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.