Having connections on military bases around Korea has been great for more than just getting my fill of American groceries. It also opens doors to some exclusive trips and tours. Like to the DMZ, that on a civilian tour would miss out on all the really interesting parts of the Demilitarized Zone. Public tours to the DMZ do not actually go to the demarcated line in Panmunjeom and the JSA, but do still make stops at Imjingak, the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel and Dorasan Station. If you don’t know anyone in the Service stationed in Korea, you can take the same exclusive tour and set foot in North Korea with the USO.
The trip started off with me almost missing the bus. It felt like the first day of middle school, with Osan Imo concerned to death about my pants that she thought were too tight. She was convinced they wouldn’t let me on the bus (there is a dress code). I changed three times before she insisted I wear something of hers. But Osan Imo is barely five feet tall and I was already late. I changed back into my original black pants (it’s not like they’re leggings!) and hailed a cab that I begged to cut off the bus, just as it was approaching the gate. I didn’t make any friends on this trip.
First stop, Imjingak. This is not really a good first impression of the DMZ. The entrance to the park that was created as a place for those who can not be reunited with their loved ones across the border, features a strange assortment of statutes and carnival rides and restaurants that confound any sense of identity for the place. There is a station where you can get your photo taken inside one of Van Gogh’s paintings, an observatory, kiddy train rides and many gift shops where you can buy North Korean whisky.
But when you muddle through the “attractions” you’ll find an old steam engine riddled with over a thousand bullet holes, stopped in it’s old tracks facing north. The train is a symbol of the war and the disconnect of the divided country. Near the train is the Freedom Bridge that crosses the Imjin River (the only bridge that connects North and South Korea). About 13,000 prisoners of war were exchanged on this bridge, giving it its name.
ROK (South Korean) tower guard
The train to Dorasan Station
The Bridge of Freedom
“Love of Country”
Korean War Memorial “…Forever in your debt.”
Something for the kids
This old steam engine also symbolizes the desire to reconnect the North and South. “…Let the train run again.”
Next we cross the check point where camera restrictions are enforced. Here we are just coming up on miles of bridge along the border, before our next stop at the 3rd Tunnel. There we put on hard hats and began the 350 meter descent down an excavated shaft to the start of the tunnel that the North Korean military (DPRK) dug to infiltrate the South. The walls of the tunnel were painted with coal to disguise their intentions. We had to leave our bags in lockers and were not allowed to take any pictures in the tunnel. It did look like a mining tunnel, close quarters with a low ceiling. A lot of us hit our heads against it a number of times, so I see why they made us wear the hard hats.
ROK soldiers gathered outside the 3rd Tunnel
Near the 3rd Tunnel is the Dorasan Observatory where we could view North Korea and get a decent look at Peace Village, better known as Propaganda Village to the rest of the world. It’s not a real town, just a model with plywood houses. North Korea sends people to look like they work and live in the town from time to time. The city used to blare praises of Kim Jong Il to the nearby town of Daesong, a real South Korean village existing inside the DMZ. At the observatory we were able to use binoculars to see as far into North Korea as Kaesong, but of course could not take any pictures.
Our next stop was Dorasan Station, a functioning train station that was built with hopes of transporting people to and from the capitals, Pyongyang and Seoul, if and when then two halves are united. For 500 won (50 cents) I bought a few tickets for me and the family, which can be used if the day ever comes. Though I don’t know what we’d do there…
The map shows the plan and possibilities of opening Korea up to the rest of Asia and Europe by rail.
Everyone taking that picture.
Time for the good part. After arriving at Camp Bonifas, our military tour and a USO tour watched an informative video of the history of the DMZ. I had no idea how high tensions between North and South Korea really were until I learned the more about the circumstances. Some people do not realize the war is technically still “on” as no peace treaty has ever been signed and we continue under a cease fire since the Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953. I didn’t realize how many incidents there have been surrounding the area since then. Including an attempted kidnapping of an ROK soldier just a month ago.
The DMZ is not only relavant to the Korean War but with the Cold War and World War II. If you are interested in war history, Bruce Cumming’s The Korean War is a very good book that explains a lot details leading up to the war and it’s development.
After the video we agreed to not bring attention to ourselves and signed our lives away.
Arriving at Freedom House where we were reminded of protocol before entering the JSA and stepping foot in North Korea.
T2, the building on the left is where any meetings between countries are held. Across the way, ROK and UN special forces face DPRK guards.
Our guide told us while the UN, ROK and US guards work 6 hour shifts, the DPRK guards work 12.
We were told they sometimes walk off to grab a pair of binoculars, just to get to move.
The microphones follow the demarcated line and reflect the border between North and South.
Our guide told us, before meetings DPRK officers often roll UN seats down so that the North Koreans sit taller,
but UN/US attendees still have to look down at the North Koreans when they’re seated.
These special forces guys always look like this. I never saw them move.
Cement blocking of the Demarcation Line
In North Korea, looking out a window back at the South side.
Near Check Point Three, where the Axe Murder Incident occurred in 1976. You can see the 525 foot flagpole of Propaganda Village, North Korea’s answer to the flag donated to South Korea during the 1988 Olympics, flown on a 323 foot pole in neighboring Daesong village.
Check Point Three and the Bridge of No Return.
Where the tree that started it all used to stand.
The Bridge of No Return. “It looks a lot different than in the James Bond movie.” – Our guide
I asked so many questions on the way back, I’m kind of embarrassed but I learned a lot. Like if South Koreans defect to the North they are murders or rapists and even North Korea doesn’t want them and sends them back. And that the entire forested area is covered in land mines and the main road’s security defenses include blowing it up. So anyone who actually escapes North Korea and makes it through to Korea is an incredible human being.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t buy a ton of souvenirs at the museum gift shop in Camp Bonifas.
Christmas shopping for all my war-history-buff family, done.
Finally, In typical Korean fashion, the bus driver put on the party lights for the drive back and we listened to hard gangster rap before watching the Hollywood blockbuster, “Shooter” starring Mark Walburg. The tour was really amazing though. I highly recommend going. Not only is it just really cool, it exposes you to more than sight-seeing and teaches you to understand. Pay double to go with the USO if you can.