In the beginning of August, we took a tour of the JSA (Joint Security Area) at the North/South Korean border. It’s about a 45 minute drive from Seoul to get to the DMZ. As a regular citizen, you can’t just visit unless you’re with a tour. We were only allowed to take pictures in certain areas, so that’s why this post will have more writing than normal to describe the experience. We took this tour just 5 days after the land mine incident where 2 South Korean soldiers were injured while on their normal guard duties. At the time, our tour guide told us that rain carried the land mines to a different spot where they were stepped on by the soldiers. Currently, tensions are high as the South is blaming the North for deliberately planting the land mines.
We left from Lotte Hotel in Seoul around 8:00am on a Saturday morning. For the most part, we stayed on one highway that kept taking us farther north. Things felt a little eerie the closer we got. About 20 minutes into the drive, we could see the river that separated North from South, and got a steady view of the “other” Korea. We started to see guard posts consistently spaced out for the military to keep watch over the North. Barbed wire covered the fence along the highway. This was to keep enemies from the North from crossing the frozen river in the winter and climbing the fence. This had happened in the past before the barbed wire was up.
As we approached the entrance to the JSA, we saw Daeseong-dong (“Freedom Village”), which is 1 mile south of the Bridge of No Return. This is the only civilian habitation within the southern portion of the DMZ.
Here’s the Bridge of No Return. It crosses the MDL (Military Demarcation Line) between North and South Korea. They used this bridge for prisoner exchanges at the end of the Korean War in 1953.
Sitting opposite Daeseong-dong on the North Korean side of the DMZ, is Kijong-dong. When viewed from the South Korean side, it looks like any normal town with apartments, a hospital, schools, etc. In reality, it’s a fake “town” built to compete with the South’s Daeseong-dong. The buildings and apartments are not real and are not in use. No one lives here and it’s purely for show.
This is Daeseong-dong.
Only a small number (around 200) of South Korean residents live here and they are some very well-paid farmers. The residents here are exempt from paying taxes and having to serve in the military. Serving about 2 years in the military is required for all other South Korean males. Newcomers cannot just move in. Women who marry men that are already residents of Freedom Village are allowed to move in. Men who marry women of Freedom Village are not allowed to move in. Residents have a curfew and must be inside with their windows and doors bolted by a certain time each night. For their safety, the village is kept under watch by the military.
Here’s the North Korean fake town of Kijong-dong opposite Freedom Village. They even had to build a flagpole bigger and better than the one in Freedom Village.
Photos by Edward Johnson
IMCOM- Korea Region, Public Affairs Officer
U.S. Army Official Photograph
Our tour guide said that the mountains on the South Korean side were always greener than the mountains on the North side because the North must cut down many trees each year. They use the wood for heating in the winter since the people outside of Pyongyang have no electric heating system.
Our first stop was Camp Bonifas where we got a briefing before heading to the conference room. We also had to sign a waiver acknowledging the dangers in touring the JSA. Even though we knew the chances of anything happening to us were slim to none, it was still a little unnerving signing something that had the words “possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action” in it.
Camp Bonifas is named in honor of US Army Captain Arthur G. Bonifas who was killed by North Korean soldiers in the “Axe Murder Incident” while cutting down a tree.
After having a soldier come on our bus, look at our passports and inspect our outfits, we were given the “OK” to proceed.
We weren’t allowed to take any pictures until we got to the area outside the conference room facing North Korea. We got off the bus and all congregated inside a building to hear the rules before stepping outside to go to the conference room. We were not to point, wave, or show any gesture while facing the North. We were to only take pictures and videos when they said we could and we had to stand still until they told us we could walk forward. We could not take any pictures or videos facing South Korea, only North. Everyone stayed silent as we walked outside. It was creepily silent at the border, except for buzzing crickets. The South Korean soldiers stood guard with their fists clenched facing the North at all times.
Here’s our own video of the border. The grey building is North Korea’s. The ground with the tan dirt is also North Korea’s.
Jared was the only kid in the whole tour. Not many 14 year old American kids can say they’ve been to the JSA and stepped foot in North Korea! Dad took a video of the North, but went too far on either side and got a minuscule view of the South in his video. Our designated South Korean soldier quickly walked over and asked to see his video. After watching it, he deleted it and told him he couldn’t have even the slightest bit of the South’s side in his video. He wasn’t angry or mean about it, he was just following the rules. He was very nice and let Dad take another video.
This is what we got to see. These pictures are outside the blue conference room in the middle facing North Korea. The conference room is where the dividing line is and where everyone on the tour gets to step over the line into North Korea. We would go there a few minutes after we took these pictures.
Here, you can see a North Korean soldier staring back at us outside their grey building.
Next, we were told to line up in single-file so we could go into the conference room. This is where North and South Korea hold important meetings together. One side of the room is the North’s side and the other is the South’s side. Being first in the single-file line meant we had to enter and go to the back of the conference room, North Korea’s side. So we were pretty much as far into the North as anyone could go! The door behind us in the pictures you’re about to see leads right outside to the North. Although we had a guard standing by us for protection, Lyndsey still had to keep looking over her shoulder to make sure no one was going to come through that door behind us…Haha.
Here’s a picture of our position in the conference room. The side with the dirt is North Korea’s side. Supposedly, the North didn’t want to put rocks on the ground like the South’s side because it’s the sacred ground of their Supreme Leader.
After a few minutes of snapping pictures and taking it all in, we were ushered out of the conference room and that was it. It may have only been a very short time, but it was the experience of a lifetime getting to visit and step foot in what has been called ‘the scariest place on earth’.
We bought some DPRK money and a shot glass at the visitor’s center. Kim Il Sung is on the face of the 100 won note.
These sunglasses the soldiers wear can make you look tough!
After leaving the JSA, we went to Imjingak. It’s a 3-story building with restaurants and an observatory about 7 km away from the DMZ. It was built in 1972 with the hopes that unification would someday be possible. Imjingak is surrounded by some monuments, Unification Park, and North Korea Center.
From the observatory, you can see the railroad tracks that used to be in operation to bring supplies to the North.
On our way back to Seoul, we were taken to a traditional Korean restaurant as part of the tour and they served us a nice lunch. Dad and Jared got to have some real Korean food!
Because of recent events, South and North Korean officials are currently holding important meetings at Panmunjom inside the DMZ right where we visited.