South Korea reopens DMZ/JSA tours, allowing visitors to see much more than before
By JOSEPH DITZLER | Stars and Stripes | Published: July 4, 2019
You don’t have to be leader of the free world to visit Panmunjom — the truce village in the Demilitarized Zone where President Donald Trump shook hands June 30 with Kim Jong Un of North Korea.
Numerous tour groups provide opportunities to see the spot where the three-year Korean War ended with an armistice in 1953. Tour companies in the private sector abound, along with military operations like the Force Support Squadron at Osan Air Base and Discover Seoul, a contract tour operator at Dragon Hill Lodge at Yongsan Garrison.
A trip to Panmunjom — the area around the historic U.N.-blue buildings is officially known as the Joint Security Area — is a bit different than it was just a year ago. That’s because South Korean authorities lessened the tight choreography around personal visits as part of their bid to reach some form of normal relations with their northern neighbors.
For example, guards on either side of the line demarking the boundary between North Korea and South Korea no longer carry sidearms. Visitors have a little more opportunity to walk the area, although closely monitored.
Past images from Panmunjom depicted lean, ramrod-straight, uniformed guards from South Korea in mirror shades, stone-faced, arms at sides and fists clenched in a “ready” posture borrowed from taekwondo.
Standing only yards away, their opposite numbers stared back, unimpressed, from the authoritarian North Korea.
But the atmosphere today at the remote, surreal compound surrounded by rice paddies and wilderness is much more relaxed than it was before the South in May reopened its side for public tours.
Our escort from U.S. Forces Korea said that only visitors and guards from one side are in that small but historically heavy area at a time. Neither side coordinates with the other; it just seems to work out that way.
Eight tour groups from the South pass daily through the area. Tour groups from the North are visible to those from the South, awaiting their opportunity to walk around the area, and with luck you might glimpse a line of North Korean troops moving in formation with an arm-swinging gait.
School, civic and business groups from the South schedule their trips to the DMZ months in advance. Our small group was bunched together with a group of journalists from one of South Korea’s largest broadcasters. Their CEO, polished and businesslike in a blue suit, moved like a rock star on tour, accompanied by a photographer who captured the visit for posterity.
You can’t visit the JSA on your own (checkpoints lie between the highway and your destination), but tours can be arranged online. Discover Seoul, for instance, runs tours from the Dragon Hill Lodge at Yongsan Garrison every Thursday and Saturday for $89 per person. Seats are limited, so book in advance, and bring your military ID or passport on the day.
That tour leaves at 7:40 a.m. and returns at 3:30 p.m., and in addition to the JSA also includes a stop at the third infiltration tunnel, a walk along 870 feet of a tunnel dug 240 feet underground by the North Koreans years ago as a means of infiltrating troops into the South.
The tour also stops at a South Korean hilltop observation post with a good view of the opposing side. It also includes the Dorasan train station, the northernmost station in South Korea along the rail line that once connected the two countries.
The tour company also operates a separate half-day tour that omits the JSA and includes only the tunnel, observation post and train station. It leaves the Dragon Hill Lodge at 7:50 a.m. and returns at 1 p.m.
Our trip north by expressway took us past the Seoul skyline, where every skyscraper seems to sprout a crane, the architecture of business climbing always higher. The city skyline eventually gives way to formations of residential towers, whole battalions of them in varying designs, from wide, broad and tall to short, broad and squat.
On the way to a vestige of a crippling war, the passing scenery illustrates the economic progress the South has made in the intervening 66 years, and what’s at stake if the peace does not hold.
The expressway gives way as we exit onto a bridge and a checkpoint, where we’re given a desultory wave-through after an ID check. The asphalt turns to dirt and the narrow road passes through shrubland, forested hills and rough wooden signage for Army ranges.
After 20 minutes, we arrive at the visitors’ center, where we transfer onto a tour bus after a bathroom break, a walk through the second-floor DMZ museum and an introductory video in an air-conditioned auditorium.
The video pushes an optimistic outlook for normal ties between North and South. It’s composed mostly of outtakes from the inter-Korean summit of April 2018, when South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met at the Joint Security Area for talks, handshakes and photo ops.
