one day find reconcilliation.

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On our second time in Seoul, after our loop of South Korea, we booked in to do the DMZ Panmunjom and Joint Security Area Tour (find it here). Please note we had to book this a month in advance so if you are interested make sure you do book it with good time beforehand. The tour cost 80,000 won ($94AUD).

There are some strict rules around taking part in this tour and rightly so with feelings still being quite tense on the border. You must carry your passport with you at all times on the day of the tour. This will be checked quite a few times by soldiers in the DMZ probably to ensure there are no spies on the bus?! Maybe. Also children under 12 years old are not allowed.

There is also a strict dress code that excludes the wearing of ripped jeans, tight leggings and open toed shoes to name just a few. We even read somewhere online before our tour about being well groomed, so Sam went and got a haircut! We later realised this wasn’t necessary. So don’t believe everything you read!

There is good reason for these strict cosmetic rules. It is said that photos taken by North Korea in the past of people wearing ripped jeans are taken back and used as propaganda to show how ‘poor’ other countries are. We are so poor we can’t afford nice jeans with no holes in them! You see the point here. I ended up wearing whole jeans (who knew I’d ever have to write that my jeans were ‘whole’, please note the W), a casual t-shirt and ballet flats (no thongs or sandals allowed).

After fretting about what to wear we were picked up by our bus in Seoul and began the 2 hour journey north. As we got closer to the demilitarised zone we travelled alongside the Han River which is lined by barbed wire fences and guard posts set up every few kilometres to stop civilian access to the river. This is due to the river bordering North and South Korea. The guard posts are manned 24/7 by South Korean or American soldiers. This was a good introduction to what we would witness later on our tour of the DMZ.

A guard post along the Han river

We arrived at Camp Bonifas where onto our bus hopped an American soldier. He introduced himself as our guide and security escort for the tour and asked us for our passports to be checked before we could get off the bus. After a short break and a look through the souvenir shop (weird I know!) we were briefed before being taken to the Joint Security Area.

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JSA vistors centre and souvenier shop!

In the briefing we were told that we were not allowed to take any photographs on the way to the JSA at all. We took a very short bus ride to Freedom House where we walked into the building and were instructed to line up on the stairs and not speak at all, much like school kids! To the left of Freedom House was Peace House but we were not allowed to take any photographs of this area.

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The American soldier who was our guide and security escort for the DMZ tour. I regret to have forgotten his name!

After we lined up we were walked outside through the other side of Freedom house where there was a road, 7 blue buildings in a row and in the background a wide two-storey building with many windows, all of which were curtained. In font of the blue buildings we saw the backs of many soldiers standing in an peculiar stance with arms tensed at their sides. They looked very intimidating and my first thought was that they were the North Korean soldiers.

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The middle blue building is the UN negotiations building where the meetings take place between North and South Korea.

We were then instructed to form a horizontal line atop the stairs outside of Freedom House. Our guide told us we were now facing the blue conference room, the building used to UN conferences between North and South Korea. We were also facing the North Korean building; Panmun-gak, in the background. We were told to look carefully. After a while I saw, at the door of this building, a lone soldier shuffling on his feet and looking extremely bored. It wasn’t until then that I realised the South Korean soldiers were the ones standing closest to me in their intimidation stance (more on why they stand this way below).

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Spot the North Korean soldier. (HINT: completely central to the photograph, very silhoutted)

We then walked into the middle blue building which is the UN negotiations and conference building. Inside were a few long tables set up with microphones on top and 3 South Korean soldiers.  As we gathered around the central table our security escort informed us that half of us, who were standing to his left, were now officially in North Korea!

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The main negotations table, the centre of the table is the boundary line, to the right is North Korea.

We also noticed a soldier standing by the back door of the room. We were informed that if anyone was to attempt to go through that door whatever happened to us would be at our own fault (eep). After that very sobering thought we were told we could all take our photos now! This was such a weird experience that I’ll never forget. I feel like my face says it all really.

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Me with South Korean soldier (note his Tae-Kwon-Do stance). Behind me is the door to North Korea.

We did not have a huge amount of time inside the negotiations building for security reasons but I was kind of glad of that. We were taken back up to the top of the steps and here we got to ask anyquestions we wanted. I learned that North Korea hosts its own tours of the DMZ in which citizens of North Korea come to see the same tour but from the other side. Wouldn’t that be interesting to be able to do both!

After this we were taken back to our bus and taken down the slight hill when we stopped at a seemingly not very interesting point on the road. We were told to look to the right handside of the bus where there was a plaque. This plaque stands in memorial of the 2 US soldiers who lost their lives in the JSA area at the hands of North Korean soldiers and an axe…all for following orders to trim back a tree. They were not allowed to shoot back in order to protect themselves because this would have almost certaintly spelt all out war between the 2 sides. Which is almost what it came to after the 2 men were axed to death on the 18th of August 1976.

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RIP Arthur Bonifas and Mark Barrett (the base of the monument is the same width as the tree they were meant to cut down)

 

Our final stop on the bus along the road back to Camp Bonifas was the Bridge of No Return. It is named this as once the Korean war was ended the two sides exchanged their prisoners of war (POWs). The POWs had a choice of which country to go and once they decided and crossed the bridge they were not allowed to return.

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The Bridge of No Return

We were taken back to camp Bonifas and that marked the end of our weirdly interesting and incredible insight into Korean history and current relations that was the DMZ Panmunjom tour. We boarded our first tour bus and were taken back to Seoul, after having our passports checked one last time on our way out!

It is one thing to read about but to experience it or yourself is something else entirely. If you are ever in South Korea this is an interestng part of it for sure. Hey maybe if you’re in North Korea you could even try a DMZ tour? Maybe.

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The War Memorial of South Korea in Seoul (more on that in another blog post!)
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