These days, when I read about the wars that happened in Korea, I think to myself: this shit happened because foreigners stepped in and interfered with the way politics are done in Korea. If Korea was left alone by the Japanese, the Soviet Union, and the US, it might be a hundred times more successful than it is now.
These thoughts were in my head when I was visiting the DMZ area.
The DMZ is a strip of land 4km-wide. It is formed at the 38th Parallel of the Korean Peninsula.
Tourists can only enter the DMZ and the Joint Security Area (also known as Panmunjom) with tour agencies. South Koreans are unable to go to the Joint Security Area due to, well, security reasons.
There are a couple of tour agencies which arrange such tours. I went for the 3rd Tunnel and Panmunjom tour with tourdmz. If you are interested in this tour, it is best to email them to book your place way ahead – maybe 1 or 2 months before your arrival in South Korea. This was a full day tour. Visitors can opt for a half day tour.
The first stop was Imjingang Station.
Well-wishes from visitors from around the world for the unification of the Koreas.
The train with the bullet holes.
This is the last train from North Korea to South Korea before the closure of the border at the 38th Parallel.
Dorasan Station was next. This is the northern-most train station before the 38th Parallel.
Those soldiers are quite obliging when it came to picture taking. Are they real (but bored) soldiers or put there to give tourists a picture to remember their trip by?
For an extra 500 won, you can get a ticket (pre-inked with the Dorasan station stamp) into the train platform for a looksee.
Then we were taken to the Observatory where we can see the nearest North Korean settlement.
There were minders constantly reminding visitors not to take pictures beyond the…
But I didn’t care. Many other people also took pictures beyond the photo line. One guy took a video of the surroundings beyond the photo line and got mildly reprimanded by a soldier.
Tip for this part of the DMZ: On the leftmost side of this observatory area, there are 2 binoculars marked for military use only. They are the only ones which you do not have to pay to use. The other sets of binoculars require a 500 won contribution.
After lunch, we switched buses (and tour guides) and headed to the North Korean half of the DMZ.
While it was okay for visitors to take pictures whenever they wished in the South Korean half (except when the tour guide said otherwise), it was the other way around in the North Korean half. Visitors were advised by their tour guides not to take pictures unless told to do so.
That immediately set me into a mild panic. What kind of place did I sign myself up for?
This is consistent with the tours in North Korea: visitors in North Korea were not allowed to take pictures of the surroundings and they had to follow a tour guide at all times. It was the same for the DMZ tour – I was to follow my tour guide at all times, and to only take pictures when given permission to do so.
The tour of the Joint Security Area felt like a mandatory bus ride – we were carted around in a bus and had less freedom. I was made to sign something which released the tour agencies from all responsibility if something happened to me in the North Korean half of the DMZ:
The form I signed was given to me at the end of the tour as a parting gift.
Here are some of the pre-approved pictures that I was allowed to take.
After a circle around the compound (the tree stump at the centre of the Axe Murder Incident was only pointed out to us – we weren’t allowed to get off to read the inscription), the bus took us back to Seoul.
Overall, it was enlightening, and awesome to be able to see the items from the Korean War upfront, but I would not visit the DMZ again. This had been a one-time only trip. I felt that this tour favoured the South Koreans more. I would have loved to see more of a North Korean perceptive. After all, the Panmunjom is shared by the North and South Koreans.
Happy Birthday to me! (Actually, it’s tomorrow – 10 January – but since I only publish on Wednesdays, this is the closest I can get to the actual date.) 🙂
No, don’t ask what year I was born.