So, yesterday we went to the DMZ and the Joint Security Area (the so-called “Truce Village”), on the USO Tour. If you’re visiting Seoul, I would recommend the USO tour — aside from anything else, it appears to be the only one that takes you right to the Joint Security Area (with all those blue huts you see in movies) and to the “Bridge of No Return”.
First, though, we stopped at Tunnel 3, the last of (yes!) three tunnels dug by the North Koreans under the DMZ. They seem to have been discovered more by accident than anything (one was revealed by a defector?), but are extraordinary: quite deep, dug through quite hard rock, and surprisingly large. Although I had to walk like Groucho Marx to get through them… We were joined here by Private Strickland, from North Carolina, an MP whose duties are basically to shepard tours like this one. He and his colleague, MP Pvt Schultz, were both much as you’d expect: well trained, well briefed for the talks they gave us, very muscular, apparently phlegmatic, and fond of wrap-around sunglasses.
Next, we went to Observation Post Dora (“OP Dora”), most of which is either a parking lot, souvenir shop or terrace where we tourists can peer at North Korea. They have coin-operated telescopes (500 Won, approx. 50 cents US or 35 cents in Euro). You can’t really take pictures, though, as there is a photo line several meters back from the edge of the terrace, beyond which photography is prohibited. So everyone lines up and asks their tallest friend to take a picture. Sigh! Not everyone gets the message – one of my travelling companions took one from the edge of the terrace, not having noticed the signs. (I’ve not asked for a copy to put here, as they presumably have reasons for their rules.)
Anyway, next stop was the Dorasan Train Station. The rail line isn’t currently being used, but was built for freight trains to bring supplies to Kaesong Industrial Area, a little north of the border. No passenger trains have ever run through this large and well-equiped passenger terminal.
It really gives you an idea (in case you weren’t on the short bus ride up) just how close Seoul is to the border, and how close the two capitals are.
After that, we had a rather inadequate lunch. I had bibinbap.
Finally, it’s time to head up to the Joint Security Area. Pvt Strickland had earlier encouraged us to use the facilities because, as he repeated a few times, “there are no bathrooms up North” (laughs all around). The picture to the right is of a model in the museum at Tunnel 3, which gives an idea of the layout of the Peace Village. The near side & the blue huts are UN, the far side & white huts on either side are North Korean. The little white markers leading up to the huts from either side mark the line of control, which actually goes through the middle of the huts (not near one end as in the model).
We got off the buses in the parking lot, went through the large UN pavilion (the large building between the parking lot and the blue huts), and into the center of the three blue huts. Both inside and outside the huts were South Korean soldiers (“ROKs” in Pvt. Strickland’s parlance) in taikwondo stances… I’d guess that there might be risks in their absence. On the other side, there was one soldier outside the door to the N.Korean pavilion. As instructed quite clearly by our favorite MP, none of us waved, shouted or made any other forms of communication verbal or non-verbal towards the N.Koreans (Strickland did explain these rules: lest photos / recordings be made that could be use for propaganda). Inside the huts, you could, technically, walk into N. Korea on the far half of the room, as I did for the picture above. Miss F. is pictured with the UN (ROK) soldier blocking the Door To The North in the background.
Here’s a very short film of Panmunjom, or you can just look at the panorama at the top of this blog posting… .. .
After that, we went to another observation post, right on the edge of the JSA where you could see the “Bridge of No Return” and, in the distance, one of the two actual villages permitted in the DMZ (in this case, it is the unpopulated N.Korean village, which has the 2nd or 3rd highest flagpole on earth). Then down to the Bridge itself — it’s just a bridge with a colorful past, not much to see really.
And then home.