Trip Start Dec 02, 2011
50Trip End Dec 02, 2012
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I should clarify that even though the tour was called a "DMZ tour", because we did not access Panmumjeom, we did not actually enter the DMZ. Instead, we crossed into the area north of the Imjingang river, which was under strict military control with limited civilian access. This buffer zone around the buffer zone was where many military posts and observation stations had been setup because of restrictions on what was allowed within the DMZ
We signed-up for the tour a few weeks in advance. Then a few days before we were set to go, North Korea started threatening to shell things because it was upset at some US-South Korea naval drills. The drills were on the other side of the peninsula, and North Korea was threatening a specific island with shelling, so there wasn't any reason to call-off our trip despite dire headlines about cross-boarder tension. They were probably just trying to sell newspapers.
So it was on the bus and in surprisingly little time we'd arrived at our first stop, Imjingak (임진각). Imjingak was a tourist area just outside of the civilian restricted line. It contained several monuments to war or reunification or peace, a couple of souvenir shops, an observation deck, a Popeye's, and a kiddy amusement park. Nothing incongruous there. Nope. Luckily it was possible to ignore most of the clutter as the memorials and monuments were all in the same area, set slightly away from the more commercial endeavors. I did buy some North Korean money, though. I'm sure I paid way too much for money with no value, but it was cool.
While neither the tour guide nor any English information at Imjingak made it clear, you couldn't actually see into North Korea from the park. Maybe a few of the mountains way in the distance were in North Korea, but the land on the other side of the river was still in South Korean territory, albeit in the civilian restricted area.
The best part of the stop was probably the area decorated with personal memorials/wishes along the Bridge of Freedom. Although possibly more organized than organic, the mostly hand-made expressions of sympathy and hopes for reunification provided a touching perspective on how some South Koreans felt about the division of the country. Especially nice were the pictures draw by children.
Next was our first actual stop in the civilian restricted area. Passing through the gate was relatively quick and easy on the tour bus. There wasn't a lot of traffic at the checkpoint anyway. Once across the line, we headed right for... souvenir shop number two (or number three, since there were at least two at the first stop) and a lunch break. The food was a traditional Korean meal. Although the main servings were small, they did allow us unlimited refills on side-dishes, so I managed to find plenty to eat
Filled with kimchi, we set-off for the Third Infiltration Tunnel. Since 1974 a series of tunnels dug under the DMZ from the north have been discovered along the border. The first was discovered by South Korean soldiers while they were out patrolling. The tunnel closest to Seoul was the third tunnel to be discovered. After the first tunnel, the South began actively searching for tunnels, although they found the third tunnel via a tip from a defector and not as part of their physical search.
The walk down to the tunnel was steep. Very steep. Probably the steepest ramp I've ever walked down (or up). Certainly the steepest ramp I've ever walked up for 300 meters. A friend pointed out later this was possibly to make it difficult in case any Northern troops actually did try to break through. When we were at the bottom of the ramp, I noticed a group of Japanese tourists off in a side tunnel who had apparently taken a tram down. I'm not sure how you got the tram, but our group was not signed up for it.
No pictures were allowed in the tunnel, but the tunnel itself was really not much to see. It was short (in height, not distance). At 5'6" plus helmet I was just about at the right height to walk without bending over, although I did hit my helmet a few times
After the tunnel, we headed for Dora Observatory. Located on high point next to the southern edge of the DMZ, the observatory overlooked both the DMZ and the area around Gaeseong in North Korea. It was one of the closest observation points to North Korea that was open to tourists.
I found the observation post interesting, but more because I like looking at tiny things far away than for any insights I might have gained into North Korean life. Although there were a few cars running around, the Gaesong industrial area and the set of what appeared to be apartment buildings nearby were fairly deserted. Of course that didn't mean too much by itself because today was freezing and not a good day to be out for a stroll, but I have heard accusations that the apartments are all for show and not actually occupied, at least not around the clock
While you could pay a few won to use mounted binoculars to take a peek, taking a picture of the North was more problematic. Several feet behind the edge of the observatory ran a yellow line you had to stand behind to take pictures. If you were short, the wall and binoculars got in the way. If you, say, grabbed one of the stools by the binoculars and stood on that to take a picture, the guards were not appreciative of your ingenuity. However, if you just happened to be two feet taller than the person standing on the two foot tall stool, that was okay. I think the line was intended to keep North Korean spies from visiting on a tour and taking pictures of the southern side of the DMZ and not because the South cared about tourists taking pictures of the North.
When we were all finished observing, we moved on to our last stop: the Dorasan train station. Built on the edge of the DMZ within the civilian restricted area, the station was restored during the period of South Korea's Sunshine Policy in hopes of reconnecting passenger links between the two halves. For a short time, freight trains were allowed to cross the border along the line
The station, like much of the area, had a ghost-town feel to it, even when packed with a bus-load of tourists. There was an optimistically large, and currently empty, seating area, as well as a unmanned and inactive security equipment intended to check bags headed for the north (I presume). There was also an optimistic display reminding visitors the station could be the link reconnecting the passenger rail links from South Korea all the way to France. That would be a cool trip, but for today we could only by fake "train tickets", which allowed access to the rail platform. I'm pretty sure we would need a different ticket to actually ride the train back to Imjingak as the tickets we got didn't look anything like official Korail tickets.
Overall, the trip mainly served as a reminder of why I hate group tours. Every stop included at least one gift shop, even (especially?) those within the Line of Civilian control itself. On the plus (or at least not a minus) side, on this tour I didn't feel like being in a large group of foreigners isolated me from the local environment since the area was already isolated in the first place.
The tour guide was also disappointingly uninformative. After visiting the War Museum the day before, I was ready to have some of that history put into a physical context out in the real world. Unfortunately, all the guide had to offer was a few of the basic "fun facts" I had already gotten out of my guidebook: residents of the DMZ didn't have to pay taxes or do military service, because there were fewer people in the DMZ it was a great habitat for wildlife (we didn't see any), etc
I'd say the trip was mainly intended for people who wanted to say they'd been "this close" to North Korea, which seemed to be most of the people on the bus. The DMZ wasn't really on my list of must-see places in Korea, so I supposed I didn't have the right mindset coming in anyway. Several of my friends really enjoyed the tour and are already talking of going back. I will give the tour credit for the weirdness factor of visiting a mostly abandoned area, albeit one populated with ample gift shops.
Personally, I wouldn't do it again unless I was escorting a visitor around Korea who really, really wanted to go. I'd also spend the extra money for access to Panmunjeom, but preferably combine with a more informative guide. I think I'd try the USO tour under the theory it would have more people actually interested in military history and not just looking to peak into the North.