It’s the DMZ Korea, A border that separates the North and South and stretches over 241-kilometres long and four kilometres in width. Inside those boundaries is what is called the demilitarised zone, the DMZ. An area where Military action is forbidden inside the limits and as of today, it’s the most guarded DMZ in the world, with a large number of military personnel from both the South and North Korea protecting their respective country’s.
A trip to South Korea is not complete without taking part in an in-depth tour that portrays a considerable part of a nation’s history. It is like going to Ho Chi Minh City and not visiting Cu Chi tunnels or Visiting Turkey and not going to Gallipoli. You get where I am going with this. DMZ Korea is a massive part of wartime history see, and it is a real eye-opener to witness the facts, the stories and the tragedy of the Korean War.
Inside DMZ Korea
The DMZ tour
It starts at the fabulous Lotte Hotel in downtown Seoul, through a tour company called, Panmunjom tours. By bus, you are driven to an area called Paju, which is a good hour from Seoul and right on the edge of the border to South and North Korea. It’s officially the start of the tour as you get escorted through various locations on your way to the Demilitarised Zone.
The first thing I need to touch on is the North Korean defector who joined us for the first part of the tour. She was not allowed inside the DMZ for protection purposes. Her story is sad but truly brave. With her only child, she left her husband and family and escaped the borders of North Korea to China.
With the help of the South Korean government, she was able to set up a life for herself and her child in Seoul. She openly admitted through translation that she would never see her husband again, who never would have supported her defection and she had kept her plan to flee a secret from him. She did, however, harbour hope of uniting with her parents again one day.
Her story was brilliant and Inspirational for someone who wanted the best for her child and would risk her life to do so. For obvious reasons, pictures were not allowed to be taken of her.
The first port of call is to go the Observatory. It gives you the best view of the North, from South Korea. It starts with a mini slide-show about the Observatory and its history before taken to the top to take a look into a North Korean village through the installed binoculars.
The difference between the two countries, from that specific point of view, couldn’t be more startling. The North Korean village has the unfinished infrastructure, no roads and barely any trees at all as they have all been cut down to help with heating during the cold winter months. The locals can be seen out in the paddocks doing their duties, mainly farming the old fashioned way, doing the work all with hard labour and no machinery. You can’t help but think it is a village long forgotten by their government.
Imjingak Park is next on the map. A tourist zone is best known for its freedom bridge where the South Koreans crossed to come home after the signing of the Armistice agreement. It also the home of The Last Train, named appropriately, as it was the last train to cross into North Korea before the war ended. It has remained in its location ever since and is now a photo sensation for the tourist who visits daily.
Imjingak Park also has another Observation point to check in on those North Koreans, it doesn’t reach the great height of the Observatory, but it is still worth a look. But it is a great place to stop and be a real tourist, with cafes, traditional Korean dancers and great insights on the history of the DMZ.
Barb Wire Fence and Lunch
The one thing that is evident in the tour is the barb wire fencing that stretches for miles. Inside the fence is the official The Demilitarized Zone, it is so close, but first there is one more stop before going into the border, Lunch is bulgogi, grilled marinated beef, at a restaurant near the border.
Next stop is into the DMZ Korea.
Entering the DMZ Korea
It’s time to join the DMZ Korea, a war zone you could say since officially a peace treaty was never signed only an armistice agreement. At the entrance to the DMZ, it’s quite hectic at best. It starts with military personnel from both the United States and South Korea coming aboard the bus to check everyone’s passport (a reminder, don’t forget your passport). From this point of the tour, a US soldier is with you for the duration of your time inside the DMZ.
In the bus and within the DMZ, the cameras are put away, unless permitted by the guide to take photos of specific areas. You are then guided into the DMZ Korea, past the one-hole golf course, which Sports Illustrated once named the world’s most dangerous golf course in the world. It creates a good laugh amongst the other guest on tour.
The bus stops at Camp Bonifas, and a group photo is taken, before going inside a building for a twenty-minute presentation on the history of the Korean War and how the DMZ became. There are some tough stories told like the bludgeoning of South Korean soldiers within the DMZ in the 1970s with added pictures. It was quite chilling.
But you need to remind yourself why you decided to take a trip inside DMZ Korea, and that is to learn the hard cold facts of war, which is always brutal.
Joint Security Area
Back on the bus, next is the Joint Security Area (JSA) and the famous blue buildings that you have probably seen before on documentaries and news coverages worldwide. Right now, you are so close to the North Korea side of the border, and while you always feel safe, you can’t help but have a little fear and the goose bumps appear.
You walk into a building on the South Korean side; it is flanked by South Korean soldiers, standing guard and protecting us. On the other side of the building is blue buildings. You look past the blue building, and North Korea is right in front of you, with their soldiers, standing guard and looking directly at us. The feeling at this point is quite real; we are so close to the north.
Once inside the blue buildings, two South Korean soldiers are standing guard once again, they don’t move a muscle, their discipline amongst the tourist is admirable as everyone gets so close without touching the soldier, to take a photo. You venture to the furthest point in the building, at that point you are officially standing in North Korea. It feels strange, eerie even, if only for a few minutes. But I can’t reiterate enough at how safe you think the whole time.
Photos are allowed to be taken inside the JSA. Everyone is snapping away and posing next to the soldiers, and it’s an incredible feeling. This moment is what you do the tour for, and it is well worth being inside and standing inside a room that has played a considerable part of history and to mention you have now been to North Korea, even if doesn’t feel so real.
Leaving the DMZ Korea
The tour is concluding. The bus takes you on another little journey within the DMZ area. We go past the historical “Bridge of no return.” The name came from the prisoner repatriation operations after the Armistice Agreement was signed. The prisoners were given a choice to either return home or remain on the side of their captors upon the agreement being signed.
Next up is the Taesung-Dong “Freedom Village.” A particular village that has been around since before the Korean War. The only way you can live in this village is to be born in the town or married to someone from the village. Taesung-Dong is not blessed with the technology of the South and belongs to neither the North or South. The population is understandably small.
The tour finishes back at the Bonifas Camp, where you can have a little shop in Souvenir store full of memorabilia of the DMZ, the war and you can even purchase North Korean money. It wraps up the tour before nicely, before taking the bus back to the magnificent Lotte Hotel in Seoul, which takes a reasonable hour. A good time for a solid nap after an exhausting day.
If you ever visit Seoul, South Korea, take the DMZ tour you won’t regret it. It is history before your eyes.