May 5, 2017

Travel Korea - DMZ Tours

Whereas our Munich trip was planned out to the T, our Korea trip was literally a plan in the making on the daily - changing a bit here and there and sometimes just winging it. I think a combination of having the comfort of knowing the language, having family in Korea who can guide us and also the stress of having a sick Bartles all contributed to just my slacking off planning, setting a proper itinerary and also prepping beforehand for certain tours - namely the DMZ (demilitarized zone). 

Before I get any further into talking a little bit about our experience along the DMZ, if anyone is interested in learning more about the two Koreas - its history, Japanese colonization, the war, division and how each side developed post-war, I highly recommend reading Bruce Cummings' Korea's Place in the Sun. I read it many years ago (and in fact, I may just need to have another read since it's been so long) and it is a great introductory for beginners and, for me, it was really the first time, I felt, a book did some justice to the complex history of the two Koreas rather than the same old repertoire we hear and learn about in school and the media. More about Bruce Cummings here

So back to our Korea trip. 

A little backtracking actually. 

We left Dulles Airport on April 11 and arrived the following day at Incheon International Airport. Since Yangkyu's brother, who lives in Korea, works near the airport we decided to ask him to pick us up so that we can stay the night in Seoul with his family before going to Paju, to stay with my parents for a couple of nights. We had an unfortunate incident with one of our baggage that went missing after someone mistakenly took it for their's (thankfully we got ours back later that night). 

While we arrived late afternoon the first day, after clearing customs and dealing with our luggage and getting stuck in traffic from Incheon to Seoul, it was already well into the evening by the time we all went out to dinner with Yangkyu's brother's family. It was also very cold and we had come terribly underdressed (um.. shorts, birkenstocks and rolled up jeans.. yeah. no.). 

Travel dates for us is always somewhat of a waste as we don't really do much other than settle in (or get ready to leave) and our first night in Korea was just that. After dinner we picked up an ice cream cone I had been wanting to eat since leaving Korea in 1986 (they still have the darn thing) and we began our love affair with Korea's convenience stores, in particular GS25. We literally went there every day - morning, afternoon and night. It's really a whole other game compared to 7-Eleven. Everything seemed like that in Korea, even with dollar stores (Daiso) and eMart, which I can only compare to a Target or a Walmart, but so much better (yeah, can anything be better than Target? Apparently!).

We spent the rest of the night planning our itinerary. Yangkyu's brother and sister in law were so amazing with their help. They printed out maps, suggested itineraries that looped different places we wanted to see by distance so there wouldn't be crazy travel times inbetween, sent us blog posts that would help further our experiences at some of the sights and even leant us a Korea guide book from the library. They also pre-planned things for us like a pocket wifi which can be rented, transportation cards, detailed transportation routes, booking reservations to certain sights, etc. 

 // North Korea is just across the river // 

The second day we were in Korea, we got up early to take a city bus (one of the M buses) in Gangnam, near Yangkyu's brother's place, to Paju, where my parents live. We came with four luggages (well five, but that fifth one was a piece of luggage that Yangkyu's friend had bought and asked Yangkyu to bring back to him) and we decided to take two with us to Paju since we would be leaving from there. Thankfully we were the only ones on that bus from Gangnam to Paju, which took about an hour. It dropped us off right in the back of my parents' apartment. It couldn't get any more convenient than that.

Since we had luggage though, my dad came to pick us up - that same car, SM5, that he had 20 years ago. Ah, it was so nostalgic to see. We made a quick stop at a local supermarket and loaded up on a lot of junk food and headed home.

So this is where our poorly planned DMZ tour troubles began (although looking back, the whole last minute planning came together nicely). 

Paju is a new city that was developed probably 20 years ago(?). It continues to be developed today. Its buildings are new and clean and just the overall urban planning of the new city makes it look very organized (like Sim City organized).

Paju is also very close to the DMZ and Panmunjom where the Joint Security Area (JSA) is located. Joint Security Area is the only part of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), which runs along the 38th parallel, where North and South Korean military personnel stand face-to-face. The JSA is used by the two Koreas for diplomatic engagements. For Korean movie fans, there is also a movie by the same name released in 2000 starring some of Korea's top notch actors - Lee Young-ae, Lee Byung-hun and Song Kang-ho. 

