When it comes to traveling, there are three places/experiences that are high up on my list: South American rain forest, visit an African tribe and North Korea. During my most recent travels I didn’t do any of these things. However I got close, at least regarding North Korea. This time I went to Seoul in South Korea and from there I joined a tour group to get to the demilitarized zone (DMZ). The DMZ is a stretch of land that separates North and South Korea and is the most heavily militarized border in the world.
The tour started off by visiting the War Memorial of Korea. As the name implies it is a museum that covers the Korean War. Outside the museum building there was a large area with tanks, boats, missiles, cannons and airplanes that were used during the war. Some of which you could enter. This was probably the most impressive part of the museum. Next destination was a short stop at Imjingak, now a resort/park in the city Paju. Imjingak harbors the Bridge of Freedom, which were used by returning South Korean soldiers that had been prisoners of war in the North. The bridge crosses the Imjin River, which flows from North to South Korea crossing the DMZ. As the tour bus was driving to Imjingak along the Imjin River it was very easy to see the barren lands of North Korea on the other side of the river.
After Imjingak we headed for Camp Bonifas, a UN military base maintained by South Korean (ROK) and American forces, which lies within the joint security area (JSA). The JSA is the only portion of the DMZ where South and North Korean soldiers stand face-to-face. From the moment we were about to enter Camp Bonifas and forward, everything became very tense and serious. We were strictly forbidden to take photographs (unless told otherwise) and bring any bags/pouches to the places were going next. A ROK soldier was with us all the time from the moment we entered the camp. We also had to walk in two parallel lines at all time. At the camp we were ushered in to an auditorium where we had to sign a document stating that we were about to enter a hostile area that could result in injury or death as a result of enemy action. In the auditorium everyone were briefed about what was going to happen next.
Afterwards we switched to a military bus that took us to an abandoned village within the JSA called Panmunjom. It is in this village where the South and North Korean soldiers stand face-to-face. It was also in this village where the ceasefire agreement (Korean Armistice Agreement) was signed. The famous blue buildings where the agreement was signed are still present. The buildings have two entrances, one on the southern side and the other on the northern side. We were allowed to enter from the southern side but not exit through the northern side. By entering the building we got as close to North Korea as possible without actually entering North Korea. However, as half of the building lies on the northern side, technically we were in North Korea. During our very brief (less than 10 min) visit to this village we saw one North Korean soldier standing guard. We were not allowed to point or wave at the northern side or try to make any kind of contact with them. There was a large building on the northern side where the soldier was standing in front with the curtains shut. It is believed that the North Koreans were observing us.
Before going back to Seoul we stopped by Camp Bonifas again to visit a souvenir shop selling things that you normally find in souvenir shops. Including North Korean currency which I felt was a bit tacky. But I bought it anyway 🙂 ! Overall I would say that this was a very nice experience and I highly recommend it. You could really feel the tense atmosphere at the DMZ and at the same time buy tacky stuff like I did.
Next stop: Pyongyang, North Korea!