Seoul- DMZ and JSA

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August 2nd 2019
Published: August 13th 2019
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Trip 2019 has gotten off to a great start. Bill and I arrived to Seoul on a warm, humid evening. After a swift immigration and baggage collection we boarded a KAL Limousine bus to our hotel in downtowan Seoul (Jung-gu). We wandered around neigbouring Myeongdong distrct to familiarise ourselves and search for something to eat. Myeongdong was everything I expected – dazzling lights, a plethora of shops (in particular K-beauty cosmetic shops) and a bustling street food scene. We finally settled for authentic Korean crispy chicken and beer, the air conditioned restaurant a respite from the opressive humidity.

An early start for our tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and Joint Security Area (JSA) in Panmunjom the next day. Earlier in the week, I had received an email from the original tour I had booked a month back to say the JSA has confirmed it will be open that day (it is often closed), however they informed me the tour is 26 people max and we were the 27th booking. Justifiably we were not impressed given we had booked so far back in advance, and I immediately proceeded to email all other tour operators. 2 days before we were due to depart Brisbane, Cosmojin informed us they had availabilty on our desired day – huzzah!

We arrived at Hotel President, met our tour and our friendly and informative guide SP. The tour did include an obligatory ‘shopping’ stop – an Amethyst centre, however we were in and out in 15mins and as it was at the beginning of the tour it didn't seem as much of an inconvenience . I had previously been on a DMZ tour in 2007 when I came to Korea with my university on a study tour but I hadn't been to JSA. The DMZ, a strip of land running across the Korean peninsula, was established by the provisions of the Korean Armistace agreement (signed in 1953) to serve as a buffer zone between North and South Korea. The DMZ is 2km either side of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). The DMZ is roughly a 56km or so drive from downtown Seoul – a little over an hour. SP gave us a good historical lesson about the DMZ, as well as information about the war. What I learnt (and I should have known) is that the Korean peninsula was divided North and South at the end of WWII when the Japanese occupation ended. In 1945 the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) aka North Korea and Republic of Korea (ROK) aka South Korea, was established. On 25 June 1950, the Soviet-backed DPRK invaded the United States-administered ROK, which led to the 3 year Korean war claiming over 3 million lives. On our way to our first stop at the DMZ, SP pointed out the barbed wire fences lining the Han river – this is because the river runs through to North Korea, so in case any spies decide to swim through, they cannot get into South Korea. Our first stop, the Third Infiltration tunnel, was discovered in 1978. Built by the North Koreans to infiltrate the South, it was covered in black and claimed to be a ‘coal mine'. Suffice to say the South Korean army didn't believe that! Today you can walk down the 1.6km tunnel, there is a slight incline but on the way back it feels steeper! The next stop was the Dora Observatory - a newer one which was opened November 2018 - where you can look over to North Korea. There are dozens telescopes to get a better view of the famous ‘propaganda villiage', a villiage built by the North Koreans to give the illusion of a prosperious society. After an average lunch at the military cafeteria, we went to Dorasan station, where a train line had been built from Seoul all the way to Peongyang. Currently, only one train a day from runs from Seoul to Dorasan. Eventually, it is hoped, the train can continue north to Peyongyang. For now, it is a stop on the daily DMZ tour, and for 1000KRW you can buy a ticket to stand on the train platform and get commemorative stamps. After that we went to Imjingak park, to see the bridge of no return and oddly enough, there is a theme park there. Finally, we got to our last stop, JSA. At the military checkpoint (of which there are many), the ROK Army (ROKA) officer infomed us us they did not receive our tour's passinger manifest by the UN Command (UNC). We had to wait about 15/20minutes while SP was making urgent calls to the UNC. Finally, we were let in. We were taken to the JSA visitor centre where we joined another bus load of people and watched a documentary about JSA and signed waiver forms releasing the UNC of all liability should anything happen to us. We were then led on two buses to the JSA – 3 blue conference centre on the MDL – North Korea was right in front of us!! Our UNC escort, Private Yates of the US Army, led us in to T2 where the Armistace agreement was signed in 1953 and we literally stood on Nirth Korean territory to the north of the room! The door was locked, but if you open the blue door you are effectively in North Korea and no one can vouch for your safety! The JSA is surrounded up the ROKA standing guard in blazing heat, protecting the surrounds. After T2, we were taken to the blue bridge where an extension was built last year when South Korean president Moon met Kim Jong-Un and had tea and discussed peaceful relations. I asked Private Yates why let tours through such a contentious area and he said it was to promote peace, and give people and insight to what they are trying to achieve at the JSA. After our return to the JSA vistor centre our tour ended for the day. It was a very informative, full day. I would highly recommend the DMZ (which can also be done as a half day tour) and JSA. SP said the JSA component is cancelled so often, the week before he was onky able to go once so we were extremely lucky to get to JSA this time around – it is by far the reason to go to the DMZ! We were also informed the day before a North Korean army officer defected and swam across to the South, so it was extremely fortunate that didn't deter the JSA plans! We arrived back in Seoul just in time for a quick refresh and off to the Gwanjung markets for dinner.

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