Way back in 1997 I remember watching the BBC documentary show ‘Full Circle with Michael Palin’ which was a series following the English actor/comedian/writer/TV presenter on a full anti-clockwise trip around the Pacific Rim. The second episode featured Japan and Korea, and Palin was blocked from entering North Korea so the only possibility was to go with a group of foreign tourists to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, and “cross” the border in the Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjeom.
It was an episode that stuck with me as just over eight years later it was one of the first ideas that came to my mind when I knew I was going to be visiting South Korea. Asif and I signed up for a JSA full day tour from Seoul on our first day, and after two days of visiting sights in and around the city (including Seoul Olympic Stadium) we were on our way. Well it wasn’t quite that straightforward as my jacket was at first considered a bit dubious due to its colour but after a closer inspection (checking to see if it was army related or not) it was deemed ok and I was allowed to keep it on. For the record, the dress code for such tours is no shorts and no open-ended shoes but given that it was absolutely freezing in January 2006 this really wasn’t a problem! Oh and we also had to sign a waiver stating that such a hostile area could possibly result in injury or death as a result of enemy action.
For those who don’t know, the DMZ is 250 kilometres long with a four kilometre diameter. Each country owns the two kilometres on either side of the Demarcation Line (DML) and the JSA incorporates this space where they both coexist and stand face to face. On the bus heading to the border the tension was ramped up by the tour guide who told us about not looking out the window or making any hand gestures. It may be true but at the time I’m sure I was a bit sceptical and thought it was maybe just a way of making it seem more unique!
I think the two photos below are of Freedom Bridge. In the aforementioned BBC documentary, Palin looks out into North Korea from a similar lookout point and states that North and South Korea are not really two separate nations, that it is one nation divided against itself. For the record, Palin did properly travel to North Korea 23 years later for another TV documentary.
It’s been a long time since we did the Panmunjeom tour and so I can’t remember too much about the likes of Camp Bonifas, Dora Observatory, Dorasan Station, Unification Bridge, some tunnels and so on. I may be wrong but I think that is North Korea in the far distance beyond the observatory below.
The first two pictures below are of Freedom House and House of Peace which sit close to each other a short distance south of the border.
The highlight of the trip was the Military Armistice Commission Conference Room where I managed to spend all of about four minutes in North Korea just by walking around a conference table on the border guarded by a soldier from the north at one end and one from the south at the other! It really is as ridiculous and absurd as it sounds!
My memory of this trip is mostly from this room but I do also recall visiting a place called The Bridge of No Return which is a cool name and had been kind of featured (it was filmed back in the UK) in ‘Die Another Day‘ just four years earlier. I also remember seeing a load of military vehicles but I’ve no idea where they were located!
Imjingak was a moving place as it is where South Koreans go to mourn their lost ancestors who died in the Korean War.
Doing this tour gave me the opportunity to enter a new country in such a bizarre way. I should add that I certainly don’t include North Korea as one of the countries I have visited but I will never forget this unique way of crossing a border.
Click here to read ‘TF Flashback: The Trip To Seoul In 2006 Which Really Kickstarted Many Years Of Asian Travel’
Click here to read ‘TF Flashback: Seoul Olympic Stadium (2006)’
Click here to read ‘South Korea 2015 Pt I: The War Memorial Of Korea’
Click here to read ‘South Korea 2015 Pt II: Dining Out And Other Such Cultural Stuff’