My Trip to the JSA and DMZ

Recently, I won a discounted fee for one of the most popular tourist destinations in Korea: the Joint-Security Area (JSA) between North and South Korea on the DMZ.

Despite being commonly referred to as “the most dangerous place on earth”, trips to the DMZ are strikingly popular among tourists visiting South Korea.

Prior to this trip, I’d already been on two tours to different sites along the 38th parallel, separating the communist North from the capitalist South.

(Why are there two Koreas? It’s a long story – check out the video below for a summarized version)

I’d never visited the JSA before, which is arguably the most interesting stop along the border.

With American and ROK (Republic of Korea) soldiers on the Southern side staring down DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) soldiers on the Northern side, the line on the ground separating these two countries seems more apparent than ever. In other words, tensions are VERY high.

That said, the rules for visiting JSA are understandably strict. For example, even though there are dozens of independent operators offering tours to other DMZ sites (such as tunnels, military museums, and observatories), only a few select government-approved tour agencies are allowed to take visitors to the JSA.

It’s not cheap, either – most JSA tours start at around $77, while other non-JSA DMZ tours can go as low as $33 (like the one I took).

That’s partly the reason I hadn’t signed up for a JSA tour since coming to Seoul (student budget!).

I did do a free DMZ tour as part of the summer Korean culture program I’d attended back in 2011. As well, I opted to go for another tour in the winter of 2012 that visited some other sites I hadn’t seen, mainly because it was offered at an affordable price ($33) through When in Korea (WiNK).

In the case of this JSA tour, offered by the Panmunjom Travel Center, I’d won a facebook draw a few days prior for a discounted fee. Normally, the cost of the tour is $77, but I only had to pay $10. The tour company occasionally uses this promo to fill up empty seats on the bus a few days before the departure.

Panmunjom Travel Deal Photo

Anyways, after receiving a facebook message confirming my spot, I sent my passport to the company. Part of visiting the JSA requires having a UN-performed background check (serious, right?). I passed, so come Friday morning I was set to go!

Shortly after arriving at the Lotte Hotel in downtown Seoul, we were on our way to the first stop along the tour, Odusan Observatory.

Odusan Observatory 

Once hearing that we were visiting an observatory, I got a bit disappointed. Since I’d already visited a few others on the two other tours I went on, I thought it would be a bit boring to see the same place for a second or third time.

However, I’d never been to the Odusan Observatory. In fact, I’d have to say that it’s one of the better ones I’d visited along the DMZ.

Unlike other observatories, there wasn’t any visible North Korean “stuff” in the landscape (ex: propaganda posters, military watchtowers or outposts, etc). However, the mini museum inside the observatory was very interesting.

The view from Odusan Observatory: staring out into North Korea from the South

The view from Odusan Observatory: staring out into North Korea from the South

The focus was on life in North Korea, so they had a replica of a typical North Korean class and living room.

Typical North Korean clothes

Typical North Korean clothes

A typical/well-off North Korean home (notice the TV set, not something a lot of poor North Koreans can afford)

A typical/well-off North Korean home (notice the TV set, not something a lot of poor North Koreans can afford)

Our tour even included a Q&A with a North Korean refugee, who was a woman in her 40s or 50s. We sat in the replica classroom and asked her questions about her life back in the DPRK. I asked her what made her decide to leave, and she said (with the help of our tour guide translating) that it was the fact that her sister had already left.

It was a great follow up to the film that we were showed upon arrival, which briefly showed the history of division between the two Koreas and the state of human rights abuses in the Hermit Kingdom.

The observatory’s gift shop was pretty impressive as well, with a lot more DMZ and North Korean products available for purchase than at other tourist sites.

Entrance to Odusan Observatory

Entrance to Odusan Observatory

North Korean liquors for sale ($15-$50/bottle)

North Korean liquors for sale ($15-$50/bottle)

North Korean liquors for sale ($15-$50/bottle)

North Korean liquors for sale ($15-$50/bottle)

North Korean liquors on display

North Korean liquors on display

JSA Tour (19 of 46)

North Korean pins and stamps on display

North Korean pins and stamps on display

JSA Tour (24 of 46) JSA Tour (25 of 46)

The giftshop was the largest I'd seen on a DMZ tour

The giftshop was the largest I’d seen on a DMZ tour

South Korean ginseng products

South Korean ginseng products

JSA Tour (30 of 46)

A monument outside the observatory

A monument outside the observatory

A statue outside the observatory

A statue outside the observatory

After wrapping up our visit at Odusan, we moved onto our next stop.

