I am writing first about my visit to the Joint Security Area (JSA) because this is the most unforgettable part of my second trip to South Korea.
For the longest time, I’ve always wanted to see the DMZ – blame it on my fascination with war movies, with history and a paperback novel set during the Korean War. So, when the opportunity to come back to Korea was presented last November, I made sure that a visit to the DMZ or the Demilitarized Zone and the Joint Security Area (JSA) is in order.
First: DMZ/JSA – A quick background
According to Wikipedia – The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ; Hangul: 한반도 비무장지대) is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula that serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea. The DMZ is a de-facto border barrier, which runs in the vicinity of the 38th parallel north. The DMZ cuts the Korean Peninsula roughly in half, crossing the 38th parallel on an angle, with the west end of the DMZ lying south of the parallel and the east end lying north of it. It was created as part of the Korean Armistice Agreement between North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, and the United Nations Command forces in 1953. (Source)
To put it simply, the DMZ is the area between North and South Korea where military activity is prohibited in any area within 4 kilometers of the boarder. In spite its name, the DMZ is actually heavily-armed, with military patrols manning both sides of the fence at all times, as well as landmines planted along the boarder. True, while you can’t see any guns or tanks or anything that would hint the presence of weaponry in the area–there will always be a heavy feeling, like a feeling of being watched at all times, constantly and vigilantly
Within the DMZ is the Joint Security Area (JSA) also called Panmunjeom. This is the area containing the blue buildings (also referred to as the Conference Row). These is where talks between the two countries are usually held. Fronting the conference buildings are the Freedom Building (South Korea side – where you will stand during the tour to look into the North) and the Panmungak House in the North.
How do I get to the DMZ? Can I do it on my own?
If you want to go to the DMZ, you have to arrange for a tour with any of the affiliated-tourist companies in Seoul. This is if you are entering from the South Korean side. There are many tour companies, with almost the same rates and you can get in touch with them thru email to inquire or confirm a tour.
In our case, we picked Seoul City Tour, which is one of the trusted tour providers in the city. We also saw some good reviews regarding their service on the net, that’s why we chose to get in touch with them. You can send an inquiry online and they are known to answer immediately.A typical tour to Panmunjeom usually costs around KRW95,000, (about PHP3,800). Upon confirmation of your preferred date, the agency will send you instructions on how to complete payment online, as well as strict instructions to send them a scanned copy of your passport. Passport copies are usually submitted to the UN Security Council for their approval two to three days prior to your actual trip to the JSA. Note that some nationalities are prohibited from entering the JSA, including citizens of South Korea. The agency will also remind you of the strict dress code as well as somne do’s and don’ts during the trip.
The fact that North and South Korea is still, technically, at war; and that strict security measures has to be observed are just some of the reasons why a DYI-trip to the JSA is not possible.
The tour – what to expect
1. On the day of the tour, you will be advised by the agency to proceed to the International Cultural Service Club (ICSC) office located at the 6F of the Lotte Hotel in Myeongdong. At the ICSC office, I realized that regardless of which agency booked your tour, you will still be directed to the ICSC office which solely handles tours to the JSA.
2. At the ICSC, you will be handed a bus voucher, with strict instructions to find your assigned bus parked at the 2F of the Lotte Hotel. Proceed to the 2F and present the voucher to the tour guide inside your assigned bus. Your busmates will automatically become your group mates during the tour.
3. Travel going to the North Korean border is about an hour and a half. Along the highway, you will see barbed wires and fences along the sea. Our guide said that this is protection against defectors. It is also during the bus trip that the tour guide will share about the history of the Korean War. For a history buff like me, this is where I was all-ears even while some of my bus mates tried to catch some sleep.
4. You will first arrive at Camp Bonifas where you will be asked to sign a waiver absolving the tour company of any liability should there a fight broke out between the North and South during the visit. After all, the both sides are still technically at war. But I assure you, this is just formality and the probability of war breaking out while you are enjoying the view is as possible as a zombie apocalypse breaking out while you are aiming your camera at the Panmungak.
5. From Camp Bonifas, you will be transferred to another bus who will bring you to the JSA.
I don’t know how I can describe what I felt, seeing the familiar blue buildings I have only seen before in movies and in other blogs. To say that I was blow away is an understatement. Honestly, I just can’t believe that I was seeing it for real. The feeling was surreal – a mixture of fear (what if something scary happens) and awe (you are a few steps away from North Korea!). Your guide will usher your group inside the blue conference room for the requisite group photo and photo ops. Inside, you will see the conference table where discussion between the two countries are made. You will be invited to take photos with the dashing South Korean JSA guards stationed inside the conference room. If you are wondering where the North Korean guards are, we were informed by our guide that they usually leave the area when the South Korean side had tour guests and the South Korean side usually does the same when the North has their guests.
It’s just a simple conference room, with wide windows where you can see the demarcation line between the two countries. Inside was a framed poster showing the flags of the countries who assisted the South during the Korean war. After about 20 minutes, you will be again ushered outside, asked to line up on the steps leading to the Freedom Hall where we are given the go-signal to again use our cameras to take a picture of the conference row and the Panmungak behind it. At the Panmungak, a lone North Korean soldier stands. According to our guide, usually the NK soldiers appear when there are tours from their side but since it is quiet when we made our tour, we can only see a lone soldier standing at the beginning of the steps of the Panmungak.
We were reminded again and again to focus our cameras ahead only and to not take photos of the other buildings to our left or our right; but seems one of the Japanese tourists didn’t hear this. Our minder from the JSA corps saw him taking photos of other buildings, so he was admonished and asked to hand over his camera where the soldier (presumably) deleted his other photos.
After the photo op at the steps of the Freedom Hall, the bus will bring you to the Bridge of No Return where you will be invited again to take photos. The Bridge of No Return is called as such because exchange of prisoners of wars (POWs) was usually done here. Once the prisoner chose which side he preferred and he chose to cross over, he can no longer cross over to the other side.
The tour usually ends back at Camp Bonifas where you can buy souvenirs, including North Korean won, North Korean liquor and the requisite shirt, cap, mugs paraphernalia. Usually, tour packages come with a lunch option — usually held at a pre-chosen Korean BBQ restaurant in a town on the way back to Seoul. By 3PM, we were dropped off back to the Lotte Hotel – a bit tired but thoroughly happy that we chose to include DMZ as part of our itinerary.
Would I recommend this attraction?
Definitely. If you have 4 to 5 days in Seoul, I will recommend that you allot a day for a trip to the border. This is one of the best decisions you will make. Plus, imagine ticking this off your bucket list. You actually get the chance to lay your feet on two countries at the same time.