The DMZ, North Korea, and Home

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August 23rd 2018
Published: August 23rd 2018
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De-Militarised Zone (DMZ), South KoreaDe-Militarised Zone (DMZ), South KoreaDe-Militarised Zone (DMZ), South Korea

Me, actually in North Korea. South Korean soldier in military pose, building on the border between North and South Korea
Dear All

Greetings from London! I have arrived back safely, and actually had a good journey back, considering it was about 24 hours from door to door! Incheon Airport near Seoul was a dream, and was so different to the dusty, chaotic airports I am used to flying back from! Check-in and immigration were both quick and friendly, and it was indeed a good idea to stay my final night in the hotel near the airport. In fact, it was probably the best hotel room I stayed in for the whole trip, so I was quite sad to just really spend my sleeping hours there, arriving late in the evening and leaving early the next morning.

Before I go into the journey back though, I believe I have one more full day of travel to catch up on with this blog, before I then go through some final post-trip musings, and conclude my blog entries for my summer adventures 2018. Although I am actually writing this one in my lovely little house in Croydon, I am setting the travel blog entry's location as the "DMZ" in South Korea, as most of my writing will actually be about this unusual
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My badge for the visit to the Joint Security Area (JSA)

I last wrote on my penultimate evening on my travels, after having had a comparatively more restful day. I needed the rest, not only as I was feeling really quite tired by then, but also as my final couple of days were going to be quite hectic, and my final two wake-up calls rather early.

Tuesday morning began at 5.30am, when my alarm woke me up to pack my bags, have a quick bite to eat, then leave my bags at the YMCA reception, before heading off to a nearby meeting point for my final visit on my journey. This has to be pretty much one of the most bizarre, interesting, tense and quite scary places I have been to, all rolled into one. It was a visit just 35 miles to the north-west of Seoul, to part of the so-called De-Militarised Zone (DMZ) between South and North Korea. Most people seem to do a half-day tour taking in some interesting, though very touristy, places on the South Korean side of the border; I opted for the amazing full-day tour, additionally taking in a place called the Joint Security Area (JSA), and literally walking over the border
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The UN meeting room, desk with microphones always switched on and recording
onto North Korean territory, which I had to book five weeks in advance, and pay nearly twice as much for, but boy was it so worth it! Perhaps I can count North Korea as my 79th country, going by the “boots on the ground” philosophy, but I won’t, as I only spent about 30 seconds in the country – this doesn’t count as visiting a country, to my mind. And I don’t plan to properly make it there at any time in the distant future either.

I believe I mentioned in my last blog entry that the hostilities of the Korean War ceased in 1953, and the agreement brokered by the United Nations stated that both sides, North and South, should each retreat from their current line of battle for two kilometres, and that this 4km wide area created between the two sides should become an empty, no-man’s land, marking the border between North and South Korea. This very same border still exists today, as does the strip of land 4km wide, running across the whole of the Korean peninsula west to east, for 240km in total, and it is ironically called the “De-Militarised Zone”, or “DMZ” for short.
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North Korean building in the distance
Ironic, as it is perhaps the most heavily militarised area in the world, lined on both sides by landmines, tank traps, electric fences and armies in full battle readiness. And despite this, both the South and the North arrange for visitors from their respective sides to visit such a place. I became one of them on Tuesday, my final full day of travel this summer.

At 7.30am, a bus picked me up along with a few other travellers, and then made three more stops until it was full, before heading up the motorway to the north-west of the city. On the way to the DMZ, we drove along a river to the left, which was fenced with barbed wire all the way, interspersed every few hundred metres or so by watchtowers. This wasn’t the actual border, but we were told that a few years ago, some North Korean spies landed there, and actually made it to the presidential palace, attempting to assassinate the South Korean President. They were foiled, and most of them were killed, apart from one who defected over to the South Korean side when he saw how differently and how well the South were living, and two disappeared. Since then, the river bank has been fenced and patrolled.

