“I believe all suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their happiness or satisfaction. Yet true happiness comes from a sense of inner peace and contentment, which in turn must be achieved through the cultivation of altruism, of love and compassion, and elimination of ignorance, selfishness, and greed.” – Dalai Lama XIV
There’s a lot of hype around the DMZ these days. How can there not be? The 38th parallel is the most dangerous, most militarized border in the world. After being there myself, I can say that the hype is real. If you’re skeptical going in and wondering if a tour is worth your time and money, I will confidently say yes – it is. It will not disappoint.
Even if you’re the most paranoid person in the world and think you’re going to get captured by North Korea, I highly recommend doing the tour. Because you’ll see, it’s not like that. Against all qualms and preconceived notions, the tour is actually very safe.
I was lucky enough to have a friend who coordinated the whole thing. He conducted research on each tour company and chose the one with the best reviews, Koridoor Tours. It was a whopping 96,000 won (approx. $82 USD) for the DMZ/JSA & 3rd Tunnel Tour, but like I said – worth every penny.
What to expect
We had to wake up at the crack of dawn. We left our hostel at 6:30am to get to Camp Kim around 7:00am. It takes about 1 hour to get from Camp Kim to Camp Bonifas, so excluding travel time, the tour went from approximately 8:30am to 3:00pm.
1 | JSA – Panmunjom
We arrived at Camp Bonifas and were escorted by a member of the U.S. military into the JSA Visitor Center for a presentation and briefing. It was a 15 minute jam-packed history lesson that we all found very intriguing, but nearly impossible to fully absorb. The dude was talking at the speed of lightening and in a monotone voice, so the combination of the two was a recipe for disaster. I got the sense that he has done this far more than once and has, what seemed like, a 20 page monologue memorized to a tee. Luckily the information he presented wasn’t anything you can’t search on Google.
After the briefing, they loaded us onto another bus and drove us up to the JSA area, also known as Panmunjom (판문점). Upon arrival we walked through the Freedom House and entered the infamous area where the North and South stare at each other all day long and engage in propaganda warfare. This consists of the North broadcasting Kim Jong Un’s anti-anyone-other-than-himself messages and North Korean music and the South blaring K-pop.
The tension was palpable. I’m surprised I even managed to snap this picture. There were so many restrictions of what we could and couldn’t take pictures of throughout the tour that I resorted to a much more cautious approach, especially while at the Joint Security Area. The man in the brown uniform is a North Korean soldier. You can see him standing in the door frame of the white building in the near distance. His expression and features appeared stoic as he stood there, lifeless. In the few minutes we had to snap pictures, physical and mental, and absorb the overwhelming immensity of this place, I imagined life beyond the border. I began to think of this divide at the 38th parallel as a time portal, almost as if this man I was staring at was a man from the past. That behind this man, this building, and this divide is a world that has come to an abrupt halt; a world where time has ceased to exist and tomorrow is the same as yesterday.
2 | Lunch
Lunch was Korean style. The two options were bibimbap (비빔밥) and bulgolgi (불고기). Obviously I chose the bibimbap, which is a vegetarian friendly option, and it was scrumptious.
3 | Dora Observatory
The fog made it difficult to see anything in the distance, but we were able to make out a couple of things using the binoculars. The most notable area that I found interesting was the propaganda village called Kijong-dong, also known as the Peace Village. It’s best described as a Hollywood movie set. You can read more about the Peace Village here.
4 | DMZ Theater & 3rd Infiltration Tunnel
At this stop we watched a 7 minute video about the DMZ. The main focus was on the infiltration tunnels, but they somehow managed to juxtapose the tunnels with nature shots and a voiceover praising the majestic beauty of the DMZ – needless to say, we all left that video kind of confused.
Following the video, we had the option to walk underground into the 3rd infiltration tunnel. At this point you should note that leading up to the tour I was only really anxious about the JSA (even though we’re decently protected by the ROK soldiers and the other soldiers on our side)…I hadn’t even thought about the tunnel. Oddly enough, I found myself more nervous about the tunnel than I was about the JSA. I think it was the mere fact that we were walking underground into an enclosed area. The concept of the unknown down there seemed daunting.
It ended up being perfectly safe and despite having to make the taxing journey back up the steep incline, it ended up being a neat experience. No pictures were allowed in the tunnel, so we really felt the pressure to visually take in everything around us. It felt surreal to be walking on the same ground North Koreans once occupied.
5 | Dorasan Station
Dorasan Station concluded our tour. This train station is seen as promising to Koreans who hold onto the idea of reunification. It’s the furthest you can go on the train before entering into North Korea. A couple years back, they restored the railroad so that North and South Korea would be connected. The train doesn’t operate today, but hypothetically you could enter North Korea by train.
To enter the platform itself, you had to pay 1,000 won (approx. $1 USD). We paid the 1,000 and initially weren’t quite certain about what we were supposed to be looking at. We saw the train tracks and our reactions were, great…we’re staring at a train station. As we walked further we could see that there were exhibits to look at, almost like a mini “reunification” museum. Among the things to look at were pictures, a piece of the Berlin wall, and a map of Europe and Asia showing how easily people could potentially travel by train if reunification were to happen. Until that day, South Korea is essentially an “island.”
This station is immensely significant, so I took a moment to stop and ponder while standing on the platform. It serves as a symbol of hope for Korea’s future; a light at the end of the cold, dark tunnel.
Why you should book your tour today
Listen, the tour is about more than just seeing a North Korean soldier (although that is a huge appeal). It’s about being a well-informed and experienced world citizen and understanding Korea’s past and current struggles. It’s about empathizing with this country and all they’ve endured. It’s about seeing history in the making and becoming aware of human rights issues and social injustices across the globe.
I can only speak for myself, but seeing the border with my own eyes and imagining what life is like beyond the 38th parallel was enough to fuel my desire to take action and help restore humanity north of the border. I’ve known about Liberty in North Korea‘s work for over a year now and it’s an organization I’m deeply moved by. The tour has inspired me to become a part of the solution by donating and promoting LiNK’s mission rather than continuing to sit in silence.
It’s something only you can experience and witness with your own eyes. Book your tour today and…who knows, perhaps it’ll inspire you as much as it inspired me.
Learn. Experience. Take action.
This article was created for EPIK e-Press.