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Part 2 – DMZ and JSA day tour

7. Dora Observatory

Dora Observatory.

Dora Observatory.

Continuing on from DMZ and JSA day tour part 1, we left the 3rd tunnel and headed over to the Dora Observatory, which is situated on top of Mount Dora. It looks across the Demilitarized Zone and with the help of the binoculars you will be able to see the North Korean propaganda village. The proper name for the village is Kijong-dong, known as Peace Village in North Korea. But the West and South Korea refer it to as the propaganda village because the village isn’t actually populated. With the aid of powerful telescopic lenses, the buildings were seen as just a shell without any windows or even interior rooms.

'Peace Village'.

‘Peace Village’.

Wide angle shot of 'Peace Village'.

Wide angle shot of ‘Peace Village’.

North Korea flag pole at 'Peace Village'.

North Korea flag pole at ‘Peace Village’.

And of course, the famous North Korean flagpole. The story behind the flagpole is that in 1980’s the South Korean government built a 98 meter tall flagpole in the Demilitarize Zone. The North Koreans quickly responded to this by quickly erecting a 160 meter tall flagpole. It was considered the tallest flagpole at that time, however the world’s tallest flagpole is now in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

North and South Korea flagpoles standing tall in DMZ.

North and South Korea flagpoles standing tall in DMZ.

The photo above was taken using  the Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III lens. It was taken in multiple shots and stitched into one.

Looking at these photos, I sometimes wonder what life is really like over there? What do North Koreans know about the outside world.

For more photos, please visit my flickr account. Check it out at http://bit.ly/1J2mKav.

8. Camp Bonifas – Passport check – JSA Visitor Center – Slideshows and briefing

Camp Bonifas.

Camp Bonifas.

The highlight of the day was our last stop. Before proceeding into the Joint Security Area (JSA) we had to go through another check point. This time round, an American officer came on board the bus and checked each individual’s passport. From this point onwards the tour was then guided by the American officer and his surname was Angel. We had to follow his strict instructions throughout the tour. We were driven to the JSA Visitor Center for another briefing, a history lesson and then handed a Visitor Declaration form to read and sign. The form basically states that they will not be liable if North Korea decides to attack – they are always on alert and there is always a high possibility of an attack.

JSA Visitor Center.

JSA Visitor Center.

Declaration Form.

Declaration Form.

Once the briefing and form was signed we boarded the JSA bus and was driven to the Freedom House. Unfortunately due to security reasons, no photos were allowed at this point until we got to the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission (UNCMAC) building (the “blue huts”). The United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission (UNCMAC) was established in July 1953 at the end of the Korean War to supervise the Korean Armistice Agreement and has been operating ever since. They are considered to be the middle men when North and South Korea come together to discuss matters. They are there to ensure that both sides are following the rules of the game.

Freedom house is a large two or three story building. We needed to walk into the building to get access to the UNCMAC building. As far as I can recall it was quite empty inside and we were not allowed to wonder off inside the building. We were instructed to file together and form two lines starting from the top of stairs inside the building and to follow the American G.I. closely.

We all walked in a near orderly manner upstairs inside the building where we came to the outside deck of the Freedom House. From where we stood, we could see North Korea and a few North Koreans. Again we were repeatedly asked to follow all the instructions and not to deviate – no photography pointing into the South Korean direction was allowed due to security reasons, however we were told to take as many photos of North Korea direction – the G.I jokingly mentioned to hash tag all photos on Instagram. We were given several minutes to take photos of the UNCMAC buildings.

UNCMAC Buildings.

UNCMAC Buildings.

Panmunjom is only approx 800 meters in diameter. Designated as the Joint Security Area (JSA) between the U.N. and North Korea, it is outside administrative control of South and North Korea. The U.N. and North Korea sides each operate 6 guard posts and 35 security guards reside inside.

North Korea side.

North Korea side.

North Korean army on guard and a spy (to the left window).

North Korean army on guard and a spy (to the left window).