Imjingak

Now, I’m not going to say much about Imjingak, mainly since I already visited the place on my prior DMZ tour with WiNK. Granted, at that time it was covered in snow and almost devoid of any other visitors; while on this visit there was no snow to be seen and instead just droves of tourists.

I took a look at the pond, which I must’ve missed on my first visit there.

Prayers for unification at Imjingak

Prayers for unification at Imjingak

Train and tourists

Train and tourists

Gift shops and restaurants

Gift shops and restaurants

Participants on the Ministry of Environment tour

Participants on the Ministry of Environment tour

Little pond beneath the symbolic bridge between North and South Korea

Little pond beneath the symbolic bridge between North and South Korea

Something I didn't notice on my last tour - this monument is a symbolic ancestral tombstone for all North Korean refugees who cannot visit the remains of their deceased relatives back home - moving.

Something I didn’t notice on my last tour – this monument is a symbolic ancestral tombstone for all North Korean refugees who cannot visit the remains of their deceased relatives back home – moving.

After snapping some photos, I headed back to the bus, but not without running into Patricja, a Polish friend of mine from the Friends of Invest Korea program I’m in. She was there on a group trip with the Korean Ministry of Environment.

Lunch

Again, I’m not going to say much on this subject.

Since those who know me know I’m a shameless foodie, the fact that I don’t have much to say on the subject of a meal will understand that this is not a good thing.

Okay, so I can’t complain – I only paid $10 for the trip.

However, everyone else was paying $77 – and for that price, I’ve gotta say, the meal was pretty horrible.

I’ve eaten a lot of Korean BBQ since abandoning my meat-free days here, and this was pretty bad. The lettuce was limp, and there was enough grease in the table-top bulgogi pan to drown an army.

It was clear that the restaurant survives on business from DMZ tour busses, as it’s in a pretty isolated area, and all of the other diners were being herded to their tables after getting off of their own respective tour busses.

Compared to the restaurant we ate at on the DMZ tour I took with WiNK, this place was not very impressive.

Camp Bonifas

After lunch, we got back on the bus and were off to get our passports checked on the Unification Bridge.

Everything was good to go, so we continued onto Camp Bonifas, which was the military base that we would transfer busses at.

Camp Bonifas is operated by both Korean and American troops.

At this point, we were now officially in the South’s side of the DMZ. We just needed to get onto a UN-approved vehicle for our trip to the JSA.

After meeting our supervisor from the US military, we were on our way to the JSA.

Panmunjom – the Joint Security Area

Finally, we’d arrived at the main attraction of the tour – the JSA.

As mentioned earlier, everything was super strict. Back at Camp Bonifas, one of the tourists had to change out of his shorts and into a pair of pants.

It appeared that I was one of the few tourists that actually took the JSA dress code seriously, but in general they were pretty flexible with it.

The dress code prohibits visitors from wearing: t-shirts, miniskirts, shorts, heels, exercise clothes, slippers, faded jeans, tights, leggings, and trousers. Previously, I thought the reason for this was partly due to safety concerns (ex: a woman wearing heels isn’t exactly in the best position to make a break for it, just in case shots get fired).

According to our tour guide, the dress code exists in case the North decides to feature any of the tourists in state propaganda.

Those who dress “sloppy” make perfect fodder for the North’s favoured depiction of American (or other Western) foreigners.

Additionally, we were instructed not to make any gestures (ex: pointing, waving, etc) towards the North Korean guards. This was for the same reason – those who are shown waiving risk being depicted as “someone wanting to defect to the North” by the DRPK’s propaganda artists.

After being given these briefings, we made our way – single file – to the JSA.

We were quickly shuffled into the Freedom House Military Armistice Commission Building, where one can put one foot “into North Korea”, and one foot into South Korea.

South Korean guards were in the building to keep watch, and much like the British bobbies in London, they’re supposed to keep still in the ready position – a perfect photo opp for tacky tourists like me!

