We signed up for the USO tour of the DMZ & JSA before planning our trip to Seoul to make sure we would be able to do this during our trip – we were both dying to do this tour. We woke up early on Saturday morning during our weekend in Seoul to check it out.We were unbelievably excited – there is something so intriguing about going to a place like this. Our tour bus drove us out to Camp Bonifas (the military base just outside of the JSA) and our tour began. The history of the North/South Korean tension was really interesting and they made us sign a waiver that we were entering an area where our safety was not guaranteed - it said that by going on the tour, we were putting ourselves in a potentially fatal situation – talk about intimidating!
Our guides took us to the JSA (also called Panmunjon) – there are several buildings where the North & South Koreans meet for peace talks. First, we looked out on the North Korean side while standing on the steps of the South Korean building. There was one Korean guard with his binoculars checking us out. Later on, several other North Koreans came out and it looked like they were taking pictures of themselves with us in the background. It was a very interesting sight, watching the South Koreans stand in martial art ready position (“ROK ready”) at all times in case anything were to happen. Another interesting aspect was that we could take as many pictures of North Korea as we wanted but we were not allowed to turn around and take pictures of South Korea – I didn’t expect that.
After that, we went into the building that is split down the middle between North & South Korea. At this point, we were able to step foot in North Korea. The whole event was a little surreal – it was wild to be standing in the middle of a place that is so tense and still at war. It was rainy for the whole visit which added to the sadness of the location – there are many Koreans whose families are split between the North & the South and they are forbidden from seeing each other again.
They took us to several other spots that were of significance where we got a few more views of North Korea. One of the towns has a huge flag pole with the North Korean flag – they have been building it bigger and taller to make sure that they are always “better” than South Korea. I guess everyone needs a goal and the highest/tallest flagpole is theirs. One of the saddest places was called the “Bridge of No Return” where POWs from the North and the South were allowed to pick which side they wanted to go and live on (the North or the South)…once they crossed the bridge one way or another, they were never allowed back to the other place. I can imagine that would be a hard decision for many people because they likely had family on both sides. Another one of the stories they told us was about an attack by the North Koreans where the South Koreans had gone to cut down a tree so that they could better see one of the North Korean checkpoints and while they were cutting it down, the North Koreans attacked them and killed them with their own axes. The next time they needed to cut down a tree, the South Koreans called it “Operation Paul Bunyon” where they brought in many troops and they had helicopters/planes flying around while they finished the operation – this time all those involved came home safely. (Wikipedia has more if you’re curious: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axe_murder_incident)
The next stop was the “Third Tunnel” – this was a tunnel that the North Koreans had built to infiltrate Seoul – our guide told us that they could get 10,000 North Korean troops through there an hour. It was a long walk down and it was certainly a long tunnel which is now permanently monitored and barricaded to make sure no one can get through from the North. While we were there, we picked up some North Korean liquor – I do not think we will ever be brave enough to drink it but I think it will be pretty cool up on our liquor cabinet.
Finally, we went to a train station that used to take people from South Korea to North Korea. It was a somber place, primarily because you realize just how isolated South Korea is from the rest of the world because of this. If they could travel through North Korea, they could connect to the train systems through China and Russia into Europe. They would have access to a lot more of the world.