Published: July 20th 2009July 20th 2009
USO Tour of the Korean DMZ (De-militarized Zone)
The Korean DMZ tourist site, also known as the Joint Security Area, is an extremely worthwhile tourist destination. However, it can only be seen through guided tours. It should also be noted that this unique location forms the backdrop for the well-renown Korean movie “Joint Security Area”.
In August 2008, my younger brother came to visit me in here in South Korea for the first time. As it was his inaugural overseas vacation, we both decided that traveling to the DMZ was a must. It was also my first time to visit the DMZ, so we were equally excited to go there. As an aside, my brother and I were both M*A*S*H fans during our childhood; and from time to time, I still catch a rerun or two when I can. So, needless to say, visiting a site of such historical (and present) significance that was also a part of my childhood memories had me wound up in eager anticipation.
After doing a little research on the internet and making a few phone calls it quickly became apparent that we would have to plan the rest of our two-week
vacation together around our trip to the DMZ.
The information here may no longer be accurate; so if you’re planning to visit the DMZ, do so with careful planning. The tours are, understandably, contingent on political conditions. Also, the tours are not held on a daily basis and they may fill up quickly during peak season. I recommend doing a Google search for “USO DMZ Tour” and carefully reading through all the material they offer. The tours follow a well planned itinerary and there are strict dress code requirements.
The tour cost my brother and I about 50,000 won each (and you should bring along some money for lunch and souvenirs).
Our day began early. Tour participants had to check-in at Camp Kim army base by 7:00 a.m. and the bus departed at 7:30 a.m. My brother and I aren’t really “morning people”, so we decided it would be a good idea to find a motel near Camp Kim. We found a small, and by no means glamorous, motel about a 15 minute walk from the army base. Actually, we found it by standing at a main intersection nearby and scanning for neon motel signs. At 25,000
won, the motel was very inexpensive, but provided only the bare minimum: a bed, a small table and chair, a private bathroom and, thankfully, air conditioning. After a few cans of beer, we called it a night in order to make sure we didn’t sleep-in, because tour fees are non-refundable.
The bus ride took a little less than an hour and a half. Once we arrived at Camp Casey army base, we were given Visitor Passes to clip onto the upper left area of our shirts, and were sternly told to keep them on and clearly visible at all times. We were then escorted into an auditorium for a briefing session (photo 01 & 02).
Before the briefing, of course, we had to sign a Visitor Declaration form (photo 03). I think it was at this point in the day when we began to realize the seriousness of where we were. We were entering a hostile zone. There would be no liability for injury or death. Pointing, rude gestures, sudden movements, entering restricted areas and all such similar things were strictly prohibited!
After signing the form, there was a brief video presentation showing some of the history
of the Korean War, the establishment of the Demarcation Line and some notable historical events related to the Joint Security Area.
There was then another short bus ride to the border area. One of the most memorable things of our trip was the young serviceman assigned to our bus as our military escort. He was pleasant, relaxed, knowledgeable, well-spoken and did his best to make us feel comfortable (I guess, all the things that a serviceman should be and do when dealing with civilians). Unfortunately, I don’t remember his name, but he can be seen in Photo 10 that I have posted here. It’s unlikely he’ll ever see this blog entry, but I just want to say, “My most sincere thanks to you, sir.”
Upon arriving at the border area, we entered the main building (photo 04) and were reminded once again not to point or make any sudden movements or gestures. We walked through main building, stepped outside, and there in front of us was the main North Korean building with a placard on it reading Panmunjom (photo 05 & 06).
The eeriest, or possibly creepiest, part of the day was when our escort told us
that we were being photographed by North Korean soldiers while we were standing there. Moreover, it was possible that any of our images might be used by North Korea for propaganda material. As you can imagine, a chill ran down my spine!
In the lower center area of photo 06, you can see a horizontal concrete marker on the ground midway along the two blue buildings: the border between North and South Korea.
We were escorted down the stairs toward the border and entered one of the cross-border buildings (photo 05). After a brief history of the military talks that were held in these buildings, we were allowed to cross over into North Korean territory!!! We posed for some photos with one of the South Korean border guards, but we were not allowed to touch or talk with either of the guards in the room. Photo 07 is my brother and I (center) standing in the North Korean side of the room posing with a South Korean border guard.
