Most of the following notes are courtesy our Tour Guide. She gave us a lot of information. Till date, I have not taken a tour where the Tour Guide was not entertaining. I guess it goes with the territory. I didn’t see anyone else having a pad and pen and taking down notes … Hey, that’s me. A travel geek.
– The tour company gave detailed instructions before the tour. Some of the main ones were: (a) Wear trousers and shoes (No shorts and bermudas and definitely no flip-flops, which meant my typical travel attire was a no-no) (b) Bring passport (c) Photography is permitted only in designated areas.
– The tour was a 7AM-5PM affair.
– The level of security was just amazing. Multitude of check-posts, armed guards everywhere etc. There were lots of CCTVs and cameras all around.
– The “Bridge of no return”, depicted in movies like Salt, Die Another Day etc., is shared by North and South Korea. Of course, the movies were all shot with sets. I don’t think DMZ would allow film shooting!
– The MAC room was something. Even the main conference table was divided, half for each country. There were South and North guards in there. It was in the MAC room that I crossed over to “North Korea” 🙂 The MAC room is closed for tourists from the South when North Korean tourists are in there. There have been some MAC room tours which were cancelled because of the presence of North Korean tourists.
– JSA (Joint Security Area) had an original topography, which was altered after the “Axe Incident”, during which a few folks were killed when North Korean troops objected (violently) to the cutting of a tree which was obstructing the view. Two Americans were also killed during the Axe Incident and a monument had been created in their memory. Before the alteration, a South Korean and USA checkpost was surrounded by 3 or more North Korean ones, for example. The JSA also houses a Sports Negotiation Building, where both sides meet to discuss collaboration in sports.
– There was also the Russian tourist incident, when a person ran towards the South Korean delegation shouting for him to be saved. It is an interesting incident to look into.
– JSA Visitor Center was teeming with US Soldiers. One thing with US Soldiers is that they look fit, well groomed and are always polite.
– The Guide told us that the reason the North Korean side of DMZ is so barren and bare of trees is that wood is still used as primary fuel in the North and also North likes a complete and unobstructed view of the South. South Korea side is a big contrast with lots of trees and shrubs.
– I noticed that the soldiers were all wearing sunglasses. On enquiry, it appears that they want to show no emotions to strangers and hence the sunglasses.
– While next to the MAC building, I noticed a North Korean soldier from the other side of DMZ scanning all the tourists with a pair of binoculars. There was also another guy scanning the tourists from beyond a window of a North Korean building.
– Within the DMZ, there is a village called “Freedom Village”. Life in this village is extraordinary. Around 100 farmers live here with their families. They make around 85K USD per year, per family, and they pay no taxes! The disadvantage is that they are heavily monitored and checked. Soldiers accompany them almost all the time, count them regularly and make sure that they are in their homes at night.
– A similar village on the North Korean side is called “Propaganda Village”, for obvious reasons. The village is apparently deserted nowadays.
– The North Korean flag in the DMZ is 160 meters high and is supposedly one of the tallest in the World. The South Korean flag is only 100 meters high. I couldn’t manage a picture of the flag posts.
– There is an Industrial Complex in the North Korean side, which has both South and North Korean workers. Corporations like Samsung, LG etc. have goods made over there. The workers from both sides are heavily monitored and are not meant to interact with each other. The power for the complex comes from, well you guessed right, South Korea. Apparently, the high-tech part of the work is done by the South Koreans.
– There is an interesting story about the founder of the Hyundai corporation. He was originally from North Korea and he left his family to move to the South. Later on in life, he made a trip to the North (for which Hyundai made some fancy bridges and infrastructure) and donated 1001 cows because he had stolen a cow when he originally fled.
– Photography in the DMZ is a pain, to say the least. The Guide/Guards would let the tourists know when/where to take photos and there are not that many areas where pictures are allowed.
– DMZ tours are done in a convoy of vehicles, accompanied by some military vehicles, lest some tourist tries to sneak to the other side. Also, during the tour, we had to walk in 2 lines. Reminded me of school days 🙂
– During the DMZ Tour, I met a Filipino-American teacher (whose husband is from South Africa, working on Hotel projects), from Iowa, who travels the World as a part of her job, a Korean-American Korean language instructor from Santa Cruz, California, who grew up in Busan but has never visited DMZ (!) and his students, (Have you noticed how may of us are not aware of the gems in our own backyard?) and some UAE students from Fujairah who were doing a study tour. One of the students also had a Nikon D5100.
– We had a Korean lunch and it was nice to interact with fellow tourists during the lunch.
– As expected, the North Korean currency notes were a huge hit at the JSA Souvenir Shop, with a long line waiting to purchase the same. I bought a whole set, shelling out some serious USDs.
– “Pan-mun-jom”, when said fast, is a mouthful. Panmunjom is one of the best known tourist destinations in the DMZ.
– DMZ is around 45 Km North-West from Seoul. On the way to DMZ, towards North-West of Seoul, I saw lot of Flats/Apartments and huge complexes with parks and other facilities. Looks like lot of people stay in the suburb areas of Seoul and commute to work. Imagine living next to such a sensitive area. There is even a Seoul Metro station very near to DMZ.
– The 38th Parallel is where the actual North-South border is.
– The 3-4 years of the Korean War is interesting to learn about. During the return trip they played a historical video of the entire conflict. Seoul was occupied by North Korea and China at least 4 times and all 4 times it was recaptured by USA and South Korea. There was a stretch of time when North Korea and China occupied almost 90% of South Korea, except for a small region surrounding Busan (which is at the South-East tip of South Korea).
– ROK (Republic of Korea) is South Korea.
– DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is North Korea.
– South Korea is very critical to the USA due to its strategic location. Else why would they get so involved in the war. Japan colonized entire Korea from 1910-1945 period, after a period when pretty much every military force occupied Korea one after the other. Once USA dropped the Atom Bombs and forced Japan to surrender during WWII, Korea was split into two, North and South, both entities being so ideologically different. Once North Korea and China made the move to occupy South Korea, USA, as it has done throughout history, moved to stop the spread of communism.
– There is a river which runs across the border area. This river is very dangerous to fish in, because of all the mines around. There are guards and check-posts all around.
– There are an estimated 1 Million North Korean troops in the vicinity of the DMZ.
– South Korea has a mandatory 2-year military service. The only way to escape that is to be a national sports figure. The Guide offered that as a reason why South Korea is a powerhouse in sports.
– At various points of the Tour, the passports are checked. The tourists are also given a “JSA Visitor” tag to be worn at all times.
– Tourists are not allowed to click pictures at the stations where passport checks are done.
– Even for such a protected border, there have been many tunnels that were discovered. The tunnels are typically built by the North Koreans and some of the tunnels are so sophisticated that they can move an entire battalion within an hour. The tunnels are ultimately discovered by the South Koreans.
– There was also this incident where 31 North Korean commandos infiltrated and tried to assassin the South Korean President in the Blue House (President’s residence). The operation failed, though. Not sure if it is true, but the Guide was saying that one of the reasons the operation failed was because the commandos were shocked to see the prosperity of the South and lost focus 🙂
Overall, it was a great experience. On to more adventures …