There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to do a DMZ tour when I went to Seoul. There are two main kinds of DMZ tours. One is a tour of the JSA – or Joint Security Area – which is the heavily secured actual border within the DMZ, and the other tour hits other areas of the DMZ, including some tunnels, a non-operational train station, and other Korean War related sights. Each can be done as a half-day tour, or they can be combined for a full day tour. Given the short amount of time I had in Seoul and the kind-of boring sounding rest of the DMZ, I decided just to do the JSA tour.
I had originally hoped to do it Friday, my first day in Seoul, but it turned out there were no tours due to the Hangul holiday. By the time I realized that, the recommended “USO” tour agency was sold out for the day I wanted, though it really doesn’t matter what tour agency you use for the JSA tour. (And note, the USO tour isn’t actually run by the USO, and hasn’t been for years. The USO just licenses a tour company.) That’s because the JSA tour itself is done by American soldiers stationed at Camp Bonifaz. At 6:45, I checked out of my hotel and left my suitcase and backpack at the concierge. Right on time, a man in a van came and picked me up in a small van, which picked up two other tourists at separate hotels, before dropping us at a rendezvous point, where several different tour companies gathered. There, we waited for a large, mostly-full bus, which the three of us boarded and took to the DMZ.
By the time we hit the road, it was almost 8am. The tour guide gave a good narration of the parts of Seoul we past, followed by a history of the two Koreas and the DMZ.
The guide gave us a little bit of an orientation as we left Seoul, pointing out some sights as we started and then again as we arrived in the DMZ. Established in 1953, originally as a neutral area, but later divided. It took about 45 minutes to arrive to Camp Bonifas, home to the UN command, at the southern end of the JSA. The JSA was established in 1953, originally as a “neutral” area, but that didn’t go so well. So now the border runs right through the JSA. At the Southern end of the JSA, we waited just outside the gates to the U.N.’s Camp Bonifaz (staffed nearly exclusively with U.S. and South Korean soldiers), before a soldier came on board and checked everyone’s passport against the pre-registered list. From there, we were taken to the visitor’s center, where we were combined with another bus tour (the USO one actually) and given a powerpoint on the JSA by one of the American soldiers. He was pretty.
After the presentation we boarded military buses and were driven into the Joint Security Area itself. It’s really hard to explain how weird it is. One thing particularly weird was the refusal of the other tourists to follow simple directions, like, “leave all bags on the bus”, “walk in two straight lines,” “do not point,” “do not take pictures of that,” and “stay 12 inches away from the South Korean border guards. I know I follow the “rules” when traveling more than a lot of people, but when I’m on a hostile border, I think that would be a particularly good time to follow directions.
The first stop was the South Korean Freedom House, built right on one side of the armistice line itself, serving no “official” purpose. As you go out the back door, you are faced with a row of barracks-type buildings, and on the other side of the barracks is the North Korean equivalent of the Freedom House. The only North Korean we saw that day was a guard at that building, though we were told we were certainly being watched by others. North Korea also does run tours from its side. The barracks themselves are different colors, some controlled by the North and some by the South.
These buildings are where armistice agreement-related conferences have been held, hence the name “Conference Row.” The tour takes you into one of the conference rooms. Since it straddles the border, I was in North Korea! (With the warning not to get within 18 inches of the South Korean soldiers who stand at attention.)
From there it was back on the bus to one of the guard towers, passing the Bridge of No Return on the way. The Bridge crosses the border, and had been used for hostage exchanges in the 1950s and 60s, and was the site of an attack on US soldiers in 1976.
At the guard tower (which you’re not allowed to photograph), you can see out into what the North Koreans call “Peace Village,” and the Americans and South Koreans call “Propaganda Village” – a fake city over the border, flying the world’s largest North Korean flag, and which used to broadcast North Korean propaganda from loudspeakers directed at the South. The buildings have been determined to be shells, and no one actually seems to work or live there.
From there, it was back to the Visitors Center for knick knacks and ice cream, before getting back onto the initial bus and getting a low quality “buffet” lunch at a cafeteria. (Vegetarian bibimbap included, bulgogi and drinks for an extra charge.) It seems all the tour groups use that cafeteria, so bring a snack.
That was the last part of the half-day JSA tour, but the bus took us to Imjingak where those of us heading back to the city waited about 10 minutes to get on another bus that had been doing the half-day DMZ/non-JSA tour. Imjingak is a touristy park, complete with a Popeye’s, several memorials related to the war and the not-in-use Freedom Bridge.
My new bus then headed to an “Amethyst factory,” a tourist trap diversion similar to the olive oil factory stop on my Mount Etna tour, or the Ahava factory on my Dead Sea tour. . . serving solely to generate kickbacks for the tour company. I really had no interest, and the “factory” was in an office building in the eastern part of Seoul. Since it was the last stop and walking distance to a metro station, I just snuck away and made my way back home.
It’s unfortunate you can’t arrange a JSA tour directly with the military, because everything but Camp Bonifaz itself is a waste of time and you could rent a car and save several hours. But it’s worth it just for the historical value and knowing you’re at one of the most fragile places on the planet. I dare it say it’s more memorable than a visit to the world’s nicest first class lounge.