dmz visit south korea JSA border point

DMZ – The Deadly Divide of Korea

Panmunjom JSA - 2006

The De-Militarized Zone is a 4 kilometer-wide no-man’s-land of wilderness, slicing the Korean peninsula in half.

Guarding this split are landmines, surveillance cameras, watchtowers and barbed wire.

And while the DMZ must not hold any serious weaponry, enormous armies and killing machines await easily within reach. Yeah, the DMZ is perpetually the tensest border on the planet.

dmz panmunjom jsa meeting rooms in south korea
Listening to the (mandatory) US Army guide at Panmunjom. Behind are the Military Armistice Commission Buildings, the meeting point for both sides within the JSA – Joint Security Area that’s on the exact border, within the DMZ.

Getting there, I took a USO tour from Seoul.

It’s the only option to travel into the JSA or the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom, inside the DMZ.

Both sides administer this area, where views of the North are clear and where the tensions are only metres away.

My visit to the DMZ occurred a week after North Korea’s first-ever nuclear test, and our guide explained this ‘heightened tension’ to us.

north and souh korean guards at dmz
Guards at the DMZ. LEFT: North Korean officer looks over. RIGHT: South Korean soldier standing rigid.

They created the DMZ after the Korean War

A ceasefire happened in 1953, yet there’s never been a permanent peace agreement signed.

Over the years, many hostile acts have erupted, mostly started by the North.

Despite the ongoing aggravation, reunification of the peninsula is a stated goal of both Koreas.

south korean soldiers dmz south korea
Looking to the north side of the JSA, and a South Korean soldier standing alert in a taekwondo offensive stance – half-behind a building for safety – in view of the North Korean guard on the steps of the concrete building.

Inside the JSA Meeting Room, the US army guide told us if we sat on the official chairs, we would be “physically removed.”

Likewise, if we dashed across to the North, he or the ROK guards would stop us.

So “don’t embarrass yourselves,” were his warning words.

But like, would anyone in this group really defect to the North?

sites dmz visit south korea
LEFT: “The Bridge of No Return”, so named at the end of the Korean War, where prisoner exchanges took place. They were free to choose to go either to the North or South – but to never return, as the country had divided. TOP RIGHT: Site of the “tree cutting incident” in 1976. Here 2 UN / US engineers were murdered with their own axes by North Korean soldiers as they tried to cut down a large tree blocking strategic views of the JSA. Three days later, the UN/US went back in force and removed the tree and here remains the stump/memorial to that incident. BOTTOM LEFT: Inside the Military Armistice Commission meeting room, located exactly on the border, with the room inside each Korea. ‘For our safety’, there are ROK – Republic of Korea – escorts; elite troops with black belts in martial arts (and wearing sunglasses to intimidate the enemy – as they’re required to out-stare them).

Back in the 1970s – during the Cold War – North Korea had prepared tunnels thru solid rock to attack Seoul (inspired by successful Viet-Cong tactics).

These tunnels were discovered and never used.

The North had painted the walls with coal, claiming the tunnels were for mining. But science proved this false.

According to military assessments, it’s thought one tunnel could’ve surged 30,000 troops and artillery towards Seoul within an hour of hostilities.

north korean watchtowers dmz
The DPRK watchtowers of the DMZ.

The USO Tour limits DMZ visitors to 100 per visit

However, you can’t just stroll around or point your camera anywhere.

In fact, very little walking in the DMZ is allowed.

An army jeep escorted the tour buses from the JSA to other points of interest, including an observation point, where we marveled at a vista of North Korea (below).

north korea city view dmz south korea
‘Tourist’ view of the North, from the southern side of the DMZ. Next to the DMZ stands the North Korean settlement of Kijong-dong or Propaganda Village – so-named because of the constant loudspeaker messages broadcast until 2004. According to the guide, this a mock city built for show – without a living population.

Note: the giant flag pole – 160 metres tall to out-do the South village flag-pole at 100 metres high; the North’s flag – flying visible when a good wind catches it – is 30 metres long and one of the world’s biggest and needs to be replaced every 3 months, because of wear and tear, according to the guide.

dmz visit panmunjom jsa south korea
MRP in the JSA of Panmunjom on the DMZ border of South Korea.

POSTSCRIPT: In 2017, I visited the DMZ from North Korea. On the roof terrace of that stern concrete building, I looked over to where I posed this shot in South Korea in 2006.

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