A Day In, Around and Under the DMZ

Come with me on a Day In, Around and Under the DMZ– the world’s most dangerous border. Located between North and South Korea, it is an emotional tour all Americans should experience. As a result, it is the most heavily militarized border in the world. However, there are no troops along the DMZ. Instead, it is guarded by pillboxes, landmines, barbed wire, and tank stoppers. So of course, I’ve got to see it for myself.

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My Day In, Around and Under the DMZ
The border between North and South Korea

First of all, you are greeted by a large sign that states– you must sign. However, it is worded in a way to get your full attention. Because the DMZ is still a very dangerous place.

The DMZ, straddling the border between North and South Korea, is not a hot spot for tourist activity. However, it is a must-see destination for military families stationed on the peninsula. Especially if you want to get a perspective on why soldiers were originally assigned to Korea. And why they are still there now.

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This is the scariest and most interesting place I’ve ever visited

— Karen Reynolds-Chen from Washington

Tick the DMZ off My Bucket List

These are just a couple of the instructions we were given when I visited the 43rd country on my bucket list yesterday—North Korea. Those were the first lines of the form I was required to sign. I read it to the end. Most of the people in attendance did too. A soldier delivered the briefing behind a pair of very intimidating shades meant to intimidate– trust me it works. They look totally badass.

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Why I Decided to Visit the DMZ

I don’t want to bore you with a whole lot of Korean, political, or military history. But you do need a little background in order to understand why we have a DMZ in the first place. And I apologize in advance for all the acronyms prevalent you can’t avoid when talking about the military. Korea enjoyed dynastic rule up until 1910 when it became colonized by Japan. Japan stayed on the peninsula until 1945.

After the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the country was divided into a northern part, protected by the Soviets, and a southern part protected primarily by the United States. In 1948 the powers failed to agree on the formation of a single government or ideology And this divider became the modern states of North (DPRK) and South Korea.

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Korean War History

The Korean War began on 25 June 1950, when the North Koreans invaded the south across the 38th parallel all the way down the south near the port city of Busan. UN forces pushed them back across the 38th parallel and the fighting lasted for 3 years.

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Still Fighting the Korean War

An Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953, and remains in effect. The armistice is only a cease-fire between military forces and not an agreement between the two governments. Consequently, no peace treaty has ever been signed which means that the Korean War has not officially ended. North Korea has announced it will not abide by the armistice 6 separate times.

South Korea has prospered and maintains a functional democracy and electoral system of government based on Capitalism. Meanwhile, North Korea has evolved into the world’s first monarchial Communist State where power has been transferred from father to son to grandson. The people rely on economic aid and live under a weird cult-like society where the supreme leader is more God-like than man.

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What is the DMZ?

The DMZ or Demilitarized Zone is a 155 miles long and 2.5 miles wide strip of land that runs east to west. It practically cuts the Korean Peninsula in half. It is the most heavily militarized border in the world. However, there are no troops in the DMZ itself except in the JSA. It is guarded by pillboxes, landmines, barbed wire, and tank stoppers.

And either side of the imaginary border used to be shared heightened tensions, threats and even deaths occurred. As a result, now each country stays on its side of the border. It remains dangerous due to intermittent violence from the North. So, of course, I had to see it for myself.

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The Tour of JSA

The Daegu Chapter of the good neighborprogram sponsored the tour. However, there are numerous comparable tours to choose from. Our tour began at 0630 in Daegu with a 5-hour bus trip to the border. We picked up our tour guide after a bulgogi lunch at Imijigak Unification Park and North Korea Center. There was a “rally” taking place. So I stayed away from the main buildings. I also walked around the statues and aircraft in the park.

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Military personnel cannot participate in foreign demonstrations. It’s impossible to know who is in the crowd and it could be dangerous. So I rejoined the group. However, there are also over 400 photos and documents on display in the North Korea Center of Unification Board.

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3rd Underground Tunnel

The 3rd Tunnel is one of the 4 known tunnels under the border discovered in 1978. It runs from north to south 240 feet underground. It was discovered after an explosion and never completed. The intercept tunnel was quite steep and hard to keep from feeling like gravity would take me at any time.

Once at the bottom the hard hats we were required to wear came in handy. Illustrated by the fact that I hit my hat several times while walking through the tunnels. The walls are cool and wet and there is a freshwater well with potable water. You cannot take personal belongings into the tunnels. But there are free lockers available to store your belongings. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take photos of the tunnels. However, don’t attempt the tunnel if you are claustrophobic, suffer from asthma, or difficulty breathing.

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The Dora Observatory

On a clear day, you can see the 3rd largest city of Gaesung in North Korea, as well as Kijongdong Village. Kijongdong was renamed Propaganda Village by UNC forces. For 500 Won you can even spy on North North Korea through binoculars. However, today the weather is like soup. Therefore the binoculars couldn’t cut through the fog.

The village was created by the DPRK after the South Korean Forces settled Daeseong-dong aka Freedom Village, the community where the villagers who live and farm the DMZ live. The only way to become a member of the village is to be born into it or by marriage (women only). Entry into the village is not permitted, but we drove by it on our way to the JSA. The South Korean government subsidizes the villagers. They own approximately 17 acres of farmland, live in larger than average homes, and make approximately $92,000 per year. In a strange but not unusual chain of events, the ROK government installed a 100m tall flag pole.

A Lot of Noise

The North Koreans, not to be undone, installed a taller pole measuring 160 m, one of the tallest in the world. The flag is humungous and has a dry weight of more than 40 pounds. Kijongdong Village is also the source of a loudspeaker, one of many in the area that blares propaganda about the supreme leader and the North Korean government to the villagers, hence the name. If they do defect, they won’t find anyone at home. The village is fake; many of the buildings have painted doors and windows. There is a really good model of the area on display inside. No photos are allowed.

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Joint Security Area (JSA)

It’s important to note that I have not included any sensitive information or images. With that being said, JSA was the part of the tour I was most interested in seeing because of the images I had seen over the years. It is the place where both countries stand and face each other on a day to day basis. It is also the spot where you can cross over into North Korea albeit in an empty conference room used for negotiations.

After a briefing and transfer from our commercial buses to UN buses, we toured JSA. We were escorted to the Joint Security Area that includes the Freedom House and the MAC (Military Armistice Commission) Conference Room. Afterward, we toured the area that included the Bridge of No Return where prisoners of war were exchanged, an unmanned checkpoint (since the 1980s), and the memorial to where two American officers were killed in 1976.

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The Axe Murders
Operation Paul Bunyon

Some really awful things have occurred in the DMZ. The Axe Murder Incident is probably the most notorious.

Detail of American and Korean soldiers were sent to cut down a large poplar tree. The tree partially blocked the view from an observation tower. They were assaulted. And two officers, Captain Boniface and Lt. Barrett were brutally killed by the North Koreans with their own axes.

Operation Paul Bunyan was launched to finish cutting down the tree. An overwhelming show of force was used to intimidate the opposition. DPRK accepted responsibility for the murders and the camp was later renamed, Camp Boniface. We were driven by the very spot where the soldiers were murdered. We saw the Bridge of No Return and the spot where the tree used to stand. There is something surreal about seeing something versus reading about it in a book.

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Dorasan Station

Dorasan Station Is the last train stop in South Korea. It is also a stop on the proposed intercontinental rail system linking the Korean Peninsula and Europe.

Recent Events

Defection of Travis King

This week, the DMZ and JSA Tours have become front page news with the recent defection of a former US soldier.

Travis King, a recently discharged 23 year old Private Fist Class, joined a JSA Tour and ultimately received asylum from the North Korean government.

There is still a lot we don’t know. However we do know King had just finished serving 2 months in a South Korean prison for assault. He managed to evade his escort and joined the tour instead of getting on his flight back to Fort Bliss to face further punishment. We will update this post when more information is available.

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Departing Thoughts

I first went to Korea in 1977 when I was eleven years old. Consequently, I have tons of wonderful memories. However, I don’t remember the Axe Murder Incident at all. Before you make your way to the DMZ, there are a few important things you should know. Because the DMZ isn’t your typical tourist destination.

The tour was very interesting. And although I learned a great deal. Being there, but the border, war, and current climate into perspective. We were shocked at the distance that the Soviet asylum seeker had to run. And he did it with 20+ North Korean soldiers chasing and shooting at him. He was hauling a$$!!! Nothing really brings it home until you see it for yourself.

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  1. Mimi

    I went as well earlier this year – I really liked my tour guide lady – she was hilarious. Imagine a old lady making jokes about NK – a bit like Kim Jeong the doctor that is the actor in the hangover haha!

  2. Soraya

    Oh wow! I had NO IDEA you could visit North Korea. My parents have shared some of their experiences being at the border between South Korea and North Korea, but never crossed over. What a fascinating and interesting experience. I will definitely keep this in mind as I would love to visit Korea next year.

