DMZ Tour- Part 2

Okay, onto the second half of my DMZ tour.  After visiting Panmunjom, we drove past the point of the axe murder incident and also the bridge of no return.  We weren’t allowed off the bus because this area is pretty dangerous still (maybe it’s the landmines?) but they slowed down enough for us to get some photos.

The ax murder incident happened in 1976 when a group of US and ROK people went in perform a routine trimming of a poplar tree, which blocked view of United Nations Command checkpoint center.  Then a group of 15 or so North Korean soldiers came and told them to stop trimming the tree because Kim Il Sung planted it (which is completely false).  During the incident 2 US Army soldiers were axed to death.

Memorial for Ax Murder Death

Bridge of No Return- used for prisoner exchange after the Korean War

The Military Demarcation Line runs through the middle of the bridge.  After the Korean War, prisoners were brought here and were allowed to decide if they wanted to go to the north or south, but once they crossed the bridge, they would never be allowed to return.

After this, we headed to the Third Tunnel, one of 4 underground secret tunnels dug by North Korea to have access to do a surprise attack on Seoul.

The North Koreans painted the insides of these tunnels black, in case they were found.  They could pass it off as a coal mine.  There are many theories on these tunnels, some saying many more are to be discovered.  Others say these are decoy tunnels and the real ones are much trickier to find.  Anyway, to visit the third tunnel, you have to be in good health and ready for a long walk at an 11 degree angle down this hallway to get to the actual tunnel (it’s a bit rough on the way up, even for those in shape).  Then you have to put on a hard hat to walk through the tunnel.  The tunnel itself is quite narrow, usually 2 people could walk on it, going in either direction, and if you’re tall- watch out!  I saw one guy in his 50’s turn around because of his back.  Unfortunately, photography was prohibited in the tunnel so no pictures, however afterwards at the tunnel gift shop, I took a photo of some DMZ rice.

After the exhausting tunnel walk, we got back on the bus and went to the Dora Observatory, where you can look through those view finder/binocular thingies at North Korea, including Kaesong village (where North Koreans are working for a large South Korean company).  Photos here were mostly prohibited too, but they allowed a picture of the observatory itself.

Thus ended our tour of the DMZ, however the tour itself wasn’t over.  We then switched buses, went just outside of the DMZ to have lunch, where I bought some North Korean beer for my aunt’s husband.  (South Korean beer isn’t that great, but I’ve heard Koreans and foreigners rave about this stuff).

After lunch, we headed to our last stop on the official tour which was Dorasan station.  This train station once could take supplies and passengers into North Korea, but these days Dorasan is the last station people can go to.  It’s mostly tourists there now.  I believe the decision to close off the station was a decision both by the North and South for political reasons.  There used to be tours that used the train to go up to the highest mountain in all of Korea, Baekdu mountain.  But a few years ago at Mount Kumgang, a 53 year old South Korean tourist was shot when she accidentally crossed a military border.  This tourist spot had been opened since 1998, with over a million visitors, but now pretty much all tourism to the north from the south has shut down.  I went off on a tangent there but here are some photos of Dorasan station.

I think everyone really enjoyed the tour.  It costs a little bit more than the other ones, but if you’re interested in history and have all day to spare, I would highly recommend the Koridoor USO tour for a visit to the DMZ.

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DMZ Tour- Part 1

Before I came to Korea, one of the things that I knew I had to do was to go on one of the DMZ tours.  After further research, I decided on the USO (United Service Organization)/Koridoor tour, since it is the only one that can get you access to the JSA.  On Tuesday, I arrived at Camp Kim USO just before 0730 when the buses were to depart.  They check your passport 3 times throughout the trip, so do not forget it if you go!  (I think military ID works, but not any other kind of ID).  This tour also has a strict dress code that’s enforced- no sleeveless clothing, no tight stretch pants, no short shorts or skirts, no flip flops, no baggy pants, etc.

I made friends with a nice girl who works for Google and we chatted a little on the way up.  As we got closer to our destination, I started to see chain link fences with barbed wire.  Apparently this is to keep North Korean military from swimming their way down (not defectors, although some of them have probably tried it too) and sneaking into South Korea.  We start seeing these fences maybe an hour or less after leaving Seoul, reminding us that Seoul is pretty close to the border.

