Despite the worldwide media coverage of North Korean’s threats at the time, it didn’t stop me from booking the DMZ & JSA tour (aka Demilitarized Zone or Joint Security Area). I was excited and nervous at the same time to do this tour which was so popular on the day it filled up two busloads of foreigners and off-duty US troops on the day.
The weather was miserable, but that did not deter the tourists who came pouring in by the busload. I had any early start, up around 5 in the morning to catch a train to the meeting point – Camp Kim USO, part of the of U.S. Army base and presence in South Korea.
My passport was required to do this tour and compliance to their dress code, which meant no ripped jeans, short pants, mini-skirts and t-shirts with offensive messages. If you’re from countries like the US, UK, Canada and Australia booking was easy. Certain countries like China, Vietnam and fellow citizens of South Korea weren’t allowed to do the JSA tour.
I couldn’t see much of the highway that led to North Korea because of the weather which reduce much visibility. The first stop was the briefing that took place at Camp Bonifas. Here you signed a visitor’s declaration to waiver your life away, or more specifically, any liabilities to them like compensation in case of injury or death caused by enemy action. It was a catch 22, but if you wanted to do the JSA tour, you had to sign it.
The JSA was the highlight of the whole trip. We were led inside Freedom House where we were specifically told what we could and couldn’t take photos of, that no sudden gestures and eye contact were to be made in the presence of the soldiers. As it was raining, they made an exception and allowed us to take our umbrellas, but we were informed the umbrellas were to remain open at all times.
We got to see North Korean soldiers taking photos and looking back at us as we did the same. All the protocols made it a bit nerve-wracking and you could feel a quiet tension in the air.
The South Korean soldiers on patrol are not your typical soldiers, they are highly trained in forms of martial arts in case of incidents occurring when sharing the patrol of the area with North Korean soldiers (which there have been in the past).
The Joint Security Area is a 400m x 800m area, located in Panmunjom where the Armistice Agreement was signed. Now it is a place where the South and North Koreans talks happen. While in the building I found myself briefly in North Korea where the border started halfway through the conference table.
When the most potentially dangerous part of the tour was over it was a big sigh of a relief. I felt I could relax and enjoy the rest of the tour which included visiting check point 3, the point of ax murder where two US soldiers were killed over a tree trimming incident and the bridge of no return where soldiers were bought to decide which Korea they wanted to live in. I really wanted to see the Propaganda city of North Korea, but the weather was not on my side that day.
The Dora Observatory would of also been much better on a clear day. There was a brief history lesson as we arrived inside the DMZ theater and Museum. From all the bad, there was at least something good that came out it all, like the flourishing natural environment in the DMZ buffer zone which has remained mostly underdeveloped since the armistice was signed in 1953.
There was none of the famous North Korean Taedonggang beer available to purchase in the souvenir shop, but I did end up buying some North Korean pear brandy and wild grape wine as gifts.
The other highlight of the day was walking in the 3rd Infiltration tunnel, one of many tunnels North Koreans have tried to dig towards South Korea. We had safety helmets which I needed in some parts of the tunnel, not so good if you a tall person. The climax was reaching the end of the tunnel where the South Koreans sealed it.
We also got to visit Dorasan Station – the last station in South Korea before you reach the first station to North Korea. I really do hope to see the station open and functioning like any other South Korean station in my lifetime someday.
The trip ended with us watching a clip from Psy’s new music video Gentlemen. It was release while I was in Seoul and getting high rotation. There was also a movie made about the JSA, which we didn’t get to finish. Our tour guide pretty much spoil it for anyone wanting to watch the rest by telling us the ending of the movie.
The tour was a bit rush as we covered so much places in a short period of time. It was an interesting way to spend my last full day in Korea, despite being dose up on flu medicine and having grey clouds hang over us the whole day. If anything, the weather added to the sombre reality of a nation divided by war.