We were shown into a room where we were seated and given a form to sign. The general overview of the document was that we were entering an active military zone and that more or less, they weren’t responsible for our safety should things get hostile during our visit.
Ok, no worries, where do I sign? Is the thought that went through my mind with an air of sarcasm. Before we could ask questions, the lights were dimmed and we were shown a video about the history of conflict between North and South Korea. The video was followed up by a verbal briefing with slides about the JSA, Panmunjeom and what we can expect on our visit.
Following the video and briefing, we were directed outside and onto a military bus to make our way towards the Joint Security Area. The ride was approximately 20 minutes through a wooded area on smooth, paved roads. The bus was quiet and tensions were high as our assigned military officer stood at the front of the bus.
Upon exiting the bus, we were instructed to line up in pairs in a single file fashion and told not to speak. The guard walked up and down the line from each side inspecting our clothing and items we held in our hands. Those that hadn’t followed directions were pulled out of line and given instructions on what to change if they wanted to continue.
The tension in the air was heavy as we were all given approval and then marched in silence to the buildings that stood before us. Once inside the first building, we were inspected again, told to remain silent and to follow all directions while maintaining our formation at all times.
We left this main building in military fashion and exited the backside into the Joint Security Area. A wave of familiarization swept over me, I have seen this place before in many photos and I recognized everything. From the buildings to the paint colors all the way to the soldiers that were guarding the border.
We were marched directly into the main conference room where we were told not to touch anything and to line up around the room. I made my way to the far side, away from the crowd and soldiers that were inside the room and just stared in awe at the building.
It wasn’t long before we were called to attention and in that moment, our military guide explained the meaning of the table that sat before us. Down the middle were several sets of microphones, all lined up to create a border across the center of the table. Just as it dawned on me, the guide pointed at my side of the room and said those of you on that side, are standing in North Korea.
The day began with the usual pickup at our hostel by the tour company where we were ushered to another location to meet up with the tour bus. We were off on an adventure to visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and Joint Security Area (JSA) on the border between North and South Korea.
Naturally, the bus was full and we had one over exuberant guide that felt the need to scream into the microphone at 7 in the morning. The drive to the first stop in the DMZ is around 1.5 hours outside the capital city. Once you leave the city limits, it becomes beautiful open space rather quickly.
Soon after we noticed large fences with varying degrees of barbed wire come into view. It started off soft and then became tall and harsh the closer we got to the river. Just as the questions started rolling through my mind the guide came over the speaker, bless her heart, and began shouting at us about the fences.
On the other side of that river is North Korea. Just as this sank in and I was thinking about how beautiful the riverside was, the first of many guard towers came into view. Standing in them were soldiers with huge automatic weapons. They were guarding the river border of South Korea. It was a chilling site to see that early in the morning and something that set the tone of the trip for us.
The rest of the morning was spent touring through the DMZ before being dropped in a location for our afternoon visit to the Joint Security Area (JSA). When they dropped us, no one else got off the bus. Literally a full coach of people and we were the only ones joining the JSA tour for the afternoon.
Oddly enough, we were shown to a restaurant where we met our guide for the afternoon and several other travelers that were doing the JSA with us. At least we wouldn’t be alone as we conversed with other travelers from Europe and the States over an authentic South Korean noodle dish with more sides then one could ever eat.
After lunch, we loaded up on a coach bus and were driven back into the DMZ area though the original military checkpoint and deeper in the DMZ zone until we reached the military base at Camp Bonifas. This would be the location of our briefing, video and beginning of our visit to the JSA before loading on the bus and heading to Panmunjeom.
When I realized we were standing on the North Korean side of the border I was overcome with such strange thoughts. I didn’t know how I really felt about it, it was hard not to have errant thoughts when we knew so much about the history of that country. For the most part, I knew I was perfectly safe, but something inside me was telling me to stay on my guard.
At the time of our visit, the North Korean Soldiers were not standing at the demarcation line. Three South Korean soldiers stood outside on our side and two stood inside the conference room during our visit. We had the total sum of maybe 10 minutes inside the conference room where we were allowed to take all the photos we wanted as long as we didn’t touch anything or the soldiers.
The ten minutes went fast, in what seemed like 2 minutes the military guides were announcing we needed to finish up and assume our two by two formation to leave the conference room. We were marched swiftly out into the courtyard and onto the steps in front of the main building.
From here, there were several other military personal present, several in USA uniforms and the others in the typical South Korean uniforms. From the top of the stairs we were able to get a view of the entire demarcation line area and a clear view of the North Korean building that was opposite of us.
That’s when I noticed the set of binoculars staring at us from the shadows of the other building. The dark green figure stepped in and out of the shadows in a very precise manner while surveying our group. We were told not to point, signal or show any sort of attention to them.
We were given an opportunity to take photos from within our formation before being ushered back through the main building and onto the bus. They don’t mess around on this visit, you spend no time standing around, visiting or exploring. You have a set program and if you step out of line, you will be sent back to the bus.
As the bus left Panmunjeom we drove through a different area where they pointed out the location of several historical happenings for the JSA. We were told about the times when Panmunjeom was a place where all the soldiers, USA, North and South Korean, had liberty to visit the whole of the complex. Brutal events led to a restructure and what we see at the JSA today. Two sides and a demarcation line so there is no confusion about who can go where.
The bus ride back to Seoul was a quiet one for everyone. We all sat in our seats, staring out the windows completely engrossed in our thoughts about the day. Our visit brought to light that we were in a country that was still at war, that although they were able to have some type of civilized interactions, all that stands is an armistice agreement.
It was a visit that made us thankful that we were born and raised in America. Despite that we don’t always agree with things that are done in America and some of the systems that are in place, travel continues to open our eyes to many other things that are happening around the Globe.
Have you visited Panmunjeom and the JSA during a visit to South Korea?
Check out our other articles from our visit to South Korea: