Yes I did. Kind of, but not really. And here’s what happened…
While on the trip to South Korea with my parents in September, we joined a one-day tour to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas. On the tour we visited various sites near and inside the DMZ.
Our tour began on a beautiful morning in Seoul, where we boarded the tour bus with 40+ other people, and less than an hour later we arrived at our first destination of the day – the Third Tunnel (제3땅굴).
The Third Tunnel is one of the 4 known tunnels between the 2 Koreas. The North initially built these tunnels to attack South Korea, and could accommodate at most 30,000 armed soldiers. Upon arrival, we were given helmets to board a monorail into the tunnel. I found this really really cool! It almost felt like we are boarding a roller coaster ride to a coal mine.
The ride itself was pretty steep because at the end of the ride we ended up in the heart of the tunnel. We then got off and walked inside the tunnel for around 10 minutes or so. The tunnel was a bit dimmed, humid, and narrow. Not the most pleasant corridor one would walk in, but it was quite a different experience. Imagine this tunnel filled with North Korean soldiers carrying weapons running towards South Korea – how bizarre. I’m glad this never happened, as the tunnel was discovered by the South before they could do anything. After we came back up from the tunnel, we then entered a small museum that briefly told us about the info and bits and bobs about the tunnels, and the history of the DMZ.
We then hopped onto our bus and headed to our second stop, Dora Observatory (도라전망대).
There was meant to be a short film to show us, but apparently the machines weren’t working, so instead we had a soldier explaining everything to us in detail, such as the history of the DMZ and what we could see at the observatory. As much as I was very interested in his introduction, I was more drawn to the binoculars on the side, which we could actually see through North Korea. It was such a clear day, and I could actually see Kaesong – North Korea’s 2nd largest city – fairly clearly. This feeling of being able to see the world’s probably most isolated and reclusive nation with my own eyes – is super intangible.
Our next stop was Dorasan Station (도라산역), the northernmost train station in South Korea. There used to be freight trains passing through this station on to North Korea in 2007, but this stopped within a year. So the station has now become a tourist spot, and there is a tourist train that runs daily to and from Seoul.
The station looked quite modern and new to me, but deserted should be the proper word to describe it. It’s a pity that such a relatively-not-small station is virtually not in use – it has at least 4 tracks after all! The concourse is quite big as well (for a station that is basically not in use).
We then stopped at a local restaurant for lunch. The bulgogi we had was…alright to be honest…but that’s not the main point of the tour eh?
Some chillies outside the restaurant, thought this looks interesting. It’s not everyday you get to see loads of chillies lying on the floor innit? 😂
Anyhow, we stopped at another spot for a while where we got to see a bridge (I think it’s called Imjingak?), but somehow my parents and I end up going to the retail complex next to the car park 😂. Anyway I think this is the northernmost area where normal citizens without special permits can access. I don’t remember much about this stop, instead I got excited and that anxiety crept its way to me – because our next stop is the Joint Security Area (JSA), aka probably the reason why I signed up for this tour.
After our coach departed the retail complex, we headed back into the DMZ (had our passports checked again of course), and then straight to Camp Bonifas. While on the way to the Camp, our tour guide kept emphasising that we should behave normal, and she also told us that a tourist danced Gangnam Style in front of one of the soldiers and got arrested. So in sum, we just have to stay calm and not do stupid sh*t.
Before we even entered the Camp, our coach stopped at the gate, and a UN soldier boarded to check our passports and outfit. It felt actually kind of serious. And yet that feeling when you know you’re about to see something that you’ve always wanted to see…that weird mixed feeling.
After a short session on the history of the DMZ at the Camp, we then boarded a UN coach and we’re headed to the JSA. Yeah I know these different places are complicated…hang on…
So the the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) is the buffer zone within the two Koreas, which is roughly 4km (2km for each side) within the border of the North and South Koreas. The 3rd Tunnel, Dora Observatory, and Dorasan Train Station are all within the DMZ. The Joint Security Area (JSA) is basically at the border. And last but not least Camp Bonifas is within the DMZ, but away from the JSA, and it is the base for the UN and South Korean soldiers. (Correct me if I’m wrong!) And there is a souvenir shop too!
I could definitely feel the tension at the JSA. After we got off the bus we were told to stand in two lines, and then walk through the Freedom House fairly quickly to where the photo below was taken:
We weren’t allowed to take any photos until they said we could. And we only had two minutes. So we all took as many pictures as we could within that short time. It was quiet, no one actually talked loud, and obviously the soldiers were watching our every move.
2 minutes’ up, and we entered the blue house. So er…I did go to North Korea. I crossed the border between the two Koreas – aka the table in the middle of the meeting room. As you can see, the flag indicates the border – the left side being South Korea, and the right being North Korea. So yeah, I was in North Korea for maybe 20 seconds, lol.
Anyway, we were only allowed 2-3 minutes in the room, so after that we boarded the UN coach again and returned to Camp Bonifas.
Briefly had a look on the souvenirs, and I bought a North Korean banknote. Now that I’ve come back I have no idea why did I decide to spend 5000 South Korean won on a 1000 North Korean won banknote…well I guess it’s to commemorate this special tour? I guess because as much as I want to visit North Korea in my lifetime, I don’t think I’ll actually go, so that’s perhaps the closest I’ll ever get to feel like going into North Korea.
And then we just boarded our coach, and around an hour later we’re back at the heart of Seoul.
I’ve never been on an organised tour when I go on holiday, and I don’t think I’ll ever join one again. I’m one of those people who like to take their time to explore and look at everything instead of hopping on/off a bus and going to 1000 spots on a day. But signing up for a tour is the only way to visit the DMZ so…we had no choice.
But anyway this tour is definitely a very different experience. You’ve been hearing stuff about the conflict between the two Koreas for years and now you finally have the chance to see it all by yourself! You get to be educated (well mostly from the South Korean perspective, anyway) and seeing the world’s most secretive country with your own eyes is just pretty darn amazing. If you ever get to visit Seoul, you should certainly sign up for one of these tours!
(I know this is a MEGA long post, so congratulations if you’ve made it to here!! YAYYYY 🎉 You definitely deserve a treat so here you are 🍪)
Let me know what do you think, comment below! 🙂
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ANYWAY take care and see ya soon! xx
This is a fascinating glimpse into the DMZ! Thank you so much for sharing your experience.