Once we get to the DMZ border, we are made to wait a little bit and two army guys come on the bus and inspect our passports yet again.  They are our escorts for the rest of the trip, until we leave the DMZ.  The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) is a strip of land which divides the Korean peninsula in half(ish), it’s 4 kilometers long (2 belonging to the South, 2 to the North) and 240 km across going from coast to coast.  The Military Demarcation Line is the actual “line” that separates north and south.  So the DMZ is the barrier around the MDL.  I don’t want to bore you with a lengthy and poorly written history of the DMZ, but basically it started out like this- the 38th parallel came about after WWII, dividing the northern Soviet occupied space with the southern American occupied land.  Then of course the Korean War started and in July of 1953 an Armistice Agreement was made, creating the DMZ, stating the rules for the area (what weapons can be there, etc), and other stuff.  The armistice agreement is just kind of like a cease fire though, not a peace treaty.  Technically these two countries are still at war, and are still negotiating, making this the longest war in U.S. history.

Anyway, as soon as we arrive, the mood on the bus becomes more tense.  The bus driver knows his way around and is careful to stay within the lanes- no crazy driving here like in Seoul!  Everyone is to stay on asphalt at all times unless they tell us we can walk on the grass.  Usually the open grassy areas are fine, but other wooded areas have land mines everywhere.  In fact, the DMZ is lined with tank traps, electrical fences, landmines, and of course two armies ready to pounce at any moment.

Our first stop is at Camp Bonifas, which is a joint U.S. and ROK (Republic of Korea, aka South Korea) army camp where we were given a 20 minute briefing about how to act and what to expect.  We also had to sign a waiver saying that we would follow the rules and understood we could get harmed or possibly even killed while there- eek!  After our briefing, we board different buses to take us to the JSA (Joint Security Area) at Panmunjom (판문점).  We first walked into the Freedom House (built in 1998, used for meetings and exchanges), which we were unfortunately not allowed to take any pictures of due to security reasons (there were lots of points of the tour when this was the case).  The security reasons they gave were so that our photos of their camera placements wouldn’t get online, thus North Korea having access to their location.  Inside the Freedom House, we were told again (maybe this was the 5th or 6th time) to not point at, wave, make any kind of motions towards the North Korean soldiers in any way.  I wonder if some stupid tourist has ever tried it.  Anyway, here are some pics of the JSA!

The ROK soldiers here have to always be in that  modified Tae Kwon Do stance and have sunglasses on, so the North Korean soldiers can’t see what’s going on.  Also, we were not allowed to go around the table on the side of the flag.  I was standing on the North Korean side while taking this picture.  Mics on the table in this room record everything.  Official meetings are still sometimes held here.

North Korean soldier

Our Koridoor tour guide and one of our army tour guides said this is the first time they had ever seen this many North Korean soldiers out here.  I counted more than 10, less than 20.

The ROK soldiers have to wear the sunglasses and also stand halfway behind the buildings like that so the Northern soldiers can’t “read” them

They believed the reason for that was perhaps because of this above group of people touring the JSA from the North side!  Some guy did confirm that it was a tour group, but for some reason they were all wearing the same color.  Apparently the JSA tour in North Korea costs around $10,000 and that probably doesn’t even include getting to North Korea.

After the tour group went in the building a few of the soldiers started to do a very strange march, zig zagging or something weird.

There were also some soldiers on the top of the building looking down at us with binoculars.

Just to clarify, when no tour groups or people are out there near the blue buildings, only 2 soldiers stand out there.  The extra ones were for us.  Also, when a tour group from either side goes in JSA, the other door is locked so they can’t get in.  So that way only one “side” is in there at a time.  The JSA is the only area where North and South Korean soldiers face each other.  Another interesting fact is that South Koreans can’t go easily on this tour.  They have to file all this paperwork and it takes 3-6 months to get approval.

Our young and energetic Koridoor tour guide was as excited as we were about what we were able to see.  She called us a lucky group!  More DMZ stuff on the next post.