Standing with a South Korean guard

Standing with a South Korean guard

Photos!

Photos!

The centre table

The centre table

This building is used for signing official documents and to have UN-monitored meetings. Since it’s half in North Korea, half in South Korea, it makes for a fairly neutral meeting space.

After taking a few photos in the Armistice Commission Building, we moved outside.

I was a bit disappointed that there weren’t as many North Korean guards as I had expected (based on different YouTube videos I’ve watched), but it was still cool to see.

The JSA!

The JSA!

JSA Tour (44 of 46)

A North Korean guard

A North Korean guard

Before you can say “bomb threat”, we were shuffled out and back into our tour bus.

From there, were were back on our way to Seoul.

Summary

All in all, it was a good trip.

I liked that they brought a North Korean refugee along with us to answer questions; it was probably a great experience for those who only had a week or two to spend in Korea.

Additionally, I liked that we were back in Seoul by 4:30pm. Everything ran very smoothly.

Would I recommend Panmunjom Travel Center?

If you must see the JSA, then yes. The fact that they brought along a North Korean refugee was quite memorable. The tour guide was alright – not fantastic, but not horrible.

If you just want to be able to gaze out into North Korea and buy some North Korean souvenirs, then I’d recommend taking a tour with When in Korea (WiNK).

Though not regularly offered, WiNK’s DMZ trips are affordable and cram a LOT into a one-day tour; around double the sites that the standard DMZ tour operators normally offer.

How can I get an 85%-off travel deal to visit the JSA?

Simply like the Panmunjom Travel Center on facebook, and keep your eyes peeled for their next deal.

Students can get a discounted rate of $65 to go on this tour.

Advertisements

Visiting the DMZ: Imjingak and Cheol Won

On Sunday, I went with some friends to the DMZ. We went with a tour company called “WinK” (When in Korea), which I’d heard great things about. The thing that was so attractive about this tour was that it covered double the sites that most DMZ tours cover – we went to the Imjingak and Cheolwon areas of the DMZ, while most other companies just visit one or the other. The price was 47,000w (about $43 CAD), which was a very good deal.

At the crack of dawn Sunday morning, I headed over to the the subway. First off, grabbed some breaky at McDonald’s (as those who know me well understand that I’m a grumpy you-know-what without fuel in the morning!). It was 6:00am, and most people were just coming back from the bar. I ran into a few guy friends from CAU and then headed to the subway to meet my friends Janna (from Finland) and Kristina (from Lithuania) before departing to the tour meeting spot.

We made it there on 10 minutes early – perfect timing. The bus rolled up and we were on our way!

Sadly, once I was at the subway station I realized that I’d forgotten my passport – a REQUIRED item if you intend to enter the DMZ area! It would be too late to run back to the dorms now. I frantically called William, the tour leader and explained my situation. He seemed a bit uneasy but reassured me that he would figure something out. Thank god he did!

——–

Part 1 of the DMZ Tour: Imjingak

First Stop: Freedom Bridge

The Freedom Bridge is so significant because it connects South and North Korea.

Hyundai’s late founder, Chung Ju-yung, is widely loved in Korea. He was a North Korean defector who stole a cow from his father to help finance his escape to the south. After gaining incredible success in the South, Chung sent 1,001 cows over the border via the Freedom Bridge as interest on the cow, and as an act of aid that the North Koreans could truly appreciate.

Image

A bronze relief depicting the Korean War near the Freedom Bridge.

Image

A very powerful memorial… Stones from war zones around the world were gathered and made into a monument here

Image

The Peace Wall

Image

DMZ “guards” on the bridge near the Freedom Bridge

Image

Ribbons with prayers for peace and unification between the two Koreas.

Image

I liked the contrast between the ribbons and barbed wire in this  photo.

Image

Ribbons symbolizing a unified Korea.

Image

Me with the bridge in the background.

Image

Photos with images of the war that lined the bridge

Image

I have no idea what this says!

Image

One of the many ribbons on the bridge

Image

With Janna (left) and Kristina (right).

Image

It was so cold! But nice and sunny.

Image

Painting of a unified Korea

Image

Doing the tacky tourist pose with the little guard!

