Korean DMZ

I realized I failed to publish two travelogues from our time in Seoul, South Korea, in October 2016, so I’m adding them now, but back-dating them so they will be in chronological order on Wanderwiles. -Tamara, 12/5/2016:

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Memorial and prayer ribbons tied to a fence in Imjingak Park

Visiting the Demilitarized Zone (“DMZ”) between North and South Korea was high on my list of things to do in Seoul. At this time, access to the DMZ requires booking an organized tour; you cannot visit on your own. After doing some research on tour providers, I chose Koridoor. Not only was their price competitive, but I liked that they worked with the USO and coordinated with the US Army so that there was an opportunity to hear from US soldiers stationed in South Korea. Koridoor offers two DMZ tours plus tours to other places in South Korea. I opted for the longer JSA/DMZ tour which includes the Joint Security Area. Knowing this tour is extremely popular, I booked a couple of months before we were to be in Seoul. The tour was scheduled to run from 10am-6:30pm and cost $92/civilian adult and $65 for US military personnel. Unfortunately, before we even left the States, I received an urgent email telling me there would be no JSA tours during the week we were to be in Seoul due to some “operational reason in” the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission (UNCMAC). This situation effected all tours to the JSA, not just Koridoor. With no other options, I rebooked for the DMZ Half-Day Tour for $41pp. Our new itinerary was as follows:

  • 08:00 : Departure from Camp Kim USO
  • 08:50 : Unification Bridge
  • 09:00 : Dora Observatory
  • 10:15  : The 3rd infiltration Tunnel
  • 10:50 : Dorasan Station – Free admission (Optional : Admission to platform – extra 1,000KRW in cash)
  • 11:20 : Lunch at the Korean Restaurant (not included)
  • 12:20 : Imjingak Park
  • 14:00 : Arrive at Camp Kim USO

The morning of the tour, David and I caught the Seoul subway from Seoul station one stop to Sookmyung University station. From there, it’s an easy walk to the USO office which sits just in front of the US Army’s Camp Kim.

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We arrived on time to find the waiting area full. This is a popular tour! I realized en route that I’d forgotten to bring our passports and was really worried that we’d be turned away. Thankfully, the photos of our passports we keep on our phones were good enough. Judging by the crowd there, I’m pretty sure rebooking for another day would have been impossible. I also doubt the photos would have been good enough if we’d still been booked on the JSA portion of the tour. Whew!

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In the USO, waiting to board the tour buses

It turned out there were two buses in use for the day’s tour. We were assigned bus “B” when we checked in, and not long afterward we were invited to board the bus parked on the road out front.

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Barbed wire and our first peek at North Korea from the bus en route to the DMZ

We passed over the Unification Bridge without incident, zigzagging through barriers set up to slow the speed of vehicles. Our tour guide gave the guards a list of our names, nationalities and passport numbers and that was it. After passing a South Korean military base, we arrived at the Dora Observatory, exiting the bus to walk past a group of South Korean soldiers apparently just taking in the view themselves.

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We brought our own binoculars, but there were options: A long row of pay binoculars lined the observatory deck, allowing tourists to look across the DMZ to North Korean observation towers so we could watch them watching us watching them…

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Our next stop was the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel and DMZ museum. The small museum has models of the DMZ and four North Korean-built tunnels into South Korea, videos, relics and life-size recreations of tunneling. Following tips from a North Korean defector, the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, considered the most dangerous to South Korea, was discovered in 1978 when water injected into the ground erupted into a geyser. In keeping with the hostile relationship between the two Koreas, each side claims the other dug the tunnel(s), but it seems pretty obvious the 3rd tunnel as well as the other three are North Korean creations.

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DMZ Museum and reunification monument
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Museum display showing how the tunnels were made, digging holes to insert dynamite
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In front of the building housing the entrance to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel

The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel has a very steep descent followed by a low ceiling. You have to put your belongings in a locker and no cameras or photography of any kind is allowed. Hard hats are required and we soon discovered why: The thwocking sound of hats hitting the low rocks over head came regularly throughout our visit. There are lots of warnings for people with mobility, breathing or claustrophobia issues and they should be taken seriously. It’s a steep–but relatively wide and modern–hike down to the rough rock tunnel where there’s nowhere to step aside or straighten up once you’re at the bottom. It’s also cool down there, too, about 50°F/11°C. Info at the museum and from our guide claims that 30,000 troops could move through the tunnel/hour. We found that hard to believe.

