It has been exactly a year since our South Korea trip, and the best part about it was visiting the Joint Security Area in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Since 2003, after watching the Park Chan-wook directed film “Joint Security Area”, I’ve always been interested in visiting this place. I also took interest in the area because I was also working on a paper about the Korean War and the DMZ in graduate school.
We took the last morning tour (at 10:30 AM) because our plane arrived at around 6:oo AM, as most of the DMZ/JSA tours are offered early in the morning and the agency from which we booked our tour was the only one we found to offer the latest morning schedule but it was only for Saturdays.
Rushing from Incheon International Airport to Jongno Area, it took us about two hours to reach our guesthouse (i.e. Guesthouse in Korea — for the review with working pictures, please click here), few meters from the entrance of Changdeokgung. We had arranged the day before with the owner (or staff) that we’ll just be leaving our things because we had a 10:30 AM tour. We reached Lotte Mall at around quarter to 10 and we still ate a quick breakfast in Lotteria. At past 10, we decided to go to the agency at the 6th Floor of Lotte Hotel to confirm and pay for the tour. The tour buses were on the parking lot and we found our designated seats, which were all the way to the back.
I think most of the tours have a mandatory visit to the Imjingak before going to the Joint Security Area. At the end of the bridge, there was a wall, very optimistic of unification between the two Koreas. But I was more excited in reaching the JSA. Before going to the place, we had been given notice of the things that were not allowed, such as not pointing and talking loudly. We had also been inspected by Korean officers on three occasions who checked our passports and looking at our faces to verify our identity. It was intimidating. We were also not allowed to take pictures most of the time, unless mandated to do so. After a 20-minute presentation in one of the United Nations Command conference rooms, we got to the bus again and we were off to see one of my dream places.
Imagine seeing this historical place upon climbing the stairs of the Freedom House — I was really happy to see the Panmungak on the other side. I was quite disappointed to see that there was only one North Korean soldier by the door, watching us through his binoculars.
We were then allowed to go inside one of the conference rooms and have a look around. Well, since we can’t cross over the concrete slab outside just to step on North Korean soil, we were free to move around the room and be technically in North Korea as long as you don’t move out of the guarded door — unless you want to be shot immediately by the North Korean soldiers. Just kidding.
Upon leaving the Freedom House, we were taken next to the Bridge of No Return, near the site of the Axe Murder Incident of 1976 due to a poplar tree that was once blocking the outpost’s view . But on our way out, I stealthily took pictures of the Sunken Garden and the House of Peace… just because I can. =P
We booked the tour about two weeks in advance on the website of the International Cultural Service Club at http://www.tourdmz.com/english/07guid/tour1_1.php?tag=Image1_1. It was listed as Panmunjeom Tour and cost us KRW 78,000 or about US$ 70. They are located at the 6th Floor of Lotte Hotel and can be reached via their email firstname.lastname@example.org. When we took the tour, there were no other Asians in the bus and we were the only ones in a bus full of Europeans. It included a sumptuous Korean lunch in a restaurant.
When we go back to Seoul this December, I hope to take the Northern Limit Line tour because it concerns more of the disputed area of the Yellow Sea and site of the Yeonpyeong Island shelling between North and South Korean military. However, I doubt that Mon will be consenting this time. He wanted to visit other places and I’m actually fine with it. Considering it’s December, I don’t also think that it is a good idea to be near the freezing sea at that time.