On Saturday, North Korea marked the anniversary of its founding. There’s been a lot of threats and posturing the past few weeks and tensions were high. The day I arrived in Korea, North Korea had performed its sixth nuclear test. While visiting the South, I was fortunate enough to book a last-minute trip to the Joint Security Area in the DMZ. I’ve visited the DMZ before when I was living in Ulsan, but with this trip, I was able to visit the most famous part of the DMZ.
Entering the DMZ
Entering the DMZ is an intense process and you feel the tension well before you even arrive: Barbed wire lines the Han river and guard outposts dot the land along the highway. When you arrive, everyone’s passports get checked and verified before your bus is brought to the briefing area. You are given a brief history of the area, the current conditions, and the rules for visiting. Essentially, you can’t do anything (facial expressions, gestures, etc.) towards the North, and you are only allowed to photograph facing the North, never the South. They are very strict on photography and are authorized to factory reset your device if you break the rules. You also sign a waiver of sorts that protects the UN from any sort of injury or aggression on the part of the North. After you leave, you get to keep the document as a souvenir!
Panmunjom and the JSA
You then board a military bus with a soldier guide. He explains the existence of Panmunjom, a village that exists within the DMZ. That could fill an entire post by itself, but know there are people who live there, farm, and are protected by the ROK (Southern) soldiers from repatriation by the North. I was told the ginseng around this area is some of the best in the world, famed for its quality since ancient times.
Once your bus unloads, you go into the peace building, constructed for friendly meetings between the North and South, but never used for such. You are reminded again of the instructions and proceed outward in single-file lines. Where you exit the building is where all the famous pictures come from: All the blue buildings are UN/Southern controlled, while the crazy metallic-looking buildings are controlled by the North. You can see the North Korean Welcome Center across the way, in all of its surreal glory. The day I arrived, on the third floor balcony in the North, I saw a large group of North Korean tourists, which was surreal; we were both there to gawk at one another, measure each other up, each fascinated and unable to comprehend the life of the other. This is a rare meeting: There are maybe 2-3 North Korean tours per month, if that.
You either start on the steps outside and get a briefing about the North, or enter the Joint Security building where negotiations happen. We started in the negotiation building. Once you pass the long table in the middle, you are technically in North Korea. The good news is that if one country has tours in the building, the other side is locked out and not allowed to come in. So, we were flanked by elite South Korean soldiers while we took pictures and glanced at the North. These soldiers are no joke; describing them as statuesque would only be to scratch the surface.
Outside, you receive more briefing and are allowed to take more pictures, all while the North Koreans monitor your activity. They try to find unsavory or unflattering things to use in their propaganda campaign, hence why no facial expressions or gestures of any kind. The experience can only be described as surreal and jarring. This is, technically, a site with active aggression between two nations still technically at war. The quiet is eery and unsettling; you know something is simmering beneath the surface, but it is hidden to expertly that an uneasy air of unease chokes you with every breath. This might be because I’m American and our relationship with the North is a bit… different than other nations’, but it was like stepping into a sort of mythical space. Seeing it and experiencing helped to demystify it and make it more real. We tend to build things up in our minds and what we build might be drastically different from the reality of it all, so I’m glad I can ground my thoughts to a very real and tangible experience.
There is a lot more I could write about, but I want to provide a bit of info on tours themselves. Only a handful of companies offer tours, and depending on the political climate, there might be fewer tours per week. I was incredibly lucky that a pair of travelers canceled their reservation. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to go on such short notice. You will need at least 3 days advanced notice for security reasons. You will also need to pay online via credit card so you can be charged cancellation fees by the tour company if you don’t show. Our tour included lunch, which was nice. More expensive bundles also include tours of tunnels North Koreans have built to invade the South, so if you want to pay a little more, you can see that as well. A shorter tour like mine lasts about 5 hours, while the longer tours run about 8.
I’m glad I did this. It helped me to see a glimpse of the reality in the JSA, this space on our planet that kind of defies logic. I’d also like to give a shout-out to our American soldier who guided us around. He was incredibly knowledgable, personable, and had a good sense of humor about the situation (as good as you can have, given the circumstances). None of us can know how much longer the DMZ will be needed or around, but if the conditions are stable, I’d whole-heartedly recommend visiting. If you go in with the right mindset and attitude, you will get a great deal out of your time there.