DMZ Tour – North Koreaaaaa!
This tour is a must do if you’re ever in Korea. It’s the only time that you’ll be able to say that you’ve set foot in North Korea and not get killed!
We went with the complete package and did the 3rd tunnel and Panmunjom tour. The 3rd tunnel is a tunnel that the North Koreans were digging towards Seoul and the South Koreans discovered their plot from a North Korean who defected. The South Koreans subsequently created a separate path to the tunnel just for tourists. The Panmunjom tour actually takes you inside the DMZ (demilitarized zone) and you get to walk inside the conference room where the South and the North negotiations take place!
The tour started by heading north towards the military checkpoint are which was only 50km or so away from Seoul. The guide explained that the DMZ is 2km North and 2km South of the border. This area is essentially a buffer zone designated by a cease-fire agreement that was signed after a stalemate war between the two sides. Past the southern DMZ zone is the MDL (military demarcation line). After the MDL border, military bases and weaponry are positioned, which extends for 7km. You can see why this is the most heavily guarded border in the world today.
Along the highway you start to see a barbed wire fence on your left side with military posts at continuous intervals. Behind the fence is the river. The river itself is in South Korea but another river in the North actually merges with this one so it’s very susceptible to espionage. The guide warned us that if anyone was to be seen behind that fence/in the river, they’ll be shot to death immediately. This tour is turning out great! 🙂
As we were approaching our first checkpoint, the guide points us to the concrete structures (they look like overpass bridges) with black/yellow stripes painted by the pillars. He told us that they’re filled with dynamite. There are 9 of these. In any event that the North attempts to invade with tanks, they will blow up these structures to delay them. Each line will delay the tanks for 5min so 9 x 5 = 45min total. This will give them as much time possible to prepare other defenses.
We were reaching the unification bridge where we encounter our first checkpoint before entering the military zone. A South Korean soldier will come up and do a head count and the guide goes and registers everyones name and passport to the government before you can pass. We weren’t suppose to take any pics on the unification bridge but they didn’t tell us until the bus stopped at the checkpoint.
Everything looks fine and we pass. Strangely, we saw a lot of farmland in the military zone. The guide told us that there is a village here and the the soil is extremely fertile. Here, the farmers grow high quality ginseng and organic soy beans. As an incentive to become a farmer here, the government makes it worth your while – $90k USD tax free and omitted from compulsory military service. Every male is obligated to do 21 months of military service when they reach 16? if I recall. You have until age 30 to do this or else you’ll be jailed…unless you’re a farmer in the military zone! We were told there’s a waiting list for this job and I can see why! When you become a farmer here, for your safety there is a curfew and you have to lock all your windows and doors by midnight. Also, you’re only allowed to rent the land, not own it.
Bridge of Freedom – This is the bridge that former South Korean and American POW’s crossed from the North to freedom
We reached the facility of the 3rd tunnel. As mentioned earlier, the South Koreans discovered this underground tunnel after they got tipped off by a North Korean who had defected back in the 70’s. When they were told of the plot, the South Koreans began installing water pipes into the ground over the expected route. It took a few years but one day they saw one of the pipes with water splashing up. This was due to the shockwaves from dynamite explosions underground. They installed five more pipes in the surrounding area and one of them hit the ceiling of the tunnel. The North dug over 400m past the Southern MDL.
To hit the tunnel, we walked through a sloped path for about 250m. Once at the bottom, we had to walk through a 2m x 2m pathway until we hit a blockade. The blockade was the last of three that were made and was at the 170m mark of the tunnel. They said that 30000 troops could infiltrate thrugh the tunnels in an hour. Wow. When we were heading backwards to get out, there were a lot of young navy and army soldiers going through the same tour as us. I guess this could be part of their military education process?
We weren’t allowed cameras down there so took a pic of the security cams
Visual of the tunnel layout
North Korean currency as souvenirs
After the tunnels we were taken to an observatory where you get an incredible view of the North Korean landscape. We had to stand behind a yellow line about 10m away from the ledge if we want to take pictures. This is probably another safety measure as Northern military were most likely watching and the South didn’t want them to think that we’re spying on them.
One way you can tell the difference between North and South from the landscape are the forests. The North doesn’t haven’t any! Almost all the trees have been chopped down so the mountains looked baren. I think with all the sanctions imposed and limited trade over the years, they’ve depleted all their natural resources. Another interesting thing to note were the Korean flags situated on their respective towers near the border. The flag from the North is taller than the South. There was a competition to try and outdo the other LOL Visually, it looks hilarious because the North is still trying to convey that they’re better than the South. So childish but obviously predictable.
See the two flags?
You’ll have to enlarge the pic to see it but the soldier in the jeep fell asleep with his mouth open. Guess he ain’t too worried about an invasion 🙂
Next stop was the Dorasan Train Station. This train station was very important because it commuted to and from North Korea at one point. During the Sunshine Policy between 1997-2007, the North and South were able to do business and the station was used for transportation. When the current conservative government got into power, the policy ended. Now this station is only used to bring tourists in. It was a historic landmark to say the least. Hopefully it’ll reopen for it’s intended purpose in the future.
These soldiers at the station were cool taking pics with the tourists!
Now the most exciting part was touring the JSA (joint security area). We reached the border of the DMZ for our second checkpoint. A US soldier came on the bus to inspect all our passports before we can enter. All inspections go smoothly and we get off the bus to enter the auditorium for a briefing. They make you sign a declaration form stating that you’re in a dangerous area and unexpected events can happen which will cause injury or death, blah blah blah. I believe I signed a similar form before eating those spicy bobby wings at Wings didn’t I? Lol
There were strict rules to follow: no pointing at soldiers or buildings, no camera lens with higher than 90mm zoom (no one even checked this!), and no blue jeans, flip flops, or any military wear. We had to stand in two rows and follow behind our guide like elementary school kids.
Aside from our tour group there was a second group present. Our group got to check out the conference room first while the other group stayed at the top of the stairs. We enter and there was two guards: one stood right at the head of the main conference table and the other on the opposite end of the room. The North and South Korean border is the halfway point of the conference table. This is the only area where the North and South can roam freely across each other’s borders, including tourists! That was a once in a lifetime thing that can be checked off the list now 🙂
These mics are placed right on the border line
Shooting from the North Korea side!
Yes it was crowded
We only got 3min in there before being ushered out by our guide so the second group could come in. Now it was our turn to stand on the top of the stairs. Two rows. Looking straight ahead. Again, no pointing or gestures. In the middle there were three South Korean guards standing in their Taekwondo stance (no joke, this is their ready pose). On the North Korean side, if you look closely, you can only see one soldier standing by the door of their building. But behind the tinted glass there are definitely more soldiers eyeing our every move. Situation looked tense.
Our guide went on to explain a few things about the South Korean soldiers. They all where sunglasses to prevent eye contact and provoke confrontation with the North. Also, you’ll see in the pics below that two of the soldiers have half their body behind the building and half out. This is a survival tactic and increases their chances of survival by 50% if they were suddenly engaged with gunfire. Finally, every time the soldiers march you’ll hear metal bearings hitting each other in their boots. This is an illusion to make it sound like there are a lot more soldiers approaching. That fact was really cool to know.
After touring the JSA, we exit the building and got about 15min of free time to chill before the bus takes us back to Seoul. You can take pictures with the soldiers or head to the gift shop and buy souvenir…and yes I bought a magnet damn it!
Oh how great the capitalist system is 🙂