Panmunjom and the DMZ - A Surreal Visit to the Borderlands

LIGHT BITES

Destination Reports


The staging grounds of a frozen conflict

The Korean War remains frozen in time but the Korean Demilitarized Zone with its legacy and implications still attract and compel travellers to visit its most lasting flashpoint.

 A soldier from the ROK Army stands guard not against the North, but to prevent tourists from getting too close

A soldier from the ROK Army stands guard not against the North, but to prevent tourists from getting too close

Whenever I mention the notion of going anywhere near North Korea (ie the border region of Panmunjom), I’m met with puzzled looks and disapproving comments. After all, why  would anyone want to go anywhere close to the Korean Demilitarised Zone, a step away from such an unpredictable and oppressive regime? 

At the risk of sounding completely delusional, hear me out. The area around Panmunjom (or the DMZ) is one of the world’s most ‘dangerous’ areas as it separates two militaries that are still ‘at war’ with each other (more on this later). Interestingly though, the DMZ has become an extremely well-preserved nature reserve, housing many endangered species because human actions are severely restricted. I think that its quite intriguing to see how a place has so much hanging in the balance - where else can you find a complete surrender of fate to the actions of a few red-crowned cranes?

Getting There

Let’s make this clear: There is no way to visit the Inter-Korean border at the DMZ or the JSA without being part of a tour group (haha you’re gonna end up seeing weird ginseng) as UN Command will only allow visits via licensed tour operators. The 12 lane wide ‘freedom highway’ leading in and out of the area is also protected by fortified outposts; permits and ID checks are conducted before entering or leaving the border area. This isn’t just an ego project either - in the event of war, you’ll see an armada of tanks rolling towards the North. But thankfully, only tour buses can be spotted these days. 

Going to the border is one of world’s the ultimate acts of political tourism and you should treat it with the utmost respect and care. Expect your movements and actions to be restricted, as well as your ability to take pictures and videos - this isn’t the place to show off your well-rehearsed K-pop dance routine. Also, don’t be like this dude.

There are various tour operators that provide half/full day tours priced between 55,000 KRW for the former and 147,000 KRW for the latter. Note that there are three different tours - Korea DMZ, Korea JSA and DMZ+JSA, all of which encompass a different mix of attractions. Do your research and pick the one that matches your interests and budget best. However, in my opinion, just opt for the full-length Korean border DMZ+JSA tour and you’ll be able to experience one of the world’s most politically contentious regions to its fullest. 

Okay, great. But should I really go? Do I wanna go?

As mentioned, North and South Korea are technically still at war. The only thing preventing open hostilities (actually not really) between them is an armistice (a fancy name for a ceasefire), not even a formal peace treaty.

The border region is of immense political and cultural significance. While being a site of anguish for separated families on both sides of the border, it is also an icon of hope for those hoping for an eventual reunification of Korea.

Along with the DMZ, other sites in countries like Cuba, Northern Ireland and Crimea make up a must-see list for those interested in political tourism. To such travellers: don’t think twice; go for the experience before the area loses its significance.

If that doesn’t convince you, go watch a video of actual diplomats crossing the border - it’s an incredible work of theatre especially when you’re aware of how contentious the whole place is. 

Korea cut through the middle

So, how did Korea get partitioned in this way? 

With the conclusion of World War 2 in 1945, a momentous decision had to be made on how to govern Korea. Owing to on-the-ground realities, a temporary partition (along the 38th Parallel and the village of Panmunjom) was decided in 1947, splitting the Korean Peninsula between the communist-influenced North and the ‘democratic’ South. 

Just 3 years later, the Korean War erupted after the North, led by Kim il-Sung, invaded the South by crossing over the aforementioned 38th Parallel. Intense fighting ensued and territories across the peninsula changed hands multiple times as various parties joined the fighting. Ending in a stalemate in 1953, the border was re-established along original partition and was subsequently heavily fortified. Since then, multiple incursions and attacks have taken place.

In the immediate post-war period, the North was significantly more successful economically, having been buoyed up by significant aid contributions from the Soviet Union and Communist China. The South, having been ruled by authoritarian strongmen like Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee, saw growth being stifled in favour of the centralisation of political control. 

Things quickly changed after South Korea firmly established its economic principles and turned towards democratisation. Since then, growth has been spectacular and we are still currently feeling the effects of what is affectionately known as the ‘Miracle on the Han River’. In comparison, the North has faded into economic irrelevance, and only manages to maintain its profile internationally due to its belligerent and militaristic approach to foreign policy.

The spectre of conflict has never left the psyche of people on both sides of the partition, as the glaring and enduring presence of the DMZ is now a symbol of uncertainty for both countries.

 
 The old train station sign at Imjingak

What's up, DMZ

The DMZ portion of the tour encompasses the less sensitive aspects of the area, giving the tourist a cursory experience of the region’s conflicts and tensions.

Imjingak Park

This will probably be the first stop on your tour but there’s nothing much to see here other than some relics and monuments of the conflict and the DMZ. Use it to finally realise that you’re actually going to one of the world’s most dangerous places but don’t feel too exclusive yet because you’re still technically in a ‘civilian permissible’ area of the country. Any movement further North from here will be restricted to registered tour groups. 

3rd Infiltration Tunnel
The tunnel is part of a series built by the North Korean military for the purpose of infiltrating the South/digging for coal, the 3rd infiltration tunnel has been turned into a tourist site to show just how ambitious the entire endeavour was. 

The trek down (and back up) is not for the faint of heart. The entire 1.6km length of the tunnel is constructed along a steep incline, and so its not hard to imagine just how tiring it would be to journey down and back up again. However, if ajummas can do it, I don’t see why you can’t too - just beware that the tail end of the tunnel has a very low ceiling. 

