How can I describe the singularly most unique experience we have ever had traveling? The single most unique destination we have been to. A place that, at one point, my stomach did somersaults when I saw a sign that read Entering the Korean DMZ. That is why this blog, about our experience on a Korean DMZ tour, is one of the longest I have written.
I won’t go into the history of the Korean conflict, but it is something that many of us watch from a distance. In South Korea, though, it is something that affects their everyday. There’s mandatory military service for men. There are families that remain torn apart after six decades. They live in a constant state of threat that the crazy guy on the other side of the line may decide to attack.
While staying at the luxurious JW Marriott, we arranged a full day tour to head up to Panmunjom, to see what, before this day, we had only seen on TV, and to try to understand more about one of the biggest conflict zones in today’s world.
Visiting Panmunjom on a Korean DMZ Tour
Panmunjom is located inside the Korean DMZ, the demilitarized zone, which separates North and South Korea. It is the most forward portion of the DMZ that civilians can visit from South Korea. It is 62 kilometers northwest of Seoul and 215 kilometers south of Pyongyang. It is the more common name associated with the JSA, or Joint Security Area, which lies inside the region. Panmunjom was once a village until the end of the Korean War, now it is a geographic area most known for the DMZ.
Our tour left Seoul and made a few stops on the way to Panmunjom, including the Mt. Odu Unification Observatory where we could see into North Korea. Unfortunately, it was a dreary day, and we could barely see across the river. We stopped for a Korean BBQ lunch, and a visit to the Freedom Bridge, where the North and South Koreans were meant to build a railroad to connect the two states. A goal that never materialized.
It was also the bridge that was used to repatriate POWs after the war. Now, it is more of a memorial for families who remain separated, not even knowing if family members are alive or dead. Ribbons are hung on a fence, capped by barbed wire, in memory of families torn apart.
Visiting Camp Bonifas on a Korean DMZ Tour
All of these stops were interesting, and educational, but not the main reason why anyone books a Korean DMZ Tour. People really want to see the line that separates north and south.
At our appointed time, our bus pulled up to Camp Bonifas, the UN run military area that leads into the Joint Security Area. Camp Bonifas is operated jointly by the South Koreans and the United Nations, with an obvious presence of the US government. US Army personnel came on board the bus to check everyone’s identification. Everything was very serious. Very official.
Our Army escort stood in the front of the bus, escorting us to the welcome center. We sat in a large auditorium, waiting for instructions on the tour. We were asked to sign a waiver. The recovering attorney in me thought that was interesting. Eric asked me, as his in-house counsel, if it was okay to sign. We were on notice that we were entering into “a hostile area and the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”
They “cannot guarantee the safety of visitors and may not be held accountable in the event of a hostile enemy attack.”
Our signature on the visitor declaration confirmed that I would not “demand compensation for the damage of body and property.” This is what they refer to in the legal world as a contract of adhesion, for sure.
This contract really started to put things into perspective. Our guide, and our military escort, repeated the rules and regulations of a visit, including no photos, unless we were told specifically that it was okay to take photographs. No bags of any kind. You are not allowed to drink alcohol before the tour. You are only allowed to walk where they say. This is all for the safety of the tourists, but after reading the disclaimer, I also realized it was to prevent an international incident.
After our introductory slideshow about the history of the DMZ, we boarded a different, UN bus, to finally make our way into the Joint Security Area, the JSA.
What is the JSA? What is the DMZ? What is the MDL?
Getting the Lingo Down
These words were all confusing to me when we were choosing our Korean DMZ tour, as everyone outside of Korea just refers to the entire area as the DMZ. The DMZ is the stretch of land, which reaches into both North Korea and South Korea, with the Hangang and Imjingang Rivers running between. It is the buffer zone which surrounds the 38th parallel. This zone is about 2.5 miles wide and about 160 miles long. It is marked by barbed wire and guard posts, and is desolate. It is the most heavily militarized border in the world.
Within the vicinity of the DMZ, is Camp Bonifas, where we visited the welcome center, as well as a handful of other installations, including some unique “residential” areas. Most importantly, within the DMZ, lies the Joint Security Area. The JSA is the only spot where North Korean and South Korean forces stand face to face. Each side is allowed no more than 35 soldiers at any one time. The JSA is relatively small, roughly 800 meters wide, and in a circular shape. The JSA houses UN buildings, and a large North Korean operated building on the north side, called Panmungak.
Within the JSA is the MDL, or Military Demarcation Line. This is the actual border line that runs between the north and south. It is the spot where you can place one foot in South Korea and the other foot in North Korea.
We signed our contract at the welcome center at Camp Bonifas, which is located 400 meters south of the DMZ. Then, we made our way into the DMZ, to the JSA, to see the MDL.
Visiting the JSA, the Heart of a Korean DMZ Tour
The bus was quiet when we pulled away from the welcome center. It was the most serious tour I have been on. Our visit to Auschwitz was comparable from an emotional perspective, but the Korean DMZ tour had an extra layer of seriousness and security. There was an overhanging aura of danger that permeated the air.
