Friday 7 September 2018

Between North and South Korea: Into the DMZ

I was hosted on this visit by the Korea Tourism Organisation.

Today I had the chance to do something I didn't have time for the last time I was in Seoul: visit the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.

The tour run by Panmunjom Travel Centre takes the traveller to a number of sites connected with the border, culminating in a brief visit to the Join Security Area (JSA) itself - the heart of the DMZ, where the two Koreas literally meet in a small 'negotiation village'.

Interestingly, we were joined on the bus by a North Korean defector, a woman who fled the north in 2011 with her daughter. It was fascinating to ask her questions about her life and former country as we headed to our first stop.

This was the Mount Odu Unification Observatory, where one can gaze upon North Korea across the point where the Han and Injin Rivers meet, forming the border at this locality. Across Korea the DMZ is four kilometres wide by agreement; but at riverine sections like this, it narrows significantly so the two countries are only a few hundred metres apart.

We then visited the Freedom Bridge, across which prisoners of war returned after the Korean War ended...

... and nearby, saw this massively damaged locomotive which had been trapped between the opposing forces, and later moved within South Korea as an an emblem of the conflict:

The highlight of the day was the visit to the JSA, a slow process involving barricades, checkpoints and passport checks - even a dress code inspection, as North Korean soldiers used to take photos of sloppily dressed Westerners to use as propaganda with their people.

Finally we stood inside the simple blue conference room at the heart of the zone, constructed so the border literally runs through the centre of the conference table.

We were allowed a few minutes to take photos, as long as we didn't bother the South Korean soldiers who were our escorts and protectors.

Here I am standing briefly within North Korea, with my military protector. The door behind leads to even more North Korea... but I didn't fancy stepping through it.

Our video briefing earlier had, after all, described the JSA as "the most dangerous place in the entire Korean Peninsula."

In the circumstances, I was glad to get out of there in one piece.

Find details of the Premium Panmunjom Tour at this link.

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