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Passing through security to enter the descent to the tunnel. (Yellow hard hats are on the wall inside.)

Our next stop was a weird one: the Dorasan train station. The station was built to facilitate trade and transportation between the two Koreas during a brief warming period. The big, modern station was the last stop in South Korea and was actually operational for a short period, but is now closed for all business save the kind we were there for.

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A tour group in Dorasan station

You can buy a 1000 won ticket that lets you pass through a turnstile and walk along the track. At about 86 cents, we figured “Why not?,” but it’s an underwhelming experience.

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Unused tracks quai at Dorasan station

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Lunch at a “Korean restaurant” turned out to be lunch at an institutional-type cafeteria located upstairs in a building housing the Inter Korean Transit Office.

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The Dora Restaurant is upstairs to the right

We had two options for meals, and David and I both went for traditional bimimbap which is sort of the national dish of Korea. “Bimimbap” means “mixed rice” and we put our own bimimbap together from ingredients laid out buffet-style, topping a bowl of white rice with namul (seasoned vegetables), gochujang (a spicy chili sauce), soy sauce, etc. Sometimes you get a raw or fried egg and/or sliced meat. When we finished, we bused our own table, carrying our trays to the cafeteria ladies behind a counter in the back. It really was an uninspiring lunch. Maybe they were going for an authentic “military” experience?

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The Dora Restaurant, an institutional-style cafeteria for lunch; bus your own plates to the counter in the back
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Bimimbap

Our final stop was Imjingak Park. Bizarrely, an amusement park sits to one side of the more somber memorial areas of Imjingak Park. The park was built to console those who couldn’t return to their hometowns and families. It contains the wooden “Freedom Bridge” a former railroad bridge that was used to repatriate POWs returning from North Korea.

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Freedom Bridge
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Tributes and messages left at the end of the Freedom Bridge nearest North Korea

A dilapidated train is preserved in the park, badly damaged by artillery fire. Along one side of the old track, a barbed wire-topped fence is covered with ribbons representing prayers, memorials and wishes for peace. [See top photo.]

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War-battered train at Imjingak Park
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Now unused railroad bridge to North Korea as seen from Imjingak Park

Another unusual tribute interested David and me; it is in honor of a television show we’d seen depicted in the popular Korean movie, “Ode to My Father.” The television show, known as “Reuniting Korean Families” or “Search for Dispersed Families” in English, was created 30 years after the Korean War as a way for separated family members to find each other. People came to be filmed holding placards describing family members, places and/or details they could remember. Many were children at the time of the war, some who couldn’t even remember their parents’ names. More than 10,000 families were reunited via the show. There’s plenty out there on it for those interested, but here’s a link to get you started: https://www.koreabang.com/2013/pictures/photos-in-1983-all-of-korea-was-crying.html

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Tribute to the “Search for Dispersed Families” television show with photos of the show around the perimeter

Leaving the park, we headed back to Seoul. It was an interesting day that I wouldn’t have missed so long as we were in Seoul, but I also can’t put it anywhere near the top of things South Korea or even Seoul itself has to offer. I would have liked to have done the JSA portion of the tour, but it’s a troubled area and interferences with these tours shouldn’t be too surprising. From what I saw, most of the tours looked very similar (and things can get crowded because of that). Koridoor offers one of the best deals and I like the idea of USO involvement although we didn’t get to hear from US military personnel due to the UNCMAC-induced change of plans. In sum, if you’re in Seoul and have the time, by all means go to the DMZ. If you don’t have the time, don’t worry about it.

You can learn more about Koridoor’s DMZ and other tours at: http://www.koridoor.co.kr/bbs/board.php?bo_table=travelInfo

 

 

 

 

Comments and questions are welcome!