It was a 6am start on the 6th December 2017 to go on our tour of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) and Joint Security Area (JSA) between North and South Korea. Despite the very tense times we’re currently in with North Korea at the moment, tours were still running multiple times a day with just minor alterations to the standard itinerary for example not going to areas that were technically in North Korea’s DMZ zones. We were happy with this compromise (safety first after all) and were looking forward to learning a lot more about the current situation and how this area is maintained.
Once we arrived at Camp Bonifas, the US military base on the South Korean side of the JSA, we were met by Private Goetsch who was our US military security detail and tour guide for the few hours we would be here. He had been stationed at the JSA for nine months and would be there for a year total but hadn’t been able to have a day off yet so hadn’t even seen any of the country he was stationed in! Apparently being stationed at the JSA is very prestigious for a US Army soldier (I imagine because of the seriousness of the threat on your doorstep for a whole year) and he had been able to pick his next assignments instead of it being chosen for him. It was interesting talking to him about it all seeing as I don’t really know much about the army.
Our tour of the JSA started with a slide show about the history of the JSA and DMZ and also a bit on the Korean War. Originally, the JSA had North and South Korean offices on both sides of the border but this was stopped after North Korea carried out some fatal attacks on South Korea and US soldiers which violated the terms of peace at the JSA. All soldiers on both sides of the border are meant to wear an armband to show they are military police and are allowed to carry a firearm but North Korea has stopped doing this so are in violation of their treaty (adding to the tension in the area!)
We got back on the bus and headed to the border with North Korea. We passed the world’s most dangerous golf course which was surrounded by over two million land mines and went through gates that were surrounded by massive electrical fences running coast to coast by the border.
Once into the DMZ, there were rice fields everywhere and we found out that these were owned by the Freedom Village (Taesongdong) residents which are from the only village in the DMZ. You had to have already been living in the area or marry someone who lives there to be allowed to live in the Freedom Village and must spend 240 days and nights there to retain their residency. South Korea buy the crops from these residents for US$82,000 a year which is untaxed due to their position between the two countries!
North Korea also have a village in the DMZ but no one actually lives here so it’s known as Propaganda Village (Gijungdong) and it blasts out propaganda music to Freedom Village all the time to try and make the South Korean’s defect. The South also play music to counteract this like k-pop and Christmas music. Both villages also have flags of their respective countries but after South Korea put their flag up, North Korea purposefully built a much bigger one which is 160m to the south’s 60m flag. The North Korean flag is so big it takes a 37 man crew to raise it!
We were allowed to go out and look over at the North Korean side of the JSA. We were under strict instructions at this point on where to stand and what to do. It was very important to not make any derogatory comments or gestures as the North Koreans would obviously not take this very well and it is a violation of the peace treaty. You could really feel the tension in the air when we were out there, probably made more so by the fact it was a very cold day and there was snow on the floor. The South Korean soldiers stand out and stare at the North Korean side while we’re out there. They’re there for our protection just in case and then go back inside once we leave. There is one soldier on the North Korean side, the difference is that he will stand there for 14 hours a day, everyday without moving. It would be incredibly boring and, seeing as it was winter when we went there, it would be absolutely freezing! He is nicknamed Steve by the South Korean’s and the US. We were also under strict instructions to not take photos of particular buildings on the Southern side of the JSA for security reasons so all pictures are taken towards the North Korean side!
A couple of weeks before we visited the JSA, a North Korean solider defected just near to where we were standing! The soldier was chased by the North Koreans and shot five times but did make it over the border to South Korea. He was laying injured behind one of the buildings, but eventually the South Koreans were able to go get him. They crawled out at night as they didn’t not know how North Korea would act.
There have been a number of defections from North Korea into the South over this border, but it is not the common route due to how dangerous the area is. The majority are over the DMZ in other sections seeing as the JSA is heavily guarded. A few weeks after we were there another North Korean successfully defected to South Korea further along the DMZ which I think really indicates the hostile climate at the moment to have defections in such short amount of time from one another. It’s really interesting to look into North Korea and their lifestyle as well as the perceptions we have been able to get of their way of life from people who have defected and people who have been there. South Korea would love to be reunited with the North particularly as there are families who won’t have seen or heard from each other for years due to being on different sides of the country when it split.
There is a room which runs over the border between the two countries and is the room where the North and South would meet for negotiations and peace talks. This is recorded 24 hours a day so we were told to be very careful what we said in here! Two South Korean solider’s were stationed in here whilst we were there, one at the side of the room and another guarding the door that would take you into to North Korea. We were able to go a meter or so up to the door and the solider meaning we were technically standing in North Korea. We were warned that the soldiers would stop us with whatever means necessary if we tried to get through that door or compromise the safety of the group and, although it didn’t happen in our group, the solider’s have had to use force on people in the passed who are acting out of line!