Some have also theorised that the tunnel was built to make tourists shell out money for overpriced drinks at the shop located in the tourist center. 

 

Dora Observatory

Your first view into the hermit kingdom, accompanied by a loudspeaker blasting propaganda music towards the North. On clearer days, you’ll be able to spot the flagstaff that is located in the North’s Kijong-dong (Propaganda/ Peace Village depending on who you’re asking). The view from the observatory is quite surreal as you’re looking over a zone home to animal species that are all but extinct on either sides of the DMZ.

 
 Dorasan's operational history has been tumultuous as it oscillates between being in use and being closed

Dorasan's operational history has been tumultuous as it oscillates between being in use and being closed

Dorasan Station
Dorasan Station is the lynchpin of the South’s efforts (the old Sunshine Policy) to reestablish an economic relationship with the North. In the past, trains used to run northwards from Dorasan towards the economic complex of Kaesong which is found within its namesake district in North Korea, located 10km north of the DMZ. 

The industrial complex gives South Korean firms access to cheap labour while giving the North (not the workers), an important source of foreign currency. At its peak, a total of 124 South Korean firms operated at Kaesong but the complex is now currently closed due to the heightened tensions along the Korean Peninsula. 

What's up, JSA

The JSA is the real kicker of the tour, allowing visitors to come up close with the hermit kingdom. Just don’t stare too long at the North Koreans and attract unwarranted attention (even though this one border guard’s name is Bob). 

Camp Bonifas
A stop is made here for the entire tour to be briefed on the history of the conflict as well as the various incidents that have taken place after the armistice was signed. UN soldiers will also outline the various instructions (do-s and dont’s) to follow as you make your way towards the legendary 38th Parallel.

Freedom Village
You won’t actually be able to visit the village of Daesong-dong but you’ll hear lots about it, including how it is used by the South Korean government as a set piece for the ‘superiority of democracy and the market economy’. What’s interesting here is that the villagers here have one of the highest incomes in the nation and are treated very well by the government, but are subjected to restrictions like a 11pm daily curfew. 

The MAC and crossing (sort of) the border
This is probably the closest most people will get to North Korea. Disappointed? Don’t be, cause I was kidding. For those more observant, you’ll notice that by entering the Military Commission Building (the blue hut things), you’re actually able to ‘enter’ North Korea by crossing over to the far end of the room. The room straddles the concrete divider and so technically (congratulations) by standing at the right place, you’re in North Korea. Don’t be too happy though; the North has on occasion tried to pull people over to their side. 

 

Also, if you attempt to leave the building through the other side, you’ll likely find yourself in a Korean prison, I’m just not sure whether it’ll be in Seoul or Pyongyang. 

Should I go?

So, is it safe to visit? Well, yes. The Korean border and the DMZ is a mere 30km north of Seoul, and so any worry about being the victim of a large scale attack is quite unwarranted. At such a close range, modern artillery is able to reach Seoul and you don’t see people in Itaewon worrying too much about attacks. However, if you're really risk-averse and the current geopolitical climate worries you, maybe give the tour a skip.

You’re also safe due to the politically sensitive nature of the JSA as North Korea has generally begun to shift its provocations elsewhere. Besides, after the events of ROKS Cheonan and Yeongpyeong, it’s kind of hard to say what’s really safe anymore. Incursions and provocations however, have occured as recently as 2016; you’ve been warned.

Nevertheless, if there is actual risk to tourists, I’m sure that the UN Command will halt all tours.

 
 Peace reigns along the DMZ for now, albeit doing so amongst structures and places that were once hotly contested battle-zones

Peace reigns along the DMZ for now, albeit doing so amongst structures and places that were once hotly contested battle-zones

What’s the upside then?

I don’t know about you, but border regions are deeply fascinating to me. While some aren’t policed at all (the Schengen Area), some are extremely contentious and dangerous (the DMZ and the Wagah Border, amongst others). The pensivity one gets at the JSA is also quite unique - the area becomes absolutely quiet (despite the presence of your tour mates) as you stare into one of the world’s most fanatical and oppressive regimes.

A trip to the area is also likely to be accompanied by extremely passionate guides. Mr SP Hong (a very iconic man on TripAdvisor) lead my group and was very knowledgable (matched only by his sass) about the conflict and its implications for the two Koreas. He's also very patriotic but I guess that's a characteristic that tour companies are looking for.

Ending words for an enduring conflict

If you do find yourself in South Korea - just go for the tour. It’s a fascinating day trip experience that’s just unmatched by what other cities can offer; go for it no matter how you like your butter spread to be spread, side up or down. 

I also highly recommend the various documentaries on North Korea produced by VICE News. The news/media outlet is practically obsessed with the country and can be considered to be one of the first channels to generate popular intrigue about the country. Their archives feature countless in-depth documentaries, with the most recent one having just been posted in September of 2017.

You could also go a step further to read about the plight of North Korean defectors, especially the many harrowing accounts of defectors trying to reach South Korea via China and South-East Asia. For fans of border controversies and tensions, the Jammu-Kashmir region is a similarly interesting geopolitical feature.

To me, this visit to the borderlands is just a primer for my ultimate travel dream, an actual visit to Pyongyang which obviously is an order of magnitude greater than visiting the Korean demilitarised zone. As someone who is fascinated by international relations and politics, Pyongyang, Havana and Tehran are all on my must-see list. I can't wait to eventually head over. Till then, I’ll just keep hoping that Koryo Tours will eventually accept kidneys as payment.

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