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A trip to the DMZ

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"The scariest place on earth" - Former US President, Bill Clinton, during his visit to the DMZ in 1993.

The DMZ was established by the Korean Armistice Agreement to serve as a buffer zone between North Korea and South Korea. It is a border barrier that divides the Korean Peninsula roughly in half. It was created by agreement between North Korea, China and the United Nations Command in 1953.

I was a big fan of Michael Palin's travel series 'Full Circle' and remembered an episode when he visited the DMZ from South Korea. DMZ is the abbreviation for 'demilitatised zone' and it's a bit of a misnomer, as it's regarded to be the most dangerous and intense strip of land in the world.

But what sticks in my mind most of all about Palin's trip, was his visit to the Joint Security Area (JSA), often referred to as the Truce Village or Panmunjom. Whilst standing in a room where North and South Korean diplomats meet for negotiations, he reported, "Here I'm standing in South Korea". Then, as he shuffled his feet a few inches to the left, smiled "Now, I'm in North Korea". Brilliant! I wanted to visit instantly!

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That opportunity came a few years later when I visited my friend Carmen who lives in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. The year was 2002 and tours to the DMZ were still in their infancy, but she'd found a company and I booked a tour.

You can't visit the area independently, you must go with a licensed tour operator. But no worries, a whole industry dedicated to DMZ tourism has since opened up. Prices start from around Euro 30 and increase depending on what the tour offers.

In 2014, the official DMZ Peace Train started operating from Seoul directly to the DMZ. It runs from Wednesdays through to Sundays. Once arriving by train into the DMZ, you must then transfer onto a planned bus tour to fully experience and explore the many sites within this heavily restricted area.

The bus trip from Seoul took just under 2 hours. We had a friendly and comical tour guide who explained the disclaimer we were about to sign. By signing on the dotted line, all responsibility was removed from the company in the event of us getting a leg blown off or suchlike. The bus journey also provided a good opportunity to see the more rural part of the country as we passed through small villages and farms.

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The first stopping point, that I can remember, was the Dora Observatory. This is the last point before the DMZ actually begins. The observatory offers a vantage point to get a glimpse into North Korea on a clear day. Either because the photo is quite old or it was a hazy day, you can't really see the village of Kij┼Ćng-dong in the distance. Whilst the North Korean government deems the hamlet to be inhabited and complete with electricity, it's often referred to as 'Propaganda Village' in the Western media.

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Walking around the JSA and seeing soldiers from both sides of the peninsula staring each other in the face for hours and the odd American soldier swing by in army trucks, it didn't feel intimidating or dangerous in any way. I actually felt like I was on a Hollywood film set. However, the prevalence of barbed wire fencing and minefields is a clear indication that you've just entered a war zone.

Next we visited the Bridge of No Return. After the Korean war ended in 1953, some prisoners of war were given the choice to cross over the bridge or to stay on the side of their captors, hence the name.

On August 18, 1976, a US attempt to cut down a poplar tree obstructing visibility of the bridge led to a battle with North Korean forces that left Capt. Arthur Bonifas and Lt. Mark Barrett dead in what was later known as the Axe Murder Incident. The bridge is now closed and a new bridge to the north is used instead. Usually visited from the South only.

On the way back to Seoul, we stopped for some ginseng tea is a traditional little cafe and reflected on the trip. Everyone enjoyed the learning and opportunity to take some pictures and relieved that all body parts were intact.

Have any of you seen the DMZ from North Korea?

Posted by katieshevlin62 23:43 Archived in South Korea

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Comments

Great experience and facts, thanks for sharing, Katie!

by Vic_IV

Yes, as you know I have visited the DMZ from the North, last year, and wrote about it on my blog: https://toonsarah.travellerspoint.com/366/

It's interesting to read how similar the experience seems to be from the South, although one difference (in our case at least) was the seriousness with which the guides take it. We were under no illusions that we were under the watchful eye of the military!

by ToonSarah

Never been, albeit SK is on my radar :) waiting to read more about your trip!

by hennaonthetrek

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