While we were at the border, parts of the North Korean side were under construction (photo 11), and North Korean soldiers could be seen patrolling the area.
After leaving the main border area, we re-boarded the bus and continued on to a few more areas of interest along the border. It’s not my intent here to write a comprehensive historical journal, so I’ll just make some brief comments about the areas we stopped at.
At the first site, we could see the Peace Village (North Korean name), or otherwise known as the Propaganda Village by South Koreans (photo 12 & 13). The large structure in the center is a flagpole. The incredible height of this flagpole is a result of the North’s desire to ensure that their flagpole is taller than a corresponding flagpole on the south side of the border; basically, a “mine’s bigger than yours” situation.
Also at this site is a small monument celebrating the signing of the Armistice Agreement that ended the Korean War (photo14). In the distance, and barely visible for photographs, we could see the building where the Armistice was signed (photo 15).
On our bus ride to the next site, I managed to snap a couple of photos through the bus window of a small, unassuming monument (photo 16 & 17). The monument was erected on the
site of a poplar tree where two United Nations Command officers were tragically killed in 1976. From what I learned, a group of UNC personnel were on a work detail to trim some branches off a tree to increase visibility when they were attacked by a group of North Korean soldiers. After the killings, it was decided that the tree should be taken down and a military operation was initiated to remove the tree. The serviceman escorting us on our bus somewhat jokingly referred to the operation as the most expensive tree removal operation in all of history (apparently, the operation included the mobilization of military assets on air, land and sea).
Nearby, we could also see the Bridge of No Return (photo 18). This bridge has been the site of prisoner exchanges and was also place where North Korean soldiers crossed in order to engage UNC personnel during the Poplar Tree Incident.
The last stop we made was, not surprisingly, a souvenir and gift shop. The prices at the shop were fairly reasonable, and there was a pretty wide variety of merchandise available.
Our next stop was for a lunch break. I didn’t take any photos
as none of it was all that impressive. We stopped at a rest-stop-like area and could choose from two meal choices (if my memory serves me). The beef and rice entrée I chose was around 10,000 won.
The first of our two afternoon stops was at the Dora Observatory (photo 19 & 20). There was no photography permitted in the auditorium of the main building where we were given our briefing. There were also strict rules about taking photos at the observation area. There was a bright yellow line (maybe red or blue; I can’t remember anymore) which we had to stand behind to take photographs. There were binoculars available which gave a close-up view of North Korea (photo 21); and if you’re as lucky as I was that day, you can see people going about their daily lives on the other side of the border.
The second stop of the afternoon, and last stop of the day, was at the site of a North Korean infiltration tunnel that was discovered through information given by a North Korean defector. Aboveground, there wasn’t all that much to see: a large central sculpture, a few small buildings and well-manicured rest
areas (photo 22, 23 & 24). However, the tunnel is the thing to see!
There is one important thing to mention before I continue: make sure you have comfortable shoes! High heels are a definite NO, and since the floor of the tunnel was quite wet in places I don’t recommend sandals or flip-flops either.
Once again, we were told that photography was prohibited in the tunnel. There was an information board and diagram of the tunnel posted outside the tunnel entrance building (photo 25 & 26). Also, hardhats were required inside the tunnel. Once inside the tunnel, you’ll be glad you have the hardhat. The tunnel was not that high; I’m about 179cm tall and I found that I had to hunch over for almost the entire length of the tunnel. The tunnel floor was wet and quite slippery in places, so I had to watch both my feet and my head as I walked. The entrance way leading down into the tunnel was quite long and quite steep; and after walking hunched over up and down the length of the tunnel, the way back up the entrance tunnel felt even longer!!
Being down in that
tunnel, knowing that I was walking under the DMZ, was an incredible and unforgettable experience.
Once our group had all come back up out of the tunnel we got back on the bus and headed back to Camp Kim in Seoul. We arrived back in Seoul late afternoon.
All in all, it was a day very, very well spent. At times, the tension was palatable while we stood along the border. Overall, though, our US tour guide did wonderfully at refraining from taking sides in the battle of propaganda between North and South Korea and gave us the “facts” and nothing but the “facts”.
I can’t recommend this place highly enough.
There are more photos below