Third stop: Tunnel #3

Next up was Tunnel #3. The North Koreans dug a series of tunnels to the south with the intention of secretly invading Seoul. A defector tipped the South Koreans off, et voilà, the North Koreans’ secret was out. Several tunnels were found and are now tourist sites (although photography is forbidden, which is why you won’t find any pictures here on my blog).

Image

At the 3rd Tunnel

Image

This was a film we got to watch before entering the tunnel

Image

A very powerful image of a man who was presumably separated from someone across the DMZ

Image

 

The “Axe Incident”

Image

DMZ model

Image

Some SK Soldiers…

Image

Janna and Kristina pushing together the globe for peace & unification!

Image

One of the observatories we visited

Image

Off to Dorosan Station, one of the places I’d been most looking forward to!

Image

Dorosan Station

Image

It was built as a symbolic gesture. The hope is that one day, after unification, a railway will be created to go across the peninsula and thereby connect Korea with the rest of Asia and Europe.

Image

A map explaining this concept in detail

Image

To Pyeongyang!

Image

I was a little hesitant about taking this photo, but at the last minute I changed my mind (YOIKO!).

Image

A description outside the station.

After Imjingak, we were off to the Cheolwan area!

Image

Here is a statue of a Korean figure comparable to Robin Hood. This area was the place he hung out most in. We decided to eat lunch fast and then visit the canyon he relaxed in.

Image

This was the restaurant our guide reccomended, and he even called in ahead to take pre-orders. Within a few minutes of sitting down, our meals were delivered to us piping hot. We had the choice between bulgogi (Korean marinated beef) or doslot bibimbap (mixed veggies + raw egg on top of rice, served in a hot clay bowl). I’d had the cold version of bibimbap before and sort of liked it, but this hot version blew my mind! The hot bowl makes the rice all warm and a little crispy on the outside, while also cooking the raw egg.

With bimbimbap, you need to take a spoon and mash up all the ingredients together…

Image

Before…

Image

…And after! The result was a warm, delicious bowl of irresistible comfort food. I know I’ll be having that dish again sometime!

Image

This was the beautiful canyon area where the Korean Robin Hood would find solace in…

Image

Gorgeous!

Image

A ferry boat was doing tours, but our time was rather limited.

Image

Getting a bit mischievous….

Image

Image

Nothing says “trip to the DMZ” like a ride on a carousal! This place was eeeeeerie, and just seemed out of place at such a solemn area. You should note that PSY’s “Gangnam Style” was playing in the background.

After the canyon, we were off to the next observatory….

Image

Staring out into North Korea! The faint white triangle in the middle of the landscape is a North Korean propaganda village. The area next to the DMZ has very few (if any) NK civilians living there, so the village just serves as storage, training, and the occasionally housing facility for the NK military stationed there. You may be able to see a very small rectangle in front the of the triangle. Through the binoculars I was using, I could actually see what was on it. It was a propaganda poster, featuring a woman in hanbok (traditional Korean dress) holding a child. The writing in Korean was too hard to read, and  I can barely understand the language anyways ^^

Image

South Korean outpost?

Image

On top of that mountain to the right is a North Korean outpost. Apparently, you can sometimes see a NK guard on duty, walking back and forth. I guess he was on his lunch break (lol), because I didn’t see him.

Image

Next, we were off to a monument commemorating a famous battle at “White Horse Hill”. It was a pretty similar story to Vimy Ridge.

Image

Our guide, an enthusiastic young SK soldier.

Image

A really cool relief made with the bullet shells of the battle.

Image

The sculpture at the top of the hill (again very similar to Vimy)

Image

The battle was so intense that some of the soldiers’ guns even melted from the heat of firing too much.

Image

Another bronze relief; made the same way (melted bullet shells)

Image

A pavilion at the top of the mountain

Image

The tour guide’s dog! So cute and well-behaved!

———————

Overall an AWESOME experience. I would recommend WiNK for any future tours. They were well-organized, efficient, and our guide (William Cho) taught us a lot about Korean history and the DMZ situation. As someone who has a minor obsession with North Korea, I went into this tour thinking I wouldn’t learn more than I already knew, but I was wrong. William gave some great insight into Korean and international politics. It was the perfect balance of being taught history and actually experiencing it. AWESOME tour.

Photos of NK souvenirs to come!