DMZ Tour… 판문점 (Panmunjom, aka Joint Security Area), etc.

February 24, 2011

A few days ago I took a USO tour to the DMZ.  I’d been to the DMZ one time before–when I first arrived in Korea, it was part of my orientation.  That was at a very remote outpost in the countryside far from Seoul.  Some friends of mine who had taken the USO tour raved about how it was one of the best things they’d done in Korea, so it’d been on my Korea bucket list for some time.  This was supposed to be the day’s schedule:

07:30 : Departure from Camp Kim USO
09:00 : After an informative video at Camp Bonifas and a presentation
by a member of the U.S. military 20 Minute Briefing at JSA Visitor Center
And then tour to the JSA area (Freedom house, Conference room,
Bridge of no return and point of Ax murder)

11:20 : DMZ Theater, The Third infiltration Tunnel,
Dora observatory and Dorasan Station
12:30 : Lunch at the Korean Restaurant during DMZ tour.
14:00 : Departure to Camp Kim USO
15:30 : Arrive at Camp Kim USO

The weather report had predicted sunshine, but a thick fog appeared in the morning, obscuring just about everything.  Here’s the view of the 63 Building across the Han River on the bus in the morning (enhanced through photoshop… the naked eye could barely make it out).

Everyone was disappointed by the freakish weather.  It’d been clear for the last few weeks (and has been since), but the view from the bus was like that you get on an airplane when you’re flying through a cloud; it was “clear” that we wouldn’t be able to see much.  When we arrived at the JSA and our guide announced that the “higher ups” had cancelled about half of our tour due to safety issues with the low visibility, the mood sagged even deeper and there was a feeling in the air that refunds would be inquired about.  Not only would we be skipping the Bridge of No Return and point of the infamous “Axe Murder Incident,” which is a bizarre and fascinating story in and of itself (click here), but we had to walk quickly in two single-file lines from the Freedom House to the Conference Room.  We were allowed to take as many pictures of the famous area as we could, as long as we kept walking briskly from point A to point B just a few meters away, which, needless to say, makes it kinda hard to get a good picture.  Nevertheless:

Notice the grey building on the far left.  The grey ones belong to the DPRK; the blue ones belong to the UNCMAC (United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission), and all are bisected by the MDL, or Military Demarcation Line.  Basically half of each room is in North Korea and half is in South Korea.  There is another grey building to the right of the blue one on the right side of this picture that is officially the KPA (Korean People’s Army) Recreation Room, although, our guide explained to us, it’s a misnomer due to the fact that it contains no recreational equipment.  Rather, KPA soldiers have been known to stand inside making faces and threatening gestures out the windows, behavior which has led to the unofficial renaming of the building to “the monkey house.”

All of these South Korean soldiers are college graduates, speak multiple languages, have been recognized as outstanding soldiers, and are black belts in at least one form of martial arts.  They all wear sunglasses to hide their emotions, and they all stand in Taekwondo ready stance… just in case.

Inside the conference room we only had a few minutes, and as our guide stood near the center of the room explaining the layout, he noted that those standing to his right were in South Korea and those (me included) standing on his left were in Communist North Korea.

Moments before we had to leave the conference room, we were met with a pleasant surprise.  KPA soldiers came down and stood just outside the windows.  We were informed that this is an extremely rare occurrence during tours and that a North Korean tour was probably on its way.  Once they showed up, we had to leave immediately. And here they are!

(Photoshop was a huge help for those pictures, which were taken through a dirty window on a very foggy day.)

And on the way back from the Conference Room to the Freedom House, again in 2 single-file lines, walking quickly.

Seeing the KPA soldiers just inches away more than made up for missing parts of the tour.  Next up was the Third Infiltration Tunnel, in which no cameras were allowed.  It’s basically a long cave that North Korea made by blasting with dynamite, and which the South found at some point before it was able to be utilized for invasion.  4 have been found, and are now tightly sealed in 3 different layers with constant video surveillance. Then we went to Dora Observation post, at which there wasn’t much to observe because of, well, fog:

Finally, we visited Dorasan station, the last stop on the Gyeongi line before the tracks fade into the North Korean distance.  This was a pretty emotional spot.  The station was completely reconstructed in the early 2000’s to show South Korea’s wish to reunify with the North.  As one sign puts it, “Not the last station from the South, but the first station toward the North.”  Though eerily vacant, it’s a beautiful station; it’s roof is even constructed to resemble two hands clasping one another–one from the North, and one from the South.  Our Korean tour guide told us that she got a bit emotional the first time she saw that sign about not the last station from the South but the first toward the North.  And again today when we encountered the KPA soldiers.  She had never seen any before, and when she made eye contact with one, which you’re not supposed to do, she wondered what he thought of her–if he hated her because of a life of brainwashing about the South, or if he had any feelings towards her at all.


After that it was back to Seoul…


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