North Korean soldiers?

North Korean soldiers?

While we were there, we saw that the North Koreans had some visitors too. They looked relax and enjoyed looking over at us 🙂

We were  given less than 10 minutes inside the UNCMA building where there were two South Korean officers guarding inside and was told that they are both highly skilled in taekwondo, so do not mess with them. We were told not to touch or move anything inside the building. These rooms are used for any negotiations between North and South Korea. The United Nations officers will sit in to ensure that both parties behave and there is no foul play – a mini argument may lead to a nuclear attack from the North Koreans @_@

Inside UNCMA room.

Inside UNCMA room.

JSA soldier standing guard.

JSA soldier standing guard.

JSA soldier standing guard.

JSA soldier standing guard.

The middle line. Which side is North Korea? Have a guess :)

The middle line. Which side is North Korea? Have a guess 🙂

We have now officially crossed over into North Korea via the blue hut – I can now say that I have been to North Korea and for a total of 7 minutes 🙂 This part of the tour was really intense as we had to be on alert at all times as we were in a hostile place.

After spending 7 minutes inside the room and taking photos we were taken back on to the bus and driven to the “axe murder” incident spot where the North Korean soldiers attacked the South Korean and United Nations officers while they were chopping down a tree to have a visible view into North Korea. We had a few minutes stop at the UN Guard Post 3 and then driven to the Bridge of No Return.

Axe murder incident spot.

Axe murder incident spot.

From April 20th to September 24th 1953, the UNC and the Communist forces repatriated prisoners of war (POWs) via Panmunjom. The soldiers crossed “Nulmoon Bridge” over the Sachon River west of the JSA. Since then, people have called it the “Bridge of No Return” – remembering how the soldiers could not come back once they have crossed over.

A glimpse of the Bridge of No Return.

A glimpse of the Bridge of No Return.

Bridge of No Return.

Bridge of No Return.

When we got back to the JSA Visitor Center we had some free time so we went upstairs to peruse the museum. One of the displays was part of the actual tree from the Axe Murder incident. The signed declaration between North and South Korean – most probably a replica. Many photos and documents of the history between North and South Korea were on display.

JSA Center.

JSA Center.

About 5 pm we left the DMZ area and headed back to Seoul. As we drove out of the DMZ, we passed a village called Tae Sung Dong (TSD) known as Freedom Village and is where the South Korean flagpole stands. Access to the village is strictly limited, it has roughly 226 residents and they all must abide by the rules implemented. One of the perks living of there is that you pay no tax, however to live there you are either originally a resident or a direct descendant of one of the villagers who was living there when the Armistice was signed to end the Korean War. However, it is not one the safest place to live. There have been a few incidents of North Korean soldiers kidnapping villagers or homes being ransacked for food. If you are interested, there is a blog called “thelilcorn” by a  one of the residents in the village. Here is a link to one of her post about life in Tae Sung Dong.

So I have made it without any incidents 🙂 We reached Itaewon around 7pm. It took longer than expected as there was a bit of traffic. From there everyone makes their way home – the subway is the best transportation to get home.

Verdict

Overall the tour was good. There were intense moments and is surreal when you are there. It is amazing how you are in one country and it can be so different – leaving the bustling city of Seoul and travelling to a war zone area and knowing that it is not a very long drive to get to. I learnt quite a bit about the history of both nations. The bus ride was comfortable. The lunch was good – can be better. Would have been better if there was no money handling during the tour. As I like to take photos, I would have liked to have an extra 10 minutes at each stop – perhaps an earlier start time. One thing was missing from the tour was Imjingak Park. I did not realise that this was missed until I got back home.

Overall, I highly recommend a day tour to the DMZ as you will get a glimpse into the closed nation of North Korea.

It is still shocking to see a nation still at war even though it ended in the 1950s. I hope that one day both nations will be united as one, much like East and West Germany. If they can do it, I think North and South Korea will be able to do it too.

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Click here for more photos of the tour at my Flickr account

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