It may not be apparent when you walk the streets of Seoul, but it gets very real as you inch closer to the border. The war isn’t over yet. These barb wires will tell you that some things are not let out, and some things are not welcome.
Not too far away, there’s North Korea.
The Korean DMZ
It’s the 4km-wide buffer zone between the two Koreas, the result of an indefinite truce signed in 1953. Both sides want the same thing – a unified Korea, but with conflicting ideologies. Basically, a stalemate.
Panmunjom is the site of a Joint Security Area (JSA), where diplomatic engagements are held. On any given day, forces from both sides stand in sentry, along the most heavily militarized border in the world. The state of affairs here are generally stable, but then again…
This is where we were headed for a tour. Define (in)tense.
Wear your ID, don’t get shot, plus other reminders
Upon entering the premises, our passports were checked and our visitor ID’s issued. I swear, I’ve never been so obedient about wearing ID’s in my life. For obvious reasons, we were reminded of three things (The 3 rules on how not to be that idiot asking to get shot at the border) – 1.) Mind your hands. 2.) Stay with the group. 3.) Only take pictures of places and structures when allowed by the guide.
To make sure we understood the seriousness of it all, we were asked to sign a waiver, which basically said that we we were entering a hostile territory, and that there’s the possibility of injury, or even death as a direct result of enemy action.
The Military Demarcation Line (the effective border separating the two Koreas) runs along the center of these blue buildings. When meetings are hosted here, representatives from both parties sit on their respective sides. That unassuming concrete slab right there between the two buildings is THE LINE.
We were ushered in to one of the blue buildings. For a few minutes, we were on North Korean soil. Although there weren’t any North Korean officers inside, our bodyguard kept a close watch.
At the time of our visit, there were only two North Korean officers in the entire JSA complex visible to us. However, we were told that more were lurking behind their structures. True enough, we saw three officers peeking from behind the curtains – one of them was taking a video of us. Then right on cue, this girl beside me started pointing at them.
Oh-oh, chills down my spine.
That’s basically the reason for all this silent paranoia. You just don’t know what’s exactly happening on the other side. While everything seems to be calm at the moment, it can all change in a breath.
Of trains and people that can’t go back
At Imjingak Park, just right outside the DMZ, those originally from the north of the border pay their respects to their ancestors by bowing towards their hometown. This is the closest they could get to North Korea without having to apply for a special pass.
Like this train that used to journey north, people have to remain on their respective sides as soon as the lines were drawn. No exchanges of letters, nor phone calls. Just unsent messages written on colorful ribbons tied to barbed wire fences.
The Korean War is on an indefinite pause, one that has lasted for more than 50 years. No one really knows how and when it’s ending. As I sat on the bus, this was my lingering thought.
The view outside slowly changed back to more comfortable and familiar tones. No more fences. Just buildings and urban chaos, that is, Seoul. Danger is imminent, but life has to go on.
- There are three types of DMZ tour packages being offered. One is this tour we took, Panmunjom Joint Security Area Tour, which takes you to the actual border. The second is a tour of other sites within the South Korean side of the DMZ (DMZ Fence, Dorasan rail station, Dora observatory, 3rd Infiltration Tunnel). The third is a combination of the first two tours.
- For JSA tours, best to book weeks in advance as slots easily get filled up. There is a limit to the number of JSA visitors in a day, and there are no scheduled tours on Sundays, Mondays, and holidays.
- We booked the JSA tour with ICSC, which costs about Php 4,000. Our first choice was to book with USO Koridoor, because for the same amount, we would’ve already booked a combined tour of the JSA, Dorasan, and 3rd Tunnel. Take note that we tried to reserve with USO a month in advance, but were already fully booked.
- You will be asked to supply your passport information upon registration. Once your slot is confirmed, make sure to read carefully the instructions in the email.
- For a better appreciation of the DMZ tour, it’s a must that you first visit the War Memorial in Itaewon. (Free entrance. Closed on Mondays and holidays. English tour guides available until 3pm)