Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Visit to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in North Korea!

Believe it or not, despite many visits to South Korea, I've never been to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). I thus found it exciting that my first visit to the DMZ would be on the North Korean side!

We left Pyongyang quite early for the roughly two-hour trip south to the border in what used to be the village of Panmunjom. Today, it's where the Joint Security Area (JSA) is located. The JSA is the place where you can technically cross the border without getting into trouble. And that's where all tours will take you.

On the way, we had to pass through several checkpoints. We were always advised to keep our cameras down since taking photos of the military and military facilities was strictly prohibited.

The group finally arrived at the visitors center where we received a briefing from Korean People's Army (KPA) personnel. There is also a souvenir shop where you can purchase DMZ t-shirts and propaganda posters among others. As soon as we were done, a KPA soldier boarded our bus to escort us into the DMZ.

Our first stop in the DMZ was the North Korea Peace Museum, the very buildings where the Korean Armistice Agreement was negotiated and signed in 1953. The first building we entered was a small hall where the negotiations took place. We were invited to sit down around the table as our guide explained on which side the North Koreans and Americans sat.

The next building, the larger of the two, was where the agreement was signed. The table, chairs and copies of the agreement are still there. Inside the building are photos and memorabilia from the Korean War and the signing Armistice Agreement. The visit was really quick. And the KPA personnel will make sure the last person from the group has exited before the next group is allowed in.

We boarded our bus again to proceed to the Joint Security Area. Ironically, despite the extremely tight security, this is the only place in North Korea where you can take a photo of or have a photo taken with a KPA soldier! So we did!

At the JSA, you will notice main buildings on either side – Panmungak for the DPRK, and Freedom House for South Korea. You will also see the iconic Freedom House Pagoda to the left to the building.  In between these buildings are small conference halls where both sides meet. Those colored blue belong to the DPRK. While the silver ones are those of South Korea.

We entered one of the blue conference halls. And yes, we crossed into South Korea! If you loom out the window, the border is marked by a low concrete boundary. I asked why there were no South Korean soldiers, and our guide said that practice is they disappear when the North has tourists. While the KPA does the same when the South has visitors.

Before leaving for Kaesong, the YPT group went up Panmungak Building to take more photos of the border buildings. Of course, we didn't miss the opportunity to have our photos taken with the soldiers! Lunch was in Kaesong, a North Korean city that was not bombed by the Americans. This explains why its historical core is still intact. In fact, the Historic Monuments and Sites in Kaesong is a World Heritage Site. I'll write another post about that.

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