After the video, we sign forms acknowledging that despite the good feelings all around, this is still a place where things could rapidly go sideways. We also agree to do nothing the North Koreans might use to their advantage as propaganda, such as making faces or hand gestures.
From the visitors’ center, a short bus ride takes us through a gap in a substantial fence topped with serious razor wire and then another mile to the JSA. The fence marks the southern limit of the 2 ½-mile-wide, 160-mile-long DMZ. Beyond the fence are wilderness and rice paddies cultivated by the residents of Taesong-dong, also known as “Freedom Village,” the only South Korean population center inside the DMZ.
Its North Korean counterpart sits less than a mile away on the other side and is visible from the South’s observation post. It’s been dubbed “Propaganda Village” because it’s believed to be largely vacant and just for show.
At the South side of the JSA rise the Peace and Freedom buildings, further expressions of goodwill. Visitors pass through the Freedom House, preceded by a squad of South Korean soldiers trooping out in a column as if changing the guard.
After the summit last year, North and South agreed in principle that visitors should be able to roam the compact area freely, but the North stopped showing up to meetings to iron out the details amid frustration over stalled nuclear talks with the United States. So, the two sides do their own thing.
More sites are available than were previously, but you still may not roam freely, and the guards are there to keep their guests from crossing the line.
They position themselves facing the tourists, who have a few minutes outside before being ushered into one of three one-story, blue buildings with a conference room and a table situated so the demarcation line runs lengthwise down its center. One side, South Korea; the other, North Korea. These are the T-buildings, where face-to-face meetings take place between representatives from both sides.
This setting triggers the selfie urge in even the most restrained individual. The guards block the door leading into North Korea proper, but visitors have a few minutes to lollygag on that side of the room before a terse, barked command that needs no translation prompts us to file back into the sunshine.
Still buzzing from our foray into North Korea, our visit afterward is anticlimactic but still memorable.
Our hosts point out the tree planted by Kim and Moon and the extension to a wooden walkway where the two leaders passed a few minutes in private conversation over tea. The group backtracked to a space several yards south of the line where a monument stands to a South Korean soldier killed during a firefight as a visiting Soviet citizen defected across the line in November 1984. Three North Korean soldiers were also killed.
The walk from Freedom House to the T-buildings, past the memorial tree to the catwalk and back to the soldier’s memorial were added in May when the South resumed the tours.
Previously, visitors were shuttled into the T-building conference room for a few minutes, with time outside for only a few photos straight ahead of the demarcation line, with no shots permitted to the right or left.
After the tour, the bus returns past the rice paddies and the DMZ fence to the visitors’ center, where, alas, the gift shop that once sold mementoes like bits of DMZ barbed wire, North Korean wine and a JSA Lego set is no more. There is a nice tank display, though.
Unlike sites dedicated to events lost to living memory, a trip to the DMZ puts the visitor at the plexus of current events on the Korean Peninsula. This relic of the Cold War is still hot and worth a visit. Just don’t expect a personal greeting by Kim Jong Un.
On the QT
Directions: Several tour companies in South Korea offer trips to the Joint Security Area in the Demilitarized Zone. Tours are available through Discover Seoul at its counter in the Dragon Hill Lodge, Yongsan Garrison.
Times: Most tours to the DMZ are day-long, round trips; a half-day trip skips the JSA but stops at the tunnel, observation post, DMZ museum and the train station.
Costs: Trips advertised at aggregates sites like TripAdvisor run from about $50 to $90. Discover Seoul lists its DMZ excursion at $89 and its half-day trip at $50. The 51st Force Support Squadron at Osan Air Base offers a half-day DMZ and Tunnel No. 3 tour on Saturdays in July with a guide and buffet lunch for $45.
Food: None available at the site, although some tours offer a stop for lunch (at your expense) or for shopping.
Information: Discover Seoul operates from Yongsan Garrison in Seoul. Its DSN number is 315-738-2222; website: www.discoverseoultours.com. It’s open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week. Osan services can be reached by phone at DSN 315-784-4254.