Sunday, October 5, 2014

DMZ Tour: Part 2

Having already visited the DMZ last year but leaving with a feeling of wanting more, I jumped on the opportunity to explore deeper when my friends Ramon and Tammy (and new neighbors!) invited me to join their DMZ + JSA tour on a Saturday in September. The second part of the tour, the JSA – aka Joint Security Area, is the part that I was really eager to see.

We got the good stuff out of the way early. The tour bus drove us through the security checkpoint at the Civiilan Control Line (6km from the DMZ, or 8km from the North Korea border), and a more detailed passport check before exiting the bus at Camp Bonifas for our security briefing. "No one is planning to defect to North Korea today, right?" the American military guard asked. The camp seems to be mostly administered by the US military rather than that of the ROK, though that may have just been because the tour was being offered in English. I didn't see any South Korean civilians in the DMZ, the 4km strip of land which separates democracy from a brutal totalitarian dictatorship.

I was probably not supposed to pose so casually with the ROK soldier

The briefing was an insightful and entertaining view of the history of the JSA, including the infamous "Ax Murder Incident". The JSA is a jointly-administered region inside the DMZ where North Korean and South Korean diplomats meet occasionally to discuss any inter-Korean affiars.

Then we drove in! The JSA is very quiet except for a few soldiers and the tour groups, who are strictly advised to only take pictures in certain directions. When we arrived at the actual room where the diplomatic talks are held, I was disappointed to only see South Korean soldiers, and not their North Korean counterparts as well. The soldiers were standing very straight at attention in a taekwondo pose designed to intimidate, with fists clenched all day. We were told not to get too close. One could view North Korean soldiers at a distance, looking at us and taking occasional pictures it seemed.

After the morning excitement of the JSA, we could have ended the tour there as far as I was concerned, and probably should have. The later features of the tour: The Bridge of No Return, The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, the Dora Observatory and Dorasan Station I had all checked off my list from the previous year. Lunch was a very unsatisfying vegetable bibimbap and the Cosmojin Tour Company socked us with a stupid, tacky visit to an amethyst tourist trap shop at the end of the day. I wish I had either booked just the morning tour or taken the USO tour instead (reputed to be better but more difficult to book).

About 50m from the border. There is a North Korean soldier staring back at us from the entryway of that concrete building.

So I have now ticked all the North Korea boxes I wish to check on my time in Asia. I really have no desire to gamble with my personal safety to go into the country on a tour sanctioned by the "Dear Leader".

In fact, I don't think the DMZ is a box which every tourist to South Korea needs to check. One could save considerable time and expense by visiting the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul. In fact, when my father arrived this week I advised him to do exactly that.

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