A further 20 minutes of driving took us to our sights for the morning. The morning sights, as mentioned, were all quite touristy, and in one place there was even a Pirate Ship, the kind you get at a fairground! This itself felt really strange, that such a tense place can become so touristy. Our tour guide had it all in the bag though, and she planned our visit to avoid the busiest of times at places and go the opposite way to the usual tourist round, which was very welcome. We first visited “The Third Infiltration Tunnel”. This is a tunnel nearly two kilometres long, one of four in total discovered by the South Koreans, but it is believed there are around 20 of them, which the North Koreans had started digging over 30 years ago in a plan to tunnel into South Korea and towards Seoul from several directions, to attack and take the capital and the South. Fortunately the plan was seemingly foiled when these four tunnels were discovered, but who really knows how many more there are?! It is believed that thousands of heavily armed North Korean soldiers could pass through such a system each hour. They even painted the walls and ceilings of the granite tunnels black, to make it seem like they were only coal mines. In this part of the tunnel, you could walk down a very steep slope for around 300 metres, going 73 metres underground, and then walk along 265 metres of it, before walking back up the very steep slope out again. It was an amazing experience, and really quite bizarre.

After the tunnel, we headed to the Dora Observatory, standing atop a hill with sweeping views across the DMZ and towards the South Korean village which was planned to exist in the DMZ, and its North Korean counterpart. This seems really quite bizarre, but in this part of the DMZ, both countries were allowed to build one village each, as a gesture of peace and goodwill to each other, that life can carry on as normal despite their conflict. For South Korea, to encourage people to live in such a village, in such an area of tension, residents are paid around $100,000 a year, tax-free, to be farmers there (the average South Korean farmer typically
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Me, outside the Third Infiltration Tunnel (you were not allowed to take photos inside the tunnel)
earns around $20,000 a year). Whilst farming, the army protects them as apparently there have been kidnappings by the North Koreans at times, and at night there is a curfew from 11pm to daybreak. They believe that the counterpart village on the northern side is actually fake though, and not a real village, as upon telescopic inspection, they saw that the buildings have no windows, and that the lights come on at exactly the same time each evening – as a result, they call it “Propaganda Village”. Some time ago, the South Koreans erected a large, 100 metre flagpole bearing the South Korean flag in the South Korean village. Not long after, and in return, the North Koreans erected an even larger, 160 metre flagpole, the third largest in the world, directly opposite in their village. From this amazing vantage point, at the Dora Observatory, you could look across the whole of the DMZ area here, at both villages, both flagpoles, and far into North Korea beyond. Using a coin-operated telescope, I could actually just about make out two North Korean cyclists travelling along a North Korean road, and a few farmers in their rice fields. Very interesting.

De-Militarised Zone (DMZ), South KoreaDe-Militarised Zone (DMZ), South KoreaDe-Militarised Zone (DMZ), South Korea

An army briefing it seems... Outside the Third Infiltration Tunnel
the observatory, we visited the Dorasan Train Station, a very spick and span station built in 2002 which looks like any other train station in South Korea, and was built by the South Koreans in the hope that the two countries will be united at some point in the not-too-distant future. They hope that they will eventually be able to travel from Seoul to Pyongyang by train, and then beyond, linking with the Trans-Siberian railway, and being connected thus to Europe. It is indeed true, and I hadn’t thought of it before, that the country of South Korea is pretty much like an island nation, with there being no way of crossing at all its only land border, to the north. It was on the one hand sad to see such a modern station not in use, but on the other hand, encouraging to see the hopefulness and optimism of the South for unification. I personally do believe, though, that this is very much a long way off in coming. Perhaps there is scope for improved cooperation, but certainly not unification, to my mind – not after such a long separation, and certainly not after decades of North Koreans being
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Me, outside the Third Infiltration Tunnel
taught what I imagine they are taught, about themselves and the rest of the world. It was nice to see hope, though.

