Panmunjeom DMZ South-North Korea

North Korea! What do you feel when you hear this name? War? Dictator? Oppression? Famine?

So many questions yet so little information. The land generates much interest for tourism but the only way to get inside is through China, and probably provides nothing but lies and deceit. So we decided, while we are just kilometers far from it, to take a tour to “the end of the free world”, listen to untold stories from the this side and see it for ourselves, even it would be just a glimpse, the most mysterious land in the world.

South & North Korea – too many wars and one divided land

We arrived in the early morning at the rendezvous point – Lotte hotel in Seoul and were greeted by 2 Korean women – who would later be our guides. It was obviously the low season – our English group was just with 5 people, and there were other 10 in the Chinese and Japanese groups as well.

Due to strict rules and ever-changing military circumstances, DMZ tours are often cancelled without advance warning; we were told to even be prepared to turn back at the door of the Demilitarized Zone if the soldiers feel it’d not be safe enough for us (Think something along this line: there are more North than South Korean solders at the border currently..).

We drove from Seoul towards the north to the Panmunjeom village – where the Joint Security Area is located, and where all negotiations with the DPRK take place. The plan is to approach the physical border of South and North Korea (under the strict monitoring of the South Korean soldiers) and to visit the negotiation rooms.

It was a bizarre ride for us all. We were just now in one of the most modern cities in the world, allowed to do as we please, and just 50 minutes ride away is a secluded land where all of those rights might be non-existent. Since the border between 2 nations run along multiple S-lines, we were able to glimpse at North Korean territory from the highway. The guide pointed out to us that the North Korean hills are all just brown lumps of soil without trees (!), so as to make sure nothing can be hid there from the authority… Crazily enough, North Korea once carried a surprise attack to Seoul by crossing the frozen river in the winter. Such attempt will now be prevented by mile and mile of wired bar running along the said river.

The guide entertained our ride with emotional stories the divided families and their wishes for unification. Thinking about Vietnam or Germany, we could relate to their feelings. Some of us got lucky and some didn’t. In the end, nothing is sadder than knowing where your loved ones are, but completely unable to get in contact with them… And no one is even trying to help because of political interests dictate them not to.

As we approach the border, the fourth-highest flagpole in the world (2015) soon became in sight, in what is called “the propaganda village“. Do people really live there or is it just a lie? We might never know.

North Korean hills are all just brown lumps of soil without trees, so as to make sure nothing can be hid there from the authority
North Korea as seen from the demilitarized zone in South Korea, Nov 11, 2012. DOD photo by D. Myles Cullen
Kijong-dong village with the fourth-tallest flagpole in the world, viewed from South Korea. Nov 11, 2012. DOD photo by D. Myles Cullen

Panmunjeom (Joint Security Area) – Wudky in the war zone

Technically, the 2 countries are still at war (there was never an official agreement signed by both parties). Oddly enough, there is little to remind tourists of that in other parts of South Korea. In fact, South Korean citizens are often placed in practice emergencies to learn to protect themselves in case of a bomb attack from their northern neighbors. Metro stations are also built to be emergency shelters, should the war resume.

But that blissful ignorance is soon to be wiped away. As soon as we crossed the Freedom Road & Unification Bridge and entered the check point of Panmunjeom, we were greeted by armed soldiers who came to check our identity and belongings, and were switched to a military bus with a new chauffeur. The first thing to see (and one of the few things you are allowed to take pictures of) is a camp building from the United Nation, and is where souvenirs – including money notes, stamps and other artifacts from North Korea (!)- are sold.

Understandably, it was rather restricted about what could be brought into the area, and also what can come into photos. Although it was raining that day, we were grateful enough that we completed the tour without any trouble, and even managed to snatch some shots of North Korean tourists and soldiers too! No videos are allowed, and if you want to keep your phone/camera, better listen very carefully to what you are told, as some people did get their phone confiscated for violating the rules.

The atmosphere is the JSA is rightly solemn. Here and there blood was shed and people were killed, when there was supposed to be a ceased fire. That means the South Koreans are very wary of any strange movement from their Northern peers. All soldiers are armed and wearing sunglasses to avoid eye-contact with the DPRK personnel. It’s bizarre to see it: these people who speak the same language, share the same ancestors, probably eat the same food at home, and live just meters from each other, are prevented from speaking or looking at each other, all because of individuals that are not even alive anymore…

Inside Panmunjeom conference room
Inside JSA conference room
people who speak the same language, share the same ancestors, probably eat the same food at home, and live just meters from each other, are prevented from speaking or looking at each other, all because of individuals that are not even alive anymore…

We were allowed a few minutes in the conference room to take picture. The border line between 2 countries are exactly in the middle of the room, and is marked outside simply by a concrete step. There were only South Korean soldiers inside, who could be easily mistaken as weirdly realistic sculptures standing in Taekwondo stances. We were warned that North Korean soldiers are usually hiding on their side to avoid attention (and possibly to do their secret stuff). But when we stepped outside, something happened…

(..drum rolls)

Arrived a group of tourists and soldiers from North Korea!

A tourist group entered the Panmugak building of North Korea
A tourist group entering the Panmugak building of North Korea. Physical border between 2 countries run cross the middle of the blue houses.

Hoorray!! Mobiles, cameras kept on flashing!

It ended within minutes, but certainly was the most exciting minutes of the tour.

We got ourselves some bank notes from North Korea as souvenirs and returned to the south with the bus, saying goodbye to the solemn Panmunjeom. As we drive by the Bridge of No Return, a great sense of sadness emerged: somewhere around here are soldiers on guard, ready to fire on unexpected entrance, and landmines lurking behind some heavy protective walls. Looking through the heavy rain, we could see an empty lonely road lying there awaiting for people to cross it someday. And hopefully the next time tears are shed here, they will be for joy, for re-unification.

Bridge of no return.jpeg
The lonely Bridge of No Return in the rain – self-explanatory name
hopefully the next time tears are shed here, they will be for joy, for re-unification

Returned to Seoul with a heavy mood, we went to have dinner at with some family members who were living in Seoul. And what a dinner it was! If there is one thing one MUST do in Korea, is surely to eat SEAFOOD! Don’t believe us, look at these GIGANTIC creatures:

Gigantic lobsters from South Korean sea
Gigantic lobsters from South Korean sea. Each of them weight 3kg!

That was a great way to conclude our first Seoul trip! The next day we were off to Gyeongju-si in the South-East of the country, to the nature and the history! Curious to know what happened there? Jump to our stories of Gyeongju!


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