When I saw the large sign just outside the bus window warning that we had crossed into the official DMZ, my stomach did a little somersault. It suddenly hit me not only how far I had come, geographically and philosophically, since I was a nerdy girl in my suburban New Jersey lifestyle, but it hit me exactly where we were.
Our guide repeatedly warned that once inside the JSA, we were not to make any gestures that could be deemed to offend the North Koreans. It is possible that they could take photos of it and use it as propaganda. The same was true for dress code. Wearing ripped jeans or inappropriate clothing is proscribed, again because it could be used to show how “poor” the people are on the other side of the line. I was most nervous, though, about the gestures. I am fidgety and I talk with my hands. I tried to walk with my hands in my pockets at all times.
When off the bus, we walked in two lines, through the Freedom House. The Freedom House is a massive building with the initial intention of using it for reunion of families. Unfortunately, since it was built, it had never been used for that reason. Instead, it is now a walkway that leads to the heart of the JSA.
We walked up the stairs, through the building, and out into the main JSA complex. This was what I had been waiting for. This is what I wanted from a Korean DMZ tour. Eric wanted to see into North Korea. I wanted to see the famous blue UN buildings, and the soldiers standing at attention.
That was just what we experienced.
We were lined up along the top of a few steps, with a clear view of the UN buildings, and North Korea on the other side. We were allowed to take photos at this point, which I did with trepidation. Our military escort told us we could take photos of the blue buildings, and the North Korean building, but could not take photos of what was behind us, namely the Freedom House. I am not sure why. I did not think to ask questions. I just snapped photos as quick as possible.
Although each side is allowed a maximum of 35 soldiers on each side, there was only one, lone, North Korean soldier at the top of the steps of the Panmungak building. Our military escort warned though, that there were surely 34 more soldiers hidden in the building and among the trees. The South Korean guards stood in an intimidating stance, which is modification of a Tae Kwon Do stance, stiff as a board, with arms to the side.
Because we were not allowed to take photos behind us, I was hesitant to take a selfie, which required me to turn the camera to face the Freedom House. But, I have never before wanted to take a selfie so bad, to prove that we had stepped foot on this hallow ground. This secure space. We snapped one quick, awkward selfie, with North Korea in the background. My face says it all.
Visiting the MDL on a Korean DMZ Tour
After taking photos of the JSA, we were escorted into the MAC Conference Room, one of the famous blue buildings which lie across the DMZ. It’s a crowded space, with a few conference room tables, including one that lies across the MDL. There were two Republic or Korea (South Korea) soldiers. One at the head of the conference room table, and the other in front of the door to the North. Our military escort explained the purpose and history of the MAC, while we all remained stiff and still, waiting for instructions, afraid to do something wrong.
I had quickly noticed when we walked in that the people at the front of our tour group line were standing on the far side of the conference room table. I wanted to stand on the far side of the table. But, the solemnity of the tour so far, kept me from pushing my way over. We were even warned to try not to touch the table. I was hesitant to move, but wanted to so bad. The other side of the table was North Korea.
Finally, our military escort said we were allowed to take pictures and we could walk around the conference room freely. Suddenly, things got a lot more casual, very quick.
I finally walked around to the far side of the table, which meant that, suddenly, my feet were very officially in North Korea.
We were allowed to take photos with the ROK soldiers, whose eyes were shrouded behind black sunglasses, meant to look intimidating, so long as we stood at least 6 inches away. We even got a selfie of us, while standing in North Korea.
Just as we did so, our military escort commented that he was stunned at how few selfies people were taking. I commented quickly that we snuck a few selfies, and that I take selfies as a profession, which is kind of true. Within those few minutes the seriousness of the tour turned to a more casual atmosphere. I think the solemnity of tour is enforced to ensure people follow the rules, but by the end, we were all smiling and happy that we were all standing in such a unique place.
That is not to say that the situation was not serious. I never got over the fact that I was standing where I was, And, there was nothing to protect us if an incident occurred. There have been instances where defectors attempted to enter South Korea, and shots were fired, and people died. After all, this is the most heavily militarized border, and the guy running things on the other side is an unknown factor. Anything could have occurred while we stood there. Luckily, nothing did.
I tend not to carry a lot of fear around me when I travel. And, I was not afraid to be standing there, on the MDL, and the border of North Korea. But, there just was something, well, serious, about the situation, the location. We have never had to go through that much security on any tour we have taken before.
The weather was far from perfect on our Korean DMZ tour, with the entire experience clouded in an overcast sky. The weather, though, added to the somberness of the day. I think seeing the DMZ on a clear day would have been much different. Instead, the harsh landscape, the desolation near the border, was all highlighted by the late winter, early spring skies.
Although there were a few more stops on the way back to the welcome center, including a visit to the DMZ gift shop, the highlight for me was stepping foot into the MAC Conference Room, stepping foot into North Korea, and recognizing that for that brief moment how cool it was to be somewhere so historic.
Would you visit the Korean DMZ? If you’ve been, what was your experience like?
We were supported during our stay in South Korea by the JW Marriott Seoul, although they have no direct affiliation with the tour company.