Before getting into the logistics of things, I want to clarify what the DMZ is for readers who are unfamiliar with Korean geography and history. The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is the area that extends 2 km from the North-South Korean border on both sides. The DMZ is a civilian-restricted area, so anyone who visit must be part of a tour group. Overall, while the DMZ is heavily secured, the level of tension and security is nowhere close to the JSA/Panmunjom (which I will talk about further down). In order to enter the DMZ, our tour bus had to cross the Unification Bridge, where barricades are strategically placed in various lanes to (what I'm assuming) slow down vehicles intentionally.
While it's a general consensus that North Korea is "bad and evil," I was surprised at the language used in the video at the museum. "They did this to us, they did that..." It took on a more propaganda-like tone instead of a more neutral and academic tone that I expect from a museum. Here are some more memorable lines from the narrator of the video:
"[cue happy music] The DMZ is a paradise for wildlife! [shows montage of flowers blooming and goats eating]"
And the final line of the video: "Until the Korea reunifies, the DMZ will live on FOREVER!"
The observatory is actually located next to a large auditorium-like building for ROK soldiers serving their mandatory conscription. During the 30 minutes that my group was there, I must have seen hundreds of soldiers entering and leaving the building. (It’s still very strange for me to see people my age to serve in the military- maybe it’s because I still see myself as a kid?)
At the observatory, you can hear propaganda and music being blasted from the South Korean side of the border. If you pay 500 won, you could use the binoculars and even try to see into North Korea and try to find North Koreans going about their lives.
As part of my tour, I decided to visit the Joint Security Area (JSA) that is operated by the United Nations Command (UNC). This would give me the opportunity to get as close to the North-South Korean border as possible as a civilian. If you read the news recently, you will know that this is where the North Korean soldier defected to South Korea in mid-November. The JSA is the most difficult way for North Koreans to defect considering that it is highly secured and monitored.
While inside JSA, we were escorted by 2 US soldiers (PFC McDonald and PFC Carroll) serving as part of the UNC. First, we had to sit through a briefing at the JSA Visitors Center (alongside another tour group). The briefing was super quick but very information heavy on the history of the JSA area, including information on Axe Murder Incident and the North Korean Propaganda Village.
From the JSA Visitors Center, we had to switch to UNC buses to enter the more secured portion of JSA. We passed through multiple checkpoints and were not allowed to take photos or record during this portion of the drive. PFC McDonald led our tour group and managed to talk about the JSA the entire 10 minute bus ride to Freedom House (refer to map above). Here are little snippets of his stories:
Petty fights? South Korea was the first to build a flag tower on its side of the border. In response, North Korea built one that was ridiculously taller than South Korea’s tower. Since it was really windy today, the North Korean flag stood out and was really easy to spot.
There are actually civilians who reside inside the DMZ permanently, although the total number of residents is in the 100s. Because these citizens live under heavy restrictions (curfews and checkpoints), they are exempt from many things (such as property taxes) and have special privileges (children can attend any Korean university).
In the photo above, you can see a horizontal concrete slab that is between the two blue buildings; this is the official demarcation line between the two Koreas.
After the end of the JSA tour, I actually chatted a bit with PFC McDonald and Carroll along with another ROK soldier that's part of the UNC. Although our lives are worlds apart, we were able to find common ground in talking about what we missed from home. (PFC McDonald is from Washington state and PFC Carroll is from Florida). I also managed to converse with our tour guide, Lina, from Koridoor Tours. I always find it fascinating to listen and hear about other people's lives- I really think that humanizing everyday people sometimes puts things in perspective.
And while the JSA and the political situation between the two Koreas is a whole different ball game, I'm grateful for the chance to see a place that is so monumental, emotional, and significant in Korean history.
college student. junior. international studies major. over-the-top foodie. travel and lifestyle student blogger?
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