On the front line in Korea
Following orders from the US army, we lined up facing enemy lines, unarmed and with no military training. Our protectors for the day, the Republic of Korea Army (South Korea) and the UN (soldiers from the US Army). The baddies, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Army (North Korea) are not far away, heavily armed, in the building opposite with one standing on guard outside the building, watching us.
I am at the border of North and South Korea, in the Joint Security Area (JSA) within the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), the most heavily militarised border in the world. Strangely it is a tourist attraction, at that a very interesting one. Travelling with us all morning, a North Korean defector whom we could ask questions.
Her story started in North Korea where she lived with her husband. She lived near the border of China and could receive Chinese TV signals informing her of life outside of North Korea, which is illegal to do. Many people around her were starving. Electricity was only provided for two hours a day, sometimes not switched on for days or weeks. However people serving in the Army there were treated well, the rest of the country like them didn’t matter.
Leaving her husband behind as he was loyal to the regime, she travelled with other female family members to China from where she eventually managed to get to South Korea.
I asked her what motivated her to leave North Korea the most. She spoke of public executions where whole communities are forced to watch. Sometimes for something as little as stealing food to feed your family. She hated the lies the regime told and the brainwashing which started from when you are a child. You can read more facts about this on the Liberty for North Korea website. This website talks about concentration camps where people are held for being related to people who have acted against the government and even more heart breaking stories.
Prior to entering JSA we had visited other places that morning; the Memorial Altar, Freedom Bridge and the Unification bell.
Following these we entered Dorasan Station, a train line which will connect South Korea with Europe by land. The station, quiet and unused for travelling north since 2008, is served by 4 trains daily from Seoul mostly used by tourists but is no longer to continue onward to North Korea.
Up at Dorasan Observatory we had clear views into North Korea. You can see the bright buildings of Propaganda Village which contains just shells of buildings with lights on timers to make it look like a thriving town. There isn’t even any glass in the windows and is empty of people except for the odd caretaker, sweeping the sidewalks.
Before lunch we entered the 3rd Infiltration tunnel, one of four which has been discovered dug by North Korea for a surprise attack and made to look like coal mining tunnels. Photos in this area are forbidden, however I was surprised to see how wide these were, with me being able to walk through sometimes needing to bow my head to avoid hitting it on the roof.
After lunch, the highlight of the day, as we crossed back over Unification Bridge, we had our passports checked and were given strict rules about entering the United Nations Security Battalion, Camp Bonifas. Obvious rules such as not goading the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Army, not having jackets slouched off us like we are concealing a weapon and, the most puzzling, no ripped jeans. I later learnt that the North Korean regime had used photos of tourists as propaganda to show their people that the US cannot afford new jeans.
After signing my life away at the briefing, stating I would not claim compensation for any harm to my body, we took the military bus to the JSA at Panmunjom, crossing countryside practically untouched by humans and home to rare birds and mammals and endangered plants. Unable to be appreciated by most of the world. Unfortunately photographs of this area is not allowed.
Since hostile activities, the JSA is only allowed to be occupied by either the Republic of Korea Army (South Korea) or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Army (North Korea) working on a first come, first served basis. Since the outbreak of ebola which North Korea have accused the US of developing as a biological weapon, the North Koreans have mostly opted not to occupy this area. Luckily for our visit, they had decided to stay away today apart from a single guard outside their main building, squinting in the sunlight.
Staring into the sun, he must have barely been able to see a few meters in front of him whilst the Republic of Korea Army stood there in Taekwondo stance sporting cool sun glasses. As we entered into the bright blue meeting room which is split in half by the demarcation line we got to pose with the cool Republic of Korea Army. Even the table and chairs straddle the border, a side for each.
During the time we were close to the DMZ, North Korea was playing opera music loudly. Apparently this happens back and forth between the two countries following the North Korean January 2016 Nuclear test but when North Korea are having a bad day, they can shout propaganda angrily for days. In addition to this, both countries flyer the other with leaflets via balloons and the guards along the 250 km in length and 4 km wide DMZ line regularly take pot shots at each other.
Have you been to DMZ? Would this trip interest you? Please comment below. Don’t forget to subscribe (It’s free!) to my blog for more posts like this and interesting travel tips.
Tips for taking this trip:
1/ There are a few companies who you can take this trip with. I took this tour with the Panmunjom Travel Center as a North Korean Defector travels with you all morning answering your questions. Address: 9f ,Koreana Hotel(Office B/D), 135, Sejong-daero, Jung-gu, Seoul Telephone : 02 – 771 – 5593 ~ 5 / Fax : 02 – 771 – 5596. Tour Fee : 130,000won
2/ There are strict rules for entering Panmunjum. You have to report your passport details 48 hours prior to the start of the tour (1.45pm). Your tour company will do this for you.
3/ If you are from the following countries you will require a more thorough background check by the UNC and have to give your details at least 4 days in advance: Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Bolivia, Bosnia, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Estonia, Georgia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lebanon, Libya, Lithuania, Macau, Malaysia, Moldova, Morocco, Nigeria, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Palestinian authority, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Vietnam, Yemen
4/ You have to bring your passport on the day.
5/ Strict clothing regulations are enforced: No ripped or faded jeans, no sleeveless shirts, no mini skirts or tight leggings or round necked T-shirts – they must have a collar.
6/ Children under 11 years old are not allowed on the tour.
7/ No alcohol is allowed on the tour.