So… technically I have been to North Korea.
I went on a tour to the “truce village”, Panmunjom, in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
Panmunjom or the Joint Security Area (JSA) is the only place in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) where the North Koreans and South Korean are in the same area.
The talks between the countries take place here in a blue conference room. The conference room, called the Military Armistice Commission (MAC), straddles the Military Demarcation Line — the border between the two countries.
Map of the DMZ and Panmunjom (courtesy of http://www.bbc.co.uk).
To get to this “truce village,” I had to be on a tour. That is the only way.
And abide by the dress code (which isn’t that bad…just don’t dress like a slob).
And bring a different camera. If your camera has too much zoom capability (which my Panasonic does); you can’t use it.
And sign a waver that says if you are wounded or killed because of hostile military action, the South Korean government can’t be held responsible.
So I was excited about this.
But it’s a bit less unnerving than it comes across in the brochures.
I got on the bus at 8:50 a.m (after a 40-minute bus ride to the hotel). And they took us to the first stop, Imjingak. Imjingak is this desolate bus stop/creepy carnival/monument in the middle of nowhere. But we stop there to see the Unification Bridge — the bridge connecting Seoul to North Korea.
There was a few other things there (like an old train?), but nothing really special. But the whole place had this very ominous vibe. And then there was the impending rain that followed us from Seoul.
The next stop was Camp Bonifas, the military base outside of the DMZ. There, we had to have a soldier check all the specifications I mentioned above, along with our passports. And since I was American, they checked to make sure I didn’t have any American Flags on me.
Then we had to leave everything, except wallets and cameras (no camera bags), on the bus. We then went inside to watch a video and sign the aforementioned waver. The video was interesting, giving some background on the DMZ and JSA.
We couldn’t take any pictures in Camp Bonifas.
We were escorted onto a military bus to go through the DMZ to the JSA. And it started drizzling, making that ominous feeling worse.
We couldn’t take pictures of the DMZ either. But it’s beautiful. It’s a preserved wildlife area because of the lack of human interference. There are only two random villages, one South Korean and the other North Korean, in this section of the DMZ.
Once in Panmunjom, we were allowed into the MAC (there wasn’t a North Korean in there) and cross the demarcation line.
The line of microphones on the table marks the demarcation line. The soldier is South Korean.
We weren’t allowed to take pictures of the outside of the MAC until we got back on the bus. They went around and as we were driving by, we could take pictures.
The soldiers stand guard, facing the North Korean border (the concrete strip on the ground). The gray building is called Panmun-gak, the administrative headquarters of the North Korean military in the JSA. The blue building on the right is the MAC.
Then we passed the Bridge of No Return, the bridge used for exchanging prisoners of war.
The Bridge of No Return.
After this, we went back to Camp Bonifas, visited the gift shop, and then headed to a place of lunch (it was included). If you paid for the other aspects of the tour (like the DMZ fence or 3rd Tunnel), you went on one bus. I did not, so I went home. I got to Seoul about 3 p.m.
I loved the tour. But it left me with this sense of melancholy and….something else. I still can’t place it.
But it’s something worth feeling yourself.