The final visit for the morning was to the Imjingak Park, site of the afore-mentioned Pirate Ship (very strange), but more importantly a park dedicated to the 10 million South Koreans separated from their families following the partition of the country. This part to me was really sad, and I hadn’t realised that this would have happened upon partition. Apart from some people who were given the option to either go north or south, most Koreans had no choice but to remain in the country they ended up in when the two countries were created. There is pretty much no way for either Korean to go to the other country, apart from famous accounts of North Korean defectors who manage to escape, including the amazing footage of the North Korean soldier who defected earlier this year, in the very same place we were to visit in the afternoon. There has also been in the news this week, that 100 South Koreans were chosen, by lottery, to be taken to the North and be reunited with their family
De-Militarised Zone (DMZ), South KoreaDe-Militarised Zone (DMZ), South KoreaDe-Militarised Zone (DMZ), South Korea

This monument symbolises the hope for reunification of North and South Korea
and loved ones who they hadn’t seen for over 60 years, since the war. This was sadly only a temporary union, and they have since returned to South Korea. Apparently such reunions have happened a few times now, during the more amicable times of the relationship between the two countries, which is what appears to exist currently.

At this point, those on the coach who were doing the full-day tour parted from those doing the half-day tour. Around 30 or so of the half-day tourists, dressed in shorts, vests, sandals and the like, got back on the coach to return to Seoul. Eight of us, who had booked this weeks in advance due to the limited number of places available, and all much more smartly dressed (we were given a dress-code upon making our booking, which included trousers or jeans and collared shirts for men, and excluded shorts, round-necked t-shirts, sandals, any writing on clothing, including names of countries, and camouflage-patterned items), boarded another coach, to join other smartly-dressed people for the afternoon part of the visit. Apparently the visitor here is to be smart, in order to give a positive impression to the North Koreans who watch us, that those in the South and those visiting the South are respectable and economically well-off people – interesting! This was indeed the highlight of the day, but it was also rather tense, a bit nerve-racking, and really quite bizarre.

Following lunch, which was included on the full-day tour, we drove further towards the border, and actually into the DMZ (until then we had merely been on the South Korean side of it), towards a place called Panmunjeom, in what is called the Joint Security Area (JSA). This is an amazing collection of buildings straddling the actual border, and where both the South and North Korean armies have a very sizeable presence. In the middle of the collection of buildings lies one particular building, half in North Korea half in South, where UN-orchestrated meetings take place. Before we headed to this building, we stopped in a place called Camp Bonifas, an army post run jointly by the South Korean military, US military and UN peacekeepers. We were given a presentation by a South Korean soldier, involving quite a dramatic video rather like a Hollywood film trailer, with dramatic film music, and slogans such as “in front of them all”, telling
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View from the Dora Observatory
the story of this unusual place in the world. It was understandably very one-sided, showing the South Koreans, and its UN allies, standing up against this huge North Korean threat, protecting the rest of South Korea and pretty much the whole world from this evil enemy. In actual fact I do completely agree that North Korea is the evil enemy, but this kind of propaganda video was a bit strange and at times I couldn’t help find parts of it funny, for being so over-the-top. Other parts were horrific though, particularly details and images of a notorious incident in 1976 in which two US soldiers were hacked to death with axes by North Korean soldiers, while the former were conducting a routine, annual exercise of pruning a tree which regularly blocked the view between two of their watchtowers. The juxtaposition of such brutality and tension, with the fact that we were visiting the area as tourists, made it really quite bizarre. We also signed quite a scary waiver, which was given back to us at the end, stating that we were solely responsible for anything that would happen to us during our visit. I quote parts of this waiver here: “the visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail the entrance into a hostile area and the possibility of injury or death as a result of enemy action”; “fraternisation, including speaking, making gestures or associating with personnel from the Korean People’s Army/Chinese People’s Volunteers (KPA/CPV) side, is strictly prohibited”; “Visitors will not point, make gestures, or expressions like scoffing, abnormal action which could be used by the North Korean side as propaganda material against the United Nations Command”; and “If any incidents should occur, remain calm, and follow instructions issued by security personnel”. I was actually feeling rather nervous, and the atmosphere of the group was becoming palpably more tense.