There is a phone line that runs between the North and the South but it never gets answered by the North and so, to make sure the North Korean’s know that the tours will be taking place, someone goes out and shouts the tour schedules over a speaker to the North every morning. Both sides run tours but the South have around ten times the number of people a year compared to the North, at around 100,000 people per year.
Being at the JSA was fascinating as well as a very tense experience. We never felt unsafe but you were still very much made aware of the seriousness of the place you were in and of your actions. You didn’t mess around and, to be honest, I think you’d be an idiot to attempt such a thing when dealing with such an unpredictable and volatile situation. I would recommend going here as it was the most interesting part of the day for us to see and learn about it for yourself.
Our next stop on the tour was to Dorasan Station. This is the last Station in South Korea and has a railway line that runs into North Korea which was built in a joint country effort when relations between the two countries were more favourable. The hope which is mentioned in many places throughout the station as well as by our guide, is that one day you will be able to travel into North Korea using this line and vise versa. This also would connect South Korea by land to the rest of Asia and Europe which is also something they are aiming to achieve. The Dorasan Station also runs to the Kaesong Industrial Complex which was a complex run by both countries with workers from North and South Korea but this has been closed for two years now since the nuclear action started in North Korea.
We were able to buy a ticket to go onto the platform which would, hopefully, one day be used daily to cross in and out of North Korea. The platform is still and silent, as you would expect really, apart from at times when you can hear the propaganda music. There is a clock on the platform that shows the number of days that Germany was separated by the Berlin Wall (41 years, 4 months and 11 days) and then had another clock that is counting up for the number of days Korea has been separated which will then stop if the two countries ever unite. We were there at 10:57am on 6th December 2017 and at that time it had been 72 years, 4 months, 23 days, 10 hours and 57 minutes! Germany had also presented a piece of the Berlin Wall which is also on display at the station as a symbol of the hope for unity between the two Korean countries. It would be so cool to one day go onto that platform once again but then get on a train and head into North Korea – I really hope that day comes within my lifetime.
We also went to the Dorasan Lookout which was next to the station. This gave you a viewpoint across the DMZ and into North Korea. We weren’t there on a particularly clear day but, when it is clear, you can see a number of the cities within North Korea. We could still make out various parts of the North though. This was quite an eery place as you could hear the propaganda music being played in the distance. We also had to watch a video here on the DMZ which was made by the American’s. This was a heavy propaganda video which talks about the number of soldiers killed during the war in three categories – South Koreans, Americans and the UN. This baffled me and Niall as America is part of the UN but the more of the video we watched the more obvious it was that the whole video was propaganda. The video did provide some good information like explaining different parts of the view with what they knew about the different North Korean cities so if you blocked out the pro-American slant it was quite informative.
Our final stop of the day was to the Third Tunnel. This is one of four tunnels that have been found by South Korea which come from different places in the North, across the DMZ towards the South. The tunnel we were allowed to go down is only 27 miles (44km) from Seoul and was discovered in 1978 after a defector tipped off the South Koreans that the tunnels existed. South Korea then placed water pipes into the ground at different points across the DMZ and then waited. When the North Korean’s used explosives in the tunnel, the pressure blasted water out of the pipes and they were able to see where the tunnels were. We were able to go down this tunnel through a long passage that the South had built to connect it to the surface. The tunnel is blocked off by a number of walls further into the cave so you can only walk a certain distance in but we were able to walk pretty much fully standing the entire way which shows how big the tunnel was! You weren’t allowed to take pictures in the tunnel and they think it’s highly likely more tunnels exist that haven’t been found which is quite alarming if they were ever to reach South Korea. I can’t imagine living in the tunnel and digging it out all day for weeks on end! The North also painted the tunnel black to pretend it was coal mining which we could see when we walked through the tunnel.
There was also a museum which told you a lot about the profession of the war. Unfortunately, I forgot to write stuff down from the museum but what I remember is the museum being very careful not to create a negative view of North Korea. To me this demonstrated even more how much they wanted to be reunited into one country.
The tour was a long day due to the distances we needed to travel but was really interesting. We were given plenty of time to see everything at each stop and learnt loads of information about the Korean War. I recommend doing a tour like this if you are visiting Seoul as it really opens your eyes to what’s going on between the two countries. I’m really rooting for the two countries being reunited and hope that one day I can return to Korea as a whole country just like we can with Germany today.
Sending Love x