What you can expect... a trip to the DMZ


| September 11, 2014

The demilitarised zone (DMZ) that splits North and South Korea is one of the strangest tourist attractions I have ever been to. It is an important, intriguing and depressing representation of the split between the Korean peninsula – and a visit that should not be missed.

ROK-soldier-in-MAC-conference-room

The most heavily militarised border in the entire world, the DMZ is a buffer zone that stretches 260km from the western to the eastern sides of the peninsula, cutting Korea roughly in half. Created in 1953, it was agreed as part of the Korean Armistice Agreement. All has not been peaceful and there have been a number of incidents over the years. Yet somehow, I was on my way for a full day tour of the South Korean side, headed to explore the Joint Security Area (JSA), Freedom Bridge, the Dora Observatory and more, all located just one hour north of the capital Seoul.

Knowing the history and the stalemate between the two sides, I wasn’t sure what to expect as we drove up to the first checkpoint in a large, air-conditioned bus. A Republic of Korea (ROK) soldier hopped on the bus to check our documentation (all tourists have to bring their passports along), and we were let through without fuss. Crossing the bridge, we reached the second checkpoint, and our bus was boarded by an American soldier working for the UN. This time was more rigorous; he noted our passports, and checked what we were wearing – there is a strict dress code in place for tourists visiting the JSA, as you are in full view of ‘the other side’ – North Korea. Blue jeans, sandals, high heels and short skirts are just some of the items that are banned. You are also unable to bring bags along; everything you would like to take has to fit in your pockets. You won’t see the rest of your items until later that day when the tour has ended.

After a few tense moments we were all cleared and ushered into Camp Bonifas. A UN command military post, it contains bathrooms, a museum, a briefing room and (somewhat strangely), a gift shop.

items-from-the-gift-store

After a thoroughly interesting briefing by the US soldiers on the history of the DMZ, plus a couple more rules for us to adhere to, we all piled into a new bus to experience what it was we were all waiting for – the immediately recognisable JSA, or ‘Truce Village’.

After a few minutes drive, we arrived at Freedom House; the site of an incident where Vasily Matusak, a Soviet visitor on a tour of the North Korean side, defected. Running across into South Korea, the 30-minute gunfight that ensued killed one South Korean ROK soldier, and three soldiers from the North. Matusak survived, and we were told he went on to become an artist in the US. Afterwards, Freedom House and the nearby Sunken Garden were rebuilt in a completely different design, to prevent similar instances from happening again.

Leaving the bus, we walked through Freedom House to the JSA. From here you can clearly see the North Korean side of the DMZ; and where soldiers from each side can stand face-to-face. The tension in this area was palpable. We were given five minutes to take photographs and it felt very surreal; to be acting as – what felt like – a normal tourist, snapping away in a strange and distinctly tense environment.

View-of-the-JSA

We were allowed to enter only one building in this area, the MAC conference room where talks are held between both sides. The long building is split by a table – and the microphones in the middle signify the line between the two countries. When I visited, the building was occupied by two ROK soldiers; there is a rota for which side can use the conference room, dependant on the day of the week. The experience of freely walking across two countries in conflict with each other, and posing for photographs with the unmoving, solemn soldiers was perhaps the most bizarre, remarkable moment of the entire experience.

MAC-conference-room

But there was more. Returning to our faithful bus, we drove past the placard marking where the infamous axe murder incident of 1976 occurred. We were told it was the same spot where a large poplar tree once stood, notorious for becoming overgrown and blocking the view between observation posts. On 18 August 1976, it was scheduled and agreed for trimming by the South, and an 11-man team headed out to do the job.

They were soon interrupted by a team from the North, and ordered to stop. Captain Bonifas, leader of the South Korean squadron, refused – and a larger group of North Korean soldiers arrived, with crowbars and clubs. Again told to stop, Bonifas refused – and Senior Lt. Pak Chul, leader of the North crew, ordered an attack. Only one soldier escaped without injury, and Captain Bonifas, along with colleague Lieutenant Barrett, died from axe wounds.

A few days later, operation Paul Bunyan went ahead, arranged by the UN. It was designed to finally fell the tree, but also planned as a show of force; to intimidate North Korea without further escalating the situation. Fortunately, it was pulled off successfully; and the layout of the JSA has since been redesigned to ensure separation between the two sides.

Another significant site sits nearby – the Bridge of No Return, used for prisoner exchange after the Korean war. POWs either stayed where they were or crossed the bridge, but could not return – effectively deciding where they were to be for the rest of their lives. No longer used, it sits in disrepair.

Bridge-of-No-Return

We then returned to Camp Bonifas, with free time to explore the museum, or purchase souvenirs from the gift shop, including North Korean wine and rice. I wandered upstairs to the small museum, and managed to find a very stereotypical Korean item in a hidden corner. It was a photo machine, one that superimposed you into any image you chose. I returned downstairs to continue the tour with the best souvenir I’ve ever had – a fake photo of myself, fingers held in a peaceful V sign, standing between two Korean soldiers on the Bridge of No Return.

Cox & Kings offers a group tour, the Wonders of South Korea, along with an optional extension to visit the DMZ.

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