From here, we donned our UN Guest Badges and boarded a UN vehicle which took us to the buildings in the centre. This was definitely the highlight of the visit, but it was so tense. We were allowed to take photos only at certain times, as directed by our military escort, and in the ones which I had taken of me, some uploaded here, I just couldn’t bring myself to, nor did I find it appropriate, to even smile. I noticed that others having their picture taken didn’t smile also. We were escorted through a building on the South Korean side, which had a North Korean equivalent on the other side of the actual border, to a very small building in the middle, the one straddling the border. Both outside and inside were stood South Korean soldiers with sunglasses, standing rigidly still with fists clenched and looking straight forward. I would have said they were waxworks had one not been able to see them moving ever so slightly. In the middle of the central building was a long table with microphones, which apparently are switched on all the time, and record everything. It is on this table where any UN meetings with both sides are conducted. It is also within this building, through which the actual border between the two countries runs, that you can quite literally walk into North Korea, which I did. We were given the grand total of two minutes to take photos in this building, and were then ushered back out again. We then had a further two minutes to take photos whilst gazing over at the North Korean side, and then were ushered back to our vehicle again. We were all a bit disappointed that there were no North Korean soldiers visible at this time, and were told that they are only there when the North Korean side has visitors, which apparently is not as often as the South Korean side. It was a very tense visit, and I felt quite relieved to be back in the UN vehicle again, and then even more relieved to be back in our own coach and making it back to Seoul again.

What an amazing experience! I have never, quite fortunately, been in a war zone before, but felt that this place was very much like one. It really brought it home to me how tense, and real, the conflict really is between North and South Korea. It made me realise the importance of having an army, even in times of “peace” such as this one between the two countries, as particularly with an unpredictable country like North Korea, you really do not know what the other side is thinking, nor what they are planning or what they are going to do next. You must be ready for anything, and I saw from this that the South Koreans, US military and UN peacekeepers really
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North Korea. To the top-left of the large clump of trees in the middle, you can see a small white dot. The South Koreans believe this to be a 20-metre statue of Kim Il-sung, first of the "Kim Dynasty" of North Korea.

It was really quite something to end my summer adventures in this way, Tuesday was very much an adventure.

Following the amazing DMZ visit and returning to Seoul, I returned to the YMCA to pick up my bags, and boarded the Airport Limousine bus which very conveniently has a stop right outside the accommodation. The bus took me to the airport, where I rang for the free airport shuttle service offered by my final hotel, located in a small settlement near the airport which appeared to be made up of merely airport hotels and restaurants which cater to them. It was late when I arrived, so after dinner I packed my bags (for the final time, yay!), and got my head down around 10pm.

Wednesday morning was an even earlier start, at 5am (but definitely not as early as it would have been had I stayed my final night in Seoul), to have breakfast and take the hotel’s free airport shuttle again back to the airport, to check in for my return flight home. Having arrived safely back in the UK, I felt really fortunate to have just missed the arrival in South Korea, and also in Japan, of two typhoons which hit the region the day after I flew back, and which hit both South Korea and Japan at the same time - Typhoon Soulik swept through South Korea, whilst at the same time Typhoon Cimaron swept through Japan. It is very rare that two typhoons occur simultaneously like this, and it feels quite strange to think that they each hit the two countries of my summer travel adventures at the same time, the day after I left...! I was definitely really fortunate not to have my journey affected by this.

As mentioned, it was a really good journey home actually. For some reason, not sure how, the return leg of my journey gave me a “Premium Economy” ticket rather than mere “Economy”. This was actually wonderful, as I was able to join the priority check-in and boarding queues, which were so short, and had a really comfortable seat for the long flight from Seoul to Paris, with ample arm and legroom, improved food, and noise-cancelling earphones, which were a boon! It also gave me an extra bag to carry on board, and knowing this I was able to buy and bring more souvenirs home with me (yay!). I was fortunate to have next to me a very small, very quiet Korean lady. Behind the screen behind me, which separated Premium Economy from Economy, there were initially two very spoilt, loud and screaming toddlers, but I breathed the greatest sigh of relief when, for some reason, a real blessing indeed, they were moved further back in the plane out of earshot just before we set off – phew! I chose to watch two feel-good films, “Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring” and “Frozen”, and the 12-hour journey simply flew by! So did the seemingly-long five-hour layover in Paris, the 40-minute hop-of-a-flight to London, and the tube, tube, train and taxi journey home. I arrived home last night at 8.30pm, and after a couple of post-trip brandies, and a chicken wing take away from a fried chicken shop round the corner, cosied up in my own bed again for a blissful night’s sleep, having safely returned from a really quite epic adventure in the Far East.

