The DMZ-JSA (Panmunjom) Tour – Best to Go With Minimal Expectations

Since 2005, the Demilitarized Zone of Korea, or DMZ for short, has always been on my list of must-visit destinations whenever I go to South Korea. However, for my past 3 Korea trips, it was always missed for some reason or another. This time, after researching a fair bit on which type of DMZ tour to sign up for, I thought the DMZ-JSA (Panmunjom) Tour would be the more insightful one as the Joint Security Area (Panmunjom / 판문점) is the zone where I could be closest to North Korea (without going through North Korea’s customs). Sadly, I discovered that the DMZ would be closed for tours due to military training for almost the entire duration when I would be in Seoul. That meant I would have to miss it again?!

Just as I was about to give up after checking with a few tour agencies, I found International Cultural Service Club, where the DMZ-JSA (Panmunjom) Tour was available on Saturday! *Phew* I was in dilemma for a while though, as going for this tour on a Saturday meant I’d have less time to hang out with my Korean friend + miss the Hongdae Free Market that is only available on Saturday afternoons. Nonetheless, a voice within told me to go for it, since I had been trying to go to 1 for the longest time. So I registered for the 6-hour tour to the most heavily militarized border in the world!

The tour was conducted in English at KRW85,000 per pax (S$101.55) and included a Korean lunch. The pick-up point for the tour bus was at President Hotel [near to either City Hall Station (시청역, Line 1) exit 5, or Euljiro 1-ga Station (을지로입구, Line 2) exit 8] where the International Cultural Service Club Tour Office was. Everyone in the tour were assigned seat numbers & supposed to abide by that. My tour group was mainly made up of Caucasians, except for a handful of Asians like myself. As the bus only departed at 11.30 am from the hotel, our 1st stop was lunch at a traditional Korean restaurant near the highway in Gyeonggi-do, about 45 min drive from the hotel.

Panmunjom Tour 1

It was a chilly & foggy day, so this piping hot lunch of bulgogi soup with rice & kimchi came at the right time. I liked the side dishes, especially the sliced fish cake & big long beansprouts. Just a little uncomfortable that we had to sit on the floor, in the traditional way like the Koreans do… but well, this is Korea afterall! 😛

After lunch, we made our way to Imjingak Park, which was built in 1972, with the hope that someday unification would be possible. This is the furthest north point in South Korea that South Koreans can visit freely without the need to seek military clearance to go further up north. It is like a Korean War memorial park, particularly as a consolation for those who are unable to return to their hometowns, friends & families because of the division of Korea.

Panmunjom Tour 2

Panmunjom Tour 3

Panmunjom Tour 4

Gyeongui Train Line was destroyed during the Korean War in 1950. Since year 2000, it has been under reconstruction. Beside this restored train, I also saw numerous colourful ribbons tied on the wired fence, as these are messages written by the family & friends of Koreans who had been separated because of the war.

Panmunjom Tour 5

A map of where the DMZ zone lies

A map of where the DMZ zone is defined

As you can see from my pics above, it was so foggy that day that visibility was very low. In fact I made some enhancements to my photos, otherwise they’d be worse. It was the day with the worst weather throughout my trip. 😦 Even at the Imjingak Observatory that supposedly allows visitors to see Mt. Songaksan (송각산) in Kaeseong, North Korea (개성, 북한) on a clear day as it is located where the rivers of Hangang & Imjingang meet, we couldn’t see anything. 😦

Look hard & you may see the Freedom Bridge in the background of the top pic

Look hard & you may see the Freedom Bridge in the background of the top pic

Soon, it was time to proceed to JSA Village – Camp Bonifas for our briefing + ID check after a 45-min free & easy tour in Imjingak. At Camp Bonifas, we were presented with a slideshow on what to expect, together with the dos & don’ts at JSA later. Thereafter, we were instructed to line up 2 by 2, just like in primary/ secondary school days as we arrived at Panmunjom.

The Military Armistice Commission (MAC) in JSA

The Military Armistice Commission (MAC) in JSA

Panmunjom Tour 8

I was looking forward to entering the Joint Security Area – Panmunjom because of what I had been reading online before the tour. Only 800m in diameter, the Panmunjom is designated as JSA between the United Nations (U.N.) & North Korea. It is outside administrative control of South & North Korea. The U.N. & North Korea sides each operate 6 guard posts with 35 resident security guards. Since the axe murder incident on 18 August 1976 by North Korean soldiers, security guards are forbidden to cross over to the opposing side’s area.

