On the North & South Korean Border at The Joint Security Area

On the North & South Korean Border at The Joint Security Area

2019-07-21 2 By Adam and Eve

It was literally a SECRET trip. The English-speaking Korean guide for our tour group told us, “We are going on our tour today. But, officially, we are not going. So you can not tell anyone that we are going.” She added that all DMZ tours for the day organised by other travel companies were cancelled with no specified reason.

In fact, we initially booked our tour for another date but it got cancelled and we were given some vague reasons. So we had to frantically find other available spots and put our names on the waiting list for other multiple dates. After being shuffled around a few times with very slim certainty of what’s going to happen with our tour, we got the final confirmation only two days before the actual tour date. As part of the group of 30 lucky travelers, we were finally allowed to embark on our secret trip to the Joint Security Area (JSA), aka Panmunjom.

A view towards North Korea

The JSA is located inside the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which is the
4 km wide band of area across the Korean Peninsula buffering the two Koreas. Ironically, however, the DMZ is the most heavily militarized zone in Korea, if it is not in the world. Historically, the JSA is where the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953 after three years of the Korean war. In more recent times, this is the very place where South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shook hands at the inter-Korean border before their historic talks in 2018 and US President Trump and North Korean leader Kim had a surprise meeting as recent as June 2019.

Originally, the JSA had been a neutral area with no boundary dividing the South and the North. But after ‘the Axe Murder Incident’ in 1976, the JSA was partitioned by the Military Demarcation Line, which became an effective line of separation inside the JSA. In this photo, the line marked by a concrete slab between the two buildings behind the soldier is dividing the South and the North.

Interestingly enough, we were told that at the JSA, the North and the South are still using a conventional way of communication: shouting at each other. If South Korea has something to say to North Korea, the South will shout to the North Side. Then someone from the North will come out of their building, record the audio of everything said and convey it to Pyongyang (North Korean capital).

When I (Eve) saw the news about the latest surprise meeting between US President Trump and North Korean Leader Kim, I was wondering whether Kim was following Trump’s tweets. But now I can imagine one possible scenario as to how the meeting had eventuated: South Korea with super fast internet service saw the Trump’s tweet first and shouted to the North Korean solders at the JSA, “President Trump wants to see your leader Kim to say ‘Hi!’. Go and ask him whether he wants to come down to Panmunjom (JSA) tomorrow.”

UN Command Military Armistice Commission Conference Building, T 2. The three microphones on the main table in this room are installed exactly on the border line dividing North and South Korea. We were allowed to cross the border line to the North in this conference room only.

The JSA was closed to the public since October 2018 to April 2019 to remove military equipment and fences after a more friendly atmosphere was created between the North and the South in recent years. When we visited Panmunjom in July 2019 soon after it was reopened, we could enjoy significantly relaxed rules, such as longer time to tour the JSA than previously allowed and taking photos of pretty much everything with very little restrictions. But our guide reminded us that the current friendly atmosphere could change any time along with the relaxed rules in the area.

The Dobo Bridge, where South Korean President Moon and North Korean leader Kim walked together and had a private talk with no one around in 2018. The table they sat at was covered, which could been seen to the left side of the soldier at the end of the bridge. Many structures in Panmunjom are painted in blue because it is the color of UN.

In order to travel inside the DMZ, we had to go through couple of security checkpoints, where a pair of young South Korean soldiers came on board our tour bus to check our passport and verify the number of passengers with their record. Foreign passport holders are required to provide a copy of their passport at the time of booking for security clearance and carry their original passport with them on the day of tour. Foreign passport holders can make bookings for DMZ tours through half dozen travel agencies approved by the South Korean government. There are multiple different packages for DMZ tours available. However, we recommend to make sure the JSA (Panmunjom) tour to be included in the program. For more detailed information on DMZ tours including bookings, required documents, available tour dates and prices, please go to following links.

http://www.tourdmz.com/rb/?r=eng
https://www.viator.com/Seoul-attractions/DMZ/d973-a8969
http://www.tourkorea.kr/city/panmunjeom.html
http://koreadmztour.com/
https://www.koridoor.co.kr:5033/home/goods_view/index.asp?ts=main&strApart=A
https://www.panmunjeomtour.com/
http://dmztours.com/

Korean passport holders are required to go through even more vigorous and lengthy process of security clearance than foreign travelers. For more information on DMZ tours for Korean passport holders, go to
https://dialogue.unikorea.go.kr/views/cms/ukd/df.jsp#

The mushroom-shaped pine tree in the middle of this photo was planted jointly by South Korean President Moon and North Korean leader Kim during their historic meeting in 2018. Apparently, there is an agreement signed between the two Koreas to make sure the tree, which symbolizes Peace and Prosperity, to be well looked after.

Our DMZ tour was executed with military precision. The guide warned us that if we didn’t return to our bus on the designated time, the bus would still leave on time without waiting for us. Nobody wanted to be left alone in the DMZ, so everyone followed the guide’s instructions obediently and the tour ran like a clockwork.

We thought North and South Korean soldiers are standing guard 24/7, staring at each other’s eyes in close proximity along the Military Demarcation line at the JSA. Contrary to our belief, they don’t. They just go out and take their guard position for visitors. The above photo shows that South Korean soldiers are getting ready to march out of the Freedom House building just in time for our visit.

Apart from the JSA, our DMZ tour included a visit to the Third Infiltration Tunnel made by North Korea, the Dora Observatory where North Korea can be seen in the distance, the Dorasan Station recently opened for the railway line reconnecting the North and the South, the Imjingak Tourist Area where artifacts and monuments from the Korean war are exhibited and lunch at the Unification village.

The Third Tunnel, which North Korea intended to use for military invasion to South Korea, was discovered in 1978 and has a total length of 1,635 meters. Today, visitors can go down the tunnel made South Korea and walk through the North Korean tunnel up to 265 meters. Visitors can go down the tunnel by train like shown in the picture above. Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed to carry cameras inside the tunnel to prevent people from congesting the narrow passage by stopping for photos.
At the Dora Observatory, curious visitors are trying to peep at reclusive North Korea through binoculars.
The South and the North reconnected the Gyeongui Railway Line, which was broken during the Korean war,. However, there is no train service running between the South and the North at the moment. At the Sorasan station, visitors can buy souvenier train tickets to go out to the platform to take photos.
At the Imjingak Tourist Area, visitors can walk around the North Korean train destroyed by South Korean soldiers during the Korean war, when South Korean solders desperately tried to stop North Korean trains coming down to the South. The train displayed here is the last North Korean Train made to where they are now.
We expected simple sandwiches for lunch. But our tour bus took us to this small Korean restaurant in the Unification village. Even lunch was served to us in military precision. Our guide took orders from us in the bus out of two available options and placed an order to the restaurant at some point. When we arrived at the restaurant, all food was just laid out on the table ready to eat. So there was not a single minute for us to wait for our food.

I was afraid that the almost eight hour DMZ tour might be too long and boring since I have seen the places in the media numerous times already. But I have found that seeing them on TV is one thing and seeing them with my own eyes is another. Besides, civilian and military guides gave us a different dimension to the places and we got to hear interesting background and behind the curtains stories from the more recent historic events and developments. The DMZ tour, especially the JSA or Panmunjom tour, is highly recommended to anyone who is curious to know more about Korea.