I realise this is rather a long blog entry, so I will try to keep the final thoughts on my trip brief. This has been an amazing summer of travel adventures. I may even go so far as to say, perhaps the best trip that I have ever taken! I can surely say that Japan is my favourite country that I have visited, and out of 78 in total that is saying something! I believe I felt a deep and spiritual connection to the country, I found it mystical, magical and mysterious, yet also friendly, welcoming and so beautiful. It is mainly the people for me which make a country, and I have nothing but admiration and respect for the Japanese people – so polite, so courteous, friendly and welcoming. My heart definitely lies in England, but I have certainly left part of it in Japan. I felt very sad to leave it for South Korea to be honest, and missed it very much while I was travelling there. Perhaps I should have gone to South Korea first, as although I tried very hard not to, I did compare it many times with Japan, in a less favourable light. Nevertheless, on its own, I found South Korea also a fascinating country – the Koreans a feisty and fun-loving people, with a good sense of humour, and an irony and wit actually quite similar I feel to the British sarcastic and dry sense of humour. Outside of Seoul, the country is little-known to the international traveller, and I felt very much like an adventurous explorer. Seoul also delighted with its urban ambience once more, and the fascinating and educational visit to the bizarre DMZ area. It has been an amazing adventure, and one that will give me much joy I’m sure in the months and years to come as I contemplate and reminisce on the many diverse and amazing experiences I have had. Thank you South Korea, but in particular, thank you Japan – you are just amazing!

Thank you for reading, and until my next travels!

All the best for now.


Additional photos below
Photos: 41, Displayed: 37


24th August 2018
De-Militarised Zone (DMZ), South Korea

You look a little nervous!
This is awesome! So very cool to check out the DMZ while in Korea. I enjoyed reading your blogs. And yes, I think you can say country number 79 is North Korea.
24th August 2018
De-Militarised Zone (DMZ), South Korea

North Korea
Yes, I was indeed a little nervous, it was rather a tense place! Thank you for the vote for North Korea being number 79! :) And thank you for reading my blogs :D
24th August 2018

I sat and contemplated whether or not North Korea should be counted as country #79 and I think it can go either way. Our criteria is that you have to make a purchase in the country. By virtue of paying for this tour you may have met the criteria. Terra firma was achieved. Wow... your best trip... that is saying a lot. When we go would you recommend we go to South Korea first? MJ.
25th August 2018

Yay! Country number 79! I also think the TCC would agree, as they go for "boots on the ground", no matter how long or short. That means I'm up to 93 with them! For me though, I go by the need to stay the night in a country, so I think after all, I will keep it at 78...! Indeed, if I were to do the trip again, I would be tempted to go from South Korea to Japan, simply because I was always comparing the former less favourably to the latter. (But jumping straight in with Tokyo first was also good!) I look forward very much to reading about your trip in that part of the world if you're planning on making it :D
25th August 2018

Country count
Agreed with your thoughts.
25th August 2018

Country Count
Thank you also for your thoughts :D
25th August 2018

Country Count: Yes, 79
My criteria is: boots on real ground, which I define as anything other than an airport or someplace to transit. Time doesn't matter, as long as the experience was meaningful to you. also, who knows, you may have actually crossed the border on that ill-advised boat trip you took all those years ago! Anyways, congrats on completing this journey and for another series of well-written blogs. Japan has a way of spoiling the traveler, doesn't it?
25th August 2018

Country Count
Thanks Siewch :D It's really interesting to read that we all have our ways of ascertaining whether we have visited a country or not :) Thank you for following my blog and for your positive comments. Indeed, Japan is just such a lovely country, and very much so for the traveller. Thank you for your inspiration around this time last year also :) I hope your new job and settled-down time at the moment is going well. I hope to still read about some of your travels again in the not too distant future :)
4th September 2018

Great blog!
I enjoyed reading all about your Japan and Korea adventures, Alex! Very interesting to learn more about what it's like to visit these countries.
4th September 2018

Thank you :)
Thank you Lori for your lovely comments, and for reading my blog :D It was probably my favourite trip I've taken - wonderful countries :)

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