  3. Lorraine

    I visited here this year just before I moved to Korea. I had expected just a tourist experience but was surprised at the level of tension experienced. I definitely went in very naive and learned alot. It’s an excellent experience and I enjoyed reading from your point of view

  4. Flo @ Yoga, Wine & Travel

    This is incredibly fascinating, thanks for all the background information and history Stacey. I would not have imagined a visit to the DMZ to be anything like this – incredible that in this day and age that there are still areas like this.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      It was one of the most interesting places I’ve visited because you just don’t know what to expect.

  5. Indrani

    This is the first post I am reading on North Korea! Lapped up every information given here. I do understand one must respect the norms of the country you are visiting. I would do that too without a single question asked. Witnessing a chase and killing can be scary… what a moment! I hope I can visit some day!

  6. Monica

    I noticed you said you could drive there yourself. My parents are coming next month and we’d love to go to the DMZ. Is there an address for us to put in to get to it from the DHL. Also do you happen to know of pricing if we go by ourselves ?

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Although you can drive there, I wouldn’t suggest it. And you won’t be allowed to visit certain sites like the JSA unless your a dignatory. The people that drove there met up with our tour group. They parked at Peace Park. You cannot drive your POV within the DMZ, we were transported by big baby blue UN buses and escorted by armed MPs. If you don’t want to see the JSA (not suggested). You can drive and see Freedom Road, the flat and straight highway connecting the capital with the DMZ, Imjingang River, crossed by the Unification Bridge you can drive and visit the peace village of Panmunjeom, Imjingak park and the beautiful mountains and rivers of Cheorwon, but you won’t be able to venture past Camp Bonifas which would be a total miss as far as I’m concerned. Most tours cost between 60-80,000 won, although the USO offers one that is cheaper and most offer a discount for the service member. You can book one out of the Dragon Hill Lodge on Yongsan that includes lunch. http://www.dragonhilllodge.org/DiscoverSeoul/?p=496 Go to http://asiaenglish.visitkorea.or.kr/ena/SI/SI_EN_3_6.jsp?cid=309692 for more information. Thanks for supporting duffelbagspouse travels. Make sure you like my fb page too http://www.facebook.com/duffelbagspouse.com

      Panmunjeom Travel Center
      Website: http://www.panmunjomtour.com
      Telephone: +82-2-771-5593 (Korean, English, Japanese)
      Price: 60,000-77,000 won (~$60-$77 USD). All tours include lunch.
      Note: Tours offered in Korean, English, and Japanese. This is the only company that allows you to meet a North Korean defector/refugee, ask them questions, and better understand the human rights issues of North Korea.

      Website: http://www.koridoor.co.kr
      Telephone: 02-6383-2570 ext. 2
      Price: 43-89,000 won (~$41-$80 USD). Most tours include lunch.
      Notes: Tours offered in English.

      JSA Tour
      Website: http://www.jsatour.com
      Telephone: +82-2-2266-3350
      Price: 85,000-120,000 won (~$85-$120 USD). All tours include lunch.
      Notes: Tours offered in Korean, English, Japanese, and Chinese.

      DMZ Spy Tour
      Website: http://www.dmzspytour.com
      Telephone: +82-10-3950-8350
      Price: 88,000-114,000 won (~$88-$114 USD). Tours include lunch.
      Notes: Tours offered in Korean, English, Japanese, and Chinese.

      International Culture Service Club
      Website: http://www.tourdmz.com
      Telephone: +82-2-755-0073
      Price: 65,000-85,000 won (~$65-$85 USD). All tours include lunch.
      Notes: Tours offered in Korean, English and Japanese. This is the only company that does Saturday tours.

      Seoul City Tour
      Website: http://www.seoulcitytour.net
      Telephone: +82-2-774-3345
      Price: 40,000-125,000 won (~$40-$125 USD). Only some tours include lunch.
      Notes: Tours are offered in Korean, English, Japanese, and Chinese.

      KTB Tour
      Website: http://www.go2korea.co.kr
      Telephone: +82-2-778-0150
      Price: 65,000-130,000 won (~$65-$130 USD). All tours include lunch.
      Notes: Tours offered in Korean, English, Japanese, and Chinese.

      DMZ & JSA Tour (Professional Guide Service / Celebrity’s choice Agency)
      Website: http://www.cosmojin.com
      Telephone: +82-2-318-0345 (Korean, English, Japanese), +82-2-318-0425 (Chinese)
      Price: 46,000 won (~$46 USD) for half-day tour, 87,000 won (~$87 USD) for full day tour. Lunch included on full day tour.
      Notes: Tours offered in Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese.

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