As I write this I am in Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok waiting for my transfer flight to Yangon, Myanmar. I haven’t been able to update in the last couple days, but I am hoping to catch up on that now.
On Thursday I spent the day on a tour of Panmunjom (aka JSA – Joint Security Area) as well as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which represent the border of North and South Korea.
We passed through security checkpoints where our passports were checked and then were provided with badges and a waiver to sign.
The first main stop was Panmunjom/JSA. This is the actual line between North and South Korea (or, more specifically, where their sections of the DMZ meet), and it is where the two sides meet to discuss any issues in person.
It was absolutely surreal to look across the border and see a group of tourists in North Korea staring back, as well as to see the North Korean guards within feet of the South Korean guards. (the cement block in the ground between the two building represents the actual border)
The situation was intense. There was a South Korean guard staring at us the whole time making sure we didn’t do anything that would provoke suspicion from the North. We weren’t allowed to take anything that could conceal something (not even a camera case), couldn’t wear shorts or anything that showed shoulder, couldn’t wave, scoff, or do anything that could be used as propaganda by the North (as we were told).
We had about two or three minutes to watch and take pictures. We were then rushed into the blue building to see the actual conference room that is used for discussions. Because visitors to North Korea also enter the building we had to be quick about entering and exiting.
Inside this room is a center conference table that denotes the border. Walking behind the table allowed us to physically enter North Korea. Guards were ever-present.
From here, we went to the Bridge of No Return, which is where a large prisoner-of-war exchange was conducted.
After this, the next major stop was to the last train station in North Korea. The bridge in the picture below is called the Freedom Bridge, which leads to this station. Inside the station itself, there was actually a sign foreshadowing the hope that ticket holders would one day be going to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.
After this we visited a lookout point that points into North Korea. Although sunny, it was hazy, so visibility was not great. If you look closely at the second picture below, you can make out a black flagpole on the left (a North Korean town) and a white flag on the right (the South Korean side).
We concluded the tour by going down into one of the tunnels that the North Koreans were building to try and infiltrate the South. Four tunnels have been found, and we went into tunnel number three. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside!
Overall, I was very surprised about the positive mindset that surrounded the entire border area (at least on the south side). Our tour guide said multiples times that he believes unification will happen soon (within the next ten years). You can see the sign below in the train station.
You can also see this guard post that reads “End of Separation, Beginning of Unification.”
There was even a segment on the environmental preservation in the DMZ and the wildlife “living in harmony.”
It was also interesting to see a t-shirt depicting North and South Korean guards, both smiling next to each other.
Unfortunately some of the playfulness of the area seemed to undercut the gravity that this is a place where two countries still at war come face to face.
I have to jump onto my next flight, so that is all for now, but I hope to post more updates soon. I’ll leave you with one last picture below.
I took this picture near the border – two flowers among a field of blossoms – which reminded me of how North and South Korea are joined at the hip but are in such different situations.