Before leaving for Korea, since my parents live so close to the DMZ and Panmunjom, I wanted to visit the Joint Security Area. I knew that we needed to get clearance but I didn't look into it too much and thought it could be done on the same day. I thought you literally just walk up to Panmunjom, show your passport, sign in and tour. It's much more complicated than that. I still don't understand the whole thing, but the best bet (or the only option?) is to go with a tour company licensed to conduct tours to Panmunjom. 

I also didn't realize that there are other places to visit along the DMZ. And the DMZ is long as it cuts through the two Koreas from shore to shore, and so there are different things you can see depending on where you are.

Yangkyu's sister in law was super helpful in suggesting other things aside from the JSA that we can see since signing up to view Panmunjom was too late (we had the option of signing up and doing it toward the end of our stay but it took too much time from our day). 

Upon meeting my parents, we decided to head out and check some of the places out. It was helpful that my dad was already familiar with the sights. My mom decided to stay home and so it was just the three of us venturing out. 

 // We happened upon the prettiest cherry blossoms at Odusan Unification Observatory // 

 // Me and my pops // 

The first place we went to was Odusan Unification Observatory. During busy days, you have to park your car and take a bus up to the observatory but the day we went, it was empty and so we were allowed to take our car to the top.

As soon as you walk in, you're greeted by a colorful mural that is actually the words to Arirang. Arirang is a Korean folk song and was often sang by displaced Koreans (during the Japanese colonization and the Korean War) who yearned to go back home. I've seen elderly Koreans who sing this song often cry, I presume because of the sadness they feel from everything they have gone through in their life in relation to being separated from their families (after the Korea split in half) due to war. If you ever get a chance to witness a group of Koreans sing this song, it will move you and make your heart ache. 

Odusan Unification Observatory is just that - there are binoculars (free) that you can use to get a close up of North Korea, which is literally just across the river. When we were there we saw civilians going about what looked like was farming. It was completely surreal to see. There were also buildings and homes, but the odd thing was that there were no windows. It looked completely dead and empty. I presume those were for show and no one really lives there. 

All throughout our time along the DMZ, I couldn't shake off that North Korea was so close, yet impossible to get to. I am very sensitive to when it comes to talking about North Korea, especially by non-profit groups who claim they are helping refugees or people sneaking in to hand out bibles or politicians and media portraying the country and its people to be completely backward and savage. 

My thing is, North Korea and the history of Korea and how the peninsula was split to how both sides developed post-war, is so very complicated, so much so that it's hard to just characterize in one way or know by reading a few news articles. I also take issues with people who have a "savior" mentality... it is the most excruciating thing to witness people who believe they need to go and save the people of North Korea by bringing them to the US (please educate yourself on US refugee policy and immigration laws and ask yourself if bringing them here is really helping -- perhaps getting involved in fixing laws here first that help aslyees, refugees and immigrants should first take precedence before bringing refugees here...), but perhaps this is all a conversation for another time.

Bottom line for me is, when you know of a family or hear of families who still are waiting to be reunited with their brother or sister, your heart really aches for them and you realize that the story of North Korea and South Korea isn't about the evil Kim Jong Un who feeds his family members to dogs, but the story is really about the actual people who suffered because of the war. And the more you learn about the people and history, "evil" doesn't just pertain to the North. There is corruption, greed, evil, decisions made for personal gain, from all countries, politicians and various institutions who all have a stake in that country.

You'll want to question why the country was divided in the first place, what was actually happening within Korea by the people of Korea before the war broke out, and why some families fled to the south before the 38th parallel was drawn and why some chose to stay in the north. You'll want to question North Korea's backward ways and how it strips people of their rights and compare it to your own country and see if there are any similarities. By not having a double standard, it will make you look at North Korea and the narrative of North Korea in a completely different way. It's easy to think that wrongs aren't wrongs when it's done by nice people likes ourselves. 

At the end of our visit to Odusan Unification Observatory, we asked one of the staff at the ticket booth if a visit to Panmunjom and the Joint Security Area was possible. She said no but we can head over to Imjingak where there are tour buses that take you to other sights along the DMZ (I think we needed to get there by 2 pm for the last tour). Looking back, I am not sure if she said we couldn't visit Panmunjom because same-day visits are not allowed or if all visits to the area were halted at the moment due to tension.

