June 11, 2015
Gosh, I fell a bit behind. Partially due to my own laziness and partially due to the end-of-the-month craze at school. So now I’m finally sitting down to write about our experience at the DMZ!
Over Buddha’s Birthday weekend our friends from Texas, Sarah and Walter, came to visit! For Sarah’s 30th birthday I had promised a trip to the DMZ so I made good on my word and we booked our tour a few weeks in advance of their trip. I read lots of reviews about DMZ tours and it seemed that the best option was the USO Tour. It was slightly under $100 for civilians and half that for those in the military. It covered all the bases – Joint Security Area (JSA), Dorasan Station, Dora Observatory, and the 3rd Tunnel.
Their first full day in Korea was the DMZ tour – great introduction? – so we got up early, checked in at Camp Kim, and departed Seoul at 7:30am. It took us a little over an hour to get to the JSA. We first had to cross the Cow Bridge, or Unification Bridge, a security checkpoint. The bridge got its nickname when the founder of Hyundai – who was born in North Korea – paid for the bridge’s construction and then sent 1,000 cows across in an effort to promote goodwill and partnership. Now, only those who are authorized can cross. When we arrived at Camp Bonifas, all of our passports were checked by a US Army Private before we could proceed inside the gates. We were given a short presentation on the history of the Korean War and the creation of the DMZ at the Visitor’s Center, and we also had to sign a waiver stating that we acknowledged that our safety couldn’t be guaranteed if anything happened. Then the tour began.
We were first taken to Conference Row. We weren’t allowed to take any photos of the South Korean side and we were told not to gesticulate or point toward the North Korean side lest they use it against the South. We were taken through a beautiful building, Freedom House, that was erected to allow families on either sides to reunite. Sadly, it has not been used for that purpose yet. Our group was split into two single-file lines and led outside to Conference Row.
Next we were led into one of the blue buildings. These are used for meetings between the two sides. The buildings straddle the MDL (military demarcation line) which is the actual border between North and South Korea. Inside the building we were able to physically stand in North Korea which was pretty bizarre and unsettling.
After leaving Conference Row we toured a couple other areas. First we were taken to an area where we could see more of North Korea. Each side was allowed to keep a village within the DMZ after the ceasefire. Daeseong-dong (Freedom Village) is on the South Korean side. It is an actual village where some 200 people still live. They have some special restrictions and perks due to life in the DMZ. They have daily curfews and they work in rice paddies extremely close to North Korea. However, they don’t pay any tax to South Korea and they avoid South Korea’s conscription for men. Kijong-dong (Propaganda Village) is on the North Korean side. It was built in the 1950s to attract South Korean defectors to the glamour of living in North Korea. However, Kijong-dong isn’t even a real town. Through a pair of binoculars the South Koreans have been able to determine that no one really lives there. Many of the doors and windows are painted on the buildings, the lights are on timers, and there are rarely people seen walking around town. While we were outside we heard some sort of operatic propaganda being played over the loud speakers. It was kind of creepy.
From there we saw a couple more things without leaving our bus. First, we saw the site of the 1976 ax murder incident. A tall poplar tree blocked the view from one ROK checkpoint to another. A team of civilian workers and a UN command force were sent to chop it down. Unfortunately, they were ambushed by North Korean soldiers and two members of the UN command were axed to death. Tensions escalated quickly and a lot of fire power was brought in. Operation Paul Bunyan commenced to chop down the rest of the tree, and there is now a marker to remember the two who were lost that day.
We also saw the Bridge of No Return. The bridge was used to trade prisoners during the war. Prisoners were brought to the bridge and told they could choose which side to go to. Once they chose, there would be no return. Our guide told us that when Bill Clinton visited as President he walked so far on the bridge that he had DPRK snipers pointed at him. After that incident, no one is allowed to walk onto the bridge. Thanks, Bill!
After that we were taken back to the Visitor’s Center and got back on our tour with the USO. Honestly, the JSA was the real highlight of the tour and I would have been supremely happy if that had concluded our tour. But in Korea they really like to load the tours up with lots of stuff, so we had 3 more stops to make, including lunch.
First, we visited Dorasan Station. It’s the last train station in the South and it certainly felt that way. It was the quietest train station I’ve ever been in, especially in Korea. We walked out on the platform which had some other tourists on it but on the opposite platform there was no one. A bit eerie. There is a lot of optimism that one day it will be used and the countries will be connected again, but for the time being it seems tragic and also a bit gimmicky.
When we left Dorasan we were taken to the Dora Observatory which seemed pointless in light of our visit to the JSA. From the observatory we saw essentially the same view of North Korea that we saw on our JSA tour but from further away. There were binoculars you could look through but it was really crowded with other tourists and we were getting hungry at this point so our interest wasn’t there.
We stayed at the observatory briefly and then had lunch at a nearby restaurant – actually the only restaurant around. I was hoping for a nicer Korean restaurant experience but it was a self-serve buffet – bibimbap or bulgogi. For our final stop, we were taken to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. The tunnel was discovered in 1978 and is now a tourist attraction for some reason. I am not a friend of close, tight spaces underground and Sarah and Walter weren’t interested either, so Zach is the only one who went. He said it was extremely deep – he had to walk down a very steep incline to reach the tunnel – and larger than he thought it would be. He still had to bend over slightly but it wasn’t too uncomfortable. Everyone who goes in the tunnel has to wear a hard hat and no electronics are allowed – each visitor goes through a metal detector before entry into the tunnel. Amazingly, after that, they wanted us to sit through a video about the DMZ. The four of us stayed on the bus. We were pretty DMZ’d out!
All in all, it was a great tour. It gave us more of an insight into a conflict we knew only a little about before moving here, and the tour of the JSA was unforgettable. We hope that someday we’ll be able to say, “We went to the DMZ before reunification,” and it’ll just be a piece of history that’s in the distant past.