We were first brought to the MAC conference room & given an overview by the tour guide. This important room has held secretary’s meetings, joint duty officer’s meetings & general meetings for observation of the Armistice Agreement since its signing. However, general meetings have been suspended since a Korean Army General was assigned as the Chief Representative of the UN Command (UNC) on March 25, 1998. Instead, Army General’s meetings have been held since then. Since May 1994, informal contacts have been held between the UNC & the North Korean Panmunjeom mission. Either side can call for the joint duty officer meetings.

It was interesting to note that the line of microphone wires on the conference room table, as seen in above pic, marks which side the North Korean & South Korea personnel should sit during the meeting. So don’t try to touch & meddle with the microphone wire, you won’t know how the soldiers will react to your action. 😉 The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) of the Joint Security Area runs through the middle of Panmunjeom & even the conference buildings, where the line of microphone wires traces the MDL path. I was standing on the North Korea side when I took the photo above, i.e. slightly further from the entrance to the conference room.

Outside the conference room, we were told to stand in a straight line facing the Panmungak (판문각) located on the North Korean side of the JSA. Then, we were given 5 min to take as many photos as we wish, but forbidden to look back. So it was a “mad rush” as everyone tried to make full use of the limited time to take photos of ourselves in front of this iconic building. As it was foggy that day, the 2-storey building which was built in September 1969 looked somewhat mysterious too. -_- Besides using it as a waiting room for North Korean representatives before a MAC conference, it also serves as an office for North Korea’s security guards. Our itinerary indicated that we would visit the Freedom House here as well, which is just 80m south of Panmungak, but I don’t seem to have any photos of that, can’t remember if it was because we weren’t allowed to take photos? 😦

Lastly, before we made our way back to the JSA Village for souvenir shopping, we made a brief stop next to the Bridge of No Return. Instead of allowing us to alight here for quick photo-taking, we were told to take photos of the bridge from inside the bus.

A not-so-clear view of the historical bridge through the window of the bus

A not-so-clear view of the historical bridge through the blurry window of the bus

The Bridge of No Return runs across the MDL. After the Armistice Agreement in 1953, prisoners of war (POWs) from both sides were exchanged on this bridge. The bridge got its name because the POWs who voluntarily chose to go to North Korea instead of staying in the South would be unable to return to South Korea. Depressing history. 😦

Panmunjom Tour 9

With about 100,000 tourists visiting the JSA each year through the USO & several local tour agencies, it’s of little surprise why there is a souvenir shop in the JSA Village. Special sunglasses worn by the military personnel here can be purchased for KRW38,000 (if I remember correctly), in addition to the usual fridge magnets, keychains, pens etc.

To be frank, I was quite disappointed by the tour, hence I titled this post as such. I guess I set too high an expectation for the DMZ tour that I had been missing so many years. It didn’t help that I was so “lucky” to visit on a super-foggy & chilly day (around 7 to 8 degrees celsius in the day), until our tour guide had to comment a few times that it was a pity we couldn’t even see the North Korean flag flying high. He said that on clear days, it’s pretty visible because the flag is hanging high on a tall tower. We couldn’t see most significant sights that day anyway due to bad weather.

In addition, although I was prepared that we had to follow very strict instructions throughout the tour, when faced with the real situation, it still startled me…. Photo-taking was really restrictive in limited time & places, we couldn’t even bring our bags into the JSA, & had to “file in” 2 by 2, the actual time spent in JSA was too short etc… Furthermore, there was hardly any chance to interact & get to know other tour members (people just talked within their own groups), so for a solo traveller like me, it was not as enjoyable as I had hoped for. 😦 Not sure if it was because of the tour agency, or composition of the group, or the DMZ tour was really not as interesting as I imagined, but now, I wouldn’t be so keen to recommend visiting the DMZ as enthusiastically as before. 😛 If you do decide to visit, please go with minimal expectation of how the tour should be! Good luck! 🙂

Post-trip thoughts: Seems like there are more tour operators with whom you may register for the DMZ-JSA 1 Day Tour now. The 1 Day Tour seems like quite an activity-packed day for similar price as what I paid for. You may want to check them out to get your money’s worth @ 😉


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