Nonetheless, we headed over to Imjingak, a place where our sister in law also pointed us to, and bought our tickets for the bus tour that included stops at 3 different locations along the DMZ - the Dora Observatory, Third Tunnel (no photos are allowed inside the tunnel) and Dorasan Station - and a final stop at Imjingak Restaurant (kind of like a rest stop to eat and buy souvenirs). We were joined by a tour group from a tour company. They were English speaking foreign visitors whose guide was bilingual - he was translating everything the bus driver was saying because the but tour itself was not translated. 

Foreign visitors need to have their passport during this trip as there is a check point where an army personnel comes into the bus and checks everyone's status (you cannot take pictures during this time). Korean citizens are required to have their social security card. After we were cleared, the bus continued on toward the road (looked sort of like a toll booth) where everything except the roadway, was blocked using barbed wires. 

I don't have pictures from my camera from all four locations, just from Dora Observatory and outside of the Third Tunnel, but I do have pictures from my iphone, which I'll share at a later date.

 // Again, straight ahead is North Korea -- from Dora Observatory // 
 // Because this whole area is so close to North Korea, there are many army bases here. Young Korean male adults are required to serve in the army. I think the last I heard it was 2 years but now it may now even be 20 months // 

Dora Observatory was similar as the Odusan Unification Observatory in that you can see a different part of North Korea, including the city of Kaesong. Binoculars cost 500 won. 

We didn't get a whole lot of time at each of the locations and we were instructed to get back to our bus at a designated time and we were also strictly instructed to sit in the same exact seats we sat when we first got on the bus. This made for head counts easier (I think..). 

The Third Tunnel was absolutely intriguing. It is one of four tunnels known, which was dug by North Korea to infiltrate the south. This third incomplete tunnel, running about a mile long, was found in 1978 and is now maintained and used as a tourist attraction. Pictures inside the tunnel is forbidden. 

Before going down to the tunnel, visitors are shown a video. To be honest, I didn't particularly like the way it was made and narrated. It sounded very propagandish and almost feeds into that anti-North Korea feel that a lot of non-Korean and 2nd generation Korean Americans believe to be the absolute truth. Again.. perhaps a conversation for a later time. 

While under, you are allowed to walk the entire incomplete tunnel. You have to walk pretty fast since you aren't given a lot of time to explore other parts of the Third Tunnel, mainly the exterior. But we were able to make it to the "end", which is really where the third concrete barricade was placed to block the Military Demarcation Line. You can see the second barricade through a small window, which was so eerie and creepy at the same time. I literally got chills looking at it. 

We arrived at Dorasan Station after the Third Tunnel. Dorasan Station was opened in 2002 to serve as a station connecting North and South Korea once reunification happens. In 2007, tracts to North Korea did operate - I believe as part of the joint efforts by both countries for industrial purposes in Kaesong city. However, the following year, tracts to the North Korea closed due to tension. 

One of the most hopeful sights at the Dorasan Station is a sign that reads "To Pyongyang." 

Until reunification, Dorasan Station serves mainly as a tourist attraction with a few trains running to and from Seoul. 

Even though I felt as though we didn't get a lot of time at each of the locations, by the time we arrived at the Imjingak Restaurant (rest stop), we were tired and ready to head back home. After getting back on the bus, we passed by the same check point and eventually was brought back to the parking lot where we first got on the bus. 

Later on that night, after a visit to eMart, we had a little samgyupsal party with my family. 

The following day, my dad, Yangkyu and I, made a 3 hour trip to Chungju to visit my grandmother and some of my aunts and uncle who still live there. A little bit about that in our next post. 

Thanks for reading. 


  1. Thank you for this awesome first post on your Korea trip, Jane. Very enlightening for sure. I didn't know that there are tons to see along the DMZ line! I've always just seen the conference rows.I love that Arirang mural when you enter the Odusan Observatory.
    Can't wait to see the next posts. Have an awesome weekend!

  2. This was an interesting post to read Jane - thanks for this. I think people forget about the human stories when they talk about North Korea.

  3. This was a fascinating look at the DMZ and your perspective on the war between the Koreas is so true because it's the families that have been separated who are the ones really suffering the most.

  4. Amazing!! Am glad you enjoyed, you and your pops looks so cute, I love that picture the most :) x

  5. Love seeing the pictures of you and your family. I wasn't sure quite what to expect from the DMZ but your photos and descriptions make it feel more real - thanks for sharing

  6. Great to read your insights Jane, I'm pretty ill informed but always curious to other perspectives :) Also, how lovely was all the family help! Sounds